Goethe wrote Faust against the backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment (1620s-1780s) and the Romantic period (1700s-1800s). Pioneers and supporters of the Enlightenment—like the philosopher Rene Descartes and the physicist Sir Isaac Newton—valued human reason and scientific inquiry over all other ways of thinking about the world. The Romantics, in contrast—like the poets William Wordsworth and Lord Byron (Goethe’s model for the character Euphorion)—reacted against what they perceived to be Enlightment thinkers’ mechanical and…(read full theme analysis)
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…(read full theme analysis)
Early in the play, Faust studies the sign of the Macrocosm, which presents to him the whole universe in its harmonious unity, all of its parts related to one another and to the whole that they make up. Although this vision ultimately leaves Faust desiring more, the ability to act and not just contemplate, it is nonetheless central to an understanding of Faust. Essentially everything good that occurs in the play results when actions…(read full theme analysis)
The play examines intellectual pursuits primarily through the lives of Faust, Wagner, and the student/baccalaureate, all of whom are, at least at some point in their lives, scholars who live for and learn from books alone. Faust comes to reject such a life as unsatisfying, too much of a wild goose chase full of empty words and navel-gazing. Wagner, the more rationalistic and committed scholar of the two, is content to work…(read full theme analysis)
If the play portrays intellectual life as misguidedly valuing narrow research and mere words over substance, political pursuits in Faust tend to be compromised by greed, shortsightedness, and corruption, with disastrous results. This is nowhere clearer than in the episode of the Emperor who succumbs to Mephistopheles’ flattery and his own greediness when he decides to address his realm’s economic problems by searching for hidden gold rather than by designing a more sustainable solution.
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