Alas, I have studied philosophy, / the law as well as medicine, / and to my sorrow, theology; / studied them well with ardent zeal, / yet here I am, a wretched fool, / no wiser than I was before."
These lines introduce Faust’s character. He sits in his study and laments that although he has studied all of the world's great knowledge, he feels no wiser from it. These words set up the central motivation of the play, Faust's desire to transcend human knowledge in order to gain divine knowledge. The situation is also a metaphor for what Goethe sees as the conundrum of Modernism, in which mankind relies on strict rationalism instead of striving for a deeper and more divine knowledge to understand the world.
"Oh my, but art is long / and our life is fleeting."
This quote, spoken by Wagner, is a translation of the Latin ars longa, vita brevis. Wagner, who represents the rationalist tradition, is expressing the idea that all knowledge should come from the classical Greek works of philosophy since one's life is too short to construct entire new systems of philosophy. Faust represents the opposite position, as he hopes to build a new way of learning through his own subjective experience of nature and the divine.
Is nothing ever right on the earth?
No, my Lord, I find it there, as always, thoroughly / revolting. / I pity men in all their misery / and actually hate to plague the wretches.
This dialogue between God and the Devil expresses the latter's attitude toward humanity. Later in this scene, God allows Mephistopheles to tempt his servant, which echoes the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible. The bet between God and the Devil is God's attempt to prove that some of humanity remains faithful to religion and morality. However, as this quote shows, Mephistopheles sees the world as so depraved that even his own temptations cannot equal the suffering and misery that mankind brings upon itself.
The time has come to prove by deeds / that man will not quake before the pit where fantasy / condemns itself to tortures of its own creation / when he advances to the narrow passageway / about whose mouth infernal flames are blazing. / Approach the brink serenely and accept the risk / of melting into nothingness.
Faust gives this speech as he holds a cup of poison, ready to drink it and commit suicide. This expresses Faust's post-Christian nature. He rejects the ideas of heaven and hell as nothing more than fantasies that humanity has created for itself. Instead, Faust replaces ideas of religion with utter nihilism, ready to take his own life since he believes the action will have no eternal consequences.
It is written: "In the beginning was the Word!" / Even now I balk. Can no one help? / I truly cannot rate the word so high. / I must translate it otherwise.
Faust expresses two ideas in this line. First is the idea of a reformulation of religion for the modern era. Faust wavers between rejecting religion as superstition and believing that one can salvage religion in face of extreme rationalism. The second idea expressed is the relation between the signifier and the signified. Faust cannot find understanding within the Word (alluding to both scripture and the actual word), demonstrating that the thing signified by a word can never be completely described by that word.
If you should ever find me lolling on a bed of ease, / let me done for on the spot! / If you ever lure me with your lying flatteries, / and I find satisfaction in myself, / if you bamboozle me with pleasure, / then let this be my final day! / This bet I offer you!
These lines form the play's most critical moment. Mephistopheles has wagered Faust that he will be able to give Faust a moment in this life in which Faust will leave his subjective despair. Faust mistakenly feels assured that he will never find such a moment and agrees to the bet. This excerpt demonstrates Faust’s belief that all human endeavors lead to nothing and that happiness and morality are not possible in the modern world.
To grasp the gist of medicine is easy; / you study through the great and little world, / in order in the end to let things be / exactly as the Lord desires.
Mephistopheles says these words to a student in order to tempt the student to abandon all learning and live outside of its limitations and restrictions. According to the Devil, learning only imposes morals on humanity while causing nothing but unhappiness. Instead, this student should abandon morals and live a libertine and subjectively hedonistic life, even if such a life leads towards damnation.
And then you'll speak of faith and love eternal, / of a single, overpowering urge- / will that flow so easily from your heart?
Enough, I say it will.
This conversation between Faust and Mephistopheles is the decisive moment when Faust admits that he has lost his wager. Faust did not believe that he could find an experience of completeness in his own life, yet he did through his love for Gretchen. Goethe thus argues that emotion can overcome strictly rational thought to provide humanity a way out of its existential crisis.
Fill your heart to overflowing, / and when you feel profoundest bliss, / then call it what you will: / Good fortune! Heart! Love! or God! / I have no name for it! / Feeling is all; / the name is sound and smoke, / beclouding Heaven's glow.
This attempt by Faust to explain his spiritual beliefs to Gretchen is an expression of the idea that human words and systems of thought or theology have no real way to express the nature of the divine. This disconnection of signifier from signified has caused Faust's own existential crisis as well as humanity's move from a Christian to a post-Christian society. Faust attempts to recreate his own system of belief but does not find sustaining faith until he experiences his love for Gretchen.
You may find him anywhere, my dear. / When others dance, he's got to criticize, / and if he fails to criticize a step, / that step might just as well have not been taken.
These lines, spoken by Faust as he dances with a witch on Walpurgis Night, sum up Goethe's distaste for the rationalist philosophers who criticize the belief that emotion is a truer expression of humanity’s capacities than is reason. Goethe’s school of thought, called Sturm und Drang (German for “Storm and Stress”), sought to elevate the place of emotion in the modern world. Whereas the rationalist school of thought relied upon classical learning and texts as the foundation of knowledge, the Sturm und Drang school argued that truth must be found in the emotional storms of life.
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.