Early in Goethe’s Faust, Faust tells Mephistopheles that he desires “to expand my single self titanically and, in the end, go down with all the rest.” Faust is rejecting the ideal of...
Early in Goethe’s Faust, Faust tells Mephistopheles that he desires “to expand my single self titanically and, in the end, go down with all the rest.” Faust is rejecting the ideal of moderation, of tempering desire, of knowing one’s limits, of living carefully, within one’s means. He wants ecstasy, not happiness, bliss, not contentment, grief, not sadness, extreme experience no matter the cost. Is Faust on to something? If so, why do so many people seem to settle for lives of bourgeois mediocrity? Or is his example a nice piece of fiction that teaches that one expresses such desire at the risk of disaster, destruction, maybe even damnation?
Faust by Johann Goethe is a play that resists easy and simplistic analysis. It was written over a period of half a century, begun in 1772 and not completed until 1831. It is not a simple tale of good versus evil or God versus Devil, but almost a dualistic argument that both good and evil are necessary for the world and function in a complementary fashion, with evil a force that subverts complacency and good provides ultimate goals.
Faust himself is also a study in contrasts. He starts of the play as a scholar and generally good man who finds his life hollow and in some ways routine. This makes him vulnerable to temptation by Mephistopheles, who rather than appearing evil incarnate at times seems almost more of a prankster. Faust's quest for ecstasy in the company of the Devil figure in Part 1 at times seems almost parodic, with the pleasures offered seeming trivial and evil mundane. His seduction of Gretchen and her death, though, begin to make him understand that thoughtless seeking of pleasure can cause serious harm. It is with this death that we begin to see both the acts of Faust and Mephistopheles as almost a reductio ad absurdum of Romanticism, with the grand seductions and efforts to "burn with a hard, gem-like flame" (as Pater would later phrase it) seeming more a midlife crisis than an example to emulate.
In old age, though, Faust begins to eschew both his earlier pleasure-seeking and his original restless curiosity, and instead immerses himself in the desire to do good works. The end of Part II seems to suggest that in his own old age, Goethe realized that the good life, eudaimonia in classical Greek philosophy, is achieved neither by an unthinking rut of bourgeois conformity nor an equal mindless restless seeking after sensual pleasure, but in finding a place in the human world in which one`s acts gain meaning from the way they give back to the community. Faust really only finds a moment of pure happiness when he begins to help others rather than focus simply on his own pleasure.
The term bourgeois mediocrity is made problematic by the way it itself expresses a certain rather narrow-minded snobbery. Describing a traditional family, in which parents work hard to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their children, contribute to their local communities, and generally live a peaceful and untroubled life as mediocre, seems almost immature. Even recent scientific studies on happiness show that people who are fully embedded in their communities and who give back to their communities in the form of charitable activities, as Faust does in his old age, are actually happier than people living freer and less charitable lives.
While it is not a bad thing for young people to travel, explore different cultures and lifestyles, and experiment to discover their true passions, over the full human lifespan, as Faust discovers, a deeper form of happiness is found not in momentary sensual pleasure, but in a form of selflessness, and giving back to society. In the play, after all, God wins the bet.