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"His Waxen Wings Did Mount above His Reach"

By Diana Major Spencer
From Insights, 2005

 

“All men possess by nature a craving for knowledge,” Aristotle observed in the first chapter of the first book of his Metaphysics. The common label for our species presumes the capacity for knowledge: Homo sapiens, Latin for man + wisdom. At least since the Renaissance we have considered knowledge and the quest for knowledge to be positive pursuits leading to wisdom. We send our children to school to gain knowledge and, we hope, make good use of it. Some of us make careers of fostering, spoon-feeding and jack-hammering the intake of knowledge, certain that our contributions improve the human lot, but fearful that rising generations may not absorb enough to make wise decisions in our feeble years.

At the same time, we use “egghead,” “brain,” and “know-it-all” as slurs of mistrust toward those who know too much. Ordinary schoolchildren, who know “enough,” carry their scorn for the intellectually gifted into adulthood. We humans crave knowledge, as Aristotle noted, but also fear it. Herein, perhaps, lie the fascination and terror we find in Faust's relentless quest. Christopher Marlowe presents a Faust of magnificent capacity and achievement who lets his superior knowledge dictate a downward path, the fruits of his bargain being a few petty practical jokes and a kiss from Helen. Liking Faust is difficult, yet he pulls us toward him with the force of our ambivalence toward knowledge.

The opening Chorus expresses great admiration and high hopes for the learned doctor: “So soon he profits in divinity, / The fruitful plot of scholarism graced, / That shortly he was graced with Doctor's name / Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes / In heavenly matters of theology” (Chorus 16-20). Marlowe loads these lines with religious terminology, associating divinity with profit (“good ends”); “scholarism” and “Doctor's name” with grace; and Faust's excellence above all others in discussing heavenly theology with delight.

Then Faust appears. He has acquired enviable knowledge in diverse fields, but finds them all lacking. What are the rewards for his brilliance, he wonders. He could be a theologian, but his true passion is secular philosophy (i.e., Aristotle) (1.3-5). Yet, since he already knows philosophy inside out, “[a] greater subject fitteth Faustus' wit”: maybe medicine (1.10-12). Still, the most “wondrous cure” falls short of raising the dead to life, thus leaving Faust mortal and therefore ordinary; perhaps law would offer a worthier challenge (16-30). On the contrary, such “study fits a mercenary drudge / Who aims at nothing but external trash, / Too servile and illiberal for me” (1.35-37). Divinity likewise leads nowhere: “If we say that we have no sin / We deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us. / Why then belike / We must sin and so consequently die, / Ay, we must die an everlasting death” (1.45-49). Note the circle that begins with theology and ends with divinity, outside which Faust places himself.

We still identify with him, however. Faust wants more challenge, more reward for his intellectual prowess-as others certainly do. Do we change jobs or even professions? Do we accept or maneuver advancements? Do we leave the disciplines for administration—at the peril of our souls? How many of us have sighed, “What I wouldn't give for—whatever”? So Faust chooses necromancy as a means to extend his reach: “O what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence[!]” (1.56-57). “[H]is dominion that succeeds in [necromancy]/ Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man./ A sound magician is a mighty god:/ Here, Faustus, try thy brains to find a deity!” (1.63-66). The language of theology—profit and delight, which the Chorus introduced earlier, omnipotence, dominion, god, and deity-reappears, but now appropriated by Faust to himself-not God. Faust chooses pride and power over wisdom as his purpose.

Faust is a troubled—and troubling—character, especially for lovers of knowledge. My greatest pleasure is learning. I even know things I wish I didn't. Nevertheless, knowledge is not of itself either good or evil; it may be about good or evil matter (hence, questions of censorship) or it may be applied to good or evil ends (hence, questions of individual freedom). Research and discovery tell us that all knowledge is not as yet available; and questions of faith-such as Job's or Boethius's or Rabbi Kushner's-tell us that some knowledge is inaccessible to, perhaps unattainable by, the finite human mind. Some knowledge—the occult, for instance—is flatly taboo (if we moderns can acknowledge prohibitions in what we say, do, or entertain).

Faust, indulging his pride and wallowing in his power of free will, deliberately and stubbornly, despite warnings and omens, boldly chooses to sacrifice his eternal soul for forbidden knowledge, specifically those otherworldly powers inaccessible to human intellect without infernal aid. The Renaissance celebrated intellectual curiosity and trusted the potentialities of the human mind, but witchcraft lurked and thinkers who probed secrets of God's divine universe suffered punishment. The same ambivalence about knowledge survives even now-though we believe we are beyond superstition (knock on wood). We want to know everything-without going too far.

Thematically, Faust belongs with Eve and Adam, Prometheus, Pandora and other transgressors from western mythologies who sullied life for the rest of us by exercising their curiosities beyond proscribed bounds and releasing evil (i.e., knowledge) into the human community. Even so, the sin of these ancients was disobedience, not arrogance. Faust, however, is a modern man-one of us-belonging also with Columbus (who ventured beyond the horizon), Galileo (who pried into God's design), Edison (who destroyed God's division of night and day), Fermi (who split the atom), and others who deliberately seek to understand and harness secrets of nature. Science and technology, some outside Science Departments sometimes say, certainly encroach upon forbidden knowledge, despite their apparent benefits to comfort and plenitude.

Stories and puppet plays about bargaining with the devil for secret knowledge originated in the late Middle Ages, just as secular learning was emerging as a viable, though not entirely acceptable, alternative to authority. During the 1500s these stories became associated with a minor German scholar, Johann Faust, who dabbled in the black arts and was immortalized, ironically, in a ferocious Lutheran Faustbuch of 1587. Faust thus becomes a cautionary tale, warning the world of the infernal consequences of knowledge ill-chosen, ill-gotten, and ill-used. If we are to seek knowledge, the lesson goes, we must do so with humility, responsibility, and generosity toward our fellow creatures. And please, Faust's end reminds us, please, stay within the proper bounds!


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