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.
Intellectualism and the Value of Words ThemeTracker
Intellectualism and the Value of Words Quotes in Faust
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?
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.
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.
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.
My spirit prompts me, now I see a solution
and boldly write: “In the beginning was the Act.”
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.
[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.