Describe the similar qualities that you see between the modern man and Doctor Faustus.

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Usually when we speak of the "modern man," we're referring to a mindset: one in which the older values and kinds of fulfillment have passed away and been replaced by a void, or an existential dilemma. How, we ask, is man to find meaning in a universe where traditional belief systems are no longer valid?

It still comes as a surprise that this question is implied not only in Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, but in other works of the Elizabethan theatre as a whole, over 400 years ago. Only a deep sense of dissatisfaction would make a man "sell his soul" to the devil, as Faustus does. It's not enough for him merely to be a scholar and a servant of God: Faustus wants more than what man has been granted in earthly life–just as fictional characters closer in time to us do in the works of Dostoevsky, Joyce, Camus, and practically every major author of the past 100+ years.

Granting this similarity, Marlowe's play still takes place within a traditional framework of religious belief, in which Faustus ends up punished for the transgression of wanting more than what is permitted to man. The other pre-modern feature in Marlowe is that the things Faustus gains in his "pact" are superficial and, ultimately, meaningless. He wants power over others in the world of surface values, the physical realm—unlike Goethe's Faust 200 years later, who wishes for some ultimate spiritual epiphany in which he will find "the moment" so beautiful that he would make it endure. In Marlowe, the culmination of Faustus's desires occurs in his meeting with Helen of Troy, the symbol of ultimate physical beauty. But after this, there is nothing, and Faustus is left alone with his terror as he faces eternal punishment.

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This is a tough one because the limits of knowledge—which so compelled Dr. Faustus—are so very, very different today, not to mention that the notion of making supernatural deals with higher powers has pretty well fallen out of (public) favor in Western civilization. One thing that does remain constant is contemporary man's Faustian quest to push the boundaries of knowledge ever further as is witnessed by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the solar satellites collecting volumes of different kinds of data about the Sun and Earth's magnetosphere, and subterranean polar experiments to capture neutrinos as they hurtle from the Sun through us and off through the further reaches of space. Another thing that remains constant is the Faustian greed that motivates the self-centered spirit of extreme acquisition of wealth and the world's goods that characterizes our era and might prove to be our contract with Mephistopheles.

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