Considered by many scholars of German history to be the most influential German writer in history, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is better known in academic circles than in popular culture. While most people might not know the writer, they are familiar with Faust, Goethe’s epic poem in two parts.
The position he holds in the development of German literature and thought is like that which Shakespeare has in the English-speaking countries. — Robert Milch
Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…
Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!
NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:
— Work; Author, p. Page
|1749 August 28||Born in Franfurt-am-Main, Germany.|
|1765||Sent to study law at Leipzig. Begins writing poetry.|
|1771||Obtains his law degree in Strasbourg, having left Leipzip after an extended illness.|
|1772||Writes the drama Gotz von Berlichingen.|
|1774||Publishes the short novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.|
|1775||Joins the court of Duke Karl August of Weimar.|
|1786||Resigns from the Weimar court to travel for two years in Italy.|
|1789||His son is born to his mistress.|
|1792||Accompanies the Duke during a military campaign against France.|
|1806||Marries his mistress.|
|1808||Publishes Faust, Part One.|
|1832||Completes Faust, Part Two.|
|1832 March 22||Dies.|
Like Shakespeare, Goethe began with familiar stories and expanded them, making them his own. In his more than 140 volumes, readers can easily locate familiar characters, themes, and stories. The epic poem Faust is no exception. The basic story of Faust is possibly a retelling of a story found in the New Testament, Acts 8:5-24. Acts recounts the story of Simon Magus, a sorcerer who envies the apostles' powers. His jealousy leads to an offer of money for power:
Philip went to the city of Samaria and told the poeple there about Christ. Crowds listened intently to what he had to say because of the miracles he did. Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed, so there was much joy in that city.
A man named Simon had formerly been a sorcerer there for many years; he was a very influential, proud man because of the amazing things he could do -- in fact, the Samaritan people often spoke of him as the Messiah. But now they believed Philip's message that Jesus was the Messiah, and his words concerning the Kingdom of God; and many men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself believed and was baptized and began following Philip wherever he went, and was amazed by the miracles he did.
When the apostles back in Jerusalem heard that the people of Samaria had accepted God's message, they sent down Peter and John. As soon as they arrived, they began praying for these new Christians to receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet he had not come upon any of them. For they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John laid their hands upon these believers, and they received the Holy Spirit.
When Simon saw this -- that the Holy Spirit was given when the apostles placed their hands upon people's heads -- he offered money to buy this power.
"Let me have this power, too," he exclaimed, "so that when I lay my hands on people, they will receive the Holy Spirit!"
But Peter replied, "Your money will perish with you for thinking God's gift can be bought! You can have no part in this, for your heart is not right before God. turn from this great wickedness and pray. Perhaps God will forgive your evil thoughts -- for I can see that there is jealousy and sin in your heart."
During the Middle Ages, stories were told of a sorcerer who was willing to trade his possessions for knowledge of the definitive truth -- such as knowledge of the Holy Spirit. Over time, various stories about such sorcerers were gathered into united legend. The name Faust, Fausten, or Faustus was often given to the main character of this legend. The legend was so pervasive that one of the most popular books of occult spells and magic was attributed to Faust. To capitalize upon the fame of Faust, a German wanderer took to calling himself "Faust the Younger" during the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
In 1587 a supposed biography of Faust the Younger was published in Frankfurt. An English translation followed in the same year. It was literally just months until the Faust legend began to assume a new identity: that of a man in search of freedom and individuality. Faust became a just rebel, opposing the Church and clerical authority. In 1588, Christopher Marlowe published the Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
Marlowe's Faust signs a pact with Satan for 24 years of unlimited power and pleasure. At the end of the poem Faustus fears his fate in Hell and tries to find faith. Unfortunately, Faustus' faith in God is not strong enough to save him, and he is carried away to Hell by Satan.
Goethe's Faust finds himself calling to Satan out of dispair. He is lonely, alienated from his fellow men by his own intellect. While the earlier Faust legends feature a man driven by a quest for power, Goethe's anti-hero is driven by a desire to know and understand himself and absolute truth.
The primary contribution of Goethe's Faust to existentialism is that it features a man struggling to understand existence. His devotion to who and what he is makes him a heroic figure. Understanding why mankind exists, and in what terms it exists, is important enough for Faust to risk damnation. This purity of purpose and being parallels Sartre's contention that the people who should be admired are those who hold true to their natures.
The "Prologue in Heaven" introducing Faust, Part One, sets the theme of the epic. When Mephistopheles, or Satan, enters the room of God, he finds three archangels singing the praises of God and His creations. Mephistopheles criticizes what he views as empty praise of an imperfect creation. When asked what is not perfect, Mephistopheles points out that after the Fall of Man, reason and intellect have made mankind miserable. After some debate, God and Mephistopheles make a wager that man will ultimately find redemption.
The object of the wager between the Lord and Satan is Faust, a scientist confounded by existence and his own alientation. If Faust does not find faith in creation, Satan may have his soul; otherwise Satan must admit that mankind will find redemption. In Goethe's epic, it is clear Mephistopheles, or Satan, is meant to test men, either proving that they are unworthy of Heaven or that they are indeed faithful to God and Truth.
In what many might view as a heresy, Faust's drive to understand universal truths is eventually rewarded, despite the consequences of his actions throughout the poem. In the final scene of Faust, the main character is about to be burried. While the devil and his demons wait to carry the soul of Faust away to Hell, angels appear to rescue Faust's soul and take it to Heaven.
Of course Satan argues that Faust and he made a deal, which gives him the right to Faust's soul. The angels counter that by seeking Truth Faust has proven himself worthy of mercy. Though he dies without faith in himself or the existence of universal truth, Faust is accepted into Heaven by God.