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The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Analysis

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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.
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon

Faust is driven by his desire to understand the meaning of life and to connect with the infinitude of nature. From one perspective, this makes him like everyone else, as we all desire meaning and to be part of something larger than ourselves. But Faust is extraordinary in a variety of ways: in his incredible intelligence and his vast knowledge, but especially in his manic restlessness and relentless ambition that leaves him dissatisfied with all of his achievements, always yearning for something more. He wants to transcend, or go beyond, merely rational human knowledge, which, like all things human, is also uncertain. He wants to understand the fundamental laws that govern the world, no matter the means and no matter the cost. In short, he wants to transcend his humanity and become a god, with a god’s omniscience and active creative power. And Faust is not alone in his desire for transcendence: Margarete finds in her love for Faust an opportunity to transcend the spiritual littleness of provincial life, Homunculus seeks to break from the vial in which he was created and achieve a proper existence, and Euphorion desires to scale the sky in pursuit of perfect beauty.

As lofty as Faust’s aspirations may be, however, his story is nonetheless a cautionary tale. His restlessness leads him downward into despair, suicidal thoughts, and acts of cruelty. He discovers in his love for Gretchen a spiritual connection with the world, for example, but this joy comes at an enormous price: the poisoning of Gretchen’s mother, Faust’s cold-blooded murder of Gretchen’s brother Valentine, and Gretchen’s ostracization and descent into murder and madness. What’s more, Faust’s joy is always short-lived, and the magician always sinks to new moral lows in seeking to reach new spiritual heights. He indirectly causes a rebellion in the Emperor’s realm by causing economic unrest, then goes on to profit from this war by slaughtering the rebels with black magic and, for his services, extracts from the Emperor his own seaside country to rule. Every spiritual gain has its price, but Faust all too often makes others pay for his pleasure and power.

And yet at the end of the play, despite all of his crimes and sins, Faust is forgiven and ascends into heaven, accompanied by a host of angels. Paradoxically enough, his saving grace seems to be precisely his restless desire for transcendence—which is the very thing that got him into trouble in the first place! Faust’s deal with the devil, after all, holds that if Faust ever surrenders himself to pleasure and idleness, if he has an experience that satisfies him absolutely, then the devil would win his soul. Faust’s desire for transcendence protects him from any such complacency.

Many critics of the play find this paradox cheaply ambiguous or even downright confused on Goethe’s part. In Goethe’s defense, we might say that his highest value as a poet has little to do with morality and justice, but rather has everything to do with inexhaustible, purposeful striving—in the pursuit of love, say, or in the building of a prosperous and just society, which is Faust’s great design at the end of the play. The play seems to suggest that while the striver should not will evil, neither should he or she shrink from it. In our pursuit of meaning and transcendence, we also learn more about our limitations, as Faust learns that he cannot be a god, but can only achieve earthly power. This knowledge of our limitations, in turn, enables us to act to the best of our abilities, and so it is that Faust eventually gives up his quest for the Infinite and settles on making life better for the men and women he rules. In the world of Faust, the desire for transcendence and the frustrations of this desire can spur us on to bad, but also to good, to acts of creation, so long as we act with knowledge of our limitations.

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The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Quotes in Faust

Below you will find the important quotes in Faust related to the theme of The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence.
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.

How all things interweave as one
and work and live each in the other!

How grand a show! But still, alas! mere show.
Infinite Nature, when can I lay hold of you
and of your breasts?

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nature and the Earth Spirit
Page Number: 447-456
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we get a better sense of what, exactly, is lacking in Faust's life. Faust reads a book in which he comes across a passage about the macrocosmic nature of the universe. Faust learns that the universe is all one harmonious whole--every tiny part of the world has its grander purpose and locks in with the other parts.

Faust's newfound knowledge of the universe, however, doesn't bring him much happiness. It's not enough for Faust to learn that the universe has a purpose; Faust wants to experience that purpose first-hand, instead of trusting that the purpose exists. In short, Faust doesn't want to be a cog in a machine anymore--he wants to understand and touch the machine itself.

Note the physical nature of this passage--Faust talks about "laying hold" of Nature, whom he personifies as a beautiful woman. It's certainly possible to suggest that Faust is simply deprived of love and human companionship: he's trying to find passion and eros in science and philosophy, and so of course he comes up short. And yet Faust's observations about Nature could suggest that knowledge itself has an almost erotic quality: the mixture of power, domination, and love that Faust feels as he talks about nature shows us that Faust is trying to fit all of human contact and experience into his crazed experiments.

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 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 1: A Garden Quotes

Don’t be afraid! Look in my eyes,
let them and let these hands that now clasp yours
express what tongue can never say:
complete devotion and a sense of bliss
that must endure eternally!
Eternally!—Its end would be despair.
There must not be an end! Not ever!

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker), Margarete/A Penitent
Page Number: 3188-3194
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see Faust falling for a beautiful, humble girl named Gretchen. Gretchen is an unusual match for Faust, since she's rather simple and ordinarily-educated (she doesn't have even a fraction of the knowledge and training that Faust does). And yet Gretchen has something that Faust can never have: she's happy and innocent--one could say that Faust and Gretchen are, respectively, like Adam after the Fall of Man and Eve before the Fall (notice that the scene takes place in a garden!).

In this scene, we see Faust wishing for happiness and eternity: because of his feelings for Gretchen, he wants to be happy with her forever. Such a desire is precisely what Faust promised never to feel when he made his agreement with Mephistopheles. And yet the poem doesn't end here: there's still a sense that Faust, in spite of saying that he wants to be with Gretchen forever, doesn't actually believe it completely. Faust is, as always, disjointed--his words don't quite match his feelings. There's still a part of him that's tired of life and eager to move on to the next thing.

Part 1: Gretchen’s Room Quotes

My heart is heavy,
all peace is gone,
I’ll never find it,
never, again.
My breast is yearning
to be with him;
could I but clasp
and hold him tight,
and kiss him
as my heart desires,
under his kisses
I’d swoon and die!

Related Characters: Margarete/A Penitent (speaker), Heinrich Faust
Page Number: 3402-3413
Explanation and Analysis:

Gretchen is a tragic character, because she seems to love Faust whole-heartedly, and yet her love for Faust will bring her only pain and anguish, not happiness. Already, Gretchen finds herself abandoned by her lover: Faust has left Gretchen, at least for the time being. In Faust's absence, Gretchen is distraught: she cries that she'll be in constant pain unless she can see Faust again. If she could only kiss him, she goes on, she would die of happiness.

Gretchen's unbridled love for Faust signals her innocence and ignorance of the world--she barely knows Faust, after all (though the shortness of her relationship might just be part of the artifice of the play). Gretchen is, for all appearances, a totally innocent character, whose sweetness and kindness will be harshly punished (as we'll see soon enough).

Part 2: Act 1: An Imperial Palace: The Throne Room Quotes

Nature and intellect are not words said to Christians.
Because such language is so dangerous
the atheist is executed at the stake.
Nature is sin, and Intellect the devil;
hermaphroditic Doubt their child
which they foster together.

Related Characters: The Chancellor-Archbishop (speaker), Mephistopheles, The Emperor
Page Number: 4897-4902
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage from the beginning of Part Two, Mephistopheles has joined the court of the Emperor as a kind of jester. Mephistopheles makes some bold suggestions to the Emperor about how to solve some of the various crises of his kingdom. Mephistopheles' suggestions show off his intelligence and his belief that the natural resources of the kingdom (and the gold buried somewhere beneath the kingdom) are sufficient for fighting off the effects of the economic "panic." The Chancellor-Archbishop of the kingdom, on the other hand, objects to the way glib way Mephistopheles suggests easy solutions to the Emperor's problems--he points out that Mephistopheles is relying too heavily on his own intellect and nature.

It's important to recognize that the Archbishop is using Christian language to criticize Mephistopheles, when in reality he's just frightened that Mephistopheles is weakening the Archbishop's own position in court. Mephistopheles may be an evil character, and yet the Archbishop seems equally corrupt in his willingness to manipulate religion for his own selfish reasons.

That merit and good fortune are connected
is something that these idiots will never see;
the philosopher’s stone could be in their possession,
but there’d be no philosopher to use it.

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker)
Page Number: 5061-5064
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the scene, Mephistopheles has convinced the foolish, pleasure-loving Emperor to dig for buried treasure throughout his land in the hopes of remedying the crisis in his territory. The Emperor is hopeful that he'll be able to find gold and stave off some of the problems in his kingdom. When Mephistopheles is alone, he rejoices that the Emperor is about to become reliant on gold for his power--Mephistopheles senses that the Emperor will become weaker and more materialistic as a result of this "quick fix." Mephistopheles also makes the point that all punishment from God comes with a reason attached--in other words, the Emperor has been experiencing crises in his kingdom because he's a bad emperor who's appointed fools to run his kingdom. Humans in general, Mephistopheles argues, would be better off if they just understood that punishment isn't random; i.e., that the best way to avoid punishment is just to be a better person.

The passage reiterates Mephistopheles' original point: he's an agent of good, even as he does evil. Ironically, Mephistopheles is the most morally-attuned character in the poem; he recognizes that humans will be rewarded for their good behavior. The difference between Mephistopheles and God, of course is that Mephistopheles is evil, and seeks to harm mankind. And yet he's totally aware of God's law, to an extent that no human in the play is (with the possible exception of Faust).

Part 2: Act 1: An Imperial Palace: A Dark Gallery Quotes

You are the father of all mystagogues
who ever cheated docile neophytes,
but you reverse their method—send me to a void
for higher wisdom and for greater powers.
You’re making me the cat whose task it is
to pull your chestnuts from the fire.
But do not stop! Let’s probe the matter fully,
since in your Nothingness I hope to find my All.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker), Mephistopheles
Page Number: 6249-6256
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mephistopheles (who's been tasked with summoning Paris and Helen to the Emperor's court) explains to Faust that he's about to enter into a mysterious zone in which there's no space or time. This space, the land of the "Mothers," will be lonely and foreign to Faust--it will be, in essence, Nothingness incarnate. Faust senses that Mephistopheles is manipulating him into the world of Nothingness in order to bring out Helen and Paris for him--Faust compares himself to a cat pulling out hot chestnuts from a fire because the cat's owner is too scared to do so himself. Thus, Faust shoots back that he hopes to find enlightenment in Nothingness: in fact, he hopes to find All there. He's not afraid of doing Mephistopheles' dirty work for him.

The passage is exceptionally confusing because of the way it treats "nothing" like a 'thing." Mephistopheles is the master of nothingness, because in Christian theology, evil is considered the absence of good; i.e., nothingness itself. And yet in the realm of nothingness, from which Faust and Mephistopheles will summon Paris and Helen of Troy, Faust hopes to find glory--a boundless sense of power, creativity, and domination. 

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 (Before the Palace) Quotes

The worst of torments we can suffer
is to feel want when we are rich.
The tinkling bell, the lindens’ scent,
make me feel buried in a crypt.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker), Baucis and Philemon
Page Number: 11,251-11,254
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faust's domination of the kingdom is almost total. He's won control of the land, using Mephistopheles' help. And yet he remains unhappy. He's won the kingdom for himself, and yet he can't quite savor his victory: he doesn't feel that he truly "owns" or otherwise possesses his own property (which he wants in order to pursue his goal of "pushing back the waters"). Faust imagines that he'd be truly happy if only Philemon and Baucis were evicted from their property.

Faust isn't exactly a tyrant, but he seeks total domination of the material world, so he can't stand that Philemon and Baucis stand in his way. He is ever ambitious and restless, as usual, and so always desires more, even when what he desires belongs to someone else.

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.