Morality is a funny thing. It is subjective to each person. It varies on the values from one person to the next. One may believe that it is morally all right to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage and someone else might believe it is entirely immoral. So how do we go about deciding whether or not someone else is moral or immoral—especially Heinrich Faust from Goethe’s Faust?
In the eyes of Tantillo, Faust’s constant striving objectifies him as someone who may be praised by the Lord for his productive activity as described in his article Damed to Heaven: The Tragedy of Faust Revisited but Destro describes Faust, in his article The Guilty Hero, or the Tragic Salvation of Faust, as an immoral egotistical modern individualist because of his rhyme and reason for striving. Although Faust’s continual strive for knowledge and self-improvement is an admirable trait, with no obvious harm to anyone, he is, in fact, immoral because he strives not to keep humanity from stasis but to satisfy his own desires.
If you had a second chance at life, would you take it? Would you wager the rest of your life as well as your soul to find that satisfaction? Faust did. Faust, a learned man of many scholarly achievements, never found satisfaction in his life. No matter how much knowledge he attained, none of it was ever enough for him. In an attempt to find true fulfillment, Faust meets the devil, Mephistopheles, and signs his soul away. For as long as Faust shall live, Mephistopheles will be Faust’s servant until the day Faust finds satisfaction in life. The moment Faust finds fulfillment in life, even if only for a minute, he shall lose his life.
On this journey, Faust relives the life he never truly experienced and places his morality in question through his seemingly harmless actions that typically end under tragic circumstances. Faust’s actions in the play leave his morality in a gray area despite his innocent intentions. Morally, there is nothing wrong with striving for utter perfection or absolute knowledge. In fact, it is quite admirable. From the perspective of science, Faust is not entirely bad because his strivings are to satisfy the push and pull of the “polarities” inside of him. It seems almost non-intentional that Faust always has a desire for more.
Faust’s motivations should not be looked upon unkindly; however, the consequences of his actions are his demise. This constant striving gives Faust a direction in life. As Tantillo states, “The Lord acknowledges… that human beings are at their best while they strive” (Tantillo). If even the Lord approves of this type of striving, then it cannot be seem as immoral right? This type of constant passion and fire for knowledge that Faust possesses, however, is almost critical of humankind’s tendency to become satisfied.
“If you should ever find me lolling on a bed of ease, let me be done for on the spot! (Goethe, 131). Faust’s constant discontentment with life shows progression for all humankind but there is a flaw we will kindly overlook for now because Faust is moral in one other sense. Faust is the type of man who would refuse the material things in life if it is not what he is searching for. When Mephistopheles attempts to lure Faust with material things such as a “similar attire” of “[a] scarlet dress with golden trim, the cloak of stiffened silk”, which Mephistopheles himself was wearing at the time, Faust refused, proving that he has his own sentiments (Goethe, 121).
Faust felt as though he would be “bound to feel the misery of earth’s constricted life”, leaving the reader to believe that his search was not for fame and riches (121). A man of such values should not seem to be of immoral values, right? Indeed, he even has a conscience. “I cannot bring myself to see him now” exclaims Faust to Mephistopheles (Goethe, 143). At this point, Faust had already signed his soul to the devil but his student was waiting for him. Faust could not bring himself to speak to his student, displaying Faust’s conscience and acknowledgement of his actions as well as the consequences of his actions.
Faust is still thinking about the influence it might have on his student, leading the reader to believe that Faust is indeed moral. However, we must keep in mind the aforementioned flaw in Faust’s intentions. A typical man who possessed as much knowledge as Faust did would surely be satisfied with all that he had accomplished in life, and would put it to good use but that is not the case for Faust. Although Faust’s striving implies that he might just want to better himself as a human being and perhaps help the world, it seems it is for more selfish reasons.
His immorality begins to emerge as the reader realizes what he is truly after. Destro argues that Faust is an egoist only concerned with his own satisfaction, preventing Faust from being seen as a moral hero (62). While Faust has no ill intentions, the consequences of his actions leave him to be a man of immorality. Faust falls to the temptation of magic, believing that the devil’s magic will help him to reach heights mortality would not allow him to go. He strives to be this man who can rank with Mephistopheles, a demonic but nonetheless divine creature.
However, he is not doing it so that he may prevent the world from entering stasis. Faust is learning all he possibly can so that he may be attempt to satisfy himself, giving no care for the rest of the world. Any man with as much knowledge as Faust would want to at least share his knowledge with the world so that they would not remain ignorant, but instead Faust gives no care for the world. In fact, he says that “once we smash this world to bits, the other world may rise for all I care” (Goethe, 129). In this passage, Faust refers to hell as “the other world”.
It is obvious that Faust has no concern for the world after he is gone. He does not care for the legacy he may or may not leave when he dies, proving his discernment for the rest of the world. It implies that once he attains what he is so desperately after, the ruins he leaves behind in this mortal world is no longer his problem. This type of immoral thinking is what prevents Faust to be seen as a moral character. Faust used Mephistopheles’ power for his own personal gain. For example, Faust returned to his youthful image immediately after acquiring the help of Mephistopheles.
His next action after that was sleeping with Gretchen. Although that is not to say Faust was not a pawn in Mephistopheles’ game with God, it also does not justify Faust’s true intentions. Through Mephistopheles, Faust would gain love, political power and fame, which came much later. It seemed everyone in his life was truly irrelevant and simply a pawn of his—until he laid his eyes on Margaret. Faust’s immorality is apparent when he employs sly tricks to sleep with Margaret, despite also knowing her faith in God.
At first, Faust’s interest in Margaret seemed quite harmless but slowly, this harmless interest grew into a dangerous infatuation. Faust constantly uses Mephistopheles to produce jewelry boxes to seduce Margaret, marking the beginning of her downfall. The lure of the jewelry boxes leads Margaret to lie and keep secrets from her mother, turning Margaret into a selfish woman. Eventually, Faust manages to convince Margaret to sleep with him, but not without first being asked about his faith. When asked about his own faith in God, he replies “I believe in God! .. Good fortune! Heart! Love! or God! I have no name for it! Feeling is all,” in hopes that he may convince her into intimacy (Goethe, 309-311). When Margaret brings up the prospect of her mother walking in on them, he uses Mephistopheles to produce a sleeping potion that puts her mother to sleep. However, Faust’s desperation to sleep with her leads Gretchen to accidentally kill her own mother. Later on in the play, Faust even kills Gretchen’s brother, Valentine, and the emotional implications of his actions led Gretchen to kill their child.
His striving and desire lead him to harm and use others, displaying a type of individualism and disregard for anyone else in the world. Though his intentions were rather innocent, the consequences of his desire had led others to commit such crimes that it began to push Faust’s morality into a gray area. Despite all of Faust’s immoral conduct, he does redeem himself near the end of Faust I. At the end of the day, Faust redeems himself when he attempts to save Gretchen from jail. His love for her empowers him to fight for her freedom.
Although it was once again with the help of Mephistopheles, his motivation for his actions was, for once, for someone other than himself. Faust’s actions, at this point, are certainly admirable but at the same time, Gretchen achieves salvation when she finally accepts the fate that God had planned for her as she sits behind metal bars. Her sudden realization leaves Faust’s efforts in vain but concurrently, his efforts could be received as an attempt to reach his own salvation. His morality begins to find a comfortable spot in a gray area.
He is moral for attempting to save someone other than himself but his motives are still questionable. Throughout the course of Faust I, Faust managed to be the reason for four deaths all within one family. Faust managed to cause Gretchen’s mother’s death, Valentine’s death, his own child’s death as well as Gretchen’s. The grief he had caused Gretchen drove her to the point of insanity-- enough to kill her own child landing her in jail. His credibility has become doubtful His attempt to save her from imprisonment could be read as his selfish and feeble effort to reach salvation.
His actions could be conveyed as a way to repent for his acts of sin. Once again, morality is a funny thing. It is certainly open to interpretation at times but in the end, it is obvious that Faust is not a moral hero. His pure intentions have led to too many disastrous and tragic endings. His striving is something to be admired for all of eternity; an example of constant self-improvement to be envied by men but his intentions for his striving is one for individualistic, egotistical men, reasoning him to be indeed an immoral man.