Faust is in his study when he hears a knock at the door: it is Mephistopheles dressed as a young nobleman. Faust lets him in. The devil suggests that Faust get clothes like his so that he, too, can know what life and freedom really are, but Faust despairs at this suggestion. He says he is too old to live for pleasure only, but still too young to live without desire, and each day fails to satisfy a single one of his wishes. He longs for Death to embrace him.
The devil dresses as a cleric to calm Faust, then as a nobleman here to stir up Faust’s earthly ambition. Faust does not object to contracting himself to the devil on principle, but only in practice. He is in middle age, a difficult transition period in life, and his wishes are so grand they can’t be satisfied.
Mephistopheles asks Faust why he didn’t drink the poison on that Easter night then. Faust explains the effect the bells and song had on him. He curses the arrogance of the human mind, the delusion of appearances, empty promises of fame, possessions, greed, sweetness, love, hope, faith, and, most of all, patience. Mephistopheles’ Spirit minions lament the brokenness of the world and tell Faust to start a new life. Fun and action is their counsel, the devil says.
That Mephistopheles knows Faust tried to poison himself suggests that the devil has been watching the scholar for a while, waiting to strike at the opportune time. Faust seems to forget that after his Easter walk he was full of love and hope, feelings dispelled only when the negative devil and the devil’s illusions entered his study.
Mephistopheles starts talking business: he offers to become Faust’s companion and guide through life, his servant and his slave, at the man’s beck and call night and day. Faust knows that the devil is an egoist, however, and wonders what he has to give in exchange for these services. The devil says that he will serve Faust here and now on the condition that in the Beyond, or the afterlife, Faust must serve the devil. Faust confesses that the earth is the source of all his joys and that it doesn’t much matter what happens to him after death. The devil urges him, then, to take the risk and accept his offer.
Faust’s deal with the devil is the central plot point of the drama, yet Faust seems awfully casual in discussing its terms. He says that he cares only for life on earth, but of course he does, for he knows no other life. He has no conception of the heavenly paradise he’d be giving up, nor of the hell he’d be damned to for eternity. He is, in short, grossly shortsighted, confined and blinded by his microcosm.
Faust suspects that Mephistopheles intends to deceive him, however, to give him food that cannot satisfy, gold that will turn to liquid, girls who cheat, or honor that vanishes. The devil says he can indeed offer such marvels, but also things to savor peacefully and quietly. Faust wants nothing to do with idleness and sloth, though. Faust says that if the devil can ever lull him with self-complacency or dupe him with pleasures—if Faust ever says the words, “Tarry, remain!—you are so fair!” about a moment he’s experienced, asking the moment to last forever—he’ll give up his life then and there. That’s his wager. The devil offers his hand, and the two shake on it. If I stagnate, says Faust, I am a slave.
For Faust, spiritual inactivity is self-destruction: stagnation involves living in an imperfect world of time and change as though it were perfect. More fundamentally, this is to accept an illusion as the truth. Illusion is to be shattered, from Faust’s perspective, not enjoyed. Right before his death, though, Faust does give us a vision of what would lead him to ask a moment to remain forever: the creation of a Utopian society on earth. However, he does not live to see this come to pass.
For insurance, Mephistopheles also requires that the agreement be sealed in writing. Faust scoffs at this pedantic formality, and thinks his word of honor should suffice, but at last he agrees. A drop of blood on a scrap of paper will do, the devil says. Faust signs away his soul.
Mephistopheles is legalistic. In this way, he is like the Biblical Satan, an accuser, a persecutor who creates laws to punish their having been broken. God creates laws not to punish but to liberate.
Faust looks forward to giving up his search for knowledge and welcoming instead pain and suffering into his life. Mephistopheles advises that Faust enlist the aid of a poet in dreaming up what he wants. Faust fears that he may not ever reach the Infinite, but the devil consoles him that at least he will always be himself. Mephistopheles also says that all things we have free use of belong to us fully: a man who owns six strong horses also possesses their power. How do we start? Faust asks. We simply leave, the devil says.
Faust’s search for knowledge has numbed him to feeling. He looks forward to waking up to pain and suffering as a proof that he is alive. Note that he envisions contact with the Infinite as resulting from a quest, whereas Mephistopheles envisions it in the metaphor of mastery and power, as over the six horses. Faust’s vision is spiritual, the devil’s physical.
Faust hears one of his students in the hallway, but he feels that he cannot face him. Mephistopheles dons a cap and gown to speak to the student instead, and Faust exits the study. The devil boasts to himself that Faust will soon be his, for Faust scorns the highest gift of reason. The devil says that even without a demonic contract, the restless man would ruin himself.
Earlier the devil tells God that people only misuse reason in acting bestially, but here he recognizes reason as our highest gift. The devil knows that when used alone, passion and reason can both hurt human beings. Only when they are harmoniously synthesized do they produce the ideal good.
The student enters the study. Mephistopheles, pretending to be Faust himself, welcomes him. The student says he is committed to learning, but doesn’t like being cramped in these walls and halls all day; he misses the trees. The devil assures him he’ll get used to conditions here, as a child gets used to being weaned off of mother’s milk. Mephistopheles also advises the student to take courses in logic so that he can both analyze things and see the spirit that unites a thing’s parts. The student says he doesn’t understand, but Mephistopheles assures him that all will be easier soon, once he’s studied logic and deductive reasoning.
This student is warm, but not as intelligent as Faust or Wagner. He longs to be in nature merely to distract himself from disciplined study, not to expand the range of his feeling. The devil promotes reason here only to later encourage the student to pursue superficial and uncritical intellectual habits. Mephistopheles is giving himself the air of sensible authority early on, the better to lead the student astray later.
Mephistopheles goes on to advise the student to study metaphysics, a branch of philosophy, which the devil says isn’t meant for the human brain but does make high-sounding words available to us. Be methodical, he says, make sure you don’t say anything that isn’t from the book, and write everything down. The devil doesn’t blame the student for not wanting to study law, because the law shifts from place to place, generation to generation.
The devil promotes bad intellectual habits: valuing big words over meaning, lazily accepting authority, and merely repeating information. All these lead to intellectual complacency, as the devil well knows. Not to study the law is to live ignorant of one’s society, which isolates the scholar and limits his social usefulness.
Mephistopheles then tells the student that theology is as much poison as it is medicine. He advises him to study only with one teacher and to swear allegiance to words, the better to enter a state of complete certainty and faith. The student supposes there must be ideas behind the words, but the devil says not to fret too much about ideas: you can place perfect faith in words, he says.
Theology is the study of God and religion, which the devil opposes because it threatens to gives students a yearning for higher things. Instead, the devil preaches a faith in words, which leads, ultimately, to a faith in nonsense and meaninglessness.
The student inquires about Mephistopheles’ perspective on medicine. In an aside, the devil says he’s grown bored of playing at a sober tone, and that it’s time to be the real devil again. He tells the student not to worry about being scientific about medicine, but to let things take the course God wills. He tells the student to project self-confidence so as to make others confident, and to handle women well so as to stimulate passion in them. The student likes this practical advice. Theories are gray, says the devil, but the golden tree of life is green.
Science can be used for good or ill, and is neither in itself. The devil advises the student not to take responsibility for his scientific inquiries, and to have false confidence in them. This is a recipe for disaster, as the earlier story of Faust’s medically irresponsible and overly confident father suggests. The devil also promotes acting without knowledge, which is to think only microcosmically.
Finally, the student asks Mephistopheles to write a favorable message in his album (a book in which contributions like signatures are inscribed for the owner), which the devil does. Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum, the inscription reads, or “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” a quotation from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. The student withdraws with a bow. The devil says that if the student follows this ancient advice, his likeness to God will some day perplex him indeed.
The quotation that Mephistopheles writes in the student’s album is what the demonic serpent told Eve in the Garden of Eden, part of the temptation that led her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and, ultimately, caused the Fall of Man into hostile nature and a world of death. Following this advice can only lead to destruction, which is just what the devil desires.
Faust enters and asks where he and Mephistopheles will go first. Wherever you please, the devil says. He suggests the two experience the ordinary life first, and then the grander world. This course promises to be both practical and entertaining. Faust worries that he won’t be able to adapt to people because he always feels insignificant around them, but the devil assures him that he will soon gain confidence. Mephistopheles then lays his cloak out flat. It will carry the pair through the air, so long as they don’t have too much luggage. The scene closes with the devil congratulating Faust on his new career.
Part I of the drama treats what Mephistopheles calls the “ordinary life” of human pleasure and love, while Part II treats the grander world of politics, ideal beauty, and wisdom. Faust says he always feels insignificant around other people, but recall how at home he felt among the villagers only scenes ago, outside the village gate. The devil is having a bad influence on him already, it would seem.