Faust is in his former study, unchanged since his days as a professor. Mephistopheles enters from behind a curtain and finds his master lying on an old-fashioned bed, pining for Helen in his dreams. The devil observes that nothing has changed—there’s the pen Faust signed his soul away with, and there’s the gown Mephistopheles disguised himself in when he told the student all that nonsense. The devil takes down the gown and shakes it out. Insects fly out of its fur, greeting him in song, and he puts it on.
Faust is lovesick after discovering and losing Helen, but he cannot pursue beauty until he has more knowledge, hence the return to the study and Goethe’s satire of intellectualism. Nothing has changed here—Wagner maintains the place like a shrine to his former master.
Mephistopheles wants someone to play professor with, so he pulls a bell chord, summoning from a dark corridor the famulus (an attendant), later called Nicodemus, who is Wagner’s assistant in scholarship. The famulus is frightened of the giant wearing Faust’s old woolen gown, but the devil beckons him and he comes. Mephistopheles says he knows of Wagner’s fame, eclipsing now that of even Faust. The famulus says that Wagner is very modest and has not reconciled himself to Faust’s disappearance. He still prays for Faust’s return.
Wagner has taken Faust’s place as the leading intellectual authority at the university, and he now has his own servile assistant. The world rages beyond the university walls like a storm, but the university is strangely unchanged and disconnected from reality. The cycle of professor and student never ends, and ultimately it leads nowhere.
Mephistopheles orders the famulus to lead him to Wagner, but the famulus explains that Wagner is deeply involved with a great project and has set a prohibition on visitors. The devil says that Wagner will not refuse to see him, for he himself hastened the success of Faust’s former assistant. The famulus exits.
The devil is cunning to say that he hastened Wagner’s success. The master-pupil hierarchy and careerism at the university are permitted to interrupt the course of serious study as almost nothing else is. This is one of the university’s greatest flaws.
Mephistopheles sits in a dignified pose when the student, now called the baccalaureate (whom the devil told nonsense to many years ago) comes storming down the hall. The baccalaureate complains that his education has been nothing but lies told by the old to the young, with the old not even believing the lies they told. He tells the devil this, and, after a pause, the devil agrees: what’s been called knowledge up to now doesn’t deserve the name. The baccalaureate goes on to condemn old age as frosty impotence and to celebrate youth as power and freedom. He exits.
Years ago the student unquestioningly accepted all of the devil’s advice. Now that he is older, he is disillusioned by his education, which he thinks is so much nonsense (echoing Faust in this sentiment, of course). Ironically, it is the conviction that one knows better than one’s elders that keeps the university alive. This dissatisfaction breeds new research and theories which themselves become dissatisfactory in their turn. So the university goes in circles.
Farewell, Mephistopheles says to the baccalaureate, that pompous ass! He imagines that the young man would be much offended to hear that there are no wise and stupid thoughts that have not already been thought. The devil then addresses the younger members of the audience, saying that they may be left cold by what he says now, but when they grow old they’ll understand him.
The jaded Mephistopheles knows, like the writer of the Biblical book Ecclesiastes, that there are no new thoughts left in the world. The search for knowledge is just a recycling and representation of old ideas. We’re all pompous asses, in the devil’s eyes, if we think that we have original ideas.