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That Shine of Heavenly Light

George Ross shows how Goethe’s masterpiece Faust explored the limits of human reason and foretold the catastrophes of the modern world.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was no philosopher, at least not in the conventional sense, for he produced no philosophical system, indeed, he never wrote a philosophical work as such. He was a philosopher if we regard as a philosopher anyone who takes as their guide the Socratic dictum ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’; but Goethe would have complemented this dictum by adding its reciprocal: ‘An unlived life is not worth examining’, for he lived his life to the full. He was a poet, a writer, a playwright, a scientist, a Cabinet minister in Weimar, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he also introduced far-reaching reforms, such as making divorce possible in Germany.

Faust was Goethe’s masterpiece. He devoted over sixty years to writing it, starting it when he was twenty. By the time he was twenty-six he had finished the so-called Urfaust, an early version of Part I. Goethe was born in 1749; he published the completed Part I in 1808, and kept working on Part II until a few months before he died on March 22, 1832, at the age of eighty-two.

Millions of young German men decided they were like Faust, and some found the German destiny in boundless, ruthless Faustian striving. Friedrich Schelling identified Faust with the human condition, while Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation of 1819 considered Faustian striving the essence not merely of man but of the cosmos. A hundred years later, Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West, described the culture of the modern period as ‘Faustian’.

The key text for this article is taken from the ‘Prologue in Heaven’ of Faust, where Mephistopheles addresses the Lord:

Life on earth would not be quite
so vile had you not given him that shine of heavenly light,
that he calls Reason, but which he uses, if at all,
to be more animal than any animal.

You may recognise the Stoic imagery. In Stoic philosophy, the universe is filled with the heavenly or Divine light, which is the Divine reason, with which all minds are in communion. I shall describe what I regard as Goethe’s warning about human reason in Faust. Thus I would like to show how Goethe’s masterpiece is a warning against rapid and untrammelled industrialisation, against grandiose but ill-thought-out designs and projects, against the unchecked expansion of money markets, against unregulated globalisation, and against authoritarianism, including totalitarianism; for the totalitarian world which dominated almost half of the world until only too recently was, after all, a ‘rational construct’. Specifically, I’d like to show how Faust is a warning against unscrupulous instrumental rationality, and especially against what I call teleological rationality.

The Beginnings of The Tragedy

The tragedy proper opens with Faust in his den, sitting at his desk, on the night preceding Easter Sunday. Despite having studied philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, theology, he realizes, like Socrates before him, that he does not know anything. And, like Goethe’s older friend Herder, he dabbles in magic. His wish is

That I might see what secret force
Hides in the world and rules its course

Here he is already engaged in a form of reasoning, namely ‘scientific’ or critical reasoning – albeit with a bit of magic thrown in. Goethe’s conception of science was different from the highly mathematical Newtonian version. It may also be described as systemic reasoning – reasoning for its own sake; meaning, he is not yet thinking about how he might instrumentally reason, to achieve goals.

In his scientific theory, Goethe distinguishes between intellect (Verstand) and reason (Vernunft). The analytical, breaking-things-down approach of science, which can be traced back to Anaxagoras, is that of intellect; whereas the approach of reason, which can be traced back to Thales, is directed towards s ynthesis, that is, to discovering shared principles. In Goethean terminology, reason is good, intellect is bad. This distinction is basic to my interpretation of Faust. In particular, in Goethe’s terminology, technology belongs to the realm of intellect, and, amongst other things, Faust is a warning against the dehumanising effects of technology, and therefore of the intellect. (This warning is also developed by Goethe in other works, such as, for example, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)

Restless Striving

After a walk amongst the folk gathered to attend Easter mass, and enjoying their expressions of respect and affection, Faust returns to his study and has an epiphany. He opens a Bible and starts reading from the Gospel of St John. Right at the start, this Gospel contains the word ‘Logos’, which is usually translated as ‘word’ or ‘reason’. But to the Greeks of old, logos suggested a philosophical idea: the logos is the account of reality those philosophers sought, the ultimate principle of the cosmos. Faust struggles for the most appropriate meaning of Logos:

It says: “In the beginning was the Word.” [das Wort]
Already I am stopped. This is absurd.
The Word does not deserve the highest prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am well inspired and not blind,
In the beginning was the Mind. [der Sinn]
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 was the Force. [die Kraft]
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. [die Tat]

In fact, Faust has now arrived at an insight about action being the meaning of life which, in a more or less conscious form, shapes and will continue to shape the modern world. It reflects a fundamental principle of Aristotle, who maintained that a man’s salvation lies not in pleasure, wealth, status or fame, but in rational, self-determined action – pure energeia. It is well known that Goethe was influenced by Aristotle; but I think that in Faust Goethe is taking issue with Fichte. In The Vocation of Man, published in 1800, Fichte says: “You do not exist for idle self-observation or to brood over devout sensations. No, you exist for activity. Your activity, and your activity alone, determines your worth.”

The Vocation of Man, like all Fichte’s late works, is characterised by a dark, ominous outlook. That’s when he formulated his collectivist philosophy, the forerunner of both Marxism and Nazism (the late Fichte, especially as he appears in his political writings, is my bête noire). This collectivism maintains that human freedom is an illusion, that man can do nothing without a ‘reason’ from outside. According to Fichte, “the life of reason consists in this, that the individual forgets himself in the species – to risk his life for the life of all and sacrifice his life to theirs.” He also stated, “The individual does not exist, he should not count for anything, but must vanish completely; the group alone exists.” The individual is but an element of the larger entity: if he cuts himself off from it, he is a limb without a body, a meaningless fragment. The fragment derives its significance only from t he place that it occupies in the system, the organism, the whole.

This represents a secular version of a pre-Enlightenment, if not pre-Reformation, Judeo-Christian vision of a mystical community of the faithful, who are parts of one another. During the two centuries after the Reformation, some tended to identify this ‘mystical community’ with a nation (the effect being one or another version of Romantic chauvinism), some with a Church (leading to one form or another of religious fundamentalism), some with a race, and some with a class. When the First Part of Faust was published in 1808, Goethe was familiar with Fichte’s views. A sort of feedback took place: Fichte knew the first fragment of Faust, which influenced his immediately subsequent work, and, as a result, Goethe reinforced in the complete First Part the warning against activity for its own sake and against Fichte’s collectivist outlook. Such a collectivist outlook informs and constitutes the foundation of any totalitarian ideology.

It should be stressed that Goethe, influenced by Aristotle, is not against activity or striving. But elsewhere, especially in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), Goethe distinguishes sharply between the unbounded striving Faust exemplifies and another kind of striving which is quite compatible with rational self-discipline. “The first vocation of Man is to be active,” Goethe writes in Wilhelm Meister; and, again, “The highest thing of all is the spirit which stirs us to activity.” But these are followed by the caveat: “Man cannot be happy until his unconditional striving limits itself.” As Goethe wrote to his mother in November 1776: “I have everything a man can wish for himself, and yet, I must admit, I am not at rest; man’s driving force is infinite until he has driven himself out.”

So Goethe sees in activity not only the first and highest vocation of man, but also something problematic. In his Maxims and Reflections he writes: “Unconditional activity, of any kind whatsoever, leads in the long run to bankruptcy.” He expresses these views even more forcibly in one of the drafts for Poetry and Truth: “There is a permanent nexus between the deed and remorse, between activity and care.” There are some difficulties about calling Faust a ‘man of action’, since he performs comparatively little in the way of definite deeds; but he is dominated by an inner restlessness, a demonic urge towards activity, for which Goethe regularly uses the word ‘striving’ (‘Streben’). That word, more than any other, sums up Faust’s character.

After concluding his pact with the devil, echoing Fichte, Faust declares: “Only restless activity proves the man.” Mephisto promptly tries to lure him into increasing his restless activity by using a carriage with six horses rather than walking: rather than accept the existing order, Mephisto suggests he should constantly augment his use of non-human energy with reliance on technology. Faust succumbs. Just after Faust leaves the room, in an aside Mephistopheles shouts after him:

Have but contempt for reason and for science,
Man’s noblest force spurn with defiance,
Subscribe to magic and illusion,
The Lying Spirit bolsters your confusion,
And, pact or no, I hold you tight.

‘Science’ (‘knowledge’) is to be understood here as knowledge of how to live well: specifically, in context, as knowledge of the need to practice moderation. The ‘Lying Spirit’ refers to Faust’s propensity for self-delusion.

Faust’s Modern Ideals

Let’s fast forward to the last scenes of Part II. The Emperor rewards Faust for services rendered, including the introduction of paper currency, with its inflationary proclivity and hence with its propensity for making the money-brokers even richer. Faust obtains the privilege of reclaiming land from the sea.

The money economy facilitated by Faust makes possible an economic growth which promises ever-greater prosperity: “Many a meadow, field and garden, wood and town” are foreseen as spreading over the area Faust has reclaimed from the waves. Goethe understands the fascination the promise of economic growth exerts. He does not say where the limits to growth might lie, but he does suggest that mankind will soon no longer even be capable of recognising limits. Like Faust, who becomes blind at the end of the play, man is becoming blind to the problems that surface with the submerging of constraints on growth.

To Goethe this breaking of constraints is due to the economy’s change in form, as the subsistence economy in which labour dominates gives way to the industrial economy, in which capital plays the decisive role. The subsistence economy is adapted to satisfying physical needs, which are satiable. Its goals are therefore finite. On the other hand, the industrial economy is adapted to imaginary needs, which can be constantly expanded, and are insatiable. Inherent in the industrial economy is an infinite striving. It follows from the striving for money, since money can be increased more quickly than goods, which must be laboriously obtained. The tendency is, therefore, first to produce money, and then, tempted by profit, to grant this money additional value, as capital, through a corresponding imaginative expansion of demand, and the production of goods this entails.

By removing these inner limits to its progress, the economy increasingly gains the upper hand and casts the whole world under its spell. Economy, capital and money markets know no boundaries. The logical conclusion of this development, as Goethe so clearly foresaw, is globalisation: the whole known world transformed into a kind of panopticon – and a Hobbesian one at that – with its centrally placed watchtower keeping an eye on everyone and ensuring that everybody conforms to its ideals.

The ideal of an ever-improving future is a vital ingredient in the economy of finance and industry. It could be a market-type economy (which since Marx, has been known as ‘capitalism’) or a collectivistic economy and society, such as that of the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries. Whichever alternative, whatever stands in its way or suggests limitation must be eliminated. The process of elimination is harsh and ruthless, although the methods applied in societies based on market economies are more subtle and less overtly bloody compared with the coercion, repression and genocide practiced on such a large scale by totalitarian regimes. All these aspects are prefigured in Faust.

Further, the making of a new Netherlands is a metaphor for grand projects of the Stalinist type, such as the afforestation of the steppes, the irrigation of the Central Asian deserts, or the Danube-Black Sea canal. All those projects have corroborated – as if there was any need for it – the law of unintended consequences. They all resulted in ecological disasters, and they all used the twentieth century version of slave labour, political detainees, who perished like flies. Of course, Goethe could not have prefigured those horrors in detail, but he had some models to guide him as to what such projects were like. As reported by Eckermann, Goethe’s Boswell, in 1827, Goethe became interested in the Panama Canal. In the same conversation, he expressed the wish to see a link established between the Danube and the Rhine, as well as being interested in the Suez canal. And Goethe had before him a true ‘designer society’, the first real one, the United States of America – moulded by its founders in the spirit of the Enlightenment. We know that he followed with fascination the new order taking shape there. But he could not have fathomed the dangers inherent in creating societies by reason; or perhaps he could. The limits of human reason in navigating the reefs of modern utopianism and the artificial creation of societies are clearly seen in Faust Part II.

Goethe, Cassandra of Modernisation

In ancient Greek legend, when Zeus and Hermes came in search of just people who will be saved when the rest of mankind perishes, the old couple Philemon and Baucis pleased the gods with their hospitality, giving them all the food and drink their garden had to offer. With typical Goethean irony, Philemon and Baucis in Faust Part II are not saved, but become victims.

In Faust no gods come to visit them, but rather, a stranger whom they rescued long ago from a shipwreck and nursed back to health. On his return they grant the stranger hospitality, just as the old couple of legend entertained the gods. But new to the setting are Faust’s presence as a neighbour, and the fresh territory he has reclaimed from the sea. Philemon points out Faust’s new world:

Where the savage waves maltreated
You, on shores of breaking foam,
See, a garden lies completed,
Like an Eden – dream of home!

Note how Philemon has adopted the utopian argot of totalitarianism, with its dream of creating a paradise on earth. But Philemon is acutely aware of the suffering inflicted to accomplish Faust’s grandiose Eden project:

Vainly in the daytime laboured
Pick and shovel, clink and strike,
Where at night the elf-lights wavered,
By the dawn there stood a dyke.
Human victims bled and fevered,
Anguish on the night-air borne,
Fiery torrents pouring seaward
Scored a channel by the morn.

Faust’s first choice would be to integrate Philemon and Baucis into his brave new world, but they resist. They do not want to be dislocated; they are wary, they do not trust the new territory, preferring to remain on the high ground, above the new land, beside their old chapel, in their familiar habitat. So Philemon and Baucis must be eliminated. Mephistopheles tempts Faust with this idea:

Say, “from this palace, from this beach,
The world is wholly in my reach.”
All started from this very spot,
Here stood the earliest wooden hut.

That is to say, the high ground on which stands the old couple’s hut and the little chapel where they worship, would be an ideal spot on which to erect the observation tower of Faust’s panopticon, from the top of which he could observe his subject-slaves and also survey his integrated global economy. He must buy the old people’s homestead, or expropriate it if they don’t want to sell. (This prefigures the wholesale confiscation or nationalisation without compensation practiced in the former communist countries.) This is Faust’s reply to Mephisto:

That aged couple must surrender,
I want their linden for my throne,
Their unowned timber-margin slender
Despoils for me the world I own.
There, for my eye’s untrammelled roving,
I wish a scaffold to be woven
From branch to branch, for vistas deep
Of my achievement’s fullest sweep,
With all-embracing gaze to scan
The masterpiece of sapient man.

Mephistopheles with his three heavies are instructed to evict the old couple, who are dragged out of their home and, terrified, drop dead. The travelling stranger puts up a fight, and is killed. In the process, the hut catches fire and burns down, the flames consuming the three corpses. For a moment, Faust is remorseful and admonishes Mephistopheles:

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!

But the chorus intones what could be the anthem of authoritarianism:

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

Blind Fate

We move now to the end of the tragedy. Faust is now very old and blind. The metaphor of blindness is, like most things in Faust, ambiguous. Is it a reference to Tiresias, the blind prophet in Oedipus, who saw more clearly than any sighted man? Or is it an allusion to the blind Samson, who destroys everybody, and himself, in the end? Or, quite simply, could it signify that we are blind and oblivious of the suffering round us? Another interpretation is that Faust falls prey, in the end, to delusion; he loses his faculty to appraise mankind realistically, and instead surrenders to an utopian optimism.

Faust is in a hurry. He wants to accomplish his grand plan before his end. And he feels that his end is approaching:

The night, it seems, turns deeper still – but shining
The light within continues ever bright,
I hasten to fulfil my thought’s designing;
The master’s word alone imparts his might.
Up, workmen, man for man, arise anew!
Let blithely savour what I boldly drew.
Seize spade and shovel, each take up his tool!
Fulfil at once what was marked off by rule.

Mephistopheles intervenes with his final insult: ghoulish Lemures replace the workmen. Lemures are the spirits of the evil dead in classical mythology, depicted as skeletons (not to be confused with ‘lemurs’, a nocturnal primate). With Goethean irony, these Virgilian spirits of the night and the dead, are singing a pirated, paraphrased version of the gravedigger’s song in Hamlet as he digs Ophelia’s grave. The blind Faust, hearing the sound of their shovels, does not know they are at work digging his grave and are not accomplishing his final improvement of nature. He says:

How gaily ring the spades, a song of mirth!
It is my host of toiling slaves,
That renders self-content the earth,
Ordains a border to the waves,
The sea with rigid bonds enchains.

Impatient, Faust instructs Mephistopheles to recruit more hands and show no mercy in driving the labourers to even harder work. Like a slave driver or a supervisor of political detainees using a combination of stick and carrot, Faust orders:

From every source
Find me more hands, recruit with vigour
Spur them with blandishment and rigour,
Spare neither pay nor lure nor force!

The final speech of Faust, his monologue at the edge of his grave, offers a kind of utopian prefiguration which represents the highest impulse of the modern spirit. In his last moment he has a vision of a self-contained human society of free men animated by the balanced operation of the two basic principles of competition and cooperation – competition as the drive directed against the non-human, cooperation in the exercise of that drive in a society moved by a common zeal:

For many millions not safe, I shall open regions
To dwell in free and active legions.
Green are the meadows, fertile; and in mirth
Both men and herds live on this newest earth…
This is the highest wisdom that I own,
The best that mankind ever knew:
Freedom and life are earned by those alone
Who conquer them each day anew.
Surrounded by such danger, each one thrives,
Childhood, manhood, and age lead active lives.
At such a throng I would fain stare,
With free men on free ground their freedom share.
Then, to the moment I might say:
Abide, you are so fair!
The traces of my earthly day
No aeons can impair.
As I presage a happiness so high,
I now enjoy the highest moment.

With this, Faust falls back into the arms of the Lemures, who lay him down on the ground and inter him.

At the last moment of his life, his final ideal, the spirit of free collective human activity, is the embodiment of wisdom for Faust. Faust’s last vision is an idyllic one, but it is however an extreme simplification. The forces operating in any real society will never arrange themselves to conform to so neat a design – certainly not in a democracy as we know it.

Characteristically, Goethe prevents any single response from dominating the final act. What is obvious in Goethe’s text is the ironic contrast between Faust’s vision of freedom, and the dominance of the agents of inhuman power which control his city. Yet since the great idea of confining the sea dawned upon him, Faust has treated men only as means to his ends. He has applied the ‘teleological’ principle of morality: the end justifies the means; or, in Lenin’s quaint formulation, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” With the assistance of Mephistopheles, he has founded an industrial despotism, and has ruled in a perfectly violent and capricious way. Faust’s subjects, however prosperous they may have become, living in luxury among pleasant parks and gardens, are still slaves. Faust’s will is supreme. And if Faust has freed his subjects from nature, it is only by subjecting them to the yet more dehumanising tyranny of an industrial system. Faust, with all his conquest of nature, has not benefitted men, which shows that there is no necessary connection between those two ideals.

Faust’s Hidden Truths

How should we take Faust, and in what way should we interpret its message?

The second part of Faust is not only about the downfall of a man obsessed by the blind pursuit of his projects, but I shall concentrate on that. Here Goethe helps us. In his last letter, of 17th March 1832, written five days before his death, addressed to his friend Wilhelm von Humboldt, Goethe writes:

“But the present age is so senseless and confused that I know I should only be poorly rewarded for my many years of sincere effort at erecting this strange building … Bewildering ideas, leading to bewildering deeds, hold the world to ransom.”

‘Bewildering ideas’ no doubt refers, among other things, to the ideas of the Saint Simonists, whose creed, encapsulating the modern notion of ‘the project’, so greatly disturbed Goethe in the last years of his life. He subscribed to the Saint Simonist journal Globe, and read the relevant Saint Simonist writings. But Goethe was alarmed by the absolute belief the Saint Simonists held that grand projects such as the Suez Canal could lead to humanity’s salvation.

Claude Henri de Saint Simon was an early socialist who greatly influenced Karl Marx. He and his followers wanted to replace free competition with a universal association uniting all human beings in harmony. Their basic aim was “the gradual diminishing of man’s exploitation by his fellow man, and the increasingly effective exploitation of the earth by man.” In Faust, Goethe offers us a clear picture of his different attitude to developments in technology and science, as well as to the emergent capitalism of the day. That is to say, in the attitude which Goethe was critiquing in Faust, systemic rationality has been replaced with teleological [= goal-directed] rationality – the sort of rationality that orders grand projects. (We should bear in mind that ‘project’ here represents not only the spirit of technological advance, but also man’s new interest in reason, which now had little to do with the phronesis, the practical moral wisdom of earlier generations.) Specifically, descriptive teleological rationality describes human action as rational insofar as it helps us reach whatever historical destination the theorist defines as inevitable: for examples, in Christian eschatology; in Condorcet’s dream of democratic liberation in the coming tenth epoch of history, or Marx’s claim that the historical evolution of the class struggle will lead to a revolution against capitalism that will inaugurate a golden age of equality and prosperity. By contrast, prescriptive teleological rationality advocates moving to some social goal defined by the theorist as rational, but not seen as inevitable. For instance, a liberal might say that we have a moral duty to build a society where tolerance, freedom and decency prevail. DTR is the realm of prophets; PTR of moralists, or dictators. The villains of the piece are teleological rationality (ie, utopianism), and especially prescriptive teleological rationality. (I’ve adapted this classification of types of reason from ‘The Limits of Instrumental Rationality in Social Explanation’ by Doug Mann in Critical Review, Vol.13, 1999.)

The dream of reason produces monsters when critical reason (systemic rationality) is replaced by teleological, goal-justified rationality. I think Faust must be understood in this way. In it Goethe distanced himself from the ‘achievements’ of modernity produced through reason going outside its limits.

Goethe told us how he wished to be remembered: “If I were to say what I had really been to the Germans in general, and to the young German poets in particular, I should say I had been their liberator.” In his Ulysses, James Joyce wrote: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Goethe woke up from it, and he tried, and is perhaps still trying, to wake us up.

© George Ross 2011

George Ross left Communist Romania in 1963, eventually settling in London, where he taught physics and philosophy of science. He passed away in April. We publish this article as a tribute to him.

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