Faust, riding his cloud, floats onto a rugged, serrated peak. The cloud separates from him and shapes a figure in the sky resembling Helen. Just then two huge boots plump down on the peak. Mephistopheles steps down from them, and then the boots stride away without him. The devil says that mountains were formed by the sulfuric fumes coughed up by devils in hell, suggesting the topsy-turvy values of the world, and also explaining how devils came to be the princes of the air. He cites the Bible in presenting his account. Faust, for his part, claims that Nature made the globe complete and perfect.
Faust’s transcendent quest to grasp an ideal of beauty has failed once and for all. His final vision of Helen is ephemeral and blows away. He must now turn his mind away from transcendence for good, and learn to make his life meaningful based on earthly endeavors. The devil anticipates this, attempting to persuade Faust that the world is not valuable enough to spend one’s time worrying about it. Faust disagrees.
Mephistopheles turns to the question of whether Faust has seen anything he’s desired in the world. The devil suspects not, but Faust contradicts him. Faust wants to create new land, narrowing the limits of the ocean’s expanse and forcing the waters back into themselves (this project alludes to the Biblical account of the third day of creation, when God separated water from land). Easy, the devil says.
Faust doesn’t want to give up the rest of his life to mindless pleasures. He wants to create a real kingdom for himself, unlike his bogus kingdom in Greece. He has learned an important lesson: that human endeavors must unfold within nature’s limits. We cannot be gods, only earthly rulers.
Just then they hear the sound of distant drums and warlike music. Mephistopheles explains that the Emperor is at war. The false riches Faust created for him by printing paper money led the Emperor to attempt governing and leading a life of pleasure at the same time, which led to anarchy and feuds and rebellion. The devil proposes that he and Faust restore peace by assisting the Emperor put down the rebels.
Faust is now focusing on earthly goals, but his record as a politician is rather bleak—his policy of printing paper money led the Emperor into a life of pleasure-seeking, which is incompatible with virtuous governance. To rule, one must often sacrifice one’s own pleasures to duty.
Faust and Mephistopheles cross to the next lower range of mountains and view the armies in the valley below. The devil says that with his and Faust’s aid the Emperor’s victory is certain, for the empty make-believe of magic provides the stratagems that win all battles. He suggests, moreover, that by aiding the Emperor Faust will get the boundless shore he seeks for his project of driving back the ocean.
Mephistopheles suggests that all war is deception and illusion, an empty exercise in the grand scheme of things. As such, war is a human practice the devil is an expert in.
Faust orders Mephistopheles to win the battle for the Emperor, but the devil says the magician must be the general in charge today. Though Faust knows nothing of warfare, the devil assures him that he has created a war-council: the Three Mighty Men, like those who assisted the Biblical hero David defeat the Philistines. These three—one young and eager for bloodshed, one mature and eager for treasure, one old and conservative—enter, and together with Faust and Mephistopheles descend to a lower level of the mountains.
Mephistopheles is entangling Faust into a scheme that he hopes will lead the man into idle pleasures and sloth. As the Emperor devotes his life to bodily pleasure, so too (the devil hopes) will Faust. The Three Mighty men are vicious and brutal, not the ideal instruments for a man like Faust, who wants to create a just kingdom.