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Goethe's Standard of the Soul

Goethe's Standard of the Soul, as Illustrated in Faust



The inner soul's conflict which Goethe has embodied in the personality of Faust comes to light at the very beginning of the Drama, when Faust turns away from the sign of the Macrocosm to that of the Earth Spirit. The content of the first Faust Monologue up to this experience of the soul is preliminary. Faust's dis-satisfaction with the sciences and with his position as a man of learning is far less characteristic of Goethe's nature than the kinship which Faust feels to the Spirit Universal on the one side and to the Earth Spirit on the other. The all-inclusive harmony of the universe is revealed to the soul by the sign of the macrocosm:

“How each the Whole its substance gives,
Each in the other works and lives!
Like heavenly forces rising and descending,
Their golden urns reciprocally lending,
With wings that winnow blessing
From Heaven through Earth I see them pressing,
Filling the All with harmony unceasing!”

If we take these words in conjunction with Goethe's knowledge of the sign of the Macrocosm, we come upon an experience of great significance in the soul of Faust. There appears before Faust's soul a sense picture of the Universe, — a picture of the sun itself, of the earth in connection with the other planets of the solar system, and of the activity of the single heavenly bodies as a revelation of the Divine Being guiding movement and reciprocal interplay. This is not a mechanical heaven, but a cosmic weaving of spiritual hierarchies whose effluence is the life of the world. Into this life man is placed, and he comes forth as the apotheosis of the work of all these Beings. Faust, however, cannot find in his soul the experience for which he is seeking even in the vision of this universal harmony. We can sense the yearning that gnaws in the depths of this soul: “How do I become Man in the true sense of the word?” The soul longs to experience what makes man consciously truly Man. In the sense image hovering there, the soul cannot call up from the depths of being that profound experience which would make it able to realise itself as the epitome of all that is there as the sign of the macrocosm. For this is the “knowledge” that can be trans-formed through intense inner experience, into “Self-Knowledge.” The very highest knowledge cannot directly comprehend the whole being of man. It can only comprehend a part of man. It must then be borne through life, and in inter-relation with life its range is gradually extended over the whole being of man. Faust lacks the patience to accept knowledge with those limitations which, in the early stages, must exist. He wants to experience instantaneously a soul-realization which can only come in the course of time. And so he turns away from the revelation of the Macrocosm:

“How grand a show! but, ah! a show alone.”

Knowledge can never be more than a picture, a reflection of life. Faust's desire is not for a picture of life, but for life itself. He turns therefore to the sign of the Earth Spirit, in which he has a symbol before him of the whole infinite being of man as a product of earth activity. The symbol calls forth in his soul a vision of all the infinitude of being which man bears within him, but which would stun him, overwhelm him, if he were to receive it gathered up into the perception of a single moment of discovery rather than drawn out into the many pictures of that knowledge which is discovered to him in the long course of life.

In the phenomenon of the Earth Spirit Faust sees what man is in reality, but the result is confusion when in the weakened reflection of the forces of cognition it does not penetrate to the consciousness. There was present in Goethe, not of course in a philosophical form, but as a living concept, that spiritual fear which overtakes man in his life of thought: what would become of me if I suddenly were to behold the riddle of my existence and had not the knowledge to master it!

It was not Goethe's intention to express in his Faust the disillusionment of a misguided yearning for knowledge. His aim was rather to represent the conflict associated with this yearning — a conflict that has its seat in the being of man. Man in every moment of his existence is more than can be disclosed if his destiny is to be fulfilled. Man must evolve from his inner being; he must unfold that which he can only fully know after the development has taken place. The constitution of his forces of knowledge is such that when brought to bear prematurely upon what at the right time they must master, they are liable to deception as the result of their own operations. Faust lives in all that the words of the Earth Spirit reveal to him. But this, his own being, confuses and deceives him when it appears objectively before his soul at a time when the degree of maturity, to which he has attained, does not yield him the know-ledge whereby he can transform this being into a picture:

“Thou'rt like the Spirit which thou comprehendest. Not me!”

Faust is profoundly shocked by these words. He has really looked upon himself, but he cannot compare himself to what he sees, because he does not know what he really is. The contemplation of the Self has deceived and confused the consciousness that is not ripe for it. Faust puts the question: “Not thee? Who then?” The answer is given in dramatic form. Wagner enters and is himself the answer to this, “Who then?” It was pride of soul in Faust that at this moment made him desire to grasp the secret of his own being. What lives in him is at first only the striving after this secret; Wagner is the reflected image of what he is able at the moment to know of himself. The scene with Wagner will be entirely misunderstood if the attention is merely directed to the contrast between the highly spiritual Faust and the very limited Wagner. In the meeting with Wagner after the Earth Spirit scene Faust has to realise that his power of cognition is really at the Wagner stage. In the dramatic imagination of this scene Wagner is the reflected image of Faust.

This is something that the Earth Spirit cannot immediately reveal to Faust, for it must come to pass as a result of development. And Goethe felt compelled not to allow Faust to experience the depths of higher human existence only from the point of view of forty years of life, but also to bring before his soul in a kind of retrospect, all that had escaped him in his abstract striving for knowledge. In Wagner Faust confronts himself in his soul vision. The monologue uttered by the real “Faust,” beginning with the words:

“How him alone all hope abandons ...”

contains nothing but waves beating up from subconscious depths of soul, expressing themselves finally in the resolve to commit suicide. At this moment of experience Faust cannot but draw the inference from his life of feeling that “all hope” must “abandon” men. His soul is only saved from the consequences of this by the fact that life invokes before him something that to his abstract striving for knowledge was formerly meaningless: the Easter Festival of the human heart in its simplicity and the Easter Procession. During these experiences, brought back to him in retrospect from his semi-conscious youth, the contact with the spiritual world that he has had as a result of the meeting with the Earth Spirit, works in him. As a result he frees himself from this attitude of soul during the conversation with Wagner when he sees the Easter procession. Wagner remains in the region of abstract scientific endeavour. Faust must bring the soul experiences through which he has passed into real life in order that life may give him the power to find another answer than “Wagner” to the question “Not thee? Then who?”

A man who, like Faust, has had contact with the spiritual world in its reality, is bound to face life differently from men whose knowledge is limited to the phenomenona of sense existence and consists of conceptions derived from this alone. What Goethe has called the “eye of spiri” has opened for Faust as a result of experience. Life brings him to “conquests”, other than that of the Wagner being. Wagner is also a portion of that human nature which Faust has within him. Faust conquers it in that he subsequently makes living within him all that he failed to make living in his youth. Faust's endeavour to make the word of the Bible living is also part of the awakening. But during this process of awakening still another reflected image of his own being — Mephistopheles — appears before Faust's soul. Mephistopheles is the further, weightier answer to the “Not thee? Then who?” Faust must conquer Mephistopheles by the power of the life experiences in the soul that has had contact with the spiritual world. To see in the figure of Mephistopheles a portion of Faust's own being is not to sin against the artistic comprehension of the Faust Drama, for it is not suggested that Goethe intended to create a symbolical figure and not a living, dramatic personage in his Mephistopheles. In life itself man beholds in other men portions of his own being. Man recognises himself in other men. I do not assert that to me John Smith is only a symbol when I say: ‘I see in him a portion of my own being.’ The dramatic figures of Wagner and of Mephistopheles are individual, living beings; what Faust experiences through them is Self Perception.

What does the School Scene in Faust really bring before the souls of those who allow it to work upon them? Nothing more nor less than the nature which Faust manifests to the students — the Mephistophelian element in him. When a man has not conquered Mephistopheles in his own nature he can be manifested as this figure of Mephistopheles who confronts the pupils. It appears to me that in this scene Goethe allowed something from an earlier composition to remain — something that he would certainly have remodelled, if as he remodelled the older portions he had been able completely to understand the spirit which the whole work now reveals. In accordance with the import of this spirit all Mephistopheles' dealings with the students must also be experienced by Faust. In the earlier composition of Faust, Goethe was not intent upon giving everything so dramatic a form that it appears in some way as an experience of Faust himself. In the final elaboration of his poem he has simply taken over a great deal that is not an integral part of the spirit of the later dramatic composition.

The writer of this Essay belongs to the ranks of those readers of Faust who return to the poem again and again. His repeated reading has afforded him increasing insight into the infinite knowledge and experience of life which Goethe has embodied in it. He has, however, always failed to see Mephistopheles — in spite of his living dramatic qualities — as an unitary, inwardly uniform being. He fully understands why the commentators of Faust do not know how they should really interpret Mephistopheles. The idea has arisen that Mephistopheles is not a devil in the real sense, that he is only a servant of the Earth Spirit. But this is contradicted by what Mephistopheles himself says: “Fain would I go over to the Devil, if only I myself were not a Devil!” If we compare all that is expressed in Mephistopheles, we certainly do not get a uniform view.

As Goethe worked out his Poem he found that it drew nearer and nearer to the deepest problems of human experience. The light streaming from these problems of experience shines into all the events narrated in the poem. Mephistopheles is an embodiment of what man has to overcome in the course of a deeper experience of life. In the figure of Mephistopheles there stands an inner opponent of what man must strive for from out of his being. But if we follow closely those experiences which Goethe has woven subtly into the creation of Mephistopheles, we do not find one such spiritual opponent of the nature of Man, but two. One grows out of man's willing and feeling nature, the other out of his intellectual nature. The willing and feeling nature strives to isolate man from the rest of the universe wherein the root and source of ais existence exist. Man is deceived by his nature of will and feeling into imagining that he can traverse his life's path by relying on his inner being alone. He is deceived into a disregard of the fact that he is a limb of the universe in the sense that a finger is a limb of the organism. Man is destined to spiritual death if he cuts himself off from the universe, just as a finger would be destined to physical death if it attempted to live apart from the organism. There is a rudimentary striving in man in the direction of such a separation. Wisdom in life is not gained by shutting the eyes to the existence of this rudimentary striving, but by conquering it, transforming it in such a way that instead of being an opponent, it becomes an aid to life. A man who like Faust, has had contact with the spiritual world, must enter into the fight against this opposing force in human life much more consciously than one who has had no such contact. The power of this Luciferic adversary of man can be dramatised into a Being. This Being works through those soul forces which strive in the inner man for the enhancement of Egoism.

The other opposing force in human nature derives its power from the illusions to which man is exposed as a being who perceives and forms conceptions of the outer world. Experience of the outer world that is yielded by cognition is dependent upon the pictures which, in accordance with the particular attitude of his soul, and other multifarious circumstances, a man is able to make of this outer world. The Spirit of Illusion creeps into the formation of these pictures. It distorts the true relation to the outer world and to the rest of humanity into which man could bring himself if its operations were not there. It is also, for instance, the spirit of dissension and strife between man and man, and sets human beings into that state of subjection to circumstances which brings remorse and pangs of conscience in its train. In comparison with a figure of Persian Mythology, we may call it the Ahrimanic Spirit. The Persian Myths ascribe qualities to their figure of Ahriman which justify the use of this name.

The Luciferic and Ahrimanic opponents of the wisdom of man approach human evolution in quite different ways. Goethe's Mephistopheles has clearly Ahrimanic qualities, and yet the Luciferic element also exists in him. A Faust nature is more strongly exposed to the temptations both of Ahriman and of Lucifer than one without spiritual experiences. It may now appear that instead of the one Mephistopheles Goethe might have placed two characteristic beings there in contrast to Faust. Faust would then have been led through his life's labyrinth in one way by the one figure, and in another by the second. In Goethe's Mephistopheles, the two different kinds of qualities, Luciferic and Ahrimanic, are mingled. This not only hinders the reader from making an uniform picture of Mephistopheles in his imagination, but it proved to be an obstacle to Goethe himself when again and again he tried to spin the thread of the Faust poem through his own life. One is conscious of a very natural desire to witness or hear much of what Mephistopheles does or says, from a different being. Of course Goethe attributed the difficulties which confronted him in the development of his Faust to many other things; but in his sub-consciousness there worked the twofold nature of Mephistopheles, and this made it difficult to guide the development of the course of Faust's existence into channels which must lead through the powers of opposition.

Considerations of this kind call forth all too readily the cheap objection that one wants to put Goethe right. This objection must be tolerated for the sake of the necessity for understanding Goethe's personal relation-ship to his Faust poem. We need only be reminded of how Goethe complained to friends of the weakness of his creative power just at the time when he wanted to bring his “life-poem” to an end. Let us remember that Goethe in his advanced age needed Eckermann's encouragement to rouse him to the task of working out the plan of the continuation of Faust which he intended to incorporate as such into the third book of Poetry and Truth. Karl Julius Schröer rightly says (page 30, Third Edition, Part II., of his Essay on Faust): “Without Eckermann we should really have had nothing more than the plan which possibly would have had some sort of form like the ‘scheme of continuation’ of the ‘Natural daughter’ that is embodied in the work.” We know what such a plan is for the world “an object of consideration for the literary historian and nothing else.” The cessation of Goethe's work on Faust has been attributed to every kind of possibility and impossibility. People have tried in one way or another to reconcile the contradictions that are felt to exist in the figure of Mephistopheles. The student of Goethe cannot well disregard these things. Or are we to make a confession like that of Jacob Minor in his otherwise interest ing book Goethe's Faust (Vol. II., p. 28): “Goethe was approaching his fiftieth year; and from the period of his Swiss journey comes, as far as I know, the first sigh which the thought of approaching age drew from him in the beautiful poem Swiss Alps (Schweizeralpe). Thought as a harbinger of the wisdom of old age came more to the foreground even in him — with his eternal youth — who hitherto was only accustomed to behold and create. He makes plans and schemes on his Swiss journey like any real child of circumstance, just as he does in Faust.” But a consideration of Goethe's life can lead us to the view that in a poem like Faust, certain things must be presented which could only be the result of the experience of mature age. If poetic power can wane in old age — even in a Goethe — how could such a poem have some into being at all?

Paradoxical as it may seem to many minds, a serious study of Goethe's personal relationship to his Faust and to the figure of Mephistopheles seem to force us to see in the latter an inner foundation of the difficulties experienced by Goethe in his life poem. The dual nature of the figure of Mephistopheles worked in the depths of his soul and did not emerge above the threshold of his consciousness. But because Faust's experiences must contain reflections of the deeds of Mephistopheles, obstacles were continually being set up when it was a question of developing dramatically the course of Faust's life, and as a result of the working of the dual nature of the opposing forces, the right impulses for the development would not come to light.

* * * *

The Prologue in Heaven, which with the Dedication and the Prologue of the Theatre now forms an introduction to the first Part of Faust, was first written in the year 1797. In Goethe's discussions with Schiller on the subject of the poem, and their outcome which is to be found in the correspondence between the two men, we can see that about this time Goethe altered his conception of those basic forces which revealed themselves as the life of Faust. Until then everything that comes to light in Faust flows out of that inner being of his soul that is urging him towards the consummation and widening of life. This inner impulse is the only one in evidence. Through the Prologue in Heaven Faust is placed in the whole world process as a seeking man. The spiritual powers that temper and maintain the world are revealed and the life of Faust is placed in the midst of their reciprocal co-operation and reaction. And so for the consciousness of the poet and of the reader, the being of Faust is removed into the Macrocosm where the Faust of Goethe as a youth did not wish to be. Mephistopheles appears “in Heaven” among the active cosmic beings. But just here the twofold being of Mephistopheles comes clearly into evidence. The “Lord” says:

“Of all the bold denying spirits
The waggish knave least trouble doth create.”

There must therefore be yet other spirits who “deny” in the world struggle. And how does this agree with Mephistopheles' unrest at the end of Part II. in reference to the corpse, when he says “in Heaven”:

“I much prefer the cheeks where ruddy blood is leaping
And when a corpse approaches close my house.”

Let us imagine that instead of one Mephistopheles, a Luciferic and an Ahrimanic spirit oppose the “Lord” in the fight for Faust. An Ahrimanic spirit must feel unrest before a “corpse,” for Ahriman is the spirit of illusion. If we go to the sources of illusion we find them to be connected with the mortal, material element working in human life. The forces of knowledge, of cognition, which become active to the degree in which the impulses appear in them which finally bring about death, underlie the Ahrimanic illusion. The impulses of Will and of reeling work in opposition to these forces. They are connected with budding, growing life; they are most powerful in childhood and youth. The more a man preserves the impulses of youth, the more vitally do these forces emerge in his old age. In these forces lie the Luciferic temptation. Lucifer can say: “I love the cheeks where ruddy blood is leaping”; Ahriman cannot “close his house” to a corpse. And the “Lord” can say to Ahriman:

“Of all the bold denying spirits
The waggish knave least trouble cloth create.”

The scoffing nature is akin to the nature of illusion. And so far as the “Eternal” in man is concerned, the Ahrimanic being governing the material and transitory, is less significant than the other denying spirit who is inwardly bound up with the kernel of man's being. The perception of a dual nature in Mephistopheles is not the result of an arbitrary fancy but the self-evident feeling of the existence of a duality in the constitution of man's universe and life. Goethe could not help being aware subconsciously of an element which made him feel: I am confronting the universal form of life with the Faust-Mephistopheles paradox, but it will not harmonise.

If what has here been said were taken in the sense of the pedantic, critical suggestion that Goethe ought to have drawn Mephistopheles otherwise, it could easily be refuted. It would only be necessary to point out that in Goethe's imagination this figure grew as unity, — nay had to grow as such, out of the tradition of the Faust Legend, out of Germanic and Northern Mythology. And over against the evidence of “contradictions” in a living figure, apart from the fact that what is full of life must necessarily contain “life and its contradictions,” we could adduce Goethe's own clear words: “If phantasy (imagination) did not produce things which must for ever remain problematic to the intellect, there would not be much in it. This is what distinguishes poetry from prose.” What is here suggested does not in any sense lie in this region. But what Karl Julius Schröer says (page xciv., 3rd edition of Part II. of his Essay on Faust) is indisputable: “Sparkling, witty, brilliantly descriptive, and manifesting a penetration of the obscure background of the most sublime problems of humanity ... the poem stimulates in us feelings of the most intense reverence ...” This is the whole point: all that lay before Goethe's imagination in his Faust poem appeared to him against the “obscure background of the most sublime problems of humanity” which he penetrated again and again. The attitude in which Schröer, with his deep knowledge and rare love of Goethe's genius, makes these statements is unassailable, because Schröer cannot be reproached with having wished to explain Goethe's poem in the sense of an abstract development of ideas. But because the background of the most sublime problems of humanity stood before Goethe's soul, the traditional figure of the “Northern Devil” expanded before his spiritual gaze into that dual Being to which the profound student of life and the universe will be led when he realises how Man is placed within the whole world process.

The Mephistopheles figure which hovered before Goethe when he began his poem was in line with Faust's estrangement from the import of the Macrocosm. The conflicts of the soul then rising from his inner being led to a struggle against the opposing power that lays hold of man's inner nature and is Luciferic. But Goethe was bound to lead Faust into the struggle with the powers of the external world also. The nearer he came to the elaboration of the second part of Faust, the more strongly did he feel this necessity. And in the “Classical Walpurgis Night” which was meant to lead up to the actual meeting between Faust and Helena, world powers and macrocosmic events entered into connection with human experiences. Mephistopheles entering into this connection must assume an Ahrimanic character. As a result of his scientific world conception Goethe had built for himself the bridge over which he was able to bring world events into connection with human evolution. He did this in his “Classical Walpurgis Night.” The poetic value of this will only be appreciated when it is fully realised that in this part of Faust Goethe so completely succeeded in moulding Nature's conceptions into artistic form that nothing of a conceptual, abstract nature remained in them; everything flowed into imagery, into an imaginative form. It is an esthetic superstition to reproach the “Classical Walpurgis Night” with containing a distressing element of abstract scientific theories. And perhaps the bridge between supersensible, macrocosmic events and human experiences is more marked in the mighty concluding picture of the Fifth Act of Part II.

There seems no doubt that Goethe's genius underwent a development in the course of his life as a result of which the dual nature of the cosmic powers opposing man came before his soul's vision and that in the development of his Faust he realised the necessity for overcoming its own beginning, for the life of Faust is turned again to the Macrocosm, from which his incomplete knowledge had at first estranged him.

“A wondrous show! but ah! a show alone.”

Yet into this show there played the forces of all embracing macrocosmic events. The “show” became Life, because Faust strove towards goals that lead man, as a result of the life struggle in his inner being, into conflicts with Powers that make him appear not only as a struggling member of the universe, but as a match for the struggle.

Last Modified: 29-Aug-2017
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