Critics often use the Bible to help explain literature, but, on rarer occasion, literature may help us to understand the Bible. Scores of studies examine the biblical influence on Goethe’s Faust, which—in the prologue, set in heaven—paraphrases the Book of Job. Job is a difficult book for modern readers; the idea of a divine wager at the expense of a virtuous man is disturbing, and the story is all the more opaque for its ancient setting. But just as we must know something of Job to read Faust, so Goethe aids our reading of Job. He reworks the tale in modern terms and helps us see in Job the challenge of understanding faith and the despair we suffer.
The modern illusion of freedom is the stuff of Goethe’s drama. Goethe was born in 1749 on the feast of St. Augustine—an auspicious moment, for Faust is in some ways the great literary realizing of Augustine’s anthropology. As the leading German Faust scholar Jochen Schmidt observes, the characterization of Faust in the work’s prologue recalls Augustine’s opening declaration in the Confessions: “You have made us, O Lord, for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
In order to set the problem of Job in a modern context, Goethe required a protagonist who exemplifies Augustine’s restless heart, whose nourishment is not earthly and who must continue to err and strive until God leads him to clarity, as the Lord promises in the prologue. Faust is no more an Everyman—as he sometimes is characterized—than is Job, whom the Bible calls “the greatest of all the men of the East.
Paraphrasing Job, Goethe begins Faust in the Heavenly Court, where Mephistopheles complains that men torment each other so thoroughly that he hardly wants to bother them. In response, the Lord asks the devil if he knows “his servant” Faust, to which the devil responds, “He serves you in a curious way; not earthly are his meat and drink . . . and everything from near and far does not requite his deeply moved heart.” The Lord counters, “Man will err as long as he strives.” Thus begins the wager over Faust’s soul.
For his poem, Goethe required a protagonist who exemplifies Augustine’s restless heart because, left to their own devices, men fall into a torpor and seek unconditional rest, as the Lord tells Mephistopheles. Complacency is the characteristically modern sin. The human condition has not changed, nor can it, so long as men must die. But modern man is more susceptible to the illusion that he can mold his own identity and make his own destiny. Modern man can persuade himself that he is alone in the universe, improvising his ethics and identity as he goes along. He can fancy himself master of the universe through science. He can even imagine that brain science eventually will resolve the existential questions that have troubled his kind for millennia. Underneath this complacency lurks an antipathy to life, articulated wittily by Goethe’s devil.
These conceits flourished in Goethe’s world. In both social and scientific terms, Goethe stood at the cusp of modernity. He became a literary sensation in 1774 with The Passion of Young Werther, the bestselling novel of the last quarter of that century. Napoleon read it in translation under the pyramids. Possessed of the freedom to invent his own identity, Werther sinks into morbid introspection and a hopeless love before killing himself. Faust, the mature Goethe’s protagonist par excellence, very nearly does so. Faust instead fights for a life. Goethe published the first part of Faust in 1807, while Napoleon forced on Europe the French Revolutionary view that society could be transformed by reason, casting aside faith and tradition. The scientific revolution of the eighteenth century similarly promised to transform ordinary life—as when the French physicist Pierre-Simon LaPlace asserted that his mechanics could ultimately make humans omniscient. Goethe’s contemporaries already had absorbed the new faith in science, with fewer reservations, perhaps, than today’s secularists, who have had the opportunity to encounter some of its limitations.
To place this strange new world in context, Goethe applies the marvelous conceit of inverting the premise of the Book of Job. To tempt the righteous man of Uz, the biblical Satan takes from him all that ancient man might need (wealth, children, and health). Goethe’s Mephistopheles tempts Faust instead by offering him everything that modern man might desire. The moderns, Goethe implies, have achieved a kind of freedom unimaginable to the ancients but have become the victims of this freedom.
This parallelism between Job and Faust is deep and rich. Job was a “whole-hearted” and “upright” man who “shunned evil.” Faust is free of the sin of complacency, which Goethe considers the decisive sin of the moderns. Job is lost if he overly regrets his loss and curses God; Faust is lost if he overly enjoys his boon. According to his pact with Mephistopheles, his soul is forfeit should he be so satisfied by the devil’s gifts as to mourn the passing of the moment. Job mourns the loss of the children who constitute the continuity of his own life; the childless Faust struggles to embrace life—that is what he desires rather than sex, money, or fame—but he cannot find it.
Before Faust is ready for the great wager with the devil, however, he first must reject gnosticism (the idolatry of reason, the desire for occult as well as scientific knowledge); indeed, he must learn that this form of idolatry is the repudiation of life. What Oswald Spengler called Faustian is the spiritual affliction that Goethe’s protagonist must overcome in order to be a worthy adversary for the devil. As an amateur scientist of some importance, Goethe well understood the modern world’s pretensions to mastery over nature. Faust’s attempt to commune through magic with the natural universe by conjuring the Earth Spirit and his shattering failure are among the work’s most vivid scenes.
The beginning of Faust’s salvation is his recognition that the alluring view of “utter immortal harmony” is an illusion. He asks (in Coleridge’s rendering):
Oh! how may I gaze
Upon thee, boundless nature? where embrace thee?
Ye fountains of all life, whose living tides
Feed heav’n and earth: the wither’d bosom yearns
To taste your freshness! Ye flow sparkling on,
And yet I pant in vain.
Man sees only “the living vesture of God” (compare Psalm 102) but cannot fully comprehend nature itself, as the Earth Spirit admonishes Faust. The gnostic attempt to achieve the transcendent through penetration of the secrets of nature can only lead to despair, and it brings Faust to the point of suicide. For Faust, the search for hidden knowledge leads only to repudiation of life.
The complacency Goethe puts first on the list of offenses begins with our idolatrous worship of our own powers of discovery, our conceit that the earth is not the Lord’s but ours. The new religion of science that flowered in the late eighteenth century offered the old gnosticism in a new wrapping. Unguided reason only allows man to be beastlier than any beast, as Mephistopheles quips. Complacency arises from self-worship, and that is why Goethe puts sloth at the top of the list of deadly sins.
It is thus Faust’s Augustinian restlessness that allows him to be saved. He is not seduced by the false promises of the ersatz faith of gnosticism, or there would be no drama, nor does he attain faith, for at that point the drama would end. Like skaters in Stockholm harbor, who speed over the thin sea ice just fast enough to keep it from breaking, Faust stays at the frontier of faith. Crushed by his encounter with the Earth Spirit, he lifts a vial of poison to his lips but is called back to life by the sound of church bells on Easter morning. He recalls the feeling of faith although he no longer can believe himself. When his mistress Gretchen later inquires as to his religion, he offers a pantheistic deflection.
Franz Rosenzweig’s characterization of Goethe sheds light on the character of Faust. Goethe’s life, observed the great German-Jewish theologian, was “a passage along a ridge between two abysses. He managed to keep the solid, enduring earth firmly under his feet his whole life long. Anyone else surely would have tumbled into one of the abysses that gape on either side of the ridge, unless he was borne up by the arms of divine love that helped him to make the leap into the eternal.” Like Goethe, Faust remained suspended between faith and egotism. Rosenzweig quips that Nietzsche was not so lucky. Goethe came through, “but just try to follow him.”
A little memorial plaque has been erected on this ridge, depicting Zarathustra’s ascent and plunge into the depths. . . . The plaque warns any future traveler who has ascended the ridge against another attempt after Goethe’s to follow Goethe’s path by trusting in the stride of one’s own feet, as a pure son of this earth, without the wings of faith and love.
To extend Rosenzweig’s image, Faust stands between two chasms. On the one side is faith, which would make the drama irrelevant, and on the other is the worship of his own powers, which would betray him into the clutches of the devil. Faust has lost his faith in science, the idol of choice of modern man, and he says so in his first lines on stage (“I, poor fool, am as stupid as before I began to study”), concluding, “We can know nothing.” Although he cannot believe, the memory, or the possibility, of belief keeps him alive. The ancient Job begins with a test of his faith; the modern Job begins by abandoning faith in the idol of science.
Faust does not have faith, but neither is he ensnared by the false surrogates for faith. He does not have life, but he desperately desires to enter into it. Faust’s search for life is the subject of the tragedy proper. The failure of his search for knowledge is only a prelude to the main dramatic action, which begins with his pact with Mephistopheles. Faust feels his restlessness not as a yearning for God but as a yearning for the next best thing: life, the actual life of mankind as opposed to the poor substitute for life embodied in the search for knowledge. It has made life hateful for Faust, as he tells Mephistopheles: Existence seems a burden to detest, / Death to be wished for, life a hateful jest.
He is ready to curse everything, in apparent emulation of Job 3:
Cursed be the balsam of the grape!
Cursed, highest prize of lovers’ thrall!
A curse on faith! A curse on hope!
A curse on patience, above all!
But death still is “an unwelcome guest,” observes Mephistopheles, who knows that Faust, even though he is not capable of faith, nonetheless has been saved by the memory (which is the same as the hope) of faith. He offers Faust his standard contract (“I serve you here, and you serve me in the afterlife”), which Faust rejects contemptuously:
What can’st thou give,
Thou miserable fiend? can man’s high spirit,
Full of immortal longings, be by such
As thou art, comprehended?
He instead proposes an entirely different bargain:
If ever I lay down complacent on a bed of indolence,
Then let me be finished in that same moment.
If by flattery you can deceive me
Into complacent self-admiration,
And trick me with enjoyment,
Then let that be my last day!
That is the bet I offer you!
What Faust now wants is not knowledge but life:
What is apportioned to all humankind,
Would I enjoy in my inmost self,
Grasp the highest and lowest with my spirit,
And bring their weal and woe into my own breast.
Mephistopheles responds to this with astonishment and contempt. Mere mortals, he tells Faust, cannot digest life:
Believe me, who for millennia past
Has chewed on this hard crust:
From cradle to the grave
No man ever has been able to digest this sourdough!
Believe our kind: this whole
Was made only for a God!
He basks in light eternal.
Us he brought down into darkness,
While all you get is— day and night.
Mephistopheles’ retort is subtle and insidious, and he offers Faust three principal temptations: first, the pure love of the innocent Gretchen; second, the classical beauty (artistic fecundity) of Helen of Troy; and third, the creation of a new land and a new people according to his desires. All these fail. Love without responsibility leads to madness, infanticide, and Gretchen’s execution. The child of Faust’s union with Helen is too labile to live, and his death causes Helen to fade back into darkness. And Faust’s greatest temptation, reclaiming land from the sea so that a free people can “daily conquer freedom as well as life,” is poisoned by the brutal means required to advance the project.
At the end, Faust’s soul is carried to God by angels who sing, We can redeem him who bestirs himself striving. Tragedy is the outcome of spiritual as well as social engineering. Neither the Romantic love of the northern tradition, nor the classical conception of beauty of the antique south, nor their union in the persons of Faust and Helen, will suffice. Worst of all is the attempt to put into practice what Goethe yearned for in his youthful poem “Prometheus”—a new man free of the sin of complacency, who “deserves freedom and life because he must conquer them every day.”
This reading of Faust’s character is consistent with important strands of interpretation of the Book of Job. Faust erred in attempting to wrest secrets from nature. Traditional Jewish interpretation assigns an analogous sin to Job, for the Jewish sages could not accept the idea that God would inflict such misery on an entirely guiltless man. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik argued in Halakhic Man, Job sins by demanding a cause-and-effect explanation of his misery:
Job, who had raged against heaven because he had sought to render an accounting of the world and erred, accepts upon himself the divine judgment. “Who is it that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not” (Job 42:3). He sinned with his proud and overly bold venture to grasp and comprehend the secret of the cosmos; he confesses and returns to God with the discovery of the mystery of the created world and of his inability to understand that mystery. ‘Wherefore I abhor my words, and repent, seeing I am dust and ashes.”
Job has lost his wealth, children, and health, but he also has lost his confidence that he can influence God through sacrifice and other acts of propitiation. Like Faust, he has lost power over nature, and like Faust his response is to repudiate life: “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, ‘There is a man child conceived.’ Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.”
Job’s wife already has advised him, “Curse God and die,” which Job calls “foolish.” It was foolish, for ancient man perceived a remote God whose actions were indistinguishable from fate, and to curse one’s fate is foolish. Job cannot accept that blind fate has harmed him, but neither can he address God, for God is a distant force to be respected but not loved. As several critics observe, although Job’s friends use the generic names for God, Elohim or El Shaddai, Job uses the personal name YHWH.
What constitutes Job’s virtue under these circumstances? On the one hand, he avoids the pagan response, to curse God. On the other hand, he avoids the response of his friends, who insist that simple cause and effect must explain his predicament. Identify the sin for which God has punished you, they tell Job, and repent, and all will be well.
Soloveitchik’s description of Job’s sin applies to his friends better than it does to Job himself: Although Job seeks an explanation for his calamity, he refuses to accept facile explanations. He refuses to blame himself for sins he must have committed to merit such punishment, for he knows of no such sins. Neither will he curse his fate. He remains, as it were, on a ridge between two chasms, between the sinful demand to know God’s innermost intent and pagan indifferentism toward God.
Job thus occupies an ambivalent position similar to Faust’s. He will be satisfied neither with sinful inquiry nor with mere resignation. Job cannot resolve the tension alone, and the answer to his question comes in the form of the appearance of God himself. God does not need to provide any more answer than his presence, and it is the act of direct address of Job to God that transforms and redeems the man. That is just what God demands of Job: “Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.”
Perhaps this is why both Job and Faust continue to fascinate the literary imagination. Their internal struggle, rather than the mere external circumstances of their stories, shows the travails of the best of men at the cusp of faith. If Faust were either a man of faith or a pure egotist, his character would hold no interest, and there would be no drama. If Job were a saint who suffered arbitrarily, his story would not belong in the Bible. Faust is an extraordinary man, immune to the seductions of Satan, who can be saved if he is true to the Augustinian restlessness of his heart. Faust’s fight for life helps us pierce the dusty veil of ancient times and see in Job the same contention of life and death, faith and despair, that we moderns must endure.
David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things.