“To satisfy a heart so deeply agitated”: Theodicy in Goethe’s Faust
The archetypal Faust of legend is a withdrawn academic with a dangerous and selfish obsession with esoterica. This Faust’s folly serves as a reminder not to transgress social sanctions against magic and dark arts. On the contrary, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe presents a Faust who, through the introduction of the plague backstory, is a complex and tortured individual who turns to the devil only after encountering the seemingly intractable problem of evil. In this confrontation he loses his means of comprehending the world and his place in it. This Faust’s journey is ultimately a theodicean exposition of evil as sent by God to separate those who continue striving despite evil from those content to cling to earthly pleasures.
One may assume that God is omniscient during the Prelude in Heaven. He is well aware of Faust’s transgressions, his propensity towards the dark arts and even his lack of religiosity. Mephistopheles takes puckish delight in the choice, astounded by his good luck in drawing an opponent that seems to need no defeating. As Faust himself soon puts it, “Although I hear your gospel, I do not believe it” (765). Why would God choose a champion ostensibly so poorly qualified to dance with the devil? This question forms the crux of the dramatic tension in Goethe’s Faust. The audience is introduced to a Faust who is despondent, without faith, and who nearly poisons himself within the first, “Night” scene. Considering the intertextual reference to the Book of Job, which contains a similar deal with a devil, Goethe creates the expectation that God will pick a champion with as much integrity as the biblical Job. Furthermore, the Faust archetypal character is one who has been negatively associated with magic, esotericism, and pride for centuries in German folklore. Indeed, if Milton’s trick was to lead the audience into identifying with Satan, Goethe’s counter is to give every surface-level indication that God himself has erred in choosing Faust as his champion.
The rub is that this is not so, and while this is apparent to any audience at the play’s conclusion, an attentive theatergoer may pick up several indications otherwise early in the play. Several episodes, particularly the illumination of Faust’s history and psychology by the Old Peasant in town, elucidate Faust as a dynamic, striving individual who is frustrated and perplexed by the problem of evil. Goethe’s Faust comes to the sorry state the audience meets him in due to characteristics valued by God, including perseverance and a desire to understand the world. Put plainly, Faust’s existential crisis is due to the incomprehensibility of evil on earth.
The plague destroys the tools with which Faust is equipped to understand the world. When he (and his father) is unable to cure all the victims of the plague using their training in medicine, his trust in science is destroyed. Their efforts, he relates, are entirely futile, and Faust goes so far as to blame himself for many of the deaths. This account the audience should not trust in the face of what has just transpired in the village square, when the Old Peasant gives the audience reason to believe that Faust has always used his superior talents for the good of the village, that he did save many lives during the plague, and is an active and admired member of the community. Faust presents a classic case of survivor’s guilt—as the Old Peasant points out, “[Faust] always would come out unharmed” (1004). This introduces a psychological edge to his obsession with overcoming the limits of knowledge. This obsession, the audience learns, only develops to dabbling in summoning devils after he has “wept and sighed and wrung my hands/believing that such efforts could extort/from God in heaven termination of the plague” (1026-1028). His prayers are unanswered, destroying his religious faith on top of his faith in science.
Stripped of the two lenses that dominate Western ways of thinking about the world, Faust is understandably cynical. He is devastated all the more, the audience learns, because of the intensity of his desire to know, more than anything, why? He is utterly at odds with Wagner’s assertion that it might be sufficient for him to “practice with punctilious exactness/the skills of the profession” (1057-1058), without questioning or aspiring to anything greater. The flighty language employed by Faust to communicate his innate dissatisfaction with life fails entirely to resonate, in turn, with Wagner. The thought that there may be something more is for Wagner “an urge I never yet have felt” (1101). This lays bare an essential difference between Faust and Wagner which serves to illuminate an important distinction in the interpretation of Faust as theodicy: that between those like Faust, who “struggle from the dust to rise” and those like Wagner who merely “grip the earth with all its senses” (1114-1116). Wagner, and his ilk, are whom God speaks of in the Prologue when he says, “Human activity slackens all too easily,/and people soon are prone to rest on any terms” (340-341). It seems safe to say that this applies to the majority of humankind. Faust is exceptional. Interestingly, Wagner’s supposition that learning is useful merely for social ends, as a way to “affect [people] with rhetoric” (533) foreshadows Mephistopheles’ later suggestions that one’s medical degree be used as a means to purely social (sexual) ends.
Faust is all the more spiteful of these lost worldviews because they were so integral to his comprehension of the world. The qualities that make him a good champion—morality, inquisitiveness, and intelligence—are the same that nearly lead him to suicide. In lieu of science and religion, the two socially acceptable ways of looking at the world, Faust has no choice but to turn to magic. Mephistopheles mistakenly attributes this choice to pride, saying Faust is a “fool not content with earthly food or drink” (301). Indeed, even so late as Part II, Act V, Mephistopheles does not recognize that Faust’s nature is one that will eventually turn him towards God; even though Faust has finally realized his error and seeks to right it with the building of the canal, Mephistopheles still believes “Your striving serves no one but us” (11545). The lust he sees as evidence of sin in Faust is simply wayward curiosity about the world, curiosity which God values. Mephistopheles, unlike God, does not see the potential in Faust’s nature for this curiosity to be turned to positive ends. This estimation is made, the audience would do well to remember, by the very devil, who has his own motives for seeing sin everywhere.
The devil’s estimation, nonetheless, seems on the surface to hold water, especially given the incongruity of Faust’s behavior towards Gretchen with God’s championing of this unlikely hero. However, Faust’s conduct is a perversion rather than a negation of his character. His insatiable desire to control his fate in the wake of his existential crisis, coupled with the influence of Mephistopheles, leads him to unhealthily channel his generalized Christian caritas into lust for Gretchen. His actions—deflowering Gretchen and running away, to start—are sinful, but they mask an underlying and persistently striving nature (even if it is for rather profane ends). As God declaims in the Prologue in Heaven, “Men err as long as they keep striving,” (316); he seems willing to allow for sin so long as it results in a balance of good. In Faust’s case, it is necessary for him to go through sin to realize the error of his ways and repent with his final acts on earth in Part II. In a revealing quotation, God gets to the heart of theodicy by offering that “Human activity slackens all too easily,/and people soon are prone to rest on any terms;/that’s why I like to give them the companion/ who functions as a prod and does a job as devil” (340-343). The contract between Faust and the devil, one recalls, is that Mephistopheles will not be able to negate Faust’s striving nature—which he fails to do. The implicit statement is that it is better to strive and err than to rest easy; it is better to be a Faust than to be a Wagner. Restlessness over complacency.
It seems gratuitous to say that God is behind everything in Faust, but it is necessary and accurate. Faust is a framed story, and uses this extended literary conceit as a cue to the meaning of the narrative contained within. Aristotle referred to the demiurge as an unmoved mover, and this is an appropriate way to think about God in Faust. He is the one who sets everything in motion, laying down the challenge by asking Mephistopheles “Do you know Faust?” (207). Furthermore, an omniscient God would not make the deal with the devil unless he was confident of its future success. Goethe’s Mephistopheles does not come close to approaching a Manichean-style, independent force of evil that is on par with its cosmic opposite; on the contrary, the devil refers to himself as “among Your servants” (275). Faust, without undergoing the Mephistopheles-induced tragedies that make up the bulk of Faust I, would not have found the redemption he receives at the end of Faust II. That the devil is not just lesser in power but actually contained and used by God is a departure and a key point in the Faustian theodicy. God proclaims, “I soon shall lead [Faust] into clarity,” and proceeds to send Mephistopheles as a guide, showing that Mephistopheles is but a tool on the divine Swiss Army knife. This inference becomes a generalized theodicy rather than a specific case when considered in conjunction with Mephistopheles’ later profession that “my essence is/what you call sin, destruction/or—to speak plainly—Evil” (1340).
In expanding Faust’s character in such a way that makes this theodicean interpretation possible, Goethe draws upon one of the most harped-on philosophical debates in 18th-century Europe. While this debate was especially heated in this particular time and place, to thusly restrict it is to disrespect the richness of human explanations of theodicy across time and space. American interpretive anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written of this universality, saying of theodicy in religion everywhere, “the effort is not to deny the undeniable—that there are unexplained events, that life hurts, or that rains falls upon the just—but to deny that there are inexplicable events, that life is unendurable, and that justice is a mirage” (Geertz 108). When Geertz refers to the Indonesian proverb about the puzzling fact that rain falls on the heads of good men too, it is not hard to envision Faust cringing at the reminder that men died in the plague and he was powerless to stop it.
Faust’s cosmology is encapsulated in the archangel Raphael’s words that open the Prologue in Heaven: “All that was wrought, too great for comprehension/still has the splendor of its primal day” (249-250). This includes evil. Faust’s struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible, to make sense of why rain falls on the heads of good men, is in God’s eyes preferable to Wagnerian complacency, and God anticipates the errors Faust makes in his journey. Faust’s cynicism is shown to be characteristic of his underlying nature, which never ceases to strive, and evil itself is subsumed by the totality of God. Faust’s “innate urge/to rise aloft and soar along” (I.1092-3) causes problems along the way, and is paradoxically both the source of his Weltschmerz at the beginning and redemption at the end. Good and evil are made vestigial by Goethe’s innovation: for once, it is the effort that counts, and evil is rendered a method to differentiate and even reorient towards God.
Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a cultural system." The interpretation of cultures: selected essays (1993): 87-125. Blackboard. Davidson College. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
Gietzen, Sheri. "Essay on Emerson and Goethe." Virginia Commonwealth University. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust I & II. Trans. Stuart Atkins. Princeton, N.J: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.
Rossi, Philip, "Kant's Philosophy of Religion", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
 While Faust is incredibly difficult to stage, I will use treat the work as a play; if it is interpreted otherwise, the appellations of “reader” for “audience” or “theatergoer” is acceptable and does not change my argument in any way.
 By showing him a moment of such pleasure that he no longer wishes for anything more (1692-3).
 Goethe was a pantheist; that evil might be subsumed by the totality of the deity dovetails well with his personal philosophy.
 I know Faust was not published until the 19th century, but it reflected upon the legacy of Leibniz, Spinoza, Milton, Voltaire, and other 18th-century commentators on the problem of evil, and indeed was itself largely composed in the 18th century.