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.

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“Cricket Morality”

Conservatives, libertarians, and well-meaning and rational people in general often remark on the unfairness of many practices of the “progressive” media and other institutions of today’s Left. Selective prosecutions, for example.  The fact that those same publications that mocked Dan Quayle for his verbal clumsiness are totally dismissive about any concerns regarding the verbal weirdness of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.  Many, many other examples.

It is true. The unfairness is obvious and palpable.  But, listening to these entirely-justified complaints, I am reminded of a passage in Arthur Koestler’s 1940 book Darkness at Noon.

The protagonist of this novel is Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who has been arrested by the Stalinist regime and is facing trial and probable execution.  Among his musings are the following thoughts:

It is said that No. 1 (Stalin) has Machiavelli’s Prince lying permanently by his bedside. So he should: since then, nothing really important has been said about the rules of political ethics. We were the first to replace the nineteenth century’s liberal ethics of fair play by the revolutionary ethics of the twentieth century. In that also we were right: a revolution conducted according to the rules of cricket is an absurdity. Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history; at its critical turning points there is no other rule possible than the old one that the end justifies the means.

We introduced neo-Machiavellism into this country; the others, the counter-revolutionary dictatorships, have clumsily imitated it. We were neo-Machiavellians in the name of universal reason — that was our greatness; the others in the name of a national romanticism, that is their anachronism. That is why we will in the end be absolved by history; but not they. . . .

Yet for the moment we are thinking and acting on credit. As we have thrown overboard all conventions and rules of cricket-morality, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic. We are under the terrible compulsion to follow our thought down to its final consequence and to act in accordance to it. We are sailing without ballast; therefore each touch on the helm is a matter of life or death.

And this is indeed the logic of so many of our present-day “progressives.”  They have convinced themselves that we are not in one of those “breathing spaces of history” in which fairness is to be expected–rather, everything must be about ultimate things, must be “existential”, to use one of their favorite terms.

But to what extent do they want to throw out the rule of fairness because they believe we’re at a critical turning point at which no other option is possible…versus to what extent is it the other way around, i.e. they are motivated to believe we are at such a turning point because they want to throw out the rule of fairness?

And how many of them have ever considered the possibility that perhaps it is precisely those critical periods in which the rule of fairness is particularly important?

The CEO of the United States?

In an interview, Elon Musk said he wished we could “just have a normal person as President.”  He also went on to say:

Since the president is effectively the executive officer of the country, it actually matters if they are a good executive officer. It’s not simply a matter of do they share your beliefs. But are they good at getting things done? There are a lot of decisions that need to be made every day. Many of them are unrelated to moral beliefs.”

I certainly agree with Elon about the importance of executive skill in a President–it is an ability that is clearly and sadly missing in Biden, as well as in certain past Presidents.  After all, the President’s primary and constitutionally-defined job is execution, not legislation. Yet operations is something that Biden is clearly not interested in, nor, I believe, was Obama.

Where I disagree with the above Musk passage is that phrase executive officer of the country.  No.  The President is executive officer of the government, not of the country. The government is not the society.  It is an agent of the society.

If statism in this country existed to the level that a US President could truly be said to be the executive officer of the country, then Musk would not have been able to accomplish the things he has accomplished without overwhelming levels of government approval, far about and beyond those approvals he has in fact had to get.  Rinse and repeat for all innovations, whether product or business process.

Indeed, given the role of Congress and that of the judiciary, even a President’s job as executive officer of the country is more analogous to a Chief Operating Officer in the private sector than that of a private-sector CEO.