Pdf fan
Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Intellectualism and the Value of Words Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Reason and Passion Theme Icon
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
Parts, Wholes, and Limits Theme Icon
Intellectualism and the Value of Words Theme Icon
Politics Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Faust, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Intellectualism and the Value of Words Theme Icon

The play examines intellectual pursuits primarily through the lives of Faust, Wagner, and the student/baccalaureate, all of whom are, at least at some point in their lives, scholars who live for and learn from books alone. Faust comes to reject such a life as unsatisfying, too much of a wild goose chase full of empty words and navel-gazing. Wagner, the more rationalistic and committed scholar of the two, is content to work within the limitations of human knowledge, preferring a life of libraries and laboratories to a life among nature and other people. Eventually, Wagner succeeds in simulating the creation of life with his Homunculus, which represents in the drama the pinnacle of achievement for Enlightment science—but Homunculus then follows Faust in seeking transcendence, which suggests that the drama as a whole privileges the search for the meaning of life over narrow scholarship, however successful it might be. If Wagner exemplifies the best of scholarship, it is the student/baccalaureate who exemplifies the very worst, being as he is easily influenced by authority, superficial in his studies, unoriginal in his insights, and pompous. It may well be as Mephistopheles says: there’s no wise or stupid thought that has not been thought already.

Closely connected to the play’s examination of intellectualism is its evaluation of words, which can so often be empty, disconnected from what they refer to. Faust, for one, comes to reject his scholarly life in large part because he finds that books peddle no more than empty words. Far from finding this state of affairs distressing, Mephistopheles revels in the big, meaningless words of philosophers, and he encourages the student to put all his faith in words, memorizing them and accepting them from authorities without critical thinking. That this is the devil’s advice, of course, should deter us from following it. Faust, for one, comes to have faith only in actual feeling, regardless of how one names one’s feelings. He tells Margarete: “Imbue your heart with this immensity [of the universe], / and when you wholly feel beatitude, / then call it what you will— / Happiness! Heart! Love! God! / I have no name to give it! / Feeling is everything, / name is but sound and smoke…” This is the man, after all, who says that God created the universe not with the Word, as the Biblical Gospel of John states, but with the Act. However, at the end of the drama, a mystical chorus suggests that words can still be meaningful as transitory symbols that do not refer to, but gesture toward the presence of, indescribable eternity. Words cannot reveal the face of the Lord God, the play suggests, but they can reflect His face.

Get the entire Faust LitChart as a printable PDF.

Intellectualism and the Value of Words ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Intellectualism and the Value of Words appears in each scene of Faust. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Scene length:

Intellectualism and the Value of Words Quotes in Faust

Below you will find the important quotes in Faust related to the theme of Intellectualism and the Value of Words.
Prelude in the Theater Quotes

When Nature, unconcerned, twirls her endless thread
and fixes it upon the spindle,
when all creation’s inharmonious myriads
vex us with a potpourri of sound,
who then divides the strand monotonously unreeling
and gives it life and rhythmic motion,
who summons single voices to the general choir
where music swells in glorious accord?

Related Characters: The Dramatic Poet (speaker)
Page Number: 142-149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, two of the "form characters" of the poem, the Dramatic Poet and the Stage Manager, bicker over how best to put on a play of Faust. The Manager takes the position that the goal of a play is simple: to entertain a drunk, lazy audience. The Poet, however, takes a lofty, Romantic view of things: he thinks of himself as a kind of mastermind, organizing the chaotic "parts" of a play (its characters, its singers, etc.), and of a play's story, into one organized whole. The Poet makes a complicated analogy, comparing his duty as a poet to that of God, who organizes the different discrete parts of the natural world into one harmonious whole.

Goethe arguably presents his own view most clearly here--he sees himself as the "God" of his fictional world, imposing order and control upon his characters in order to create something beautiful and harmonious. And as with God, Goethe doesn't see himself as a mere entertainer or a businessman: his goal is to transform his disorderly audience of drunks into a more pious, educated group--he hopes to pass on some lessons and observations about good and evil, art, life, etc.


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Faust quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Part 1: Night (Faust’s Study 1) Quotes

I’ve studied now, to my regret,
Philosophy, Law, Medicine,
and—what is worst—Theology
from end to end with diligence.
Yet here I am, a wretched fool
and still no wiser than before.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker)
Page Number: 354-359
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to our protagonist, Faust, a wise man who's studied all the knowledge of the world and come up strangely lacking. Faust supposedly knows everything there is to know about Philosophy, Medicine, Theology, etc.--and yet his knowledge brings him no satisfaction (confirming Mephistopheles's theory, expressed in the previous quote; knowledge causes unhappiness).

It's been suggested that Faust is something of a "stand-in" for Goethe himself: Goethe was one of the most educated, talented, and intelligent people of all time. Just as Faust sees human knowledge as somehow insufficient, Goethe's writings paved the way for Romanticism, the cultural movement that placed value on individual freedom and intuitive wisdom, rather than merely the soulless accumulation of knowledge (the Enlightenment worldview). When humanity's knowledge is limitless, there's still something missing from life: a sense of belonging, love, and joy. It's telling, then, that Faust is all alone in this scene: his knowledge and education have deprived him of intimate connections with his fellow human beings.

No dog would want to linger on like this!
That is why I’ve turned to magic,
in hope that with the help of spirit-power
I might solve many mysteries,
so that I need no longer toil and sweat
to speak of what I do not know,
can learn what, deep within it,
binds the universe together,
may contemplate all seminal forces—
and be done with peddling empty words.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker)
Page Number: 376-385
Explanation and Analysis:

In the absence of help from Philosophy, Theology, etc., Faust turns to magic in the hope of bringing comfort to his soul. Faust is an educated man, and yet the world's established, preexisting knowledge seems dry and useless to him: it educates him but doesn't nourish him. Magic, on the other hand, appeals to Faust because it's undiscovered, and has the potential to give him truly godlike knowledge. Here Faust would truly be a stranger in a strange land, investigating a mysterious, uncertain discipline.

Because the passage shows Faust venturing into the unknown, it tells us a lot about his character. We knew that Faust was dissatisfied with his lot in life, but here, we see that he's still energetic and adventurous enough to try something new. Faust has internalized all the world's knowledge, but his knowledge hasn't made him dull or cautious: on the contrary, it's just made him hungry for more knowledge. Indeed, his restlessness and ambition are arguably his defining qualities, those that bring about both his downfall and his salvation.

The passage also conveys some of Faust's arrogance and hubris: instead of accepting his status as God's servant, he wants to know the mind of God and understand the forces that bind the universe together. Like so many of the fictional magicians and mad scientists whom Goethe's Faust inspired, Faust will arrogantly try to "play God," and face punishment for his actions.

Is parchment then the sacred fount,
and does one drink from it forever to slake our thirst?
There’s nothing you can gain refreshment from
except what has its source in your own soul.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker), Wagner
Page Number: 566-569
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faust has an argument with his assistant, Wagner, about the value of knowledge and education. The two men's positions have been interpreted to reflect the two dominant intellectual positions of European thought at the time, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Wagner argues that book-learning is useful because it fills the mind with useful knowledge; one could argue that his point of view is characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment (the era when the encyclopedia, the dictionary, and the modern school system came into being). But Faust disagrees with his assistant: it's not enough, he claims, for books to fill the mind with information--they must nourish the soul as well. Faust argues that the best books don't really introduce new information at all; instead, they merely provide the answers to questions that the mind, or rather, the soul, has already posed in some way.

Faust's observations, complicated though they are, suggest why his pursuits of knowledge so far have failed. Faust has gotten a lot of information from his books, and yet there's a sense, deep down, that he hasn't really satisfied his soul's desires yet. Faust doesn't yet know what he wants to know; he's out of touch with what his soul is "thirsty" for.

Part 1: Faust’s Study 2 Quotes

My spirit prompts me, now I see a solution
and boldly write: “In the beginning was the Act.”

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker)
Page Number: 1236-1237
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faust rewrites the New Testament, beginning with the Book of John. Faust looks at the famous first verse of the Book, in which we're told, "In the beginning was the word." Faust is dissatisfied with such a view of life: he finds words dry and ultimately empty. Faust has spent his entire life studying various "words," and he's emerged none the happier. Here, Faust crosses out the word "word," and replaces it with a series of other words, culminating in "act."

What does it mean for Faust to replace "word" with "act?" To begin with, it's a sign of Faust's hubris and arrogance that he's daring to rewrite the Bible at all. But furthermore, Faust's rewriting suggests that he's tiring of passivity in all its forms. Faust is no longer content to sit in a study reading books--he wants to use his knowledge to understand and dominate the world. By acting instead of just reading, Faust hopes to bring himself a sense of control and power. Faust, one could argue, is the true Romantic hero: instead of accepting the "word" (i.e., the law, whether of Christianity or of society) he seeks to make a new law for himself by acting on his own.

Part 1: Faust’s Study 3 Quotes

Take my word for it, anyone who thinks too much
is like an animal that in a barren heath
some evil spirit drives around in circles
while all about lie fine green pastures.

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker), Heinrich Faust
Page Number: 1830-1833
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faust and Mephistopheles have arranged a contract (setting in motion the events of the rest of the poem). Mephistopheles notes that Faust has agreed to the corrupt bargain (in which Faust will be granted unlimited power, until the moment when he wishes to "linger," at which time he'll lose his life and soul) because Faust is dissatisfied with his own knowledge and enlightenment. Mephistopheles reminds Faust that intelligence is a prison: the ignorant man can more readily embrace the glories of God (the "green pastures," perhaps an allusion to the Bible's famous 23rd Psalm), while Faust is too smart to embrace God whole-heartedly.

The passage is a good reminder of how Mephistopheles is both a figure of good and a figure of evil. Mephistopheles wants to take Faust's life for himself, and yet he also seems to understand Faust deeply: he recognizes, for instance, that Faust's study has brought him knowledge but not spiritual enlightenment. Mephistopheles is both Faust's worst enemy and his best friend in the play.

Part 2: Act 2: Laboratory Quotes

[Homunculus’s vial is] rising, flashing, piling up—
another moment and it’s done!
A grand design may seem insane at first;
but in the future chance will seem absurd,
and such a brain as this, intended for great thoughts,
will in its turn create a thinker too.

Related Characters: Wagner (speaker), Homunculus
Related Symbols: Faust’s Study and Wagner’s Laboratory, Prisons and Keys
Page Number: 6865-6870
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to Homunculus, the tiny man that Wagner, Faust's former pupil and assistant, is developing in his laboratory. Homunculus is a human being, and yet he has no true parents, except for Wagner, who has produced Homunculus using "crystallization," rather than the usual process of procreation.

Homunculus has been interpreted as a symbol for the scientific innovations of Goethe's lifetime, an era during which interest in science exploded. Others have noted that the Homunculus--a bizarre, satanic, motherless human being--might symbolize modern, isolated human beings. Homunculus, in any event, represents the unnatural qualities of Wagner's experiments: Wagner has gone against "God's will" by creating a living, breathing creature on his own (although the devil's presence was seemingly necessary to give him the spark of life). Wagner, one could say, has eclipsed even Faust as a scientist and a thinker--he seems almost as restless and arrogant as Faust in his desire to understand the mysteries of the universe and overreach the bounds of human knowledge and pride.