This scene begins with Faust sitting at his desk in “A high-vaulted, narrow, Gothic room” as night falls. Faust laments all that he knows and yet cannot know. He is a master in “philosophy. . .law as well as medicine and. . .theology,” yet although he is smarter than all of his students and the other great teachers of the day, the only thing that his knowledge has given him is the truth that “we cannot know!” and this gives his heart nothing but sorrow.
Faust has turned to “magic” so that he “might yet learn some secret lore.” As he watches the moonrise, Faust speaks to it. He reminds the moon of how often he sat at his desk, reading and studying until seeing it rise. He laments that if he could only be free, as the moon is, to wander over all of nature then he might “expel the smoke of learning / and be drenched to wholeness in your dew.”
He knows he is still trapped in his scholarly work and in his quest to find the answers to life. He curses the room in which he sits and the “worm-eaten books” that surround him. He wonders to himself why he is so tied to this quest for knowledge when he knows that the “pulsing nature” that God intended for man is available to him. He tries to urge his soul to abandon his work, the volume of Nostradamus’s writings that he holds in front of him, and all of these questions of magic. He urges himself to go out into nature and to feel alive.
He opens the book in front of him and sees the sign of the macrocosm. His mood suddenly changes. Instead of doom, he feels hope and bliss. Faust believes it must have been “a god” that drew such a sign because in such signs he can see “living Nature” before his soul. Faust understands again why the “world of spirits is not closed.” The sign reminds him of the angels, yet it also speaks of something deeper, the “infinity of Nature.” Faust looks again at his book and sees the sign of the earth spirit. This new sign “works” on him and he begins to feel stronger and more powerful. He calls for the Earth Spirit to reveal itself to him and says a quick spell.
The Spirit appears and Faust averts his face. The Spirit tells Faust that he heard him pulling him from his “sphere.” Faust, however, is terrified at the sight of the Spirit and it is disgusted with him. It asks him, “What pitiable terror / seizes you, you superman?” The Spirit mocks him for his fear, but Faust insists that he stands his ground as the Spirit’s equal. The Spirit recounts how it rises and falls in the rhythm of life: “The cradle and the grave, / a perennial sea. . . / I toil at the whirring loom of time.” It tells Faust that he is not like it, which upsets Faust until he hears a knock on his door.
Wagner, a fellow scholar, enters in a nightgown. Wagner heard the conversation between Faust and the Spirit and thought his own work might be helped by such “elocution” because in these days it is often said “that an actor / could give lessons to a preacher.” Wagner is frustrated because his scholarship seems to lack the emotional power of the thought of previous ages. Faust taunts him and tells him that he will never conquer his subject unless there is a “surging from your soul.” If not, “you’ll never move another’s heart.” Wagner rebuts, “Elocution is the speaker’s greatest tool,” but Faust again calls him a fool for thinking this. The knowledge of previous ages, according to him, is nothing but “shredded bits of / thought,” while Wagner still asserts, Aart is long / and our life is fleeting.” Their argument over the spirits of another age continues with Wagner arguing that all knowledge advances society and Faust arguing that all knowledge is meaningless and that all of history is nothing more than “Pails of garbage and heaps of trash.” All those that ever “gained a share of understanding / who foolishly unlocked their hearts... / have always ended on the cross and pyre.” Wagner tells Faust that he would like to continue the conversation on tomorrow’s Easter holiday.
When Wagner exits, Faust wonders at how such a man could still cling to the wisdom of past ages when he himself can commune with spirits. Faust returns to his despondency, upset because having been so close to the Spirit, he can now understand his own “dwarfish self.” He cries out to be again close to such divinity. Faust cries that at one point, Imagination had “reached boldly for eternity,” but now it seems content to live in the dim chamber of the scholar. Such learning only imprisons people. Nature has chosen not to reveal itself to him through the instruments of science or the learning of past ages.
Faust focuses his vision on one particular vial filled with a poison that he himself has concocted and suddenly feels a “sweet illumination” in the thought of suicide. By looking and grasping the vial, Faust begins to feel the darkness lifted from his soul. He again sees visions of nature’s grandeur. Faust feels that this is the time to “Be bold and brash and force the gates / from which men shrink and slink away!” He attempts to face death with bravery.
As he puts the goblet of poison to his lips, the Choir of Angels suddenly enters the room singing, “Christ is arisen! / Joy to all men,” and Faust puts down the vial. The Choir tells him that they are the same as were there on the night of Christ’s birth and later at Christ’s empty tomb. Faust asks the angels why they have come to him. Although he hears their message, he has no faith, but remembering the sounds of angels and salvation from his childhood, Faust then “can hear their summons to return to life.” The Choir of Angels ends the scene with praise of Christ and his resurrection from the dead, telling Faust, “The Master is near you; / Now He is here!”
“Night” begins the Faust drama and sets forth the themes and motifs of the play through both its structure and its symbolism. The most important symbol of this scene is the timeframe in which the scene takes place. This particular night is not just any night. Instead, it is the Saturday night before Easter morning, the most important celebration of the year on the Christian calendar. The night before Easter and the night before Christmas have a symbolic connection to humanity’s darkest hour before the appearance of their savior Jesus. In the same way, this night is Faust’s darkest night as he confronts the despair and depression of his own life and work and almost decides to kill himself. Ironically, however, the Devil rather than Jesus appears to save him.
The setting, that of Faust alone in his room, debating and fighting with a dark internal spirit, is an Enlightenment variation on popular folklore. Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer of the sixteenth century, is often depicted as having come to his great spiritual insight through times of tumultuous reflection while alone in his study. Some stories depict Luther as having intense arguments with the devil. René Descartes, also, is said to have come to important philosophical insights through his internal deliberation, alone in his stove-room. This theme of the great thinking man, alone and wrestling with his own consciousness, is one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment narrative, and Faust continues the tradition with this opening scene of internal deliberation.
Faust’s internal strife is an example of the German philosophical movement Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress). This school reacted to the extreme objectivism and rationalism that characterized early Enlightenment thinking in Europe. Sturm und Drang sought to find ways to express the turbulent internal emotions of the human experience. For example, the term is believed to have been first used in a play about the American Revolution in which the violent emotions of the Revolution’s participants are the catalysts for war and change. In Faust, Faust longs to break away from the violent emotions of his own soul by joining the natural world, and he longs to use his own mind to construct an order for the world.
This scene also introduces the reader to Faust’s tragic flaw. In some ways, Faust is a work in the Romantic tradition, as the reader sees Faust’s longing for a kind of spiritual and natural world that is separate and apart from the “real” world of learning or everyday life that he suffers. The reader can also see the nascent beginnings of a Nietzschean will-to-power in Faust’s desire not just to transcend the “real” world, but also to rule over or dominate the more spiritual, natural world. This is the flaw and tension in Faust’s character. He wishes to transcend the “real” world, yet he does not want to give up his own identity or desires. Faust’s conflicting dialogues with both the Spirit and with Wagner represent this wish. Faust wants desperately to escape from the tired constraints of philosophy and old learning, but he can find no way to do so through his own subjective experience.
Faust’s attempted suicide is a fork in the road for the character. Goethe asks one of the key philosophical and existential questions with which Modern philosophy grapples, that of why is life better than non-life. Faust first believes that non-life is his best option because by contemplating death, he again feels the possibility of the natural world open up before him. Faust can identify with the dust of the earth, since his own body and soul will return to the natural world. Nonetheless, Faust also ultimately finds this unsatisfying because death does not allow him to retain his essential self, something that was of great importance for European philosophers and artists of Goethe’s time. Faust would return to the natural world, but he would not become the master of the world or even himself.
The Choir of Angels come both to announce the dawn of Easter morning, a representation of new life and resurrection, as well as to stop Faust’s death. Ironically, however, the new life that Faust will receive is not a Christian life. Faust has a post-Christian worldview in which Christ is unnecessary for new life. He is ready to give up his life because he no longer believes in the consequences of sin and death, and this view permeates his future actions.