View Full Version : On Reading Faust

11-10-2006, 06:37 PM
There are many ways to read “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. It can be compared to walking a path through a woods. The path can simply be the means to go from Point A to Point B; or, the journey itself can be an adventure. And, even if it is decided that the journey is to be an adventure in itself, there are levels of immersion in the experience. Observations can be limited to general notice of the trees, shrubs, plants, and wildlife along the path; or, given more time, identification of the flora, fauna, and features of the landscape can be made. And, given the person has the interest, a few steps can be taken off the path to more closely observe the plants, animals, and geology that is not easily discernable to someone directly on the path. Explore long enough and one might even connect with the spirit of the woodlands.

To make the reading of “Faust” into an adventure of discovery and enlightenment, the reader has to be willing to make adjustments to his/her viewing point. This book was not written by a stalwart in the mainstream of a rationalism. Goethe was born on August 28th, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The range of Goethe‘s interests and pursuits is astounding. He first studied law in college. Then, while recuperating from a life-threatening illness, he read many books on mystical subjects, including books on alchemy written by such men as Paracelsus, Basilius Valentinus, and Franciscus Mercurius van Helment. From this period forward, he also created lyric poetry. Soon, he became the personal advisor and counselor of Karl August, Duke of Sachse-Weimer. In this capacity, his duties and responsibilities were many and diverse. He handled not only social matters such as correspondences, interviews, conferences, and travel; but, also, duties such as serving as inspector of mines. He was also, for a period of two years, the director of the Weimer Theatre. During his tenure he only supervised stage productions but also wrote plays. Natural science, history, and folklore were lifelong interests. Though out his life, Goethe was a keen observer of nature and pursuing scientific studies. His publications in this area include a work on the archetypal stages of development in plants, a study of optics, and a study of the colors created from light. Arguably, Goethe was a true “Renaissance Man” who strove to learn much in a great number of areas of study. “Faust” was written over a period of 60 years. It was completed shortly before Goethe’s death on March 23rd, 1832.

In an essay, Tom Raines, clues readers into what appears to be the viewing point of Goethe:

“A contemporary of Goethe’s, born some six years before him, was the philosopher Kant, whose ideas still stand behind much of our modern thinking. It was Kant who stated that the type of intelligence necessary to know these hidden processes in organic nature would be an intuitive intellect – intellectus archetypus – that, Kant asserted, was beyond the capacity of humankind. Nature, when revealed, manifests both the truth of scientific knowledge and the beauty of the creative act. But these were separate for Kant: Science was separated from Art. Goethe, however, brought art into his approach to science and made of them a unity. He did an enormous research work on how to observe Nature and in so doing brought a new approach to natural science. He was both a student and a ‘revealer’ in artistic form, of the secrets of inner human nature and the outer manifestations of ‘Mother’ nature. His own experiences showed him that through a willingness to observe with the senses, free of any preconceptions, deepening this process to the point of becoming aware of one’s inner responses, then one could come to an intuitive knowing of Nature’s hidden processes. He held the conviction that both art and science led to, and sprang from, the ‘primal source of all being’ out of which came the whole of creation.”

So, for those of us firmly rooted in reasoning, logic, and, rationalism of today, many preconceptions and premises need to be set aside in order to experience the rhetorical and metaphysical feast Goethe sets for the reader willing to sample the exotic and often complex dishes.

Another facet of reading “Faust” is seeking out language that closely conveys the original meaning in the German text. Readers need to be realize that many translations do not carry alchemical and mystical references that were included in the original work. If one is interested in exploring the multi-faceted text created by Goethe, one needs to search out a work by a translator who was sympathetic to the hermetic tradition--or who did not remove key words through sheer ignorance. In truth, it may be easier to study Faust by reading two translations--one with a more modern English usage so that the plot can be followed; and, a second one that retains the arcane language and esoteric flavor of the original work.

As an example of what it can be easy for a reader to miss, let us consider the Prologue. The Prologue is set in Heaven and three archangels are addressing God. Raphael, is the first to speak:

"The sun-orb sings, in emulation,
‘Mid brother-spheres, his ancient round:
His path predestined through Creation
He ends with steps of thunder-sound.
The angels from his visage splendid
Draw power, whose measure none can say;
The lofty works, uncomprehended,
Are bright as on the earliest day."

While it is easily discernable to most that this paragraph pertains to the Sun moving through space, what might be missed is that this passage pertains to an ancient theory pertaining to our solar system. The singing of the sun refers to the “harmony of the spheres” in which each planet was said to emit a tone which blended together into a heavenly tune. This planetary harmonic concept is known in Latin as Musica universalis.

Musica universalis (or music of the spheres) is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies — the Sun, Moon, and planets — as a form of musica (the Medieval Latin name for music). Some maintain that this 'music' is not literally audible, but simply a harmonic and/or mathematical concept. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras is frequently credited with originating the concept, which stemmed from his semi-mystical, semi-mathematical philosophy and its associated system of numerology of Pythagoreanism. It is written that Pythagoras said he could actually hear the harmony of the planets.


11-11-2006, 06:03 PM
In the previous post, we began to explore the dimensions of “Faust” as written by Goethe. The Prologue to the play announces concepts that underlie the entire work and are repeated throughout the text. In the speech of the Archangel Gabriel, we are keyed into the theory of the harmony of the planets which is also known as Musica universalis. From this speech, we gather that there is harmony and accord throughout the solar system. Yet, we are also alerted to the fact that “He [the sun] ends with steps of thunder-sound. Giving us an indication that all is not melodic.

The second Archangel to speak is Gabriel:

“And swift, and swift beyond conceiving,
The splendor of the world goes round,
Day’s Eden-brightness still relieving
The awful Night’s intense profound:
The ocean-tides in the foam are breaking,
Against the rocks’ deep bases hurled,
And both, the spheric race partaking,
Eternal, swift, and onward whirled!”

The scope of the statements made by Gabriel is lesser than that addressed by Raphael:

This stanza directly pertains to the rotation of the earth and succession of day followed by night and high tide by low. The transition from day to night and the movement of the tides becomes “the spheric race.” And, both of these natural phenomenon have polarity at their core: Day is the opposite of night and high tide is the opposite of low tide. This polarity or duality (Ying and Yang) is a core principle of Hermitics. Duality states that everything has two sides, two opposing attributes which make up the same thing. This idea is incorporated into the concept of polarity: Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled. Polarity takes duality and moves a few steps further, saying that there are an infinite number of degrees between one side of a duality, and the other side.

Also, in this stanza, we are keyed into a lower theme: “…awful Night’s intense profound:” Envisioning the night as a time of deep brooding is a Romantic concept. The roots for this flow back to early humans when night was a time of vulnerability to attack and, thus, a time of fear. Over the centuries, it also evolved to be seen as a time when unnatural beings walked and witchcraft and sorcery took place. Throughout “Faust,” night is when spirits are conjured, the devil takes human form, witches celebrate, etc.

Next to speak in the Prologue is the Archangel, Michael:

“And rival storms abroad are surging
From sea to land, and land to sea.
A chain of deepest action forging
Round all, in wrathful energy.
There flames a desolation, blazing
Before the Thunder’s crashing way:
Yet, Lord, Thy messengers are praising
The gentle movement of Thy Day.”

In this stanza, the scope is again reduced. Instead of speaking of the solar system or the planet-level phenomenon produced by the rotation of the Earth and the pull of the moon, Michael describes the weather and the movement of storms around our planet. Here, as in the previous two stanzas, there are lines which speak to harmony and ones which pertain to violent acts. On this occasion, Michael points out that while there is great violence in nature, God’s messengers focus on the peacefulness.

The three Archangels join together in one final speech:

“Though still by them uncomprehended,
From these the angels draw their power,
And all thy works, sublime and splendid,
Are bright as in Creation’s hour.”

This stanza speaks to the esteemed and ultimate position of the power of the natural universe. This is also a Romantic premise with roots in both classical mythology and folk culture. Goethe’s tremendous respect and love for the natural world is evidenced time and time again in “Faust.”

Next to speak is the Devil, Mephistopheles:

“Since, Thou, O Lord, deign’st to approach again
And ask us how we do, in manner kindest,
And heretofore to meet myself wert fain,
Among thy menials, now my face thou findest.
Pardon, this troop I cannot follow after
With lofty speech, though by them scorned and spurned:
My pathos certainly would move Thy laughter,
If Thou hadst not all merriment unlearned.
Of suns and worlds I have nothing to be quoted;
How men torment themselves, is all that I have noted.
The little god o’ the world sticks to the same old way,
And is as whimsical as on Creation’s day.
Life somewhat better might content him,
But for the gleam of heavenly light which Thou has lent him;
He calls it Reason--thence his power’s increased,
To be far beastlier than any beast.
Saving Thy Gracious Presence, he to me
A long-legged grasshopper appears to be,
That springing flies, and flying springs.
Would he still lay among the grass he grows in!
Each bit of dung he seeks, to stick his nose in.”

The Devil’s presentation differs considerably from that of the Archangels. The first section discloses to the reader the nature of the relationship between God and the Devil. Although further along in the prologue, we delve into the relationship more fully, at this point, we become aware that the relationship within the context of “Faust” is rather easy and that while the Devil acknowledges that God is more powerful, he also feels comfortable enough to make barbed comments directed at Him: “My pathos certainly would move Thy laughter,…If Thou hadst not all merriment unlearned.”

And, unlike the Archangels, Mephistopheles does not report on the cosmic scale of existence. He quickly establishes that humanity is his interest. And, although later in the play the reader becomes aware that Mephistopheles misunderstands the basic premises of human nature, he establishes here that he is a keen student of our condition: “How men torment themselves, is all that I have noted.”

The last part of the speech by Mephistopheles places the reader on notice that the author believes that the principle of Reason, when elevated to the standard of a god, is not a good thing. The depth of derision expressed by Goethe is largely based on his observations of the influence of the concept of Reason as it was used as a driving impetus for the social changes that were occurring in Europe at that time. The societal and cultural fallout from the French Revolution were probably the most frustrating for Goethe. It has been written that Goethe firmly believed that societal change had to arise from within the individuals who comprised a given society. He did not believe, especially in the case of the French Revolution, that fundamental change could be affected in the human condition by crushing the exiting social structure in order to force change. Throughout “Faust,” one will find negative references to Reason, when it is elevated to the level of apex principle.

For many, this philosophical theme may seem forced and somewhat out of place; however, let us remember that the Age of Reason was developing as Goethe lived (and it has since given rise to the Age of Scientific Materialism--and here we sit). Goethe was striving for an alteration in direction by humanity. The Romantic Movement and Goethe’s arguments and pleas for accepting a more connected view of humanity and the natural universe had only temporary influence on society. (However, his challenge still stands…)

In closing out this section of the Prologue, let us again consider the scope of information presented: solar system, planet, climate, and human. In synthesis, we are presented a picture of the macrocosm and the microcosm. At each level, we are told that there is harmony and discord--except at the level of humanity. At this level we are informed that matters are out of balance due to the over-emphasis on Reason.

The premise that humanity has put itself out of balance with the natural world, can stand alone. However, it is important for the reader to know that for Goethe, the balance (or imbalance) had a far greater meaning. It is here that we are introduced to the concept of “As above, So below.”

These words can be found in many Hermetic and esoteric texts. The concept was first laid out in The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus:

“That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above, corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracles of the One Thing."

In accordance with the various levels of reality: physical, mental, and spiritual, this premise relates that what happens on any level happens on every other. This is however more often used in the sense of the microcosm and the macrocosm--with the microcosm being the individual and the macrocosm is the universe. The macrocosm is as the microcosm, and vice versa; within each lies the other, and through understanding one (usually the microcosm) a person can understand the other.


11-13-2006, 02:52 PM
Previously discussed was the portion of the Prologue that pertained to the Macrocosm. Next, the scale shifts to the microcosm (Dr. Faust). There is also a shift in conversation. God first responds to the observations and comments made by Mephistopheles, followed by a response from Mephistopheles in which the Devil summarizes his view of the state of humanity:

The Lord:

“Hast thou, then, nothing more to mention?
Com’st ever, thus, with ill intention?
Find’st nothing right on earth, eternally?”


“No, Lord, I find things, there, still bad as they can be.
Man’s misery even to pity moves my nature;
I’ve scare the heart to plague the wretched creature.”

Next, the conversation to the name-sale character of the play:

The Lord:

“Know’st Faust?”


“The Doctor Faust?”

The Lord:

“My servant, he!”


“Forsooth! He serves you after strange devices:
No earthly meat or drink the fool suffices:
His spirit’s ferment far aspireth;
The fairest stars from Heaven he requireth;
From Earth the highest raptures and the best,
And all the Near and Far that he desireth
Fails to subdue the tumult of his breast.”

The topical meaning of the above passage is that, based on his observations, Mephistopheles has a clear picture of Faust’s lust for knowledge, new activity, and grand-scheme achievements. The Devil also makes it clear that he does not feel that Faust views himself as a servant of God. But, also within this stanza, we see what is probably the first usage of a word connected to alchemy. For many of us, the word “ferment” brings forward a mental image of the physiological process of decay; however, it also has other meanings. It can mean “a state of agitation” and also “a process of active often disorderly development.” And, it is this last definition that fits into the alchemical process by which one substance is changed into another. Many of us are probably somewhat familiar with the concept of alchemy being a physical pseudoscience; however, probably not as many of us are aware that there is a higher aspect of alchemy in which the alchemist, as a being, seeks to change his or her nature. And, this spiritual process is a key theme in Faust.

Next, the Lord responds:

“Though still confused, his service unto Me,
I soon shall lead him to a clearer morning.
Sees not the gardener, even while buds his tree,
Both flowers and fruit the future years adorning.”


“What will you bet? There’s still a chance to gain him,
If unto me full leave you give,
Gently upon my road to train him!”

The Lord:

“As long as he on earth shall live,
So long I make no prohibition.
While Man’s desires and aspirations stir,
He cannot choose but err.”

Goethe was a man who explored many venues and learned much from many divergent sources. His writing evidences a keen ability to pull material from diverse sources and weave it together into a synthesis which strums deep chords within the human psyche. The Prologue is a fine example of this. Here, Goethe skillfully combines concepts from both within and without Christianity. Throughout “Faust,” Goethe also uses plots and themes from other written works to compliment his master scheme. It has been noted by scholars that this discussion between God and Mephistopheles is quite similar to one held between God and the Devil in the Book of Job, which is thought to be one of the oldest books of the Bible. In the Book of Job, however, the discussion pertains to the man named Job for whom God has great fondness. Job is indeed a man blessed. He has a large family, a great estate, and huge herds of camels and sheep. In regard to Job, the Devil points out that God has shielded Job from any and all harm. The Devil further opines that if circumstances were different, Job would turn against God. In the Book of Job, God and the Devil also enter into an agreement to test the soul of a human--as in “Faust.” However, the methods used are considerably different. In the Bible, the Devil is given permission to take away from Job: his family, his wealth; and, eventually, his health. In “Faust,” Devil gives Faust that for which he wishes. In “Faust,” the scope of the Devil’s free will is far larger than that of the Devil in the Book of Job.

The dialogue in the prologue continues, Mephistopheles:

“My thanks, I find the dead no acquisition,
And never cared to have them in my keeping.
I much prefer the cheeks where ruddy blood is leaping,
And when a corpse approaches, close my house:
It goes with me, as with the cat, the mouse.”

The Lord:

“Enough! What though hast asked is granted.
Turn off this spirit from his fountain-head:
To trap him, let thy snares be planted,
And him, with thee, be downward led;
Then stand abashed, when though art forced to say:
A good man, though obscurest aspiration,
Has still an instinct of the one true way.”


“Agreed! But ‘tis a short probation.
About my bet I feel no trepidation.
If I fulfill my expectation,
You’ll let me triumph with a swelling breast:
Dust shall he eat, and with zest,
As did a certain snake, my near relation.”

The Lord:

“Therein thou’rt free, according to thy merits:
The like of thee have never moved My hate.
If all the bold, denying Spirits,
The waggish knave least trouble doth create.
Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon to level;
Unqualified repose he learns to crave;
Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave,
Who works, excites, and must create, as the Devil.
Be ye, God’s sons in love and duty,
Enjoy the rich, the ever-living Beauty!
Creative Power, that works eternal schemes,
Clasp you in bonds of love, relaxing never,
And what in wavering apparition gleams
Fix in its place with thoughts that stand forever.”

The above stanza presents the reader with keen insight. God flatly states that he does not hate the Devil and that he has created the Devil because man tends to slack off too easily unless there is a challenge or barrier to overcome. The Devil serves as the impetus for drive. God created him as a goad.

Goethe wrote a fairy tale titled, “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily.” In this story, there are many characters who express very unique personalities and have seemingly diverse goals; however, there is a second level of understand for this tale in which all the characters are part of a single whole. In reading “Faust” it is helpful to consider the concept that individual characters may actually aspects of a single being. This viewing point makes it easier to grasp the Hermetic/Alchemical/spiritual theme of the work.

Also, when searching for a greater understanding of the tale, it important to know that the contents of both Book One and Book Two combine to complete the transition of Faust. It is also helpful to note that while this work is written in the format of a play, it is really meant to be read.

The Prologue ends, Mephistopheles:

“I like, at times, to hear The Ancient’s word,
And have a care to be most civil;
It’s really kind of such a noble Lord
So humanly to gossip with the Devil!”



12-30-2009, 07:52 AM
Hi Samsara, I found your above approach very interesting. However, you abandoned this thread already a long time ago. I can imagine that the number of people, interested in Goethe's Faust might not be that big. I you are interested in continue your argument, please go ahead. You can surely expect some reactions from my side. One thing, I do not have any English version, only the original German version (both "Urfaust", "Faust I" and "Faust II") and some Dutch translations. I read them all, but meanwhile already 3 years ago. I am working on an extensive explanation in Dutch, and on a (non-exhaustive) describing overview of as much as possible known treatment of the Faust-theme (starting with the German Faustbook of 1587). This overview does not only contain novels or plays, but also opera, music, film, ...

This last could eventually be a new thread (could be easily translated into English).


03-03-2011, 11:49 AM
It is a shame that nobody has interest about Faust and Goethes work, I read Faust in German twice, in Spanish once and some paragraphs in English, where did you find the English translation Samsara, greets from Spain
Juan Fernandez Vargas