The story of compromising one’s free-will and spirituality to attain some vain or self-righteous power has been told for time immemorial. From Adam and Eve to Icarus to Dr. Faustus countless tales have been told of mortals who waste the gift of life by wanting power that was not theirs to possess. There’s great irony in the fact that man’s chosen path in terms of material expectations as well as scientific development cold-shoulders these tales and proceeds in the very direction that led to Faust’s damnation. The tale of Faust’s descent into damnation both reflects it’s antecedents and precursors it’s descendants. Modern man’s scientific aims and technological niceties echo the aspirations Faust asserts after he attains cosmic knowledge.
Much of Dr. Faustus depicts him as a necromancer or magician of some kind after he has made his deal with Mephistopheles. Most spiritual teachers throughout history have stressed the ethereal, intangible nature of all that is truly spiritual. Jesus said, “My father’s kingdom concerns things not visible and material” (Urantia Book, 1536). However, Faust completely ignores this teaching saying, “The end of physic is our body’s health. Why, Faustus, hast thou not attain’d that end?” (Marlowe). Though Faust longs for a metaphysical approach to life that supersedes “physic”, he seeks this approach for the “body’s health.” Though this may seem like a reasonable aim, Faust still holds the attachment to the physical realm by seeking to make his body healthy instead of finding spiritual balance. By using metaphysical knowledge to manipulate external circumstances Faust abuses life by trying to “play God” and extend it beyond it’s natural longevity. Faust, a doctor, serves as a symbol for all of mankind’s over-attachment to ephemeral life and negligence towards their spiritual life. The parallel’s between magic, metaphysical manipulation of the environment and the purpose of medicine are manifold. By prescribing pills and complicated technological treatments to physical and mental maladies, medicine could be seen to infringe upon the natural order of things and hence the way of God.
The power that medical science and science in general has over physical reality can only be possible thanks to the intricate logical and mathematical understanding of reality that we as humans have. Faust remarks to himself as he prepares to make a deal with the devil, “Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters. Ay, these are those that Faust most desires,” (Marlowe). By describing Faust’s thirst for abstract knowledge as a “desire” the text further conveys it’s central message that selfish indulgence can apply to the ethereal realm as well, not just carnal pleasure. The Buddha teaches that desire and attachment are the main things keeping people from finding true happiness and spiritual balance. Again, Faust directly opposes these teachings in his aims. Faust finds himself unable to be satisfied with even the simplest elements of earthly existence. He laments the “gloomy shadow of the Earth,” (Marlowe). In Buddhism, the cycle of reincarnation dictates that one must constantly be reborn into Earthly existence until they have attained Nirvana. Faust tries to defy this cycle by refusing to accept the gloomy shadow of the Earth. He’s an isolated lonely scholar, constantly aloof from others. Instead of seeking to make real human connections to others and seeking to share in life with them, Faust turns to books and knowledge to alleviate his sadness. Keeping in line with the teaching of the Buddha, Faust does not admit to himself that life is suffering and instead becomes further and further attached to metaphysical knowledge and power. Again, this is overtly reflected in approaching scientific endeavors such as genetic engineering, cloning, even manufactured foods. It all reflects a desire to manipulate external reality to achieve happiness, rather than finding internal, spiritual balance.
When Mephistopheles appears in front of Faust and Faust inquires how he has left hell if he’s damned there, Mephistopheles replies, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it,” (Marlowe). This parallels the Buddhist idea that we are reborn on earth until we find Nirvana, which is an internal state of spiritual balance. Though Mephistopheles appears to Faust on Earth, in reality, he remarks that it “is hell” where they are because it’s within Faust’s own soul and mind that he’s being damned, and it’s due to his own decisions. By praying for the mercy of God and blaming the devil for misfortune, people fail to take responsibility for their own actions. Ironically, much of the niceties of modern science allow people to behave more irresponsibly: birth control pills, abortions, carpet cleaners, etc. An extremely pessimistic perspective might say all of our material possessions just build more attachment to the material world and keep us farther away from Heaven, Nirvana, or what have you. Faustus shows that it’s within ourselves that this attachment develops. The Good Angel advises Faustus, “Lay that damned book aside,” (Marlowe) and even Mephistopheles even informs Faust, “Nor will we come, unless he use such means whereby he is in danger to be damn’d,” (Marlowe). By consciously continuing to delve into occult, arcane literature for the purpose of making himself more metaphysically powerful, Faustus has brought Mephistopheles upon himself. This demonstrates a significant spiritual teaching that one can only be damned if they’re essentially asking for it. Mephistopheles himself, in fact, constantly admonishes Faust against taking the selfish actions that he does. When Faustus asks for a wife Mephistopheles says, “How! a wife! I prithee, Faustus, talk not of a wife,” (Marlowe). Faust proceeds to insist that he be fetched a wife, despite Mephistopheles’ response implying that trying to attain a spouse through metaphysical magic will only lead to further damnation. Faust might not realize fully what it means to be damned as he pompously states, “This word ‘damnation’ terrifies not him, for he confounds hell in Elysium,” (Marlowe). “Him” in this case is Faust himself, as he’s speaking in the third person. This could be seen as semantically implicative as Faust is not within himself enough to understand how spiritually short-sighted he has become in his pursuit for cosmic knowledge. By referencing Elysium as a retort to hell, Faust makes a very interesting further demonstration of his egomaniacal naivety, at least from a historical perspective. The Elysian Fields were the location of a spiritual ceremony that many Greek philosophers would attend where a unidentified substance was consumed that was purported to grant “spiritual enlightenment”. Parallels in the modern era can be seen in the LSD-fueled psychedelic consciousness and cultural explosion in San Francisco during the 1960's. People who’ve eaten LSD often talk of feeling enlightened in some way after consuming the substance. Hunter S. Thompson mercilessly critiques the acid culture with his lament of “All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit,” (Thompson, 100). If Faust or Plato or Stanley Owsley would have read the first book of the Christian Bible, Genesis, they may have had a fair caveat against being attached to a material substance to attain enlightenment and objective knowledge of good and bad. By referencing Elysium Faust ironically notes a historical parallel to the same sort of spiritual downfall he’s choosing to undergo.
By defining damnation as an ugly, horrible, wretched thing people often overlook the subtle, surreptitious manner in which most individuals find themselves becoming damned or, in other words, in a state of inner turmoil. Often this tragic progression occurs not because of an overtly cruel, malicious act such as murder or burglary. The internal path to damnation often stems from more subtle conceits and selfish aims. In modern folk singer Steve Earle’s song “Transcendental Blues” he warns against trying to transcend the suffering and highs and lows of this life too overzealously and rapidly. He morosely laments “Happy ever after till the day you die. Be careful what you ask for, you don’t know till you try.” Faust’s fault lies in attempting to get something for nothing. He calls upon Mephistopheles through magic to assist him in his intellectual development. Rather than read the scriptures as the Good Angel advises and gradually coming to understand the inner truth of sound existence, he seeks to find happiness through power and holistic knowledge of the universe and elements. He doesn’t make the effort to attain wisdom through study and meditation, yet expects the knowledge to magically appear for him. Apparently this is metaphysically possible, but at the cost of his soul. He tries to find enlightenment by walking backwards on the path instead of down it. Faustus skeptically questions after talking with Mephistopheles, “What boots it then, to think of God or heaven? Away with such vain fancies and despair; despair in God and trust in Beelzebub,” (Marlowe). Faust dismisses God and heaven as “vain” yet ironically he’s completely self-absorbed intellectually. Though he may not be vain in a material, covetous sense, he’s deluded enough in his mind to feel himself somehow superior to others in intellectual ability. Of course he only has this ability because of a deal with Lucifer of which he remains somehow totally blind to the spiritual implications. He laments how there is “despair” in God which again demonstrates the irony of his perspective. The common toil, suffering, and occasional saddened despair of life is part of the cross all must bear.
Faustus serves as a fitting example of the modern-day weak religious dependant, who asks what God can do for them, rather than what they can do for God. If one lives a good life, most spiritual teachings propound, then they will live selflessly and not expect reward. To truly give something one cannot expect reciprocation, or else in their heart they are still serving themselves. Faust admits that he’s being self-serving in his actions saying, “The God thou serv’st is thine own appetite, wherein is fixed the love of Beelzebub,” (Marlowe). By comparing love of the devil and self-service, Marlowe indirectly espouses a central tenet of Buddhism: that the self cannot be defined and trying to do so only adds further attachment to material, selfish things and pursuits. Faust justifies his decision to turn to the devil by saying, “When Mephistophilis shall stand by me, What god can hurt thee, Faustus? thou art safe,” (Marlowe). Many of the words in this reflection by Faust again indicate the degree of his spiritual delusion and egotism. First off, he continues to speak in the hilariously telling third person, but that aside, he also expresses gratitude that no God can hurt him. The word “hurt” carries great connotative significance here as the suffering and toil of life, again, must be accepted initially by anyone truly seeking spiritual balance. Faust, being a doctor, reflects the ethical crux of medicine in that he seeks to end physical pain instead of spiritual suffering. Buddha, Jesus, and many other spiritual teachers have made the important distinction between these two aims in finding spiritual peace. Faust seems self-contented about being “safe”. This attachment to security is reflected in many elements of modern society such as people selfishly using religion as a crutch, social security, insurance, etc.
Another way in which the course of man in modern society reflects Faust’s internal struggle can be seen in man’s unerring utilization of environmentally destructive technology. Despite pretty indicative, empirical statistics showing global warming to be a very real thing and the constant news of extinct animals due to human intervention, most people choose to ignore this information and continue to live just as carelessly in regards to environmental awareness as before. When Faust asks Mephistopheles to show him the book wherein he “might see all plants herbs and trees that grow upon the earth,” (Marlowe), he seems to realize the error of his ways for a moment and considers repenting saying “When I behold the heavens, then I repent,” (Marlowe). By correlating the elements of nature with the more mythic concept of “the heavens” or, pragmatically, the sky, Marlowe expresses a precursory environmentalist sentiment. The precocity of this connection speaks to the awesome power of the text to warn humanity against further pursuing manipulation of the environment for our own ends as most of our desires and material expectations far exceed simple survival.
The ultimate indication of the entrapment of the deal Faust makes with Lucifer for cosmic knowledge comes when he asks of Mephistopheles “who made the world?” (Marlowe). Mephistopheles replies that he cannot answer that question. Faust indignantly complains that their agreement dictated that Mephistopheles would tell him anything he wanted to know. Mephistopheles replies that he can tell him anything he wants to know that “is not against our kingdom,” (Marlowe). The “kingdom” Mephistopheles refers to is the kingdom of hell, and in telling Faust who made the world, Mephistopheles would give credit to God, or the essential spiritual mystery and awesomeness of life. This paradox of knowledge and power can be seen in our modern era. We can cure innumerable diseases, put a man on the moon, and manipulate our own bodies through surgery to make them seem more beautiful, but we’ve yet to end war, starvation, or any other central conflicts in life that we have the ways and means to cease if we wished. Many of our scientific developments are applied to problems created by previous scientific developments and some of them are downright horrific. The nuclear bomb comes to mind. We’re like a snake eating it’s own tail instead of finding spiritual balance, most people seem overly attached to either material pursuits or empowering knowledge of reality. We can see microscopic organisms and are fairly certain we know the size of the known universe, yet we can’t see the obstacles within ourselves that keep us from finding peace within this life.
Faust’s story is ironically pantomimed by the behavior of modern man as a collective. His attachment to security, knowledge, and stubborn inability to exercise his free will so as to live a better life even after the good angel and many others warn him against his course of action parallels a similar chosen obliviousness in modern man. Faust will see us all on Mars with bells on.
Marlowe, Christopher. Faust. Project Guttenberg. 1996.
Earle, Steve. Transcendental Blues. Artemis Records, 2000.
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Vintage, 1971.