In a palace throne room, the irresponsible, pleasure-loving Emperor meets with his state council, courtiers, and servants, along with Mephistopheles, who took the place of the Emperor’s fool after the fool mysteriously collapsed, dead or drunk. He stands to one side of the Emperor. On the other side stands the astrologer, who divines the future from the positions of the planets, a man of great importance if we are to judge by his high position in the court.
To create a meaningful earthly life, Faust turns to politics, supposedly the highest sphere of human activity. The devil is in the Emperor’s court to prepare the Emperor to accept Faust’s council. The Emperor has a fool on one side, and a quack fortuneteller on the other, both counseling him. It’s no wonder his state is in disorder.
Though it is the season of the rowdy, joyful Lenten carnival (a festival which immediately precedes the solemn Christian observance of Lent in spring), the empire is in dire straits. The Chancellor announces that evils haunt the realm: fever, theft, injustice, civil turmoil, flattery, and corruption. A high-ranking military officer says that soldiers are murdering and being murdered, and ignoring all orders. Mercenaries are demanding payment, and imperial realms are falling into chaos. A treasurer informs the Emperor of paralyzing economic difficulties. Even the Emperor’s steward says that the palace is running low on food, wine, and money.
All aspects of the empire are falling apart. The people live in crime and misery, the military is insubordinate and ineffective, and money is running short. This is the perfect place for Faust to work his magic and so acquire earthly power very quickly. The Emperor’s councilors are very good at listing problems, but are very ineffective at solving them. The conditions here mirror the complaints of political corruption we heard in Auerbach’s wine-cellar.
The Emperor asks his new fool Mephistopheles if he doesn’t know of some further cause of woe. The devil says he doesn’t. He flatters the Emperor’s power, and advises that to make up for an inevitable lack of resources he should simply dig for treasure and gold buried by desperate people in times past, like those fleeing Rome during its collapse. The Chancellor (also the Archbishop of Mainz, a city in the Holy Roman Empire) accuses Mephistopheles of not speaking like a Christian, and of overvaluing nature and human intellect. The devil replies that the chancellor is small-minded and blind to possibility. The Emperor tells Mephistopheles to go and get the gold, then, which all his councilors (except the Chancellor) come to agree is not necessarily a bad plan.
The devil, whose qualifications to speak on the matter no one seems to have questioned, falsely assures the Emperor that all is in fact well, and he flatters him. He then makes the bad proposal that the Emperor solve his problems by digging up gold. This is a short-term solution to the empire’s problems, a mere distraction that will waste time and resources. The Chancellor opposes Mephistopheles not out of high Christian principles, but because Mephistopheles’ naturalistic perspective threatens to sever Church from State and thereby reduce the Chancellor’s political power.
Mephistopheles evades the Emperor’s request. Instead, to prove that he’s not deceiving anyone, he invites the Emperor to consult the astrologer, who assures the Emperor that gold is indeed obtainable. People in the Court doubt him, however, and buzz with a lack of confidence in the devil’s plan. The devil assures them that he speaks the truth, and to prove it he says that the treasure may be divined by a twitching of the limbs. All in the court begin to twitch and have uncanny feelings, and they begin to think the devil is right: there must be gold hidden nearby causing them to feel so strangely.
Mephistopheles introduces the gold so that he can later produce Faust as just the man who can help to dig it up. He uses magic to persuade the court that the gold is near, which is all that is needed to fully awake the court members’ greed and covetousness. The devil is never more at home than among politicians, whom he can manipulate and tempt to sin with shocking ease.
At last, tempted by Mephistopheles, the Emperor decides to begin looking for the hidden vaults where gold might be found. The astrologer counsels him to wait, however, until the season of the Lenten carnival passes. The Emperor agrees that it would be better to pass the time merrily and then to seek the gold with absolute focus.
The Emperor is shameless about enjoying bodily pleasure, and he is easily distracted from his political duties by the idea of drinking and partying. He is also good at rationalizing his dissolute lifestyle as a way of ultimately focusing himself on leading responsibly.
Everyone exits except for Mephistopheles, who delights in the fact that idiotic mortals will never see that merit and good fortune are connected. The philosopher’s stone (a legendary substance which changes base metals to gold and is an elixir of life) could be in their possession, he says, but there would be no philosopher to use it.
People on earth, as the devil observes, think that good fortune often comes about by luck, when in the divine scheme it only comes about when we deserve good fortune. This mistaken worldview results in human folly, which of course delights the devil.