Goethe’s Faust & Christianity

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer and states-man in the early 19th century. One of this most popular works, which was deemed as the greatest work of German literature is Faust. A tragedy written in two parts about a scholar, Faust, who sells his soul to the devil.I unfortunately do not speak German, so I’ve been reading an English translation by Walter Kaufmann, which is apparently the best and closest translation to the original.

“Why is Walter Kaufmann so successful? First, his version has a rhythmic drive which is very close to Goethe’s; second, he transmits a very important quality about the language of Faust: that it is packed with material of every kind – information, ideas, wit. These are all communicated with immense energy and a warmth of imagination, which… never succumbs ti pedantry or showing off…” [Stephen Spender, NYT book review].

I started reading it two days ago, and I’m completely engulfed. If I had time, I would discuss each verse separately, but I doubt it will be fun for my readers. Here I decided to analyze one verse from Faust 1224-37 (translation).

(He opens a tome [of the New Testament] and begins.)

It says: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’

Already I am stopped. It seems absurd.

The Word does not deserve the highest prize,

I must translate it otherwise

If I am well inspired and not blind.

It says: In the beginning was the Mind.

Ponder that first line, wait and see,

Lest you should write too hastily.

Is mind the all-creating source?

It ought to say: In the beginning there was Force.

Yet something warns me as I grasp the pen,

That my translation must be changed again.

The spirit helps me. Now it is exact.

I write: In the beginning was the Act. [3]

I had to read this a couple of times to adore it even more. We have four different ontologies here: Word, Mind, Force, and the Act, which can be grouped into two groups: the rational – Word and Mind, and the material approach, Force and Act.

Now what do they all mean?Word is used in the contexts that our world is just a reflection of our language. The way we speak shapes the way we think which in turn shapes the way we perceive the world. Goethe criticizes the use of this word in the New Testament, since he disagrees that language would be the start of our world. It makes sense to say that since language is what makes us “advanced animals” we consider it to be the beginning of human kind, but it’s flawed since it doesn’t make sense for the whole world to spin around language (though it is a huge influence).

So then Goethe moves on to something more complicated, the Mind. Words cannot be the most basic cause of the world, since the most basic cause of the world is in fact the mind. Words only have meaning so far as that represent something higher, more our and mor abstract like ideas. Therefore, mind is the most basic creationist of the world. It is also the Cartesian approach (Descartes) which states “I think therefore I am” [cogito ergo sum]. Technically the world exists in so far and only under the condition that there is a mind to perceive it.

He’s still not satisfied with the concept though, so he explores the idea of The Force (no, not you Darth Vader). Force is a concept of physics. It is a way of analyzing the material world. In this case the most basic structure of the universe is known only through scientific engagement with the world. The experimental method, hypothesis testing and close observation.

But for Goethe it’s still not good enough, so he finally finds something that makes sense: the Act. There’s many ways to look at this concept, I chose two. First, the world is known through the direct non-mediated engagement with the world. In this case science unifies with art, and this unity brings a fresh concept. Meaning, the mind stops focusing on the pre-manufactured concepts for knowledge, but rather starts to act on its own. Second, this is the initial act, the time we got off our lazy asses and started to actually.. do things. The world was created when God started to Act.

Goethe’s view on Christianity is pretty evident, the antagonism against hierarchy and dogma, though sometimes he is known for praising the phenomenon of the religion, which would make sense since Faust is loosely based on the biblical beings and they are all being mocked. He considered religion to be the power and the way to control religion. Funny how he makes Faust sell his soul to the Devil…

I’m taking my time reading this book to enjoy every bit of it separately and together. I can’t wait to finish it, though I’m going to be sad to part with such a classic. Once I come across something as amazing as this, I’ll make sure to discuss it here, though I’ll also keep it to a minimum. Stay tuned!

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