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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.
Reason and Passion Theme Icon

Goethe wrote Faust against the backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment (1620s-1780s) and the Romantic period (1700s-1800s). Pioneers and supporters of the Enlightenment—like the philosopher Rene Descartes and the physicist Sir Isaac Newton—valued human reason and scientific inquiry over all other ways of thinking about the world. The Romantics, in contrast—like the poets William Wordsworth and Lord Byron (Goethe’s model for the character Euphorion)—reacted against what they perceived to be Enlightment thinkers’ mechanical and sterile rationalism, instead privileging individualism, blazing passion, and the creative power of the imagination.

Goethe sought to synthesize these two positions, to reunite reason and passion. His ideal person is neither strictly rational nor disorderly in their passion, but someone who uses reason and emotional imagination together to understand, and to act positively and purposefully on, the world. Goethe found in the culture of Classical Greece—as created by poets like Homer and philosophers like Aristotle—a model for just such a synthesis. As he himself says, “Of all people, the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best,” because, to Goethe’s mind, the Greeks cultivated passion as moderated by reason and reason as animated by passion, just as they balanced the needs of the individual with the needs of society as a whole.

Like the poet who created him, Faust lives in an age torn between rationalism and Romanticism, and he, too, is striving to reconcile his insatiable desire to understand the world with his wild imagination. By the time the play begins, he is a scholar already disillusioned with reason, the fruits of which he finds severely limited and spiritually unsatisfying. He therefore turns to the irrational art of magic, which he hopes will transform him into a god with the power to realize his imagination on earth—a characteristic Romantic fantasy. The play of Faust, when looked at from this perspective, can be understood as tracing its protagonist’s development from a magic-wielding Romantic quester who acts on passion with often tragic consequences—as his whirlwind love affair with Margarete culminates in the young woman’s death—into, by the end of the play, a spirited but nonetheless rationally moderate ruler of a kingdom who, in his highest moment, envisions himself applying reason and imagination together in creating a just and prosperous society, a fulfillment of the Classical ideal.

Goethe also imagines the synthesis of rationalism and Romanticism in another character in Faust, namely the little flame-like man in a vial, Homunculus. Homunculus is an unnatural creation of Enlightment science who, like Faust, quests like a Romantic to escape his limitations, represented by the vial in which he lives, and achieve what he calls a proper existence. To this end, on Classical Walpurgis Night he falls in with the Greek philosopher Thales and the Greek sea-god Proteus, representatives of the Classicism Goethe so admired. These spiritual guides introduce Homunculus to the Aegean Sea, the great stage for so much of Greece’s cultural heritage (Homer’s Odyssey, for example, is largely set in and around the Aegean) and also the natural origin of life. With what Thales calls “passion’s imperative,” Homunculus offers his unnatural body up to the natural waters, thereby breaking his vial and becoming one with the world, a fate which anticipates Faust’s ascension into heaven. Contrast this fate with that of the brilliant boy Euphorion, the son of the Romantic Faust and the Classical Helen of Troy, who pursues not an understanding of nature but only perfect unattainable beauty, which results in the boy’s fall and death.

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Reason and Passion ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Reason and Passion appears in each scene of Faust. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Reason and Passion Quotes in Faust

Below you will find the important quotes in Faust related to the theme of Reason and Passion.
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.


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Prologue in Heaven Quotes

I merely see how mankind toils and moils.
Earth’s little gods still do not change a bit,
are just as odd as on their primal day.
Their lives would be a little easier
if You’d not let them glimpse the light of heaven—
they call it Reason and employ it only
to be more bestial than any beast.

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker), The Lord
Page Number: 280-286
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mephistopheles (an incarnation of the devil) visits heaven and greets God. Mephistopheles tells God that he feels sorry for humanity (or at least he's pretending to feel sorry), as humans have been blessed and cursed with the gift of reason (the "light of heaven"). Because of their intelligence and ambition, however, humans are able to cause each other great pain and suffering; they use intelligence to do evil.

It's interesting to think about where Mephistopheles is right and where he goes wrong in his judgment of humanity. Certainly, Mephistopheles is right, in Christian terms, to suggest that knowledge is the source of evil: it was eating from the Tree of Knowledge, after all, that brought Adam and Eve out of Paradise. Furthermore, Mephistopheles's point about wisdom being used for evil seems even truer today than it did during Goethe's lifetime (think of all the geniuses who've used their talents to build bombs and cheat people out of their money). And yet where Mephistopheles sees wisdom as the source of evil and nothing else, God seems to see wisdom as a potential path to redemption and salvation. In this passage, we see the basic theme of Faust: the insufficiency of knowledge, or rather, the path from knowledge to salvation.

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: Outside the City Gate Quotes

Alas! it is so hard to find corporeal wings
that match those of the human mind.
Yet in all of us there is an innate urge
to rise aloft and soar along
when, lost in the blue space above us,
the lark pours forth its vibrant song,
when high above fir-covered crags
the eagle floats on outspread wing,
and when above the plains and lakes
the crane seeks out its native place.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker), Wagner
Related Symbols: Nature and the Earth Spirit
Page Number: 1090-1099
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faust and his assistant, Wagner, go outside Faust's study to survey the city they live in. Outside, Faust notices an entire city of people walking outside, socializing, and having a good time. The scene prompts Faust to note that all human beings feel a desire to "soar" in some way or other. For animals like the eagle, soaring is a literal affair--the eagle flies overhead, savoring the vistas of Earth. For ordinary people, it's implied, "soaring" is a matter of ambition, but also being around other people, enjoying the city and nature, drinking, etc.--such interpersonal interactions bring joy and comfort to the soul.

The passage seems to suggest that Faust can find some happiness and comfort in socializing with his fellow human beings. And yet there's also a suggestion that for Faust, socializing and enjoying the city simply aren't enough. Because of Faust's massive intellect, he feels apart from other human beings, even when he's around them--he wants to "soar" in a way that others don't.

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 1: An Imperial Palace: Knight’s Hall Quotes

Does some more inward sense than sight perceive
the overflowing fountainhead of beauty?
My dread ordeal is gloriously rewarded.
How circumscribed and empty was my world before!
Now, with this priesthood, it at last becomes
desirable and has a lasting basis.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker), Helen of Troy
Page Number: 6487-6492
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faust comes face-to-face with the spirit of Helen of Troy, the famously beautiful woman who indirectly caused the Trojan War. Helen of Troy is the embodiment of the Classical ideal: the Greco-Roman model of what is beautiful and desirable. Faust is immediately drawn to Helen of Troy; he finds her enchanting, the very thing his soul has desired all along, and he falls instantly in love.

It's been argued that Faust, the embodiment of European Enlightenment and Romanticism, is naturally attracted to Helen, the embodiment of the Greco-Roman tradition, because the former could not exist without the latter. The passage has also been taken as a symbol for the "marriage" between modern Europe and its classic past: during Goethe's lifetime, there was a tremendous revival of interest in the classical era. Other critics, such as Franco Moretti, have interpreted the scene as a veiled metaphor for the wave of colonization and imperial domination that began during Goethe's lifetime: just as Faust comes to dominate the beautiful, exotic Helen, so did the great European nations of Goethe's lifetime come to dominate the other countries of the world, from which European culture was "descended."

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.

Part 2: Act 2: Classical Walpurgis Night: The Pharsalian Fields Quotes

You’ll never learn unless you make mistakes.
If you want to exist, do so on your own!

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker), Homunculus
Page Number: 7847-7848
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mephistopheles watches as Homunculus, the creation of Wagner, proceeds to watch the trial of two philosophers, Anaxagoras and Thales, as they debate the material sources of the natural world. Mephistopheles warns Homunculus that he'll never learn anything about the universe unless he makes his own mistakes--as if to suggest that by latching onto Thales and Anaxagoras, he'll always be a pupil, never a real thinker.

In ancient Greece, Thales and Anaxagoras were two of the most notable early philosophers, who believed they'd found the substances that made up the universe (Thales famously claimed that everything is made out of water). And yet Mephistopheles' exchange with Homunculus isn't about the universe's structure, but rather the structure of education and free will. Mephistopheles seems to believe that the best way to learn is to be free; to be one's "own boss." One should take Mephistopheles' advice with a grain of salt. Mephistopheles' observations could be interpreted as heretical (since they imply that humans shouldn't worship God, but merely live "on their own") or Christian (since the notion of free will and making one's own mistakes is central to salvation in Christian theology). The ambiguous nature of Mephistopheles' advice sums up his identity as a character who may be doing evil, but who also has some intriguing things to say and teach us.

Part 2: Act 5: Faust’s Palace (The Large Outer Courtyard) Quotes

If only I might see that people’s teeming life,
share their autonomy on unencumbered soil;
then, to the moment, I could say:
tarry a while, you are so fair—
the traces of my days on earth
will survive into eternity!—
Envisioning those heights of happiness,
I now enjoy my highest moment.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker)
Page Number: 11,579-11,586
Explanation and Analysis:

Faust has studied almost every field, but in the end, it's political science and city planning that strike him as presenting an opportunity for true, fundamental happiness. Faust wants to drain a large marsh, creating a huge, green space in which people will be able to work happily and freely. Faust wishes that he could drain the marsh and free the "unencumbered soil" beneath it--such an achievement would lead him to be totally, completely happy; it would be his defining achievement as a mortal man.

In this scene, Faust approaches death, because he's finally said the fatal words, "tarry a moment, you are so fair," that signal his satisfaction. And yet, as we'll come to see, Faust's soul is saved (even though he dies) because he never actually succeeded in enacting his vision of the ideal city. Faust wants to savor a moment in his utopian kingdom, and yet because that moment never actually comes to be--the utopia remains unbuilt--Faust is ultimately saved from the terms of his bargain. His constant restlessness and ambition, which initially led to his deal with the devil, now act as his salvation. There is something eminently Romantic in the manner of Faust's death: he dies striving for greatness, rather than having achieved it himself.