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