Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
Divinity is basest of the three,
Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile.
—Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
You know the legend of Faust. He was a man of great learning who wanted to be a man of great power, who made a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for perfect worldly knowledge and the commanding position that goes with it. The story has been treated most famously by Marlowe and Goethe, but also has held the imagination of everyone from Paul Valéry to Václav Havel.
It should be performed weekly in Washington, because what Faust ultimately sought was not only knowledge and magical abilities but political power — the ultimate end to which he meant to put his ill-gotten capacities. Faust envisioned a new kind of government, above and separate from the vanities and schemes of mere kings and emperors, one that would be universal and based on science, which at the time was so closely related to magic as to be nearly indistinguishable in the popular mind.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promis’d to the studious artizan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces . . . .
Faust had worthy political causes, too: to improve the schools, to defeat the occupations of foreign tyrants, to Build That Wall! (a brass one around Germany), improving the intelligence services, even reforming taxes to offset military spending:
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,
Resolve me of all ambiguities,
Perform what desperate enterprise I will?
I’ll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates;
I’ll have them read me strange philosophy,
And tell the secrets of all foreign kings;
I’ll have them wall all Germany with brass,
And make swift Rhine circle fair Wertenberg;
I’ll have them fill the public schools with silk,
Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad;
I’ll levy soldiers with the coin they bring,
And chase the Prince of Parma from our land,
And reign sole king of all the provinces.
All that, in exchange for one little soul? Faust may have read his Scripture, but he had not seen A Man for All Seasons. It seemed to him a worthwhile trade.
When someone makes a deal with the devil, his immediate object, after dipping into whatever scanty pleasures were to be had from that deal, is to convince those around him — and himself — that he made a really, really good deal, that it was worth it, that the price was only a trifle. Informed of the extent of his powers, an excited and gratified Faust tells Mephistopheles that these are more than sufficient, “enough for a thousand souls.” Being a newly minted man of the world and newly contemptuous of the mere intellectuals and their ivory-tower thinking, Faust concludes that real power in the here and now is worth almost any tradeoff, especially when the cost is merely moral or metaphysical. There is, he believes, no real downside to the exchange:
Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine
That, after this life, there is any pain?
Tush, these are trifles and mere old wives’ tales.
The intellectuals always are vulnerable to the Faustian bargain. As I write in The Smallest Minority: “Julien Benda, in The Treason of the Intellectuals, describes the ‘desire to abase the values of knowledge before the values of action,’ meaning ‘the teaching that says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt.’ He called this the ‘cult of success.’ It is yet another variation of ‘might makes right.’” If you have heard, e.g., Mitt Romney dismissed as a “gentlemanly loser” by certain so-called realists and self-described practical men of the world, then you must recognize this line of argument. In the realm of democratic politics, it requires the apotheosis of popular opinion, which is understood as the only source of meaningful value. Those old war propaganda posters had it right: “I am Public Opinion! All men fear me.”
Power offers many seductions and takes many forms. In Goethe’s Faust, the great man’s servant invites him to worship at the political altar and find his true self in the embrace of the mob.
What feelings, great man, must thy breast inspire,
At homage paid thee by this crowd! Thrice blest
Who from the gifts by him possessed
Such benefit can draw! The sire
Thee to his boy with reverence shows;
They press around, inquire, advance,
Hush’d is the fiddle, check’d the dance.
Where thou dost pass they stand in rows,
And each aloft his bonnet throws.
Faust ultimately discovers what we all discover, each in our own way: that there is no good deal to be made with the devil, that nothing that comes of such an exchange is ever worth the cost. Those who try to negotiate the Faustian bargain can in the end only lament that they failed to heed the warning: “Woe unto them that call evil good . . . and justify the wicked for reward.”
The strange thing is that these practical men of the world cannot accept the Faustian bargain for what it is and call it what it is, and cannot help attempting to justify themselves and convince those around them — and that insistent little voice inside — that it was a really good deal, after all, that only hypocrites and cloistered moralists and fussbudgets in their ivory towers would carp and complain about it. Enough for a thousand souls!
But each of us only has the one.