Three archangels, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, are beholding and celebrating the mysterious splendor of the Lord’s creation, nature, which is comforting to the angels but also too great for their comprehension. Raphael sings of the sun, Gabriel of the revolutions of the earth, night, day, and the surging of the sea, and Michael sings of the storms that sweep from land to sea and back again, powerful and devastating. Together the angels sing that none can understand the Lord’s Being, though His grand creation is still as splendid as it was upon first being created.
The angels rightly claim that no single mind but God’s can understand creation as a whole. Faust attempts to attain exactly this kind of understanding, and it leads to his tragedy. The sun represents the eternal life-giving presence of God, the storms represent the destructive powers inherent in creation, and day and night, ebb and flow, represent the natural cycles human beings live and die in.
Mephistopheles (the devil) enters heaven uninvited, though he has been welcomed here often before. He addresses the Lord, claiming to be sorry that he can’t offer Him high-flown praise like the angels can. Any attempt at strong emotion on his part, the devil speculates, would only make God laugh anyway. He says he has no remarks to make about the sun or planets, only how mankind toils and suffers, the unchanging little gods of earth who are as odd today as they were upon first being created. The devil tells God that life would be easier for humans if He did not permit them to glimpse the light of heaven, because they only employ their reason in bestial and cruel ways.
Goethe wildly reimagines the relationship between God and the devil. In the play the devil, while sarcastic and negative, is not strictly God’s enemy, but is welcome in heaven. The devil also pities human beings, or at least pretends to, which we might find surprising—in fact, he gives advice to God on how to improve our lives: by taking reason from us, which we misuse in being cruel to one another. God, instead of taking away our reason, would ask that we learn our place in the cosmos.
The Lord speaks. He asks Mephistopheles if he ever has anything to say other than criticisms. Isn’t there anything right on the earth? He asks. No, Mephistopheles says, mankind suffers endlessly, so that even he, the devil himself, is reluctant to antagonize them. The Lord asks if Mephistopheles is familiar with Faust, a doctor and the Lord’s faithful servant. Mephistopheles knows him to be a man who is discontent with earthly life and eager to attain to the brightest stars and highest joys. The Lord says that though Faust serves Him now blindly and ineptly, soon God will lead the doctor into clarity.
Mephistopheles later calls himself the Spirit that always negates—he never has anything positive or affirming to say or do. Although he claims to pity us, he also pulls many vicious pranks and stirs up truly atrocious violence later in the play. It is ironic that God should call Faust blind and inept, for he is vastly more intelligent and learned than anyone else in the play. God apparently doesn’t put much stock in book learning.
Mephistopheles proposes a bet: that the Lord will lose Faust to temptation and sin if He permits the devil to gently guide the man. The Lord says only that He won’t prohibit Mephistopheles from doing what he will, and He will even let the devil tempt Faust to damnation if he can. God announces that a good man won’t lose himself on the devil’s path. Mephistopheles considers the bet agreed upon. The Lord tells the devil to return uninvited if he succeeds in damning Faust, for God has no hatred for creatures of the devil’s kind, those who prod human beings into activity both bad and good as the devils do.
The proposed bet between Mephistopheles and God (who, notably, never seals the deal, which would be beneath Him) anticipates the bet successfully struck later between Mephistopheles and Faust. A good man, in Goethe’s world, is one who, not willing evil, strives tirelessly to better himself. It is ironic, then, that the devils should spur human beings into activity, when activity is what seems to help them avoid damnation.
When the Lord finishes speaking to Mephistopheles, He invites the angels to delight in beauty’s living richness, nature, and urges them to turn their vague revelations into solid thoughts. Heaven closes and the devil is left alone. He states that he likes to keep on speaking terms with God, and thinks it very decent of Him to chat and be so polite with even the devil himself.
The Lord has created the universe to please both angels and people, and indeed Faust feels most at home and most spiritually full in nature. With characteristic and perhaps resentful sarcasm, the devil talks about God, the perfect being, as though He were just a nice neighbor.