The character of Faust and, most importantly, whether he is qualified as a heroic figure, has occupied critics for a long time. Looked at from the standard moral standpoint, Destro says: “We would be forced to decant the apparent heroism we were meant to accord him”. That he was eventually saved in spite of all the morally questionable deeds he had committed seems the only reason why anyone might consider him heroic. Destro is of the view, however, that we would be wrong to subject Faust to standard morality.
I do agree with Destro’s assertion that it would be practically impossible to find any moral or heroic merits to the character of Faust. This is particularly so if one was to base his/her argument on the contemporary understanding of morality. It would still be problematic for one to apply the philosophical notion of morality during Goethe’s time. In this essay, I will show that Destro’s view presents the most viable manner of comprehending Faust’s character.
Faust was never meant to be judged using standard morality. Destro fields the assertion that in the eyes of his creator, Faust was already a morally decadent character. He was probably meant to be immoral from the viewpoint of standard morality (Destro). This would be supported by his egoistic and hedonistic attitude that runs throughout the text. It leads Destro to conclude that “the salvation of Faust, the magician, the robber, the instigator of murderers, sounds like a mockery of any kind of ethical judgment on him”.
Why then would Goethe have Faust saved at the end? Here, Destro interprets it to mean what we were to subject Faust to was not the standard morality but that of the superman: “In reality, the law that Faust follows is not that of morality in its everyday meaning, which from Moses to Kant was rooted in our relation of responsibility to others but rather the immoral ‘morality’ of superman for whom the supreme law is self-realization”.
Faust is immoral. His immorality can be understood from two perspectives: his immoral actions are either willingly immoral or they are immoral due to the influence of Mephistotles (Destro).
For Goethe to put across the notion that he is willingly immoral, Faust has consistently been characterized as a man of action, one who is moved by profound inner passions to do things that are not always right. For instance, Faust seems to lack capacity to face penance for deserting Gretchen and chooses the dramatic, and relatively easier, route of appropriating Mephistopheles’ powers to save her.
This act is Faust’s own decision and cannot be blamed on Mephistotles. It is the result of the guilt that Faust feels for having abandoned Gretchen: “Let past be past I say! / You’re destroying me!” (Goethe). Destro contrasts Faust’s behavior with Gretchen’s who is ready to face death rather than escape from prison in the company of Faust and Mephistopheles. To again reinforce the fact that he can be blamed for his immorality, Goethe has Faust willingly get into a wager with Mephistopheles:
“Have no fear I’ll break this pact!
The extreme I can promise you: it is
All the power my efforts can extract.
I’ve puffed myself up so highly
I belong in your ranks now” (Destro).
His intentions in doing so are in no way noble since what he seeks in his involvement with Mephistopheles are pleasures that are both egoistic and hedonistic. He, therefore, cannot be objectively argued to be a victim of Mephistopheles. From a moral point of view, he is responsible for his actions and would be expected to atone for them in a morally apt way.
Faust is given to an avid need for humanly pleasures. He portrays little responsibility in giving in to the desires of the flesh, a case in point being his lust for Gretchen. He has his way with her and leaves her, this leads to her eventual death. He shows great vanity when he accepts Mephistopheles offer to restore his youthfulness. On not finding any value in life after a spirit rejects his assertion that he and it are one, he considers committing suicide and it is only Easter bell that distracts him.
From the Dungeon scene, more proof can be found to show that Faust is indeed a negative figure. Foremost, Faust’s rescue plan is motivated by the wrong impetus: his remorse and not necessarily his concern for Gretchen. This can be interpreted as a proof of his egoistic nature.
When he opens Gretchen’s cell, she thinks that time of her execution has come. She rues her death and her lover’s absence: “’I’m still so young, so young! / And yet I’ll die!/I was lovely too, that was my Ruin/ My love was near, now he’s gone /The garland’s torn: the flowers are done” (Goethe). To this lament, Faust declares: “How shall I endure this misery, say!” (Goethe). This declaration is an evidence of his inner guilt and anguish, the feeling that he seeks to assuage by freeing Gretchen.
More profoundly though, Faust’s attempt to save Gretchen is a sign of a much serious flaw; Faust is obviously quite disinclined towards penance. Gretchen’s being in prison is partly his fault. Had he pursued love rather than lust when he first sought to woo Gretchen, she would not have been facing death. He is willing to disregard the past as evidenced by his saying: “Let past be past I say! / You’re destroying me!” (Destro)
This aspect to his character, this proclivity for immorality, Destro says that he cannot be fully blamed on his flawed fictive character but rather should be analyzed from the point of view of the function that he was meant to fulfill by the playwright (Destro).
This is where Destro draws us to the possibility that Goethe obliterated all possibility of our having a dilemma regarding the morality, or a lack, thereof, of Faust. In doing this, Goethe is foregrounding the need for us to overcome the hurdle of morality as it is conceptualized in our everyday lives. It is only in doing this that the real spirit of Faust would be comprehended.
It is not because of his actions that Faust is eventually saved. Rather, it is because of his attitude, his need to understand the world and his unrelenting pursuit of these goals. Faust is a seeker of knowledge; this quest for knowledge occupies his whole life. He is driven by a great need to understand the nature of things, thereby, studying a number of disciplines including law, medicine, philosophy and theology as seen in scene I.
“Ah! Now I’ve done Philosophy,
I’ve finished Law and Medicine,
And sadly even Theology:
Taken fierce pains, from end to end.
Now here I am, a fool for sure!
No wiser than I was before” (Destro).
As Destro says, Faust’s frustration, at the beginning of the play, is understandable: “Having devoted the whole of his life to study, and mastered whatever culture of his time could offer, Faust then discovers, at the ends of a life of sacrifice, renunciation, and contempt from his ‘success,’ the vanity of his efforts” (Destro). He knows all there is to know but he still is not fulfilled. At this juncture, Faust is ready to do all it takes in order to find the all elusive fulfillment.
In doing this, Faust is being both true to himself and honest to himself. And for this, he is saved. Destro argues that it is not for what Faust does but rather for what he had been that he was eventually glorified (Destro). In essence, this means that “his actions are measured, not according to moral criteria (in other words, responsibility towards others) but according to the criterion of how far he corresponds to the law of his actual character” (Destro, 72). In living up to the essence of who he is, Faust is found worthy of going to heaven.
While there are many things that are contentious in the play, a few things come out very clearly. One is that Faust is decidedly an immoral character. Subjected to whatever standards of morality, it would be practically impossible to find him otherwise. Two, he is saved at the end. Less clear, however, is why Goethe chose to glorify Faust at the end. And the explanation forwarded by Destro is the most plausible one for explaining this paradox.
Destro, Alberto. The Guilty Hero, or the Tragic Salvation of Faust. 2011. Web. 2 Feb 2012 < https://eee.uci.edu/12w/29049/Destro.pdf>.
Goethe von Wolfgang. Faust. 2012. Web. 2 Feb. 2012