Knowledge is usually a source of strength, but how does it turn out to be a weakness in the title character of Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus?
Although knowledge was considered a source of strength during the English Renaissance, in the title character of Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus, the perversion of knowledge and misuse of reason are actually sources of enormous spiritual weakness. This point is emphasized in the play’s opening scene in a number of specific ways, including the following:
- Faustus’s desire to “live and die in Aristotle’s works” (5) would have been considered too extreme, despite Aristotle’s value as a great and respected philosopher (a “virtuous pagan”). Only the teachings of God should merit this kind of total devotion.
- The chief purpose of logic is not to carry on successful disputations (7) but to discipline the process of learning and ultimately lead to knowledge of God. The kind of disputation Faustus has in mind is mere shallow showmanship.
- Logic actually affords the “greater miracle” (9) of better understanding God and his creation, but only if one uses it well.
- The ideal purpose of being a physician is not to “heap up gold” (14).
- The ideal purpose of being a physician is not even to “be eternized for some wondrous cure” (15), since the verb here implies an ambition rooted in pride – the same kind of pride also suggested by line 19.
- Faustus’s disappointment in his medical achievements seems foolish, since the main source of his disappointment is that he is “still be Faustus, and a man” (23). Those facts will not change no matter what he chooses to do with his life.
- Faustus’s desire to
make men live eternally,
Or, being dead, raise them to life again . . . (24-25)
is almost blasphemous. Christ was the only man to possess such powers.
- Faustus does not want to be the kind of person who, having studied law, “aims at nothing but external trash” (35), although this – ironically – is precisely how he will later behave.
- Faustus’s knowledge of the Bible is shallow and superficial, as he proves when he falsely reasons that
. . . we must sin,
And so consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death. (44-46)
Here he quotes only half the relevant scripture, which reads: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6.23; emphasis added).
- Faustus’s motives for acquiring knowledge are cheap and worldly (53-55). His pride is continually emphasized (56-61). His attitude toward himself is essentially idolatrous (62-63).
- Ultimately, because he mis-uses his God-given gifts of reason and intellect, Faustus proves to be one of the greatest fools in all of English Renaissance literature. He allows his knowledge, which could have been the source of enormous spiritual strength, to be corrupted and perverted. He is not nearly as wise, intelligent, or knowledgeable as he thinks he is.
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Doctor Faustus achieved supreme wisdom through his deal with the devil. Possession of great knowledge would normally be perceived as being a strength, and certainly this was the expectation that Dr. Faustus had in mind when he struck his agreement with Lucifer. Through the play, Dr. Faustus uses his incredible powers to conjure individuals and events that amaze those around him, but that also challenge the morality of his actions.
Unrepentant, Faustus continues to use his incredible powers to explore history and the world, compounding his misuse of his powers by adding to the number of incidents in which he ignores opportunities to use his knowledge for good. In the end, the actions allowed by the super-natural knowledge of Doctor Faustus condemn him to the weakness of being powerlessness to save himself from eternal damnation.