No Faustian Bargains

  Tomorrow marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's greatest poet and writer. All across Germany celebrations are being held in his honor, featuring readings of his work, performances of his plays, and films based on his work. The one work of literature for which Goethe is best known is Faust, which retells a legend exploring the moral limits of human power. Today, two hundred years after he wrote it, Faust seems eerily prophetic: Never before have these themes been more timely. The Faust legend goes back many centuries, and tells the story of a man who yearns for infinite knowledge and god-like power. Eventually, Faust turns to black magic and makes a pact with the devil, known in the play as Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles grants Faust the knowledge he craves--in exchange for his soul. That's where we get the phrase "to make a Faustian bargain." In earlier versions of the legend, Faust is damned to hell for his Promethean overreaching, his yearning to "be like God, knowing good and evil," as the serpent put it in the Garden of Eden. "Faust covets divine status," explains literary critic Roger Shattuck, and in the end he is suitably punished. But surprisingly, in Goethe's version, Faust is not condemned but goes to heaven. In other words, Goethe "calmly usurps the Lord's role and reverses the verdict," as Shattuck writes. "Here is our modern Adam, raised up to heaven by a chorus of angels for conduct more proud and defiant than what earned the original Adam banishment from paradise." The message is that there is no forbidden knowledge, nothing beyond human reach--even if it costs us our soul. Goethe has reversed the very essence of the story. He has abandoned the classical view that knowledge has a moral dimension and that it can sometimes cost us our humanity. This classical perspective looks back to Adam and Eve, whose grasping for the knowledge of good and evil meant disobedience, and ultimately death. The same view is conveyed in myths like the story of Pandora's box. It was expressed by one of Goethe's own contemporaries, Mary Shelley, in her classic novel Frankenstein, where an attempt to play God creates a monster who comes back to haunt its human creator. By contrast, with Goethe we begin to see a distinctively modern view: that the search for knowledge is sacrosanct and should not be limited in any way--not even by moral considerations. Scientific progress is the new summum bonum, which trumps all other values: If an experiment can be done, you can bet that eventually it WILL be done. Modern science has unleashed first the atom and now the gene, yet we rarely hear anyone ask, What price will we pay for these technologies? Ours is a Faustian generation if there ever was one. We need to help people to see that certain kinds of experiments may in the end destroy our humanity. Why not read Goethe's play for yourself, to better understand the intellectual challenges we face today. Faust may help us understand what we are up against, in an age ready to sell its own soul in exchange for scientific knowledge.


Chuck Colson



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