1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Faust

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FAUST, or Faustus, the name of a magician and charlatan of the 16th century, famous in legend and in literature. The historical Faust forms little more than the nucleus round which a great mass of legendary and imaginative material gradually accumulated. That such a person existed there is, however, sufficient proof.[1] He is first mentioned in a letter, dated August 20, 1507, of the learned Benedictine Johann Tritheim or Trithemius (1462–1516), abbot of Spanheim, to the mathematician and astrologer Johann Windung, at Hasfurt, who had apparently written about him. Trithemius, himself reputed a magician, and the author of a mystical work (published at Darmstadt in 1621 under the title of Steganographica and burnt by order of the Spanish Inquisition), speaks contemptuously of Faust, who called himself Magister Georgius Sabellicus Faustus Junior, as a fool rather than a philosopher (fatuum non philosophum), a vain babbler, vagabond and mountebank who ought to be whipped, and who had fled from the city rather than confront him. The insane conceit of the man was proved by his boast that, were all the works of Aristotle and Plato blotted from the memory of men, he could restore them with greater elegance, and that Christ’s miracles were nothing to marvel at, since he could do the like whenever and as often as he pleased; his debased character by the fact that he had been forced to flee from the school of which he had been appointed master by the discovery of his unnatural crimes. The same unflattering estimate is contained in the second extant notice of Faust, in a letter of the jurist and canon Konrad Mudt (Mutianus Rufus), of the 3rd of October 1513, to Heinrich Urbanus. Mudt, like Trithemius, simply regards Faust as a charlatan. Similar is the judgment of another contemporary, Philipp Begardi, who in the fourth chapter of his Index sanitatis (Worms, 1539) ranks Faust, with Theophrastus Paracelsus, among the “wicked, cheating, useless and unlearned doctors.”

It was Johann Gast (d. 1572), a worthy Protestant pastor of Basel, who like Mudt claims to have come into personal contact with Faust, who in his Sermones convivales (Basel, 1543) first credited the magician with genuine supernatural qualities. Gast, a man of some learning and much superstition, believed Faust to be in league with the devil, by whom about 1525 he was ultimately carried off, and declared the performing horse and dog by which the necromancer was accompanied to be familiar and evil spirits. Further information was given to the world by Johann Mannel or Manlius (d. 1560), councillor and historian to the emperor Maximilian II., in his Locorum communium collectanea (Basel, undated). Manlius reports a conversation of Melanchthon, which there is no reason to suspect of being other than genuine, in which the Reformer speaks of Faust as “a disgraceful beast and sewer of many devils,” as having been born at Kundling (Kundlingen or Knittlingen), a little town near his own native town (of Bretten), and as having studied magic at Cracow. The rest of the information given can hardly be regarded as historical, though Melanchthon, who, like Luther, was no whit less superstitious than most people of his time, evidently believed it to be so. According to him, among other marvels, Faust was killed by the devil wringing his neck. While he lived he had taken about with him a dog, which was really a devil. A similar opinion would seem to have been held of Faust by Luther also, who in Widmann’s Faust-book is mentioned as having declared that, by God’s help, he had been able to ward off the evils which Faust with his sorceries had sought to put upon him. The passage, with the omission of Faust’s name, occurs word for word in Luther’s Table-talk (ed. C. E. Förstemann, vol. i. p. 50). It is not improbable, then, that Widmann, in supplying the name of the necromancer omitted in the Table-talk, may be giving a fuller account of the conversation. Bullinger also, in his Theatrum de beneficiis (Frankf., 1569) mentions Faust as one of those “of whom the Scriptures speak, in various places, calling them magi.” Lastly Johann Weiher, Wierus or Piscinarius (1515–1588)—a pupil of Cornelius Agrippa, body physician to the duke of Cleves and a man of enlightenment, who opposed the persecution of witches—in his De praestigiis daemonum (Basel, 1563, &c.), speaks of Faust as a drunken vagabond who had studied magic at Cracow, and before 1540 had practised “this beautiful art shamelessly up and down Germany, with unspeakable deceit, many lies and great effect.” He goes on to tell how the magician had revenged himself on an unhappy parish priest, who had refused to supply him any longer with drink, by giving him a depilatory which removed not only the beard but the skin, and further, how he had insulted a poor wretch, for no better reason than that he had a black beard, by greeting him as his cousin the devil. Of his superhuman powers Weiher evidently believes nothing, but he tells the tale of his being found dead with his neck wrung, after the whole house had been shaken by a terrific din.

The sources above mentioned, which were but the first of numerous works on Faust, of more or less value, appearing throughout the next two centuries, give a sufficient picture of the man as he appeared to his contemporaries: a wandering charlatan who lived by his wits, cheiromantist, astrologer, diviner, spiritualist medium, alchemist, or, to the more credulous, a necromancer whose supernatural gifts were the outcome of a foul pact with the enemy of mankind. Whatever his character, his efforts to secure a widespread notoriety had, by the time of his death, certainly succeeded. By the latter part of the 16th century he had become the necromancer par excellence, and all that legend had to tell about the great wizards of the middle ages, Virgil, Pope Silvester, Roger Bacon, Michael Scot, or the mythic Klingsor, had become for ever associated with his name. When in 1587, the oldest Faust-book was published, the Faust legend was, in all essential particulars, already complete.

The origin of the main elements of the legend must be sought far back in the middle ages and beyond. The idea of a compact with the devil, for the purpose of obtaining superhuman power or knowledge, is of Jewish origin, dating from the centuries immediately before and after the Christian era which produced the Talmud, the Kabbalah and such magical books as that of Enoch. In the mystical rites—in which blood, as the seat of life, played a great part—that accompanied the incantations with which the Jewish magicians evoked the Satanim—the lowest grade of those elemental spirits (shedim) who have their existence beyond the dimensions of time and space—we have the prototypes and originals of all the ceremonies which occupy the books of magic down to the various versions of the Höllenzwang ascribed to Faust. The other principle underlying the Faust legend, the belief in the essentially evil character of purely human learning, has existed ever since the triumph of Christianity set divine revelation above human science. The legend of Theophilus—a Cilician archdeacon of the 6th century, who sold his soul to Satan for no better reason than to clear himself of a false charge brought against him by his bishop—was immensely popular throughout the middle ages, and in the 8th century formed the theme of a poem in Latin hexameters by the nun Hroswitha of Gandersheim, who, especially in her description of the ritual of Satan’s court, displays a sufficiently lively and original imagination. Equally widespread were the legends which gathered round the great name of Gerbert (Pope Silvester II.). Gerbert’s vast erudition, like Roger Bacon’s so far in advance of his age, naturally cast upon him the suspicion of traffic with the infernal powers; and in due course the suspicion developed into the tale, embellished with circumstantial and harrowing details, of a compact with the arch-fiend, by which the scholar had obtained the summit of earthly ambition at the cost of his immortal soul. These are but the two most notable of many similar stories,[2] and, in an age when the belief in witchcraft and the ubiquitous activity of devils was still universal, it is natural that they should have been retold in all good faith of a notorious wizard who was himself at no pains to deny their essential truth. The Faust legend, however, owes something of its peculiar significance also to the special conditions of the age which gave it birth: the age of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The opinion that the religious reformers were the champions of liberty of thought against the obscurantism of Rome is the outgrowth of later experience. To themselves they were the protagonists of “the pure Word of God” against the corruptions of a church defiled by the world and the devil, and the sceptical spirit of Italian humanism was as abhorrent to them as to the Catholic reactionaries by whom it was again trampled under foot. If then, in Goethe’s drama, Faust ultimately develops into the type of the unsatisfied yearning of the human intellect for “more than earthly meat and drink,” this was because the great German humanist deliberately infused into the old story a spirit absolutely opposed to that by which it had originally been inspired. The Faust of the early Faust-books, of the ballads, the dramas and the puppet-plays innumerable which grew out of them, is irrevocably damned because he deliberately prefers human to “divine” knowledge; “he laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of Theology, but preferred to be styled doctor of Medicine.” The orthodox moral of the earliest versions is preserved to the last in the puppet-plays. The Voice to the right cries: “Faust! Faust! desist from this proposal! Go on with the study of Theology, and you will be the happiest of mortals.” The Voice to the left answers: “Faust! Faust! leave the study of Theology. Betake you to Necromancy, and you will be the happiest of mortals!” The Faust legend was, in fact, the creation of orthodox Protestantism; its moral, the inevitable doom which follows the wilful revolt of the intellect against divine authority as represented by the Holy Scriptures and its accredited interpreters. Faust, the contemner of Holy Writ, is set up as a foil to Luther, the champion of the new orthodoxy, who with well-directed inkpot worsted the devil when he sought to interrupt the sacred work of rendering the Bible into the vulgar tongue.

It was doubtless this orthodox and Protestant character of the Faust story which contributed to its immense and immediate popularity in the Protestant countries. The first edition of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, by an unknown compiler, published by Johann Spies at Frankfort in 1587, sold out at once. Though only placed on the market in the autumn, before the year was out it had been reprinted in four pirated editions. In the following year a rhymed version was printed at Tübingen, a second edition was published by Spies at Frankfort and a version in low German by J. J. Balhorn at Lübeck. Reprints and amended versions continued to appear in Germany every year, till they culminated in the pedantic compilation of Georg Rudolf Widmann, who obscured the dramatic interest of the story by an excessive display of erudition and by his well-meant efforts to elaborate the orthodox moral. Widmann’s version of 1599 formed the basis of that of Johann Nicholaus Pfitzer, published at Nuremberg in 1674, which passed through six editions, the last appearing in 1726. Like Widmann, Pfitzer was more zealous for imparting information than for perfecting a work of art, though he had the good taste to restore the episode of the evocation of Helen, which Widmann had expunged as unfit for Christian readers. Lastly there appeared, about 1712, what was to prove the most popular of all the Faust-books: The League with the Devil established by the world-famous Arch-necromancer and Wizard Dr Johann Faust. By a Christian Believer (Christlich Meynenden). This version, which bore the obviously false date of 1525, passed through many editions, and was circulated at all the fairs in Germany. Abroad the success of the story was scarcely less striking. A Danish version appeared in 1588; in England the History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr John Faustus was published some time between 1588 and 1594; in France the translation of Victor Palma Cayet was published at Paris in 1592 and, in the course of the next two hundred years, went through fifteen editions; the oldest Dutch and Flemish versions are dated 1592; and in 1612 a Czech translation was published at Prague.

Besides the popular histories of Faust, all more or less founded on the original edition of Spies, numerous ballads on the same subject were also soon in circulation. Of these the most interesting for the English reader is A Ballad of the life and death of Dr Faustus the great congerer, published in 1588 with the imprimatur of the learned Aylmer, bishop of London. This ballad is supposed to have preceded the English version of Spies’s Faust-book, mentioned above, on which Marlowe’s drama was founded.

To Christopher Marlowe, it would appear, belongs the honour of first realizing the great dramatic possibilities of the Faust legend. The Tragicall History of D. Faustus as it hath bene acted by the Right Honourable the Earle of Nottingham his servants was first published by Thomas Bushall at London in 1604. As Marlowe died in 1593, the play must have been written shortly after the appearance of the English version of the Faust story on which it was based. The first recorded performance was on the 30th of September 1594.

As Marlowe’s Faustus is the first, so it is imcomparably the finest of the Faust dramas which preceded Goethe’s masterpiece. Like most of Marlowe’s work it is, indeed, very unequal. At certain moments the poet seems to realize the great possibilities of the story, only to sacrifice them to the necessity for humouring the prevailing public taste of the age. Faustus, who in one scene turns disillusioned from the ordinary fountains of knowledge, or flies in a dragon-drawn chariot through the Empyrean to search out the mysteries of the heavens, in another is made to use his superhuman powers to satisfy the taste of the groundlings for senseless buffoonery, to swindle a horse-dealer, or cheat an ale-wife of her score; while Protestant orthodoxy is conciliated by irrelevant insults to the Roman Church and by the final catastrophe, when Faustus pays for his revolt against the Word of God by the forfeit of his soul. This conception, which followed that of the popular Faust histories, underlay all further developments of the Faust drama for nearly two hundred years. Of the serious stage plays founded on this theme, Marlowe’s Faustus remains the sole authentic example until near the end of the 18th century; but there is plenty of evidence to prove that in Germany the Comedy of Dr Faust, in one form or another, was and continued to be a popular item in the repertories of theatrical companies until far into the 18th century. It is supposed, with good reason, that the German versions were based on those introduced into the country by English strolling players early in the 17th century. However this may be, the dramatic versions of the Faust legend followed much the same course as the prose histories. Just as these gradually degenerated into chap-books hawked at fairs, so the dramas were replaced by puppet-plays, handed down by tradition through generations of showmen, retaining their original broad characteristics, but subject to infinite modification in detail. In this way, in the puppet-shows, the traditional Faust story retained its popularity until far into the 19th century, long after, in the sphere of literature, Goethe had for ever raised it to quite another plane.

It was natural that during the literary revival in Germany in the 18th century, when German writers were eagerly on the look-out for subjects to form the material of a truly national literature, the Faust legend should have attracted their attention. Lessing was the first to point out its great possibilities;[3] and he himself wrote a Faust drama, of which unfortunately only a fragment remains, the MS. of the completed work having been lost in the author’s lifetime. None the less, to Lessing, not to Goethe, is due the new point of view from which the story was approached by most of those who, after about the year 1770, attempted to tell it. The traditional Faust legend represented the sternly orthodox attitude of the Protestant reformers. Even the mitigating elements which the middle ages had permitted had been banished by the stern logic of the theologians of the New Religion. Theophilus had been saved in the end by the intervention of the Blessed Virgin; Pope Silvester, according to one version of the legend, had likewise been snatched from the jaws of hell at the last moment. Faust was irrevocably damned, since the attractions of the studium theologicum proved insufficient to counteract the fascinations of the classic Helen. But if he was to become, in the 18th century, the type of the human intellect face to face with the deep problems of human life, it was intolerable that his struggles should issue in eternal reprobation. Error and heresy had ceased to be regarded as crimes; and stereotyped orthodoxy, to the age of the Encyclopaedists, represented nothing more than the atrophy of the human intellect. Es irrt der Mensch so lang er strebt, which sums up in one pregnant line the spirit of Goethe’s Faust, sums up also the spirit of the age which killed with ridicule the last efforts of persecuting piety, and saw the birth of modern science. Lessing, in short, proclaimed that the final end of Faust must be, not his damnation, but his salvation. This revolutionary conception is the measure of Goethe’s debt to Lessing. The essential change which Goethe himself introduced into the story is in the nature of the pact between Faust and Mephistopheles, and in the character of Mephistopheles himself. The Mephistopheles of Marlowe, as of the old Faust-books, for all his brave buffoonery, is a melancholy devil, with a soul above the unsavoury hell in which he is forced to pass a hopeless existence. “Tell me,” says Faust, in the puppet-play, to Mephistopheles, “what would you do if you could attain to everlasting salvation?” And the devil answers, “Hear and despair! Were I able to attain everlasting salvation, I would mount to heaven on a ladder, though every rung were a razor edge!” Goethe’s Mephistopheles would have made no such reply. There is nothing of the fallen angel about him; he is perfectly content with his past, his present and his future; and he appears before the throne of God with the same easy insolence as he exhibits in Dame Martha’s back-garden. He is, in fact, according to his own definition, the Spirit of Denial, the impersonation of that utter scepticism which can see no distinction between high and low, between good and bad, and is therefore without aspiration because it knows no “divine discontent.” And the compact which Faust makes with this spirit is from the first doomed to be void. Faustus had bartered away his soul for a definite period of pleasure and power. The conception that underlies the compact of Faust with Mephistopheles is far more subtle. He had sought happiness vainly in the higher intellectual and spiritual pursuits; he is content to seek it on a lower plane since Mephistopheles gives him the chance; but he is confident that nothing that “such a poor devil” can offer him could give him that moment of supreme satisfaction for which he craves. He goes through the traditional mummery of signing the bond with scornful submission; for he knows that his damnation will not be the outcome of any formal compact, but will follow inevitably, and only then, when his soul has grown to be satisfied with what Mephistopheles can purvey him.

“Canst thou with lying flattery rule me
Until self-pleased myself I see,
Canst thou with pleasure mock and fool me,
Let that hour be the last for me!
When thus I hail the moment flying:
‘Ah, still delay, thou art so fair!’
Then bind me in thy chains undying,
My final ruin then declare!”[4]

It is because Mephistopheles fails to give him this self-satisfaction or to absorb his being in the pleasures he provides, that the compact comes to nothing. When, at last, Faust cries to the passing moment to remain, it is because he has forgotten self in enthusiasm for a great and beneficent work, in a state of mind the very antithesis of all that Mephistopheles represents. In the old Faust-books, Faust had been given plenty of opportunity for repentance, but the inducements had been no higher than the exhibition of a throne in heaven on the one hand and the tortures of hell on the other. Goethe’s Faust, for all its Christian setting, departs widely from this orthodox standpoint. Faust shows no signs of “repentance”; he simply emerges by the innate force of his character from a lower into a higher state. The triumph, foretold by “the Lord” in the opening scene, was inevitable from the first, since, though

“‘Man errs so long as he is striving,
A good man through obscurest aspiration
Is ever conscious of the one true way.’”

A man, in short, must be judged not by the sins and follies which may be but accidents of his career, but by the character which is its essential outcome.

This idea, which inspired also the kindred theme of Browning’s Paracelsus, is the main development introduced by Goethe into the Faust legend. The episode of Gretchen, for all its tragic interest, does not belong to the legend at all; and it is difficult to deny the pertinency of Charles Lamb’s criticism, “What has Margaret to do with Faust?” Yet in spite of all that may be said of the irrelevancies, and of the discussions of themes of merely ephemeral interest, with which Goethe overloaded especially the second part of the poem, his Faust remains for the modern world the final form of the legend out of which it grew, the magnificent expression of the broad humanism which, even in spheres accounted orthodox, has tended to replace the peculiar studium theologicum which inspired the early Faust-books.

See Karl Engel, Zusammenstellung der Faust-Schriften vom 16. Jahrhundert bis Mitte 1884—a second edition of the Bibliotheca Faustiana (1874)—(Oldenburg, 1885), a complete bibliography of all published matter concerned, even somewhat remotely, with Faust; Goethe’s Faust, with introduction and notes by K. J. Schröer (2nd ed., Heilbronn, 1886); Carl Kiesewetter, Faust in der Geschichte und Tradition (Leipzig, 1893). The last book, besides being a critical study of the material for the historical and legendary story of Faust, aims at estimating the relation of the Faust-legend to the whole subject of occultism, ancient and modern. It is a mine of information on necromancy and its kindred subjects, as well as on eminent theurgists, wizards, crystal-gazers and the like of all ages.  (W. A. P.) 

  1. The opinion, long maintained by some, that he was identical with Johann Fust, the printer, is now universally rejected.
  2. Many are given in Kiesewetter’s Faust, p. 112, &c.
  3. In the Literaturbrief of Feb. 16, 1759.
  4. Bayard Taylor’s trans.