The essence of Faust
The idea of the Devil, so central to monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is a rather peculiar consequence of complex historical combinations of ancient Semito-Hamitic, Indo-European, and other mythologies. On firm and scientifically defensible groups, it can be said that the belief in the notion of the Devil (which in modern times has developed in increasing unbelief) tends to be associated with the original belief (and now growing unbelief) in the concept of a personal God.
It has always been a concern for the thinking man as to what is the purpose of creation. And those theologies believing in Divine religions have since long been confronted with the concept of the devil. The essence of the devil and the actual powers that are instated in him are still anybody’s guess. But since the curiosity has always, maintained, so has the fascination as to what could happen of one would be able to consciously be able to come closer to the devil. “There are few attempts in books or movies to confront one of the most fundamental questions related to being human: Who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? Who experiences salvation and who is doomed to eternal damnation? Regardless of one’s faith, all of us wonder about these issues at some point in our existence” (Mandel, 2000).
The same issue has been taken up by different art forms over the centuries, to portray their relationship with the devil, however bizarre it might be. One such classic and infamous attempt was made by German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his drama ‘Faust’ written in 1832. “The German writer Gotthold Lessing undertook to bring Faustus to salvation in an unfinished play (c. 1784). Lessing, an enlightened rationalist, saw Faustus’s pursuit of knowledge as a noble obsession and arranged for a reconciliation with God. This theme was pursued by the outstanding chronicler of the Faust legend, Goethe” (Mystical, 2006).
In a nutshell, it is the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to experience life with superhuman knowledge and power; something that he is not able to do on his own. Mephistopheles, the devil, approaches Faust just after he has chosen not to commit suicide. Faust, who has spent his life as a scholar, has fallen into despair at the human condition, and wishes to find the shortcut to the questions that life throws at him.
Mephistopheles, being aware of Faust’s weakened state, offers him the potential to experience things unattainable to mortals like him; an offer that Faust doesn’t resist. “In Faust, Mephisto demonstrated his ability to affect the world by releasing a plague. He also gave Faust anything he wanted—love, money and power. Mephisto also had no trouble taking away what he gave” (Lorenzen, 2004).
Further, another concept here is that, “all human souls are called to exist and struggle within a constant state of “becoming,” a lifelong striving towards greater and greater realms of knowledge, action and feeling; and those who stay true to this call, even when they stumble into excesses and error will not go unrewarded by God. In fact, it is by right the Devil’s place to blind man, to the end that man might come unto God” (Awerty, 2006).
Though written some 18 odd decades ago, yet the theme of Faust does not cease to fascinate writers and thinkers. In today’s contemporary world of arts and media, we tend to see similar plots with different representations. Two such instances can be seen in he recent flicks produced in Hollywood, namely ‘The devil’s advocate’ and ‘Bedazzled’. The essence in both these movies is also the same – the devil gets hold of a human being and starts to control his destiny. However, being in the world of entertainment, there is a sharp contrast of flavor in the two movies. While ‘The devil’s advocate’ is immensely intense and tragic, ‘Bedazzled’ is extremely hilarious and witty, providing a lighter yet solemn view o the same issue.
In the former, the human in question is Kevin Lomax, who is an aspiring young lawyer who wishes to make it big in the world. Little does he know that his high ambitions are being heightened and extrapolated by none other than the devil himself, the character of John Milton who is actually the hero’s mentor in his profession. He realizes that being on the side of the devil, he mist be able to make it through the easier ways in the world. But very soon he begins to realize that all the things that are close to him cannot be achieved and sustained through unfair means. Ultimately, he remains gravely dissatisfied and concludes that it is not the devil’s path that he wishes to tread.
The latter presents a similar display if general discontentment with life in the lead role of Elliot Richards. He is confronted by a female devil, always tempting and ready to seduce in a default position. Though sarcasm is the rule in the movie, yet the base line is always the same – the devil is to provide for something that the human being cannot achieve for himself. His primary goal is to be with the love of his life, ad along side, he keeps asking for other things he lacks as well. Ultimately, Elliot is not satisfied with the proceedings, and ends up finding his own way with life.
The fact of the matter is, that the primary thread that all these pieces of art follow, is the control of the devil over a man, who is not able to find happiness off its normal course in life. The devil finally gets his/her turn and entices the human with what he does not have. It is also central to the plot of all three stories, that the devil never comes out clean
In this confrontation, humankind is not likely to pass away if it finally reaches that, while evil and undoubtedly exist, an actual Devil does not. That this being has no objective ontological status, independent of the images and conceptions of him in the minds of those who still believe in him, seems so patently clear that a fairly well-educated naturalist, rationalist, or humanist is almost reluctant to insist on it. Those who are adequately acquainted with the with the critical methods and results of the scientific approach to the incident under review will almost feel guilty of an act of intellectual overkill if they take the surviving beliefs in and about the Devil seriously enough to refute them. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the pervasiveness and the emotional depth and tenacity of these beliefs.
“Only at the end of his life does Faust escape the clutches of Satan by learning the principle which is the basis for human salvation, that he himself, a man, has within him the power of choice and action, that he has not been in the devil’s power but has mistakenly and evilly given his own power into the hands of the devil. He at last defeats Satan when he insists on resuming his power and freedom, forsaking all falsehood and delusion” (Thomas, 2000).
Theoretically, invoking the Lord in the process of calling up Satan has always been considered a sin. On the other hand, it was common knowledge that demons might be called forth in the name of God. If the ritual was performed properly, they would have to do the conjurer’s command. After all, Light was more powerful than Darkness, and to bind the devil or his servants in God’s name could even be interpreted as an act of faith. Hence, there seemed no reason not to make use of Satan’s special powers for a few months or even years, as long as one made sure not to die without having repented initially. It was a gamble, but one with rationally good odds. After all, God’s grace was considered unlimited, and there were insurance policies ranging from antirecessionary prayers to special masses and indulgences.
Faust realises that the devil is taking him for a ride but he is prevented from revoking the pact by Mephistopheles’ threat that to do so would bring his life to an instant and bloody end. Faust sees his blunder lay in taking the devil literally by his word, that he could not understand his paradoxical imagery and hence the impossibility of their ever thinking similar. How could a piece of parchment bind him more resolutely than his solemn word? How can a statement bind him once it is seen as something different from what he understood it to be?
Faust’s refusal to give value to things means, ultimately, that no pact is ever possible in the traditional sense, since no obligation can be imposed by an external authority, whether the authority of a piece of paper, or of the law whose endorsement gives authority to the piece of paper, unless Faust imposes that obligation on himself by his own free choice – in which case, the external authority is superfluous. Faust is interested in living by the spirit of the wager, not in its letter, and Mephistopheles promises himself achievement not in the first instance, from the letter of the agreement with Faust, but from the opportunity it gives to tempt and corrupt him. Neither party is thus, strictly speaking, interested in an agreement, which is often said to be at the heart of the play.
The most important source of the tension in the play is the question: Which of the protagonists will be proved correct? Faust with his sublime striving which to Mephistopheles is so much verbiage, or Mephistopheles with his hidden intention of moral dishonesty visible to us but concealed from Faust by his own choice? Can the Faustian lead a life without compromising itself morally in terms of Christian values of sin and compensation? Can the attempt to lead a life beyond good and evil by the spirit result in whatever thing more grand than simple, limited, human wrong- doing? “Faust may be remorseful, but is fundamentally unrepentful to the end; he dies as he lives, in darkness. What Goethe says is that any redemption cannot derive from what he has done” (Vyas, 2001).
Awerty. Faust. (2006). 30 June 2006.
Lorenzen, J. The Image of the Devil in 20th Century Film. (2004). 30 June 2006.
Mandel, B. Faust. (2000). 30 June 2006.
Mystical. The Faust Legend. (2006). 30 June 2006.
Thomas, G. The Doctrine of the Devil in Literature. (2000). 30 June 2006.
Vyas, R. Goethe’s pact with the devil. (2001). 30 June 2006.