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.
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence ThemeTracker
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence 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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
My heart is heavy,
all peace is gone,
I’ll never find it,
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.