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Dr. Faustus and Mr. Lao-Tzu

When Dr. Faust insulted the Tao, the devil emerged.

When Dr. Faust insulted the Tao, the devil emerged.

Im Anfang war die Tat!
"In the beginning was the deed."

A German necromancer flourished for a while during the Protestant Reformation. We only know a little about him. We aren’t even sure when he died.

He was supposedly boastful and sometimes gained influence in powerful ecclesiastical and worldly courts. After his death, rumors about his supernatural gifts and evil living circulated. The rumors grew into legend. Legend grew into shrouded history in Johann Spies’ The History of Dr. Faustus, the Notorious Magician and Master of the Black Art. Shrouded history then grew into drama in the work of the greatest playwright before Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), and his Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.

Many historical, literary, artistic, and musical accounts of the Faust legend followed.

And then a young Johann Goethe (pronounced GUH-teh) saw a Faust puppet show. It started his lifelong interest in the Faust legend. This interest climaxed in 1808 with the publication of Faust, The First Part of the Tragedy, a work he started in 1770 and was still working on when he died in 1832.

Faust Summary

Goethe’s Faust tells the story of an old scholar who yearns to comprehend all. The play begins with him in his study, where he is in despair because his intellectual efforts haven’t been able to penetrate the secrets of the universe. He turns to the occult. Mephistopheles (a demon, though not necessarily Satan himself?—?Goethe keeps it vague) appears and brings those occult powers. Faust suggests a two-part bet/exchange: he agrees to give his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for those occult powers, but if he uses those powers solely to pursue knowledge and not to become a reprobate, he doesn’t lose his soul. Mephistopheles agrees, the powers are given, and Faust is tempted. He seduces a girl (“Gretchen”) and impregnates her. She gives birth, goes mad, drowns her baby, and is then executed for the crime. Faust is shaken: his lust for Gretchen had transformed into love, which opens his pedantic scholarly heart to tenderness and compassion. Faust arguably loses the bet because he uses the powers for carnal purposes and not his studies, but in the ordeal, Faust discovers compassion for others. Love always wins. Mephistopheles loses. Angels bear Faust to heaven. Mephistopheles watches and fantasizes about sodomizing the boyish-looking angels.

Faust Starts to Translate the Book of John

It’s a great story. It set the standard for modern literary representations of the devil. Whenever you see a devil in a novel or film that is urbane, witty, or otherwise exemplifies appealing characteristics, it’s Goethe’s Mephistopheles.

But what really interests me in Goethe’s version is Faust’s last attempt to comprehend all before Mephistopheles appears. Faust is sitting in his study and yearning “to reach revelation’s brink.” He says to himself that it “burns in the New Testament.” He decides to rewrite it.

He starts with the Gospel of John:

He writes, “In the beginning was the Thought.”

That didn’t quite get it.

He writes, “In the beginning was the Power.”

That wasn’t quite right, either.

He writes, “In the beginning was the Deed.”

At that, a black dog that had followed him into his study starts to yelp and then starts to shift shapes within a mist. As the mist subsides, a wandering scholar emerges. It’s Mephistopheles.

The Heart and Soul of Modernity: There is No Tao

It makes sense that Faust’s last attempt to master reality would conclude with writing, “In the beginning was the Deed.”

Such a statement inverts the real (ontological) order of things.

The Gospel of John starts with the words, “In the beginning was the Word.” “Word” doesn’t mean “language” here. Rather, it refers to the greatest ontological (existential) truth, or what I refer to as the left side of the Reality Spectrum:

The Act of Existence/Tao?———————————>Essence/Accident —>Being/Substance

St. John’s “Word,” in other words, refers to the Tao, which is why the famous Catholic convert John Wu translated the Gospel of John and wrote, “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.”

Faust’s proposed re-writing was blasphemous at the deepest level: it denied the Tao. It said, “The left side of the Reality Spectrum isn’t prior to the right sides. In fact, the left side doesn’t even exist. All is essence, accident, being, and substance. Things we can define; things we can touch; things we can reach with logic and reason; things we can classify and control; things we can use; things we can act upon . . . things that work and allow us to carry out deeds like earthly improvement and earning money.”

Faust’s re-writing was, in other words, deeply modern. It embraced and uttered the heart and soul of modernity: There is no Tao.

And then came the devil.

History Following Faust

The First Part appeared in 1808.

Things were looking pretty good for western civilization, and things, indeed, went well for the next 100 years. There were hiccups occasionally, like the Napoleonic Wars raging at the time of Goethe and the U.S. Civil War, which featured history’s first “total war” (no holds barred . . . traditional norms of combat be damned), but by 1900, modernity was proceeding well, at least from the vantage point of the birthplace of modernity, Western Europe. Advances under the Scientific Revolution allowed the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, Dutch, and Germans to conquer the globe. Life expectancies were rising. Wealth was growing. At the same time, the continental philosophical tradition was leading to a fierce subjectivism that freed people from the constraints of dogma, giving them a new type of liberty, whether in the form of a looser personal morality or merely liberty to trust the dictates of their own mind.

Everything looked great. The first 15 years of the twentieth century were remembered as la belle epoque (the beautiful epoch) or the “banquet years.” Optimism was surging.

And then came World War I. It was brutal, it was deadly, and it was a shock. It led to Hemingway and the Lost Generation, Eliot’s Waste Land, Weimer Germany, and the Bolsheviks.

And then came Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

All men of the deed.