Faustian Ambition (updated)

A post on ambition at another blog (in 2010) , which included a range of quotations on the subject, inspired me to think that I might be able to write an interesting essay on the topic of ambition in Goethe’s Faust. This post is a stab at such an essay.

The word “Faustian” is frequently used in books, articles, blog posts, etc on all sorts of topics. I think the image that most people have of Faust is of a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for dangerous knowledge: sort of a mad-scientist type. This may be true of earlier versions of the Faust legend, but I think it’s a misreading (or more likely a non-reading) of Goethe’s definitive version.

Faust, at the time when the devil first appears to him, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of knowledge–in many different scholarly disciplines–and is totally frustrated and in despair about the whole thing. It is precisely the desire to do something other than to pursue abstract knowledge that leads him to engage in his fateful bargain with Mephistopheles.

If it’s not the pursuit of abstract knowledge, then what ambition drives Faust to sell his soul? C S Lewis suggests that his motivations are entirely practical: he wants “gold and guns and girls.” This is partly true, but is by no means the whole story.

Certainly, Faust does like girls. Very early in the play, he encounters a young woman who strikes his fancy:

FAUST: My fair young lady, may I make free
To offer you my arm and company?
GRETCHEN: I’m neither fair nor lady, pray
Can unescorted find my way
FAUST: God, what a lovely child! I swear
I’ve never seen the like of her
She is so dutiful and pure
Yet not without a pert allure
Her rosy lip, her cheek aglow
I never shall forget, I know
Her glance’s timid downward dart
Is graven deeply in my heart!
But how she was so short with me–
That was consummate ecstasy!

Immediately following this meeting, Faust demands Mephisto’s magical assistance in the seduction of Gretchen. It’s noteworthy that he insists on this help despite the facts that (a)he brags to the devil that he is perfectly capable of seducing a girl like Gretchen on his own, without any diabolical assistance, and (b)a big part of Gretchen’s appeal is clearly that she seems so difficult to win–a difficulty that will be short-circuited by Mephisto’s help.

Mephisto, of course, complies with Faust’s demand…this devil honors his contracts…and Faust’s seduction of Gretchen leads directly to the deaths of her mother, her child by Faust, her brother, and to Gretchen’s own execution.

Diabolical magic also allows Faust to meet Helen of Troy (time and space are quite fluid in this play) whom he marries and impregnates, resulting in the birth of their child Euphorion.

So, per Lewis, yes, Faust is definitely motivated by the pursuit of women. But this is only a small part of the complex structure of ambition that Goethe has given his protagonist.


I think critic Marshall Berman gets it right when he refers to Faust as a developer, and to the play as a whole as a tragedy of development. Berman uses the words developer/development in two related ways:

a)Self-development, as that phrase might be used in a modern self-help book:

What this Faust wants for himself is a dynamic process that will include every mode of human experience, joy and misery alike, and that will assimilate them all into his self’s unending growth; even the self’s destruction will be an integral part of its development.

It’s important to note that Faust’s desire for such a dynamic process is so strong that he doesn’t ever really expect to know contentment, even briefly.  Indeed, there is an escape clause in the contract for the sale of his soul:  it is only if Faust is so satisfied that he says to the passing moment “Linger awhile! so fair thou art!” that the Devil gets his soul.  (And Faust feels confident that this will never happen!)

b)Economic, industrial, and political development

The only way for modern man to transform himself, Faust and we will find out, is by radically transforming the whole physical and social and moral world he lives in…But the great developments he initiates…intellectual, moral, economic, social…turn out to exact great human costs.

As people would put it nowadays, Faust wants to “make a difference.” He wants to “change the world.”

And change the world he does. As a reward for services rendered, the Emperor grants Faust a narrow strip of land on the edge of the sea, which Faust intends to turn into a new and enlightened society by reclaiming land from the sea…along the lines of the way that Holland was created, but in a much more intensive manner. Faust’s land-reclamation project goes forward on a very large scale, and is strictly organized on what we would now call Taylorist principles:

Up, workmen, man for man, arise anew!
Let blithely savor what I boldly drew
Seize spade and shovel, each take up his tool!
Fulfill at once what was marked off by rule
Attendance prompt to orders wise
Achieves the most alluring prize
To bring to fruit the most exalted plans
One mind is ample for a thousand hands

Faust’s great plan, though, is spoiled (as he sees it) by an old couple, Philemon and Baucis, who have lived there from time out of mind. “They have a little cottage on the dunes, a chapel with a little bell, a garden full of linden trees. They offer aid and hospitality to shipwrecked sailors and wanderers. Over the years they have become beloved as the one source of life and joy in this wretched land.”

And they will not sell their property, no matter what they are offered. This infuriates Faust…maybe there are practical reasons why he needs this tiny piece of land, but more likely, he simply cannot stand having the development take shape in any form other than precisely the one he had envisaged. Berman suggests that there is another reason why Faust so badly wants Philemon and Baucis gone: “a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogeneous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace…We are bound to be in sympathy with Faust’s hatred for the closed, repressive, vicious Gothic world where he began—the world that destroyed Gretchen, and she was not the first…Those church bells, of course, are the sound of guilt and doom and all the social and psychic forces that destroyed the girl he loved: who could blame him for wanting to silence that sound forever? Yet church bells were also the sound that, when he was ready to die, called him back to life. There is more of him in those bells, and in that world, than he likes to think.”

Faust directs Mephisto to solve the problem of the old couple…and is horrified when Mephisto accomplishes this by the simple expedient of murdering the pair and burning down their house:

FAUST: So you have turned deaf ears to me
I meant exchange, not robbery
This thoughtless, violent affair
My curse on it, for you to share!

CHORUS: That ancient truth we will recite
Give way to force, for might is right
And would you boldly offer strife?
The risk your house, estate–and life.

What motivates Faust in his development efforts? Despite what Lewis said about “gold, guns, and girls,” it does not seem that his primary motivation is financial–indeed, Berman observes that “Mephisto is constantly pointing out money-making opportunities in Faust’s development schemes; but Faust himself couldn’t care less.” Faust himself speaks idealistically about the human value of his project: this idealism is certainly part of his motivation. He wants to create a new, utopian enviroronment for thousands of people–and if the price of this is the destruction of individuals like Philemon and Baucis, well, at least Faust will feel bad about it.

Berman suggests that the portrayal of Faust was inspired in part from the then-prominent Saint-Simonian movement, which favored very large, government-sponsored development projects–what Saint-Simon called “the organizer,” Berman has chosen to call “the developer.” He defines the “Faustian model of development” as follows:

Instead of letting entrepreneurs and workers waste themselves in piecemeal and fragmentary and competitive activities, it will strive to integrate them all. It will create a historically new synthesis of private and public power, symbolized by the union of Mephistopheles, the private freebooter and predator who executes much of the dirty work, and Faust, the public planner who conceives and directs the work as a whole. It will open up an exciting and ambiguous world-historical role for the modern intellectual…

Although Faust does have guilt feeling about the murders of Philemon and Baucis, he also feels great satisfaction in the progress of his land-reclamation project.  Indeed, visualizing the wonderful future that he has enabled, he says to himself ”

Then, to the moment I might say
Abide, you are so fair!
The traces of my earthly day

No aeons can impair.

…which would seem to fulfill the conditional clause in his agreement with Mephistopheles and thereby finalize the loss of his soul.

So when Faust dies, Mephisto seems justified in assuming that Faust’s soul is his for the taking and indeed the hell-mouth gate opens and squads of devils appear. But divine intervention thwarts the diabolical intent, and Faust is introduced into heaven by a penitent angel, formerly known as Gretchen…and the play ends with these lines from the Chorus Mysticus:

All that is changeable
Is but reflected
The unattainable
Here is effected
Human discernment
Here is passed by
The Eternal-Feminine
Draws us on high

Faust’s ambition did a great deal of harm on earth, particularly through his impatience and his insistence on utopian perfection: however, Goethe seems to be telling us that there were many noble aspects of his ambition and that these aspects, when combined with Gretchen’s love, were sufficient to merit Faust’s ultimate salvation. Also, while it may appear the conditional clause in the contract was ultimately fulfilled, Faust’s ultimate statement of satisfaction was in relation to the future in which he sees the fruition of his dreams and work, rather than in the present moment.

It’s also interesting to look at ambition as manifested in other characters of the drama. Mephistopholes has a form of ambition which is entirely negative, even nihilistic. In her brilliant 1814 review of the first part of the play, Germaine de Stael remarks that Mephisto “criticizes the universe like a bad book of which the devil has made himself the censor…Milton has drawn his Satan larger than man; Michael Angelo and Dante have given him the hideous figure of the brute combined with the human shape. The Mephistopheles of Goethe is a civilized devil. He handles with dexterity that ridicule, so trifling in appearance, which is nevertheless often found to consist with a profundity of malice…”

As one might expect of a devil, Mephisto’s ambition is only to destroy…but he wants to do so in a rather debonair manner. C S Lewis thought Goethe’s characterization of his devil was positively harmful: “But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of hell. The humorous, civilized, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.”

What about Gretchen? One might simplistically read her character as simply representing innocence and purity, but Goethe is far too great a denker und dichter to have created her so shallowly. Gretchen certainly has ambitions of her own, albeit of a very different nature from those of Faust or Mephistopheles. For one thing, she is ambitious for money and possessions, understandably given her poverty. Here’s Gretchen looking through a box of expensive jewelry provided to her by the dark arts:

Were these fine ear-bobs mine alone!
They give on quite another air
What use are simple looks and youth?
Oh, they are well and good in truth
That’s all folk mean, though–pretty fair
The praise you get is half good natured fuss
For gold contend
On gold depend
All things and men…Poor us!

I’d also suggest that Gretchen demonstrates another kind of ambition–a hunger for social acceptance–which has resulted in acts of callous cruelty on her part. After realizing that she is pregnant, Gretchen is talking with her awful friend Lieschen, who (still unaware of Gretchen’s situation) is licking her chops about the prospect of humiliating another girl (Barbara) who has also become pregnant outside of marriage. Here’s Gretchen, reflecting on her own past complicity in such viciousness:

How readily I used to blame
Some poor young soul that came to shame!
Never found sharp enough words like pins
To stick into other people’s sins
Black as it seemed, I tarred it to boot
And never black enough to suit
Would cross myself, exclaim and preen–
Now I myself am bared to sin!
Yet all of it that drove me here
God! ws so innocent, was so dear!

Gretchen is clearly not herself a cruel person: it is her ambition for acceptance by friends like Lieschen (in the “closed, repressive, vicious Gothic world” of which Berman wrote) that has led her to unthinkingly fall in with their cruelties.

There’s surely much more to be said about ambition in Faust, but I think I’ll stop here for the moment. The subject of Faustian ambition is surely one which is highly relevant to many of the most important issues of our time. (Goethe, writing in 1832, said: “The world today is ruled by bewildering wrong counsel, urging bewildered wrong action.”)…and Gretchen’s participation in Lieschen’s ritual denunciation of Barbara is very relevant to our present social and political environment.

I certainly don’t represent myself as any kind of Faust expert, and have indeed read the work only in English, albeit in two different translations. The quotes above are taken from Walter Arndt’s translation.


4 thoughts on “Faustian Ambition (updated)”

  1. How about insecure grandiosity?
    I have a master plan for utopia; but if it doesn’t follow my plan exactly and go how I envision it, then I feel threatened.
    Also, I tend to ignore arguments based on silly moral equivalence – you were caught jaywalking, therefore you cannot condemn a mass murderer.

  2. Years ago, in 1977 I believe, I was in London and attended a performance of “The Tragical History of Dr Faustus.” Unknown to us before seeing the play, it was a gay version. During the play, especially during the love scenes with Helen of Troy, the audience began offering criticism of the content. The audience became louder and louder, finally nearly driving the cast offstage. No doubt the reaction would be quite different today.

  3. Note Marshall Berman’s description of the Saint-Simonian movement, of which he see Faust’s land-development project as being a portrayal.

    “Instead of letting entrepreneurs and workers waste themselves in piecemeal and fragmentary and competitive activities, it will strive to integrate them all. It will create a historically new synthesis of private and public power, symbolized by the union of Mephistopheles, the private freebooter and predator who executes much of the dirty work, and Faust, the public planner who conceives and directs the work as a whole. It will open up an exciting and ambiguous world-historical role for the modern intellectual…”

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