Who Pulls Me Down?
A Look at the Calvinist doctrine of Double Predestination in Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
Throughout Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, the title character makes several attempts to renege on his pact with the Devil, and thereby save his soul. In the end, he is unable to do so. This inability to repent raises the important question of whether Faustus as a character is deserving of pity; or, more directly, whether he was actually unable to repent, or merely unwilling. Naturally, if Faustus were predestined to damnation, he deserves pity for, at the very least, the sheer impossibility of his situation; conversely, if his failure to repent was a result of a lack of willpower, or a conscious decision to continue to do evil, it becomes rather difficult to make a case that Faustus is an unfortunate victim of circumstance, and pity is not likely to be forthcoming. Keefer, in both the preface and the text of his edition of Doctor Faustus, makes it clear that he favors the interpretation wherein Faustus is among the reprobate, predestined to be damned, and he makes an excellent case for reading Doctor Faustus as a Calvinist text.
Keefer calls particular attention to the manner in which Faustus takes several sections of Scripture out of context. In the first scene, Faust contemplates his mastery of the fields of Logic and Medicine, and their failure to satisfy his desire for knowledge, before coming to consider the topic of religion:
Stipendium peccati mors est. Ha! Stipendium, etc.
The reward of sin is death? That's hard.
Si peccasse negamus, fallimur,
Et nulla est in nobis veritas:
If we say that we have no sin,
We decieve ourselves, and there's no truth in us.
Why then belike we must sin,
And so consequently die.
Aye, we must die, an everlasting death. (I. i. 39-47)
Twice Faustus discards the context surrounding these Biblical quotations, context which would turn the message of despair which he takes from these quotations into an explicit description of how to obtain salvation. A more apt syllogism, one which Faustus would probably have reached, had he not discarded the context, is this: Sin leads to death, while freedom from sin leads to eternal life. Everybody sins
, but those who acknowledge their sins and repent are forgiven them. So, repentance leads to eternal life, and failure to repent leads to everlasting death. Faustus, however, reaches the conclusion that he is doomed to die simply by virtue of being human. Given that Faustus was an accomplished scholar, it is unlikely that he would have been unaware of the context he discarded; that much is clear. The question, then, is whether he consciously decided to pick out exactly those passages which would lead him to his desired conclusion, or whether he arrived at the conclusion that he was doomed as a consequence of having been predestined for damnation.
Faustus remains convinced throughout most of the play that he has no chance at salvation. For example, immediately after he has signed his pact with Lucifer, he says, "Homo fuge! Whither should I fly? / If unto God he'll throw thee down to hell (II. I. 77-78)." Later, after he sells the horse to the horse-courser, he contemplates his fate: "What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die? / Thy fatal time doth draw to final end; / Despair doth drive distrust into my thoughts (IV. ii. 33-35)." Finally, during the old man's visit, Faustus sinks completely into despair:
Where art thou, Faustus? wretch, what hast thou done?
Damn'd art thou, Faustus, damn'd, despair and die!
Hell claims his right, and with a roaring voice
Says, "Faustus, come, thine hour is almost come!" (V. i. 47-50)
When he does attempt to save his soul, he is first convinced of the futility of his cause by the Evil Angel: "Rather illusions, fruits of lunacy
, / That makes men foolish that do trust them most (II. i. 18-19)." Later, when he tries again to repent, he is cowed into submission
by Mephistopheles' and Lucifer's threats: "Thou traitor, Faustus, I arrest thy soul / For disobedience to my sovreign lord. / Revolt, or I'll in piece-meal
tear thy flesh!" (V. i. 66-68)
The most compelling evidence that Faustus is among the reprobate, and is therefore unable to repent, comes during his final hours, as he tries desperately and vainly to escape his fate. After the old man leaves him, he attempts to turn back to God, saying, "I do repent, and yet I do despair (V. i. 63)," and is just as quickly turned away from salvation once more by Mephistopheles' threats. Had Faustus been able to repent, though, he would have had nothing to fear from Hell; the fact that Mephistopheles' threat was effective in turning Faustus away from God indicates that his heart had never been with God in the first place. As the clock strikes eleven, Faustus continues desperately to seek a chance at salvation, but is twice more rebuffed:
O, I'll leap up to my God: who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament:
One drop would save my soul, half a drop! Ah, my Christ,
Ah rend not my heart for naming of my Christ,
Yet will I call on him, oh spare me Lucifer!
Where is it now? 'tis gone,
And see where God stretches out His arm,
And bends His ireful brows! (V. ii. 70-77)
Here, in line 70, is the significant question of the text: who pulls Faustus down? It is established earlier in Act V that, if Faustus were sincere in wishing to be with God, Mephistopheles and Lucifer would have no power to prevent him from doing so: Mephistopheles says of the old man, "His faith is great, I cannot touch his soul (V. i. 79)," and we have already learned in Act II that Lucifer would have not even the power to torment Faustus' body, when the Good Angel says to Faustus, "Repent, and [devils] shall never raze thy skin (II. iii. 83)." It is implausible at best that Faustus, faced with an eternity in Hell which he would avoid if he could repent, would not sincerely wish to do so. It has also been established that Mephistopheles' threats of torment if Faustus should repent are empty — if Faustus repents, Lucifer would have power over neither his body nor his soul. The only thing left which could hold Faustus down and prevent him from taking refuge with God is God himself. This passage makes it clear that Faustus is called to repent, that he sincerely wishes to do so, and yet that he is unable to carry out his wish. Is it simply too late for him to come back to God? Has he gone too far down the road to Hell to ever be saved? These questions, too, are answered for us in the text, when the Good Angel maintains that it is "Never too late
, if Faustus can repent (II. iii. 81)." The unstated reason for Faustus' failure to repent, then, is that he lacks the capability to do so. He is predestined for damnation, and there is nothing he can do to avoid his fate.
In conclusion, a close reading of Keefer's edition of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus indicates that Faustus is among the reprobate, in accordance with Calvinist theology. Try as he might, he has no chance of escaping damnation — even had he never concluded a pact with Lucifer, he still would have ended up in Hell. Marlowe's text provides both a question — Who pulls Faustus down? — and an answer: God himself; no other being could have both the power and the desire to keep Faustus from turning to God, if he so desired. Consequently, Faustus is indeed a character who deserves our pity; for no matter which way he turned, the path to Hell awaited him, and he had no chance of escape.
All quotations from Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, ed. Michael Keefer. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Literary Texts, 1991.
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