How does Faustus represent the attractions and dangers inherent in sixteenth-century humanism?

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The story of Faustus puts forward this question: what is holding humanity back? Faustus himself thinks that the confines of human thought and beliefs are too burdened by religion and human philosophy. At the start of the play, Faustus considers all the academic and spiritual pursuits of humankind and determines that he desires more substantial knowledge—namely, unlimited knowledge, something that law, philosophy, and religion cannot provide.

Faustus turns to necromancy, the practice of raising the dead, as the only alternative that might provide him the power to desires. The main issue is that necromancy is forbidden by Christian teaching, and Faustus would have to abandon the Church if he were to engage in it. Faustus’s turn from not only the Church but also the traditional way of thinking (looking to authority for direction) is a clear indication that Faustus is a representation of the Renaissance and humanism.

Humanism was a system of philosophy grounded in the Renaissance ideals of individuality, the dominance of human reason, and a rejection of traditional institutions. Humanists, unlike many Christians, believed that humans, at their very core, were good, and that the idealization of humans was good. Ultimately, Faustus demonstrates that, despite the allure of placing humanity at the center of the universe, humanity is not perfect, and human nature is damned in its imperfection.

Faustus chooses to sell his soul to pursue knowledge. He says,

Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile:
'Tis magic, magic, that hath ravish'd me.

Faustus looks at all the scholarship and learning of the past with disdain. He turns to new ways of learning, namely magic, to help him move beyond. Marlowe uses this quest for unlimited knowledge and power as a metaphor for the humanist pursuit of knowledge. Despite seeing humanity as ultimately good (and thus the pursuit of knowledge as good), Faustus is damned for his attempt to learn things that cannot be ascertained.

Despite selling his soul for unlimited knowledge, Faustus soon learns that even after selling his soul, he cannot know or do everything. He is not granted spectacular knowledge, and specific things, like understanding how the world was made, are denied explicitly to him. This denial of crucial knowledge points out the flaw in humanism. People are finite beings, trapped in the imminent frame, and human understanding cannot produce the transcendent. Ultimately, Faustus falls into the trap of believing that humans can perfect the pursuit of knowledge and learn everything. Marlowe shows that the idea of unlimited knowledge is folly, because humans are ultimately flawed and damned to imperfection.

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