Academic journal article Humanitas

Goethe's Faust: Poetry and Philosophy at the Crossroads

Academic journal article Humanitas

Goethe's Faust: Poetry and Philosophy at the Crossroads

Article excerpt

1. Philosophical Poets

In lectures from 1910, subsequently published as Three Philosophical Poets, George Santayana provisionally placed Goethe among the philosophical poets. He had no reservation including Dante and Lucretius in this class of poets. Their major works situated them both within the reigning philosophical systems of their day: Santayana viewed Lucretius' De Rerum Natura as the culmination of antique naturalism, and he regarded Dante's Divine Comedy as the embodiment of medieval supernaturalism. Though Santayana unequivocally placed Goethe's Faust within the context of Teutonic romanticism, with its idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible and what he called an attitude marked by the "self-trust of world-building youth," still Goethe's "thoughts upon life were fresh and miscellaneous." (1) Santayana found only incidental philosophies and existential strategies in Faust, which he viewed as representative of romanticism's preoccupation with the subjective immediacy of experience. Nonetheless, they encompass a pragmatic charter and philosophical outlook which, it can be said, underpins Faust's redemption.

There is much that is still alive in Santayana's philosophical explication of Goethe's Faust, especially Goethe's appeal to the understanding to be derived from phenomena themselves. The phenomenological entreaty to engage things themselves (zu den Sachen selbst as Husserl put it or zu dem Leben selbst as it appears in Goethe's Faust) is the source of one of the philosophical outlooks in Goethe's Faust. In addition to Faust's unconventional exegesis, which Santayana explored, there are other instances of Faust's phenomenological prescriptions which signal more than a carefree romantic approach to life. But, it is in Faust's unorthodox interpretation of the first lines of the Gospel according to John that we find the centerpiece of an activism that emerges out of Faust's initial disaffection in Part I, and which culminates with Faust's grand civil engineering project in the final moments of his life in Part II.

Faust's redemption is intuitively abhorrent since there are so many lives that are sacrificed through his alliance with Mephisto. His effort to console the condemned Gretchen with the injunction to let the past remain in the past, and his final project which destroys the endearing couple Baucis and Philemon are each sufficient to question the grace bestowed on Faust. The subject of Faust's redemption has occupied critics from the beginning. (2) I make no effort to survey the literature, nor do I merely dwell on Faust's redemption. I only wish to revisit Santayana's insights in order to flesh out the philosophical nature of Goethe's Faust.

Santayana prescribed that Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe ought to be measured by the standards that each helped advance. However, for one's own cultivation he recommended taking something from each of their worldviews. Goethe's deliberations lacked the systematic drive of the naturalistic conception of an organismic world, and fell short of the dramatic mythology of a pilgrim's tortured moral journey. Taking something from Goethe's worldview has philosophical value precisely because it is an alternative to the doctrinaire bracketing of reality demanded by the dogmatics of supernaturalism and the clinical spirit of naturalism. Accordingly, it does not conceive truth as the result of a deductive process on the basis of received assumptions. The reproof of philosophy in the opening lines in Faust's study should not be regarded as a refutation of the search for meaning and truth. Rather, it is a challenge to orthodox philosophy with its imprimatur of tradition. While this point is unmistakable, Santayana knew that we could not overlook the eternal perspective that incites Faust's craving for the infinite and the pure activity that he imagines after death (705). Though there is something of Hegel's dialectical enmeshment of the finite and infinite typical of unhappy consciousness in the Phenomenology, there is also the appeal of the Spinozistic vantage point of sub specie aeternitatis with which Faust is periodically enraptured. …

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