The scholar Faust sits restlessly at his desk in his narrow, high-ceilinged Gothic study. He regrets having studied Philosophy, Law, Medicine, and worst of all Theology, for he feels that he is no wiser than before. For ten years he has led his students on a chase for knowledge, only to realize that human beings can’t ever find certainty in the world. This conclusion makes Faust despair. Indeed, he says nothing gives him joy, as his knowledge can’t better mankind or make it godly, and he has no worldly riches or honors. For these reasons, then, he has turned to magic, which promises to solve many mysteries, and to explain the foundation and forces of the universe.
God’s creation, infinite and beautiful, is immediately contrasted with the cramped, imprisoning atmosphere of Faust’s study. Faust is hemmed in by the books that have so far distracted him from searching for real meaning. He knows everything the scholarly, rational mind is capable of knowing, and yet he remains unsatisfied and powerless. Magic, an irrational and powerful art (although a demonic one) is his last resort in transcending the littleness of his own mind. This sets up the theme of reason and passion in the play, as Faust is dissatisfied with his reason and turns to magic.
As much as Faust wants to roam in the moonlight and rejuvenate himself by doing so, he is still imprisoned by his worm-eaten, dusty books. He feels anxious and constricted to find himself surrounded not by the living world of nature but instead by so much smoke and mustiness, and he thinks of the books as if they were the bones of the dead. He vows to escape, aided by Nostradamus’ book of mysterious and magical symbols which the spirits use to communicate.
Part of Faust’s problem is that the scholar’s life is physically cramping and prevents one from experiencing nature. It is ironic, then, that, instead of going for a moonlit walk at this point, Faust instead opens another book, suggesting that he is not yet prepared for the transcendence he claims to seek.
Faust opens Nostradamus’ book to the sign of the Macrocosm: the whole universe in its harmonious unity. When he sees it, rapture and a youthful happiness flows through him. He feels like a god, with total clarity about the being and workings of creative nature, how all things interweave as one and work and live in each other harmoniously. Grand as all this is, Faust concedes that it is nonetheless a mere show, and that he can’t yet touch Infinite Nature (which he personifies as a woman) and her breasts.
The Macrocosm reveals how everything in nature forms a harmonious whole. Though Faust contemplates this fact, he also yearns to go beyond mere contemplation, and to act on his wisdom. The personification of nature as a woman anticipates Faust’s affairs with Gretchen and Helen, through whom he also seeks transcendence.
Angrily Faust turns the pages of the book until he comes to the sign of the Earth Spirit, a spirit which Faust thinks is closer to him than the Macrocosm was. He feels brave and ready to experience life and deal with the hurricane of mortal difficulties.
Unlike the sign of he Macrocosm, the Earth Spirit can act in and on the world. Faust is therefore more enthusiastic about its appearance.
Suddenly the sky outside becomes overcast, the moon hides, and the lamp’s flame vanishes. Mists arise and beams of red flash about. Faust feels a dreadful chill, and senses that the Spirit he was praying to has come. Faust demands that it reveal itself. He orders it to obey, even if the price for the Spirit revealing itself should be Faust’s own life. In a flash of reddish flame, the Earth Spirit appears.
Faust has underestimated the Earth Spirit’s power. Far from being in any way akin to the scholar, the spirit is powerful and even menacing. The forces operative in nature can, after all, be hostile to the human will. With the Earth Spirit’s appearance the theme of parts and wholes becomes more apparent, as Faust will soon be forced to face his own limitations in the face of all creation as a harmonious whole.
Faust turns away in fear. The Earth Spirit wonders whether the frightful worm now in his presence could possibly be the demigod whose ringing voice summoned him. Faust rallies and announces himself as the Spirit’s peer. The Spirit then sings out that like a storm he oversees the constant change of the physical world, working at the loom of time to fashion the living garment of God. Faust says that he feels close to the industrious Earth Spirit, but the Spirit disowns him, disappearing, which distresses Faust.
The Earth Spirit symbolizes the active forces of nature as well as the natural cycles. While easy to contemplate from afar, in person these forces are terrifying, which Faust learns firsthand. He should be careful what he wishes for. Faust at first cowers before the Spirit, then arrogantly claims to be its peer. It won’t be till the end of the play, however, that Faust really masters nature.
There is a knocking at the study door. Faust curses at being interrupted during his happiest moment of most plentiful visions. Faust opens the door, and it is the gowned and night-capped Wagner, Faust’s assistant in scholarship, who heard his master thundering out what he supposes was a Greek tragedy. Wagner says he wishes he were a better reciter and rhetorician, but how can he be, he asks, when he only observes people from afar? Faust says that affecting people with rhetoric requires passion, innate force, and heart. Wagner responds that delivery alone can make a speech a hit, and acknowledges that he has much to learn.
It is ironic that Faust’s “happiest moment” is as terrifying and ultimately unsatisfying as his encounter with the Earth Spirit. The reference to Greek tragedy foreshadows Faust’s later love for the Greek beauty Helen, and the scene of Classical Walpurgis Night, which is set in Greece. Faust, unlike his bookish and rationalistic fellow-scholars, understands the importance of passion in affecting others. But passion, Goethe suggests, must always serve truth.
Faust disparages the pretty speeches that Wagner admires, and the two begin debating the values of learning and knowledge. Faust says that the only thing of value one can learn comes from one’s own soul, while Wagner defends book learning as enabling people to enter into the spirit of ages past. Faust in turn dismisses history as a trash bin, full of excellent maxims suitable only for puppets to speak. He doesn’t think that what the world calls knowledge is really knowledge at all.
Faust’s claim that only our own souls produce things of value is a Romantic attitude, and one that the play as a whole challenges. Historical Greece, for example, provides not just excellent maxims for puppets to repeat, but also a valuable model for how human beings can live in the world. At the same time, mere book learning can deprive one of passion and experience.
It is getting late, and Faust proposes that the two stop their debate for now. Wagner would have liked to stay up longer discussing learned matters. He asks Faust if tomorrow, Easter Sunday, Wagner can ask Faust more questions, for he would like to know everything. With that, Wagner takes his leave.
Wagner is energetic and bright, an endless learner—much as Faust must have been as a younger man. Easter is the day of Jesus’s resurrection from the grave, a day of rebirth and renewal for both soul and nature in the Christian worldview.
Alone, Faust thinks about how greedy for superficialities Wagner is, and resents him for knocking when he, Faust, was surrounded by inspiration. He is also grateful to Wagner in a way, however, because he feared that the Earth Spirit would destroy his mind, as it was so great and it made Faust feel so small. He regrets having been so arrogant as to claim himself the Spirit’s peer, and wonders who will teach him now. Once Faust’s Imagination soared, but now his joys are distracted by mundane cares. These cares take many forms for mankind: house and home, wife and child, fire, water, dagger, and poison.
The play does not represent Wagner as being especially superficial, so Faust’s condemnation of him is more a condemnation of intellectualism in general. In a rare moment of humility and vulnerability, Faust confesses that the Earth Spirit made him feel small, weak, and insignificant, which suggests why he does not summon the Spirit again. None of the cares that Faust lists really have any bearing on his case. His chief care at this point is more his own ego than anything else.
Faust despairs of ever being godlike, cramped as he is by countless useless things. He addresses a skull among his possessions, whose brain he suspects went wretchedly astray. Faust feels that the secrets of Nature can never be understood, not even with the implements of learning he inherited from his father. Faust goes on to say that what is inherited but does not serve a purpose becomes burdensome. When the moment for action comes, we can only use what the moment itself provides.
Faust implicitly contrasts his ambition to be a perfect god with the inevitable human fate of death, represented by the skull, which is proof of our imperfection. Faust’s observations about inheritance are, in part, a reference to Medieval academic culture, which relied excessively on old or ancient intellectual authority. Faust finds such authority a burden.
Suddenly, Faust’s eye is caught by a vial in his possession that contains a poisonous extract. The sight of it makes Faust feel as though he’s been transported to the open sea, as though fiery chariots are approaching him. Faust intends to kill himself by drinking the contents of this vial. He thinks this will prove his bravery in the face of heaven and hell.
This vial of poison anticipates the poison that kills Gretchen’s mother, as well as the vial in which Homunculus is created. While Homunculus seeks to escape from his vial to achieve existence, Faust considers drinking from the vial here to escape existence.
Right as Faust prepares to drink, however, he hears church bells and a choir of angels, women, and disciples singing of Christ’s resurrection, and with Him all mankind. So Easter day is announced. Faust takes the vial of poison from his lips. Even though he lacks faith, he is nonetheless reminded of joyous tears and spring freedom, and is so moved that he resolves to keep living. The scene closes with the choir of disciples bemoaning that they are still on earth while their master Christ is in heaven, and a choir of angels comforting the living by singing of Christ’s nearness.
As Jesus was resurrected on this day, so too does Faust choose life over death upon hearing the church bells and choir heralding Easter. Whereas the Earth Spirit distances itself from Faust, Christ, the angels assure us, is very near, and at the end of the play Faust does indeed follow Jesus’s path by ascending to heaven.