The Age of Enlightenment was a broad movement of intellectual culture and philosophy that arguably began with René Descartes' philosophical work Discourse on Method and culminated in the revolutionary works and actions of the eighteenth century such as the American and French Revolutions. While the Enlightenment included a vast array of thought, one of its central intellectual themes was that of reason and the role that reason played in science and the arts.
As a poet and artist of the Enlightenment age, Goethe’s literature argued against the shift towards radical rationalism. Faust is the culmination of this argument. As a man of the Enlightenment, Faust seeks to escape the extreme rationalism of his academic and medical life, but Goethe shows this tradition ultimately cannot satisfy without emotion and art.
Science and Spirituality
Faust is a scholar and a man of science who feels that he has reached the limits of what rational thought can contribute to his life. One of the concepts of Enlightenment thought was that humanity would eventually perfect itself through the advancement of knowledge and technology. Faust argues against this line of thinking. Faust attempts to perfect himself through learning and science, yet he finds that at the end of his intellectual journey, he has destroyed his faith and his reason to live.
What Faust strives for is a taste of the spiritual, either in his own life or in a life beyond. His life of science and medicine and the vast array of knowledge that he has collected keeps him from this spiritual state. He conjures spirits yet cannot join their world. He soon discovers that his own nature contains a spiritual dimension, that of love, which he finds in his relationship with the young girl, Gretchen. Goethe argues that love and tragedy can conquer the tyranny of extreme science and rationalism.
Signifier and Signified
Goethe’s literary and theological argument in Faust concerns the disconnect between the signifier and the signified. When Faust attempts to explain his spiritual beliefs to a skeptical Gretchen, he tells her that he can find no name for what it is he believes. Some might call it God, while others call it Nature or Love. Because Faust is not able to truly name what he believes, Gretchen is likewise unable to believe in Faust’s spirituality. This is the result of the disconnection between words and the concepts or objects that they signify. Goethe is asking a deeply philosophical and theological question: if humanity cannot adequately name God, does God actually exist for humanity? Faust’s own subjective experience of this problem destroys his faith and leads him to an extreme nihilism and the verge of suicide at the play’s beginning.
The Nature of Life and Death
Faust is a man who must confront his own existential crisis. The questions that he ponders as a scholar and doctor have destroyed his faith and his belief in the progress of humanity, and his extreme nihilism lead him to the verge of suicide. The question that Faust must answer is whether life is worth more than the peace that death offers.
Goethe creates an extreme example of the logic of philosophical rationalism. Rational thought alone can never perfect or complete humanity, Goethe argues, because human knowledge has fundamental limits when it comes to the spiritual world. Humanity simply cannot name or understand that which is higher than it. Therefore, humanity would only have the question of whether life should be continued or simply ended. This point is a critique of Modernism and a theme that runs through much of Modern philosophy even into the twentieth century.
The Romantic Tradition
Goethe's Faust, while not strictly a piece of Romantic literature, nonetheless displays characteristics of the genre. Faust's extended speeches on the qualities of Nature and the reasons that he cannot be a part of it show Goethe's faith in the spiritual qualities of the world that the Romantic tradition elevated. In an important scene, Faust returns from his walk through nature with Wagner to his study and, for the only time in the play's first half, feels a satisfied spirit within him. By contrast, his removal from the natural world and entry into the world of rational thought kills this spirit.
Goethe sees in Nature the true spiritual and moral foundations of humanity. Humanity's depraved condition comes not from some innate sinfulness, but from a disconnection with the spiritual and divine aspects of Nature. Only a return to these true qualities of the world leads to completeness for the individual.
One of the consequences of Modernism, according to Goethe, is that if modern rationalism destroys the need for religion or social constraints, then this creates a moral vacuum in the human condition. Faust's condition is not only one of intellectual despair, but also one in which his character is transformed into a morally ambivalent libertine, as in his love affair with Gretchen. Gretchen, who is morally pure before meeting Faust, is tempted into a life of immorality just as Mephistopheles tempts Faust. When Gretchen accepts Faust's declarations of his post-Christian faith, she loses the moral qualities of her previous life. Faust destroys Gretchen's faith and moral support through his own moral ambivalence. Goethe argues that such a condition can only lead to tragedy, just as it does for both Faust and Gretchen.
Goethe characterizes the modern world as one in which meaning revolves not around the action of the collective but around the introspection and imagination of the subjective self. While the classical epic poem always portrays action emanating from a great hero, all action in Faust depends on Faust's own subjective experience. Faust falls into existential despair through his own subjectivity. Likewise, he cannot understand his own chance at salvation through his love of Gretchen outside of his own subjective experience. Goethe characterizes the separation that occurs between people who are unable to speak in similar languages of faith or love because of their own subjective selfishness. This leads to tragedy for both characters since, as Goethe suggests, they can never truly capture the love of the other. The turn toward the subjective is therefore a turn towards tragedy.
Goethe’s Faust Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Goethe’s Faust is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.