A Beautiful Struggle: Suffering and Salvation in Goethe's Faust
"A good man in his darkling aspiration / Remembers the right road throughout his quest" (89).
These lines suggest that though “Man errs as long as he will strive,” that the imperfections of humankind are conditional, that the human mind has the capacity to make moral judgements even when one acts against one’s conscience (87). In Faust, Goethe infuses this sentiment with the notion that salvation is dependent on one’s own efforts and an individual relationship with God. Furthermore, Faust possesses an insatiable hunger to transcend human limits and comprehend something greater than himself, and this is the driving force that leads him down opposing paths, seeking fulfillment through both the pursuit of sacred Knowledge and the enjoyment of profane earthly delights, the result of which is mental anguish. And it is this untiring aspect of Faust’s personality that is at once the root of all his suffering and the source of his salvation.
If nothing else, this is a play about a quest–-or more accurately, a beautiful struggle, “to strive and strive” for self-fulfillment (141). However, there is a tragic ambiguity inherent in the nature of this quest. What Faust desires, what he aches for is not possible. He cannot “tear open the eternal portals,” and humankind cannot transcend human limits (117). When Faust contemplates his suicide by poison, that he should “offer this last drink with all [his] soul / Unto the morning as a festive high salute,” he is flirting with eternal damnation (119). The abandonment of the struggle is in essence a rejection of God. Yet, Faust does not abandon the quest. He is saved by the “deeply humming strokes” of a choral song, “the sweet consoling hymn” of the Easter message, “confirming the new covenant” (119). In the resurrection of Christ, “One who victorious / Over laborious / Trials has risen,” Faust sees the possibility of his own resurrection from the brink of death, he sees hope in continuing the struggle (121). But the fact remains, he must keep on going.
The pact that Faust makes with Mephisto parallels this suicidal motif. Should he ever find such complete fulfillment in selfish earthly pursuits that he would “recline, calmed, on a bed of sloth,” Mephisto may “destroy [him] then and there” (183). Nevertheless, in his final moments, Faust declares “As I presage a happiness so high, / I now enjoy the highest moment” (469). Mephisto strikes him down. This belies the context of the exclamation though; Faust does not die anguished and tormented, nor does he turn his back on God. Rather, he recognizes that “Freedom and life are earned by those alone / Who conquer them each day anew” (469). Faust finds joy in the struggle, in understanding his relationship as an individual in society, and as one man in the face of God. There is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction in Faust’s resurrection, so much so, that the tragic sense of ambiguity pervading The First Part of the Tragedy is overshadowed by the “supernal love” and redemption at the conclusion of The Second Part of the Tragedy (493).
Thus, Goethe responds, one may not find tragedy in salvation. The tragic elements of Faust’s story, his apparent desolation, his utter despondency, and the seductive temptation of Mephisto’s promises serve as a motivating force. Although his toils cause suffering, this suffering guides Faust in the right direction. His mistakes create a map for all of humanity. This is not a map that illustrates the Way, for every individual must strive to comprehend their own relation to God. Instead, this map of Faust’s tireless efforts acts to manifest the indefinite number of missteps that result in a course that deviates from God’s path.
All page numbers are in reference to the 1961 English Language Translation by Walter Kaufmann.