DOCTOR FAUST AND THE KING
You probably have heard the story of Doctor Faust. He’s the gentlemen who purportedly sold his soul to the devil. Here’s the real story. The Doctor was actually a good guy, he just wanted answers. There are several versions of the story so we’ll stick with the most famous written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe is the German poet and writer who is to the German language what Shakespeare is to English. He’s the epitome of German authors. Immediately upon reading the story, one can’t help but think of the Bible story of Job. However, what readers never realize, this story actually is the story of King Solomon of Bible fame.
Here’s the background. First, you probably know the story of Job in the Bible. Remember Job loses everything, his wealth, his family, even his health. Then his would-be friends, though trying to console him at first, insinuate Job must have done something really wicked to find himself in such an extreme position. They had the impression, the same impression some have today, that if you are faithful to God your life would be blessed and you could expect only blue skies ahead. However, most individuals today realize that is spurious reasoning. The “blessed” part is true but the “blue skies” part can’t be counted on. The Good do experience Evil and disappointments, no different from Agnostics and those who are disinterested in God.
What’s more, in Job’s case, we are informed that behind the scenes Job was subjected to a test of a sort without his knowledge. Not just Job, but all humanity, the story implies, are being scrutinized. Job’s story took place back in the days when Satan, who is called Mephistopheles in Goethe’s version, was on speaking terms with God. In the book of Job, Satan confronts God with a challenge. He asserts Job, a well-known believer in God, was only faithful due to all the blessings God bestowed upon him. “Take it all away and he’ll curse you to your face, God,” he boasted. That claim really applies to all humans, not just to Job. All humans are defective is the contention and would never remain faithful to God if tested. In Goethe’s story, God is the one starting the conversation about Faust. “Yes, humans all make mistakes, including Doctor Faust, but there will always be some humans who will be able to distinguish between Good and Evil and choose the good,” God emphatically alleges.
In Job’s case, he, as the protagonist, did not realize what was happening. In Goethe’s version, Mephistopheles come to Faust and plays the part of a confidant, claiming to help the Doctor. Now, as you also know, in the Bible account Job passed the test. He did not curse God as it was claimed he would, but remained faithful. Only then was it revealed to him that he, Job, had been the subject of a dispute between God and the Evil One.
There are several salient points to draw from the story. First, all humans, having the same heritage from the same Source (God), have the same inherited capacity of knowing Good from Bad. Therefore, there will always be some, like Job, who will seek the Good and cherish the moral character we were all born to exhibit. Second, the story helps us to understand the Bigger Question, the one everyone asks, “Why, if there is a God, does he allow wickedness?” The Bible answer, from the book of Job, is that there are events happening behind the scenes that humans are not privy to. There is also an Evil presence in the world due to the fact humans have free-will and can choose their actions, Good or Evil. Events happen all around us, not caused by God but sanctioned by him, so free will is carefully respected but finally guidelines for free-will can be established for all time. More on this concept can be found in others of my commentaries (see ww.instituteformerechristianity.org).
Next, the story of Faust, by Goethe, though reminiscent of Job’s original, is somewhat different. Goethe’s Faust comes to some similar conclusions but uses different terms and different experiences to emphasize his conclusions. We find the same characters; there’s God and the accuser, in this case called Mephistopheles. The two make what is termed a wager and Mephistopheles is given free rein to tempt Faust. When the tempter appears, he finds Faust depressed and sullen. Now, Faust is a decent man but he desperately wants answers. What is the meaning of life? What will bring him true happiness? When the Tempter appears, he first conceals his identity and offers to help the depressed Faust. “I can help you find what you’re looking for,” he boasts, “just become my mentor.” Faust is a scientist who searches for answers through rational means. Goethe and Faust lived in the late Eighteenth Century, the period of The Enlightenment, when philosophers eschewed mysticism and used only rationality and logic to seek for answers. Within a hundred and fifty years or so they realized logic could not give a satisfying answer to these questions. That was Faust’s predicament, as Goethe, who lived toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, began to realize. “I’ll let you try every possible experience in life. You’ll be able to learn for yourself but in the end you’ll end up following me,” contends Mephistopheles. Well, Faust does come to experience it all: wealth, lust, power, and all human experience. And he comes to a startling conclusion and at the same time, holds on to his positive spiritual attitude about life. Faust comes to realize humans can understand only so much about their lives. There is more to meaning than humans are able to deduce on their own. They don’t have the capacity or the tools to discern all. He acknowledges there is something, someone, greater than himself that has a higher perspective. He admits his only moment of true bliss comes from his devotion to and love for Gretchen, a delightful, humble companion he met along the way. And yes, through it all, he is able to distinguish the difference shades of moral integrity without succumbing to pure evil for gain as the tempter contends he would.
Similar stories with similar endings have been told. But we don’t stop here. The Bible gives us another story. This one is very similar to the Faust story, but this one really happened! The man, like Faust, was a seeker of wisdom and truth. His name was King Solomon and he lived some three thousand years ago. He, too, sought wisdom and begged God (not Satan) to lead him to profound Understanding of Life. He became renowned for becoming the wisest man of the ancient world. At one point, though, he conducted an experiment very similar to the one Faust, the scientist, proposed and he, Solomon, too utilized himself as the subject of the study. Solomon then went on to attain knowledge and wisdom from all sources, studying naturalistic phenomena and human nature, a social scientist at heart. Not willing to leave any avenue of adventure untried, he experienced every possible aspect of life. Being the king of a Grand Kingdom, he sought to do anything and everything. He actually did what Doctor Faust was alleged to do in that fictional account. Solomon actually did experience it all. Wealth, power, lust, every whim, every avenue of human experience was explored to find the ultimate satisfaction from all life could offer. He craved what we all crave, Happiness. The difference is he had the means and circumstances to experience all the material world could offer. He followed through on the experiment, unfortunately to his detriment. But fortunately he was able to write down his conclusions for all posterity to read. We don’t have to guess and endlessly wonder which pursuits or which avenues of experience might bring true happiness.
King Solomon wrote a full report of his conclusions that are preserved in the Bible book called Ecclesiastes. Toward the beginning of the book, Solomon set down his intentions. Acting as any modern researcher or scientist, he proposed to use empirical evidence, actually living the experiment himself rather than just surmising from intuition, as his method of investigation. Note his plan recorded in Ecclesiastes chapter two and verse three: “I wanted to see what was good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.” Then he brags about his accomplishments starting in verse 4 forward: “I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards…I bought male and female slaves…I amassed silver and gold…a harem as well, the delights of a man’s heart.” He continues in verse ten: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired.” I’m sure many others have proposed a similar investigation but the big difference is Solomon had the wealth and circumstances to follow through. The idea would be intriguing to many but few, very few, have had the opportunity and life situation to follow through.
Any regular Bible reader realizes the book of Ecclesiastes is very different from the rest of scripture. Solomon gave us a hint as to why. He admits he sought wisdom (all types of wisdom). Certainly he expected inspiration along the way. But to complete his once in a lifetime (more like once in many millions of lifetime opportunities), he was forced to write devoid of feeling and as dispassionately as possible. He attempted to be totally objective. This is the method scientists and researchers employ today, simple logic and the rational way. All other Bible books put God at the center, and though they write about heart wrenching suffering and humanity at its worst, they always, always interject the positive hope and faith from inspiration. Solomon did not. He does say, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done…everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Pure logic indicated to him men and animals have exactly the same fate, they both die and turn to dust. He repeats over and over the conclusions he reached through human reasoning. All is vanity, Life is meaningless, and that’s it. Not one of those pleasures or acquisitions could bring him lasting satisfaction.
Even when it comes to career success he carefully observed that there was no set formula he could find to offer as a road guide. His assessment, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong…but time and chance happen to them all.” One just can’t count on anything to be absolutely certain, in life there are too many variables. For example, most well-known actors or actresses will admit they often just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe they were born into a successful family or happened just to be picked at an audition where any one of the many could have gotten the part having had as much or more talent. Life isn’t fair, Solomon observed over and over.
From the empirical evidence, Solomon did make a significant contribution to the literature on finding happiness. As we’ve seen so far, human wisdom doesn’t give us much to work with when it comes to finding happiness. The best you can expect, if this life is all there is, “Go eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart… Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun.” There is some good advice here if you can pass over the depressing, “meaningless” interjection. Solomon learned the important lesson on striving to live in the present. We can’t know or control the future. Enjoy what you have, take delight in all the blessings you have in the moment. Don’t waste time worrying about the other guy or gal, what they have or what you don’t. Life does offer many blessings to most everyone, really enjoy them while you can and in the moment. So often actors go through life, never stopping to be sincerely thankful for what they have.
Now for his all-important final conclusion, based on the facts and given the limited understanding and limited capabilities of the human mind. At the end of the book (Eccl. 12:13), “Now all has been heard. Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind… and a judgement”. Almost as a belated thought and as though with no alternative, Solomon brings God back into the picture. What he concludes, based on what researchers would call anecdotal evidence, is a rational conclusion. He could console himself to assert, not in so many words but implied, “At least I proved what doesn’t bring happiness. I’m at a loss rationally, I’ve come up to a dead-end. I would have to conclude that having God in one’s life is of prime importance. The only area of study I didn’t follow-through on in any detail is this spiritual avenue.” His biography elsewhere in scripture relates how he started out taking that spiritual path. He begged for Wisdom and it came in abundance. Unfortunately he started to rely on those abilities rather than the inspiration that takes one out of the realm of the material to a higher level. To conclude his treatise.
We are indebted to King Solomon. The evidence is summarized declaring, “All is meaningless, vanity.” However, he did hint at the one possibility that can’t be explored by rationality. That possibility, “Fear the true God.” How to react to that directive and how to interpret the term “Fear God” is explained in the rest of the Bible. Thank you, to Solomon, for at least being truthful. He could have bragged about all the momentary joys experienced during a short lived existence. He could also have made it appear, as so many celebrities attempt to, that a life of glamour and notoriety is a life to be envied. No, Solomon affirmed, life is meaningless, vanity…unless we go past the material and sensual pleasures that over time become cloying. The direction given in the end, “Fear the true God and keep his Commands,” is a start. But that’s a topic in itself that takes a whole lifetime to explore and comprehend.