Nietzsche, Schopenauer And Faust
Can Faust, pre and post Mephistopheles, be seen in an either Nietzschean or Schopenhauerian light?
This piece of work grew out of reading chapters four and five of Walter Kaufmann’s book The Owl and the Nightingale. These chapters deal largely with Goethe and his relation to Faust and Faust’s redemption; the following two quotes are largely responsible for the enquiry:
“…Schopenhauer found the quintessence of human nature-indeed, of the universe-in Faust. His metaphysical conception of the ultimate reality as relentless striving, blind will may be considered a cosmic projection of Faust’s ceaseless aspiration.” (Kaufmann p54, 1959)
“…the clue to Faust’s redemption should be found in Goethe’s faith and not in Faust’s moral merits.” (Kaufmann p68 1959)
Kaufmann believes Goethe’s faith to be that, concurrent with his anti-otherworldliness, striving in life is the only redemption we have. This prompts a dissonance between equating Faustian striving with a Schopenhauerian position, whilst trying to equate Faust’s redemption with his continuing striving. To be fair to Kaufmann, none of his argument turns on the truth or falsehood of this dissonance, yet nevertheless it remains the notion that sparked this particular enquiry. Prompted originally by this, the paper expands the enquiry to examine Faust’s position both pre and post Mephistopheles, comparing his position first with Schopenhauer and then with the early Nietzsche (a la Birth of Tragedy). The structure is roughly as follows.
The first part begins by delineating Faust’s position as we find at the start of the text. The despairing state that we find him in is given first a Schopenhauerian reading and then a Nietzschean one. The Nietzschean reading is longer and deals with Faust as an incarnation of Socratism (leading to nihilism).
The second part begins giving an account of the wager that Faust makes with Mephistopheles and also a literary explanation of Faust’s redemption. This is followed by an account of Faust’s striving and redemption in relation to the wager; again first a Schopenhauerian reading is given followed by a Nietzschean one. In both cases the Schopenhauerian comparison with Faust is found wanting whilst the Nietzschean far more adequate. The piece concludes with summary and some further comment.
We begin this enquiry with Faust in his study. Before we make any assertions of our own the following lines should be noted, for they will hopefully serve to help us make our first inroad to this enquiry:
With fervent zeal through thick and thin.
And here, poor fool, I stand once more,
No wiser than I was before.” (Faust: lines354-59)
These lines serve as an introduction to Faust’s predicament. Faust the academic and scholar is disturbed by the realisation that for all his learnedness, he knows nothing. Faust clearly feels an aversion to self-deception about the privileged status of his scholarly knowledge and desires to escape the dead learning in which he is embedded (and as scholar, embodies). We shortly after see Faust marvel over the sign of the Macrocosm (six pointed star signifying the cosmos in its metaphysical entirety), indicating this desire to know deeper things about the nature of existence, he says of it thus:
“Ah-what enchantment at the sight of this
Suffuses every sense, what lovely verve!
I feel new burgeoning life, with sacred bliss
Reincandescent, course through vein and nerve.”(Faust: lines 430-34)
This initial stage, in a position of self-aware epistemological despair. It seems the only security of knowledge he has is that he cannot truly know anything of the universe in itself. Faust is driven from this epistemological despair to a graver position, one which sees him seem to shun life itself. His sense of futility is quite well expressed in the following:
“Not like the gods am I-profoundly it is rued!
I am of the earthworm’s dust engendered brood,
Which blindly burrowing, by dust is fed,
And crushed beneath the wanderers tread.” (Faust: lines 652-55)
Faust is then gripped, not only with a sense of despair of knowledge, but a deeper existential despair at the meaninglessness of human existence. Does that idea then, not present to us a strong resemblance to a Schopenhauerian conception of existence i.e. as ultimately unsatisfactory and to be turned away from? What has been written above certainly does give the impression that Schopenhauerian pessimism is present here. However it can, in fact, be quickly asserted that this position is not Schopenhauerian. How can such a sweeping assertion be justified? Does Faust not represent a denial of will? Is he not afflicted by a will-denying pessimism brought on by the dead knowledge that surrounds him? Have his learning and reason not robbed him of all value?
All of this certainly seems true, yet Faust is not an incarnation of Schopenhauerian pessimism for the following reason: he does not really deny the will, he merely expresses woeful dissatisfaction at the seeming impossibility of anything to sate him. His attempts at raising the earth spirit demonstrates this i.e. even at the understanding of human limitation he still tries to overcome this with transcendent means. For Faust to be Schopenhauerian he would have to have come to terms with the failure at all attempts at satisfaction and this he simply does not do. This is compounded by Faust’s attempt at a very un-Schopenhaurian solution to this predicament i.e. suicide. On which Schopenhauer says the following:
“Far from being the denial of the will, suicide is a phenomenon of the will’s strong affirmation. For denial has its essential nature in the fact that the pleasures of life not its sorrows, are shunned. The suicide wills life, and is dissatisfied merely with the conditions on which it has come to him. Therefore he gives up by no means the will-to-live, but merely life, since he destroys the individual phenomenon.” (Schopenhauer p398)
That is, in Faust’s case he is giving up on life because it is unbearable for him, his despair is not universalised. Now we might object that Faust’s despair is not about a particular upsetting/suicide inspiring event and thus not the suicidal tendency (e.g. of a bereaved lover) which Schopenhauer could be construed as meaning. However such an objection would not work, as that would be to fail to recognise that both Faust’s existential despair and that of a more earthly depression are both manifestations of suffering. To act upon either suicidally would be to fail to see the universality of this suffering, as Young puts it:
“…it leads to the pleasing paradox that pessimism itself is the antidote to suicidal despair. Were the suicide to abandon his facile optimism and recognise that there is nothing isolated or unique about his suffering, it would lose that special quality which urges him to self destruction…”(Young p128 1987).
The Easter chorus, which causes Faust to stop his suicide attempt, does nothing to turn Faust against the will. It merely reinvigorates Faust with a sense of rebirth, confirming his return to will affirmation. Thus neither from Faust’s approach to suicide nor from his recovery can we detect a Schopenhauerian denial of will. Against this untenable Schopenhauerian interpretation, we will now see if it can be tentatively asserted that this position can be equated with a nihilistic consequence of what Nietzsche refers to as Socratism.
What is meant by Socratism and how is it relevant to our enquiry? A degree of explanation is required here to clarify Nietzsche’s use of the term. Socratism is characterised by the belief that what is good is what is intelligible; it represents the emerging and privileging of conscious understanding over the unconscious acting, something clearly present in Faust. In the Birth of Tragedy, Socratism is introduced as the means that undermine and ultimately destroy Greek tragedy and the tragic outlook. Nietzsche shows, via a description of the development of art in ancient Greece, how the paradigm shifted from being instinctually to rationally based. In the older tragedies of Aeschylus we find unfathomable Dionysian depth hinted at behind each scene, a depth that does not justify itself, for this very occult nature can have no justification except in its own appearance, nothing further is required of it. Euripides –with Socrates speaking through him- whom Nietzsche charges with th!
e death of tragedy, could not see the value in the representation of the titanic, terrible beauty of the Dionysian. Nietzsche writes the following on Euripides reaction to the older tragedy:
“And here he encountered something which can come as no surprise to anyone who has been initiated into the deep secrets of Aeschylean tragedy: he perceived something incommensurable in every feature and every line, a certain deceiving definiteness, and at the same time a puzzling depth, indeed infinity, in the background. Even the clearest figure still trailed a comet’s tail after it which seemed to point into the unknown, into that which cannot be illuminated. The same twilight covered the structure of the drama, particularly the significance of the chorus. And how dubious the solution of the ethical problems seemed to him! How questionable the treatment of the myths! How uneven the distribution of happiness and unhappiness!” (Nietzsche p59 1999)
That is, Euripides, looking though the eyes of Socratic reason, could not understand the beauty in the inexplicable monstrous rumblings behind Aeschylean tragedy. Thus through the Socratic impulse to clarity and explanation he extirpated the Dionysian out of tragedy, replacing it with reason behind the action of his characters. Socratism then for Nietzsche is a form of reaction against a position of unconscious naivete. In this sense it has a certain dialectic necessity as the natural opposite of that which is not understood or explained.
Socratism has also a certain necessity to its pathway; it breeds an obsession with the repeatable, the scientifically knowable and the logical schematisation of appearance. Finally, when science has trod this pathway long enough, it realises that the path was circular and, as Nietzsche puts it, “bites its own tail” (Nietzsche p75 1999). These metaphors of circularity and tail biting are relevant too to the position that Faust characterises i.e. his epistemological despair at understanding his own limits, which he has reached by being a great scholar. We must be careful here to delineate Faust’s position carefully for two reasons: firstly (as has been hinted at) Faust is not simply Socratism and secondly Nietzsche’s description of Socratism is by no means straightforwardly negative. The first of these we will return to later whilst the second bears our immediate attention.
Nietzsche tells us that Socrates is the first theoretical man, a new archetype in the history of man’s development. Theoretical man embodies the rational tendency, yet Nietzsche does not hold this archetype to be bad in itself. Nietzsche compares this archetype to that of the artist, telling us that these two, when faced with existence both draw contentment from it in different ways. It is the artists province to be fed by that which is hidden from us, whilst theoretical man finds his fascination in the process of revealing things to us. Theoretical man though, goes astray if he seeks to make nature naked to us, for this is an impossibility; he should content himself only with the fascination of discovery.
With the Socratic drive comes also the correcting tendency, for so efficient is the scientist at achieving results in the world that he becomes beguiled into the notion that his endeavours can correct it. This delusion though is positive and negative. Its positive side is optimism, which naturally occurs with this seeming potential for correcting the world i.e. it spurs us on in the belief of progress; the negative side though resides in the fact that this correcting tendency is as great a delusion as the belief in naked nature herself. It is, Nietzsche believes, this correcting tendency which ultimately drives science to understand its own limits and thus forces it once more to art and myth as a necessary supplement to its endeavours. That is, theoretical man must learn to take his pleasure from the uncovering of knowledge without looking to exhaust it, in this it never negates art or myth it merely alters the veils with which art concerns itself.
So given this further clarification of Socratism, where do we locate Faust? Faust has passed to the state of realisation that science cannot complete his epistemological desires. In the text this is in sharp contrast to his famulus Wagner whose line “Though I know much, I would know everything.”(Faust: 601) expresses the misguided Socratic tendency towards knowing everything. Faust is also beyond the correcting tendency. We might say also that Faust’s similarity with this position does not end there, for in this despair Faust is driven to mythical realms of magic to answer his desires. In one sense this completes the Nietzschean allegory of science being driven at its limits to myth. In the sense of Faust’s choice we might say this applies only to Faust’s invocation of the earth spirit, yet in terms of a stronger teleological necessity, Mephistopheles too can be seen in this role.
We should pause here to review this claim about Faust, for there is an argument easily raised against my take on Faust’s position. The claim would be that Faust is not at all concerned with a despair over scientific knowledge as failing to know the in itself, but is rather in despair over the lack of certainty upon which much of his learning rests i.e. old dogmatic metaphysics and scholasticism. This claim can be supported by the discussion between Wagner and Faust i.e. Wagner says:
“Your pardon! Yet the joy is unsurpassed
To see how wise men then thought thus and so,
And how we reached our starry heights at last.”
To us the times of yore, it is decreed
Are like a book by seven seals protected;
The so-called spirit of the age, you’ll find,
In truth is but the gentlemen’s own mind
In which the ages are reflected.” (Faust 570-79)
Here Faust is rejecting Wagner’s argument from authority which Wagner puts up to counter Faust’s doubt. Wagner is clearly learning blindly what is taught to him and Faust points out that this rests on nothing but previous men’s theorising. This could suggest that Faust wishes to reject this dogma and that scientific knowledge is exactly what he requires to fulfil his desires. If this were right, then my claim to the Nietzschean analogy would be damaged considerably as it is my contention that Faust has realised the emptiness of a project of totalising scientific knowledge and been driven to nihilism in consequence.
I believe this objection can be countered for the following reason. The claim that scientific knowledge would satiate Faust arises from a mistaken belief that the Socratic drive which spawned older dogmatic philosophy differs from that of a more scientific type, when in fact both are manifestations of the same drive. Faust’s despair arises not out of the failure of a particular approach to knowledge but from the understanding that no attempt at ultimate knowledge -from the human perspective- can ever bear fruit. This insight is prior to either a scientific or dogmatic approach to knowledge and applies equally to both.
One might continue against this, that this does not meet the objection that dogmatic metaphysics and scientific knowledge are epistemically distinct and that possibly the latter’s superior status is what Faust is after. Interestingly enough we can answer this point by reference to one of the most recent re-writing of the Faust legend: Michael Swanwick’s ‘Jack Faust’. In this version Faust desires and is given scientific knowledge without limit. In this case Faust’s employs this new knowledge tirelessly and the terrifying results (modernity) are laid bare for us to see; as Swanwick’s Mephistopheles says: “Though we can give you nothing more than knowledge, our knowledge is absolute. We have mastered all sciences, perfected all technologies.” (Swanwick p26 1998)
Swanwick’s Faust serves to demonstrate what it would be if it were scientific knowledge that Faust required and thus via this difference, it shows this is not what Goethe’s Faust has in mind. Even the high level physics that Swanwick’s Faust receives would not suffice for Goethe’s Faust. Swanwick’s Faust occupies a position associative with the correcting tendency, which had he had that in mind we would have found in Goethe’s Faust also.
It seems then, that we are allowed to equate Faust’s initial position with Socratism run up against its limits. The nihilism that Faust experiences is a consequence of the searing light of Socratism; it permeates not just his knowledge but as we see elsewhere his whole attitude to life, the best example of this being Faust’s curse (lines 1587-1606). Thus Faust is more than Socratism; he is nihilism spawned out of it.
At this point in our enquiry we note an interesting reversal of movement in the Birth of Tragedy and Faust respectively. In the former we note that the Hellenic will –as Nietzsche describes it- transforms from subconscious naivete: a sense of acting in the face of the unfathomable horror of existence, into a Socratic drive where the reason takes over and all must be explained. This ends in the self-defeating drive to explanation and understanding. In the latter we begin in the nihilistic consequence of this end position, yet via the influence and power of Mephistopheles, Faust’s nihilism is transformed into a state of a state of primal striving. Let us examine this nihilism prior to its transformation.
Faust’s nihilism manifest’s itself strongly in the scenes of both ‘night’ and ‘study’ and though it is in night that his despair drives him to the poison, it is in ‘study’ where we find him in his most nihilistic rage. Faust’s curse (as mentioned) is the greatest expression of this nihilism; in this curse he damns: reason, the senses, illusions and ideals of immortality, property, land, labour, wealth, wine, love and the Christian virtues of faith, hope and patience. Mephistopheles takes this curse as a cue to suggest his services. This helps reveal further insight into Faust, for when he hears what Mephistopheles’ services are in exchange for (that Faust shall be his if they meet in the afterworld), Faust says:
If once this earthly world you shatter,
The next may rise when he has passed.
It is from out this earth my pleasures spring,
It is this sun shines on my suffering;
Then come to pass what will and must.” (Faust: lines 1660-66)
Evidently Faust is not concerned with a beyond about which he can say nothing. The point to note is that though Faust’s nihilism is directed towards the world, he does not look to beyond it for justification. Faust requires a state that will quell the nihilism in this world and Mephistopheles tells Faust he can supply “that sort of jewel” (line 1689).
This now leads us on to the matter of the wager and Faust’s redemption. Initially what follows is a summary of these notions, with a standard literary explanation of them. This is given, so that we can examine whether this redemption can be seen to represent a Schopenhauerian or Nietzschean form of redemption. Faust’s wager with Mephistopheles is as follows:
Faust: “Should ever I take ease upon a bed of leisure,
When with indulgence you can gull me,
Faust: “And beat for beat!”
Then forge the shackles to my feet,
Then I will gladly perish there!” (Faust: lines 1692-1702)
Mephistopheles then, can only win by sating Faust utterly i.e. by bringing about an absolute cessation of Faust’s striving. Thus it is not simply that Mephistopheles will serve Faust and then after a period of years Faust will be his, rather Mephistopheles must fulfil Faust’s desire. The devil must generate a moment of such perfection that Faust’s striving ceases or he will not get Faust’s soul. At the end of the text Faust is redeemed, much to Mephistopheles fury as he believes the moment before Faust’s death, the condition of the wager is met. The following is the passage that Mephistopheles misinterprets:
“Such teeming would I see upon this land,
I might entreat the fleeting minute:
My path upon the earth, the trace I leave within it
Eons untold cannot impair.” (Faust: lines 11579-11584)
Mephistopheles believes that here Faust expresses his satisfaction with this moment but this is in fact, not the case. Faust doesn’t actually express satisfaction with the present moment; rather, he imagines a future where he may be satisfied. We might translate the relevant lines into something a bit more logical to clarify this i.e. line 1699 as: ‘If I ever should say to the moment: stay, remain, you are perfection, then you may place your fetters on me’, whereas at 11581 his statement might be ‘If only I experienced the joy of that people’s health of population and freedom then I could say to the moment: stay, remain, you are perfection.’ The second of these does not express any sense that Faust has experienced such a moment, yet the phrasing confuses Mephistopheles into believing he has won. This is the logical condition upon which Faust is redeemed, however, are we justified in asking for a meaning to Faust’s redemption in excess of this?
It might be put to us that to require such an extra meaning would be to deprive Faust of enigmatic hidden significance i.e. a Socratic desire to account for his redemption, which would rob it of its occult status. We have reason though, to believe that further meaning should be attributed to Faust’s redemption, not over and above the wager, but related to it, for in a conversation with Eckermann, Goethe drew his attention to the following passage:
‘Whoever strives in ceaseless toil,
With welcoming compassion.” (Faust: lines 11934-41)
Faust then, is redeemed, not simply because Mephistopheles does not fulfil the terms of the wager, but also because redemption is granted to those who endlessly strive. However we may add that due to Faust’s rejection of otherworldliness, this redeeming striving is within life, not towards a moment of completion or redemption beyond it. The role of how the striving is relevant to the redemption will hopefully become clearer as we progress.
We begin then by asking: after Mephistopheles transforms Faust’s relation to his world (by the power he gives him), is there a legitimisation in equating his striving with a Schopenhauerian notion of will? In considering this we must look at the striving and redemption in relation to one another.
The Schopenhauerian will is the blind force of the in itself. To us this will is only seen through the principium individuationis or principle of individuation i.e. that though we are part of the will we experience it from within it, as individuated subjects. Just as our perspective is an individual one, thus also from this perspective nature appears to us as separate objects. Schopenhauer’s is a modified Kantian perspective through which the in itself is mediated by space, time and causation as ideal intuitions. This will that Schopenhauer identifies is not simply human will; rather human will is only another manifestation of the will of all nature:
“the powerful, irresistible impulse with which masses of water rush downwards, the persistence and determination with which the magnet always turns back to the North Pole, the keen desire with which iron flies to the magnet, the vehemence with which the poles of the electric current strive for reunion and which , like the vehemence of human desires is in creased by obstacles… Let us observe the choice with which bodies repel and attract one another… (Schopenhauer p118 1969)
Thus the analogy with Faust would be that, like the Schopenhauerian will which tirelessly moves towards ends without end, Faust endlessly desires yet is never sated. Further we might say also that Mephistopheles as ‘evil’ urges Faust on in this striving, i.e. since (for Schopenhauer) nature is basically bad, Mephistopheles encouragement to partake in this endless willing is an ‘evil’ act. In this superficiality it may be admitted that there is a similarity to be drawn.
However it must be observed that as soon as the role of the Faustian striving is seen in relation to the redemption, the analogy with Schopenhauer becomes misplaced. In terms of the wager, though it is true that Mephistopheles urges Faust’s willing on, it is only done with a view to giving Faust that moment of satisfaction i.e. to cease his willing. This does not equate well with Schopenhauer for let us consider what redemption is for Schopenhauer. Redemption is only to be gained from denying this will, for if we simply exist in accordance with it we will be driven on to act after act of disgusting satiation until death finally takes us unsatisfied. We must instead turn against the will, for only in rejecting it can we see through to the principium individuationis. The following passage finds Schopenhauer expressing this notion:
“If we compare life to a circular path of red hot coals having a few cool places, a path that we have to run over incessantly, then the man entangled in delusion is comforted by the cool places on which he is just now standing, or on which he sees near him, and sets out to run over the path. But the man who sees through the principium individuationis, and recognises the true nature of things-in-themselves, and thus sees himself in all places simultaneously, and with draws. His will turns about; it no longer affirms its own inner nature mirrored in the phenomenon, but denies it.” (Schopenhauer p380 1969)
Thus for Faust’s striving to be Schopenhauerian it’s either the case that Mephistopheles is leading Faust to an impossible goal or he seeks to drive him to deny the will. Now the first case is possible and is to some extent implied in the prologue in heaven where the lord says:
“Though he serves me now but in clouded ways,
Soon I shall guide him so his spirit clears.
The gardener knows by the young tree’s green haze
That bloom and fruit will grace it down the years.” (Faust: Lines 308-11)
That is, the Lord knows the impossibility of Mephistopheles’ task as he is already destined to redemption. This though cannot be Schopenhauerian redemption as it turns on Faust’s failure to stop striving. Yet in the second case, since the denial of will (resignation) is redemption, to interpret it in that way would be to charge Mephistopheles with seeking Faust’s redemption, which is manifestly false.
To drive this further, we need only recall the lines “Whoever strives in greatest toil, him we may grant redemption.” which compound the fact that Faust’s striving to the end is crucial for the meaning of his redemption. For Schopenhauer though, the fact that Faust does strive until the end cannot be held as counting towards redemption since (as mentioned) the only form of redemption is in denying the will. It should be understood though, that this commentary is not levelled at Schopenhauer, who, in his references to Faust, does not comment on his redemption, instead uses Gretchen as an example of someone in whom the will denies itself:
“The great Goethe has given us a distinct and visible description of this denial of the will, brought about by great misfortune and by the despair of all deliverance, in his immortal masterpiece Faust, in the story of the sufferings of Gretchen.” (Schopenhauer p393 1969)
Possibly Schopenhauer mentions only Gretchen (and he does so several times) as he is aware precisely of the difficulties involved in equating Faust with his conception of will, either way though, an association of Faust’s striving with Schopenhauerian will, when considered in conjunction with his redemption, is basically untenable. Let us turn then to Nietzsche to see if –as was the case in Faust’s position prior to Mephistopheles’ intervention- the results are more fruitful.
Let us then apply the same method as we did with Schopenhauer and examine whether the will that we find in the Birth of Tragedy bears any greater degree of similarity to the Faustian striving; again within the context of the redemption. Initially we must note that superficially one might equate the Dionysian that we find in the Birth of Tragedy with the Schopenhauerian will, such an equivalence though is erroneous and misleading. For Schopenhauer the will is just suffering, a suffering that generates endless finite phenomena, all of which –by their finite nature- cannot sate it. For Nietzsche the primal will is not pure suffering, it is both suffering and pleasure. Nietzsche writes the following to supplement Schopenhauer’s sense of horror man faces when the principium individuationis breaks down:
“If we add to this horror the blissful ecstasy which arises from the innermost ground of man, indeed of nature itself, whenever the break down of the principium individuationis occurs, we catch a glimpse of the essence of the Dionysiac,” (Nietzsche p17 1999)
Neither do we find the stance of deceitful appearance behind which lurks the truth of the in itself. In the metaphysics of the Birth of Tragedy, individuation and the in itself are both in the original oneness and are both phenomena, that is, there is nothing but appearance. But appearance is not illusory or truthful in either sense, as Haar puts it:
“…the “appearance” in which the entire world consists, as well as Apollonian art itself, is not illusion pure and simple, or a “veil of Maya,” but rather the “projection” of the Dionysian foundation itself, i.e. its manifestation and exaltation.”
“The presentation is the god himself. The god himself is his presentation. The appearance is an appearing, not an illusion. Nothing that happens here that was not within the realm of original possibility.” (Haar p43 1996)
It can thus be understood from this shift how too the role of suffering is altered i.e. in Schopenhauer the suffering was based on a dichotomy of truth and illusion. Now, by placing the phenomenal within the will, there is no deceitful veil of Maya to pierce, hence Nietzsche’s picture does not entail a turn away from individuation as individuation does not represent a false picture to be shunned and denied. Dionysos still suffers and strives; yet now, as eternal appearance, it constantly affirms itself in eternal joy of appearance, an appearance which does not present it deceitfully but in all its life effusive glory. Again, as Haar phrases it:
“…it is not we alone who need redemption in the appearances, the originary One does too. The One is originally divided. It does not suffer from this division, but finds its highest joy in it. In other words, if the originary One needs appearances, appearances are not a loss, a fall, or a phenomenalization that is secondary with respect to the One; rather, the essence of the will is appearance.” (Haar p44-5 1996)
To return to Faust, we find immediately tha