Outside the city gates, a variety of people are coming from the city, all of them on their way to various taverns. The men are looking forward to drinking good beer, chatting up women, and quarreling. A citizen complains that the new burgomaster (similar to a mayor) is high-handed and demanding, and that things cost more than ever. A beggar, cranking a hurdy-gurdy (a stringed instrument), sings of his misery and the goodness of giving. Still other citizens look forward to discussing war and military matters. A prettily dressed girl dreams about the soldier whom a witch showed her in a crystal ball, whom she hopes will be her love. Soon after a group of soldiers sweep through, singing of war.
This scene presents all of human society in a nutshell: people anticipating physical pleasures like drinking and lovemaking, complaining about the deficiencies of their earthly government, and working to try and make a living. The image of the witch’s crystal ball anticipates Faust’s own yearning for Gretchen and, in turn, her yearning for him. These people have desires, but seem generally content with how they live, unlike the restless Faust.
Faust and Wagner enter the scene. Faust observes that the rivers and brooks are thawing as old Winter withdraws into the mountains and the Sun seeks to enliven the world of nature. From a height, he looks down at the mass of people outside the city gate celebrating Easter. He says they celebrate because they themselves are “risen” like Christ, risen from their dreary rooms, jobs, streets, and churches into the gardens and fields. This is the common man’s true heaven, he says, and he feels both human and that he can be himself here.
After leaving his study, Faust seems like a different man. He takes a deep pleasure in the natural world, in its changes (the withdrawal of winter) and in its constancy (the enlivening sun). Although he is not a “common” man, he too seems as though he’s risen like Christ from his dead study into living nature. Common people can find paradise in this physical world, however, while Faust cannot.
Wagner tells his master that to walk with him is both an honor for him and an educational experience, though he wouldn’t come here on his own, because Wagner hates anything “vulgar.” He detests the sounds of fiddling, shouts, and clattering bowls, and says the people carry on as though possessed by the devil. Some villagers are dancing beneath a linden tree, singing about a shepherd who bumps into a girl while dancing and ends up seducing her.
Wagner reveals himself to be a self-limiting elitist here. Instead of learning from real life and taking pleasure in being around nature and other people, he wishes he were back in his study with his books. Ironically, his master is soon to partner up with the devil, whose influence decidedly does not make one want to sing and dance.
An old peasant comes upon Faust and Wagner. He tells Faust that it is good of him to be out and about with the ordinary folk. He offers Faust a drink from his tankard, which Faust accepts with thanks. Meanwhile, more villagers come and form a circle around the two scholars. The old peasant recalls how Faust’s father cured the village of the plague, and how Faust as a boy accompanied him, coming out of every stricken house unharmed, protected by God above. The villagers wish Faust good health, and he tells them to instead thank God, who teaches us to help one another.
Unlike Wagner, Faust enjoys the company of ordinary people, and so he is much better rounded than his assistant is. Moreover, his manic desire for transcendence seems to recede in this scene as he enjoys the company of other people and the bodily pleasure of drink. Faust tells us earlier that he does not believe in God, but he seems so moved to happiness by nature that he feels comfortable invoking God here.
Faust and Wagner resume their walk. Wagner is impressed by how much the villagers respect Faust. The two make their way to a large stone, where Faust says he has agonized in the past, praying and fasting. He tells Wagner that he hears in the people’s praise only derision, for neither he nor his father deserve such respect. His father, he explains, was an alchemist, who during the plague brewed a medicine that actually killed the patients who drank it. He suspects that with that poison in hand he and his father did more harm than the plague itself.
An alchemist was a pseudoscientist who sought to create the philosopher’s stone, a substance said to turn base metals to gold and also to grant human beings immortality. Either for profit or to experiment with live patients, Faust’s father immorally gave those in his care a poison—just as his son will seek to profit materially and spiritually from his deal with the devil.
Wagner wonders how Faust can be disturbed at all by his father’s actions, seeing as how he was only laboring in his profession honestly and adding to human knowledge. Faust says that what we know does nothing for us, and what we need is precisely what we don’t know. He doesn’t want to let such thoughts spoil the day’s beauty, however. As night falls he surveys nature, the greenery, the cottages, the sun, the peaks and valleys, and the brooks and rivers. He says that in all human beings there is a desire to soar like the birds. Wagner says he has never felt that way, and he prefers the pages of his books.
Wagner believes in the rational pursuit of knowledge no matter the cost, a belief shared by some supporters of the rationalistic and scientific Age of Enlightenment. But, as Mephistopheles tells God, reason can lead us into acts of bestial cruelty. Faust’s love for nature is deeply associated with his sense that all people desire meaning. One implication of this is that people should not be treated as mere science experiments.
Faust retorts that Wagner only knows one desire, whereas he himself has two souls at once: a sensual one that grips the earth, and another that wants to struggle from the dust to the heights. He wishes for a magic cloak that could take him anywhere. Wagner warns him not to invoke the devil and spirits who are eager to do harm—even though such spirits might murmur like angels to disguise their lies. It’s getting dark, and Wagner says that it is time to go home.
Faust’s two souls—the sensual soul that loves the earth, and the other soul that desires transcendence—are in conflict with one another. The play, from one perspective, presents how this conflict resolves itself, with the desire for transcendence later being put into the service of Faust’s governance of his kingdom.
Faust sees something that holds his interest: a black dog. Wagner says he saw the dog a while ago but thought it unimportant. He identifies it as a poodle. Faust notices that the dog is spiraling closer and closer toward them, and Faust seems to see fire swirling behind it. Wagner just sees a mere black poodle. Faust says that the dog seems to be setting a magical trap for future bondage. Wagner insists it’s just an ordinary dog, timid, snarling, lying on its belly, and wagging its tail. Faust calls to the dog and it comes. At last, he agrees with Wagner that the dog is not conscious like humans, just well trained. The two exit through the city gate along with the poodle.
The black dog is Mephistopheles in disguise. Fittingly he takes on a bestial form, and also assumes the form of an animal that serves human beings, just as Mephistopheles will come to serve Faust. Wagner sees only an ordinary dog, either because Mephistopheles is revealing the dog’s spiritual nature only to Faust, or because Wagner has no capacity for spiritual perception. As Faust says, the dog is indeed setting a trap, one that threatens Faust’s very soul.