The Path – November 1887




If the question were asked, what one literary work best represents the spiritual and intellectual problems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the majority of educated and thoughtful men would, I think, answer, Goethe's Faust. As the Divina Commedia represents the whole intellectual, social and moral movement of Dante's time, so Goethe's poem may be said to include the whole spirit of modern life, in all its phases.

And just as in the Divine Comedy we can read in the literal sense an account of the author's travels through the various circles of material regions of punishment, purification, and reward; while there can be read also a consistent political meaning, the symbols considered as referring to the contests then raging in Italy, where Pope, Emperor, and civic republics, contended for their various interests; while deeper and truer than either, lies the spiritual sense, most precious of all, and as living as ever, when the literal and the political interpretations have become a matter of the past; so in Faust, every one who reads it may draw from it the meaning that it has for his special need, the answer for his special question; and the deepest thinker, the most spiritual interpreter of it will be the least likely to claim that he has fully comprehended its possibilities, or penetrated to its innermost sense.

And the inner meaning of both these is the same; it is the same question which underlies all the great Bibles of Humanity; how shall man, the imperfect, become perfect? Each age has to meet this problem, each states the solution in its own form; many are the answers, but very few, only one in an age, comes to be accepted as the voice of that age; and the inner sense of these is very nearly the same, though the external forms may be far different.

In what I may have to say as to the answer which "Faust" gives to the universal problem, I am much indebted to the very thoughtful and instructive work of Mr. D. J. Snider, "Goethe's Faust, a Commentary." To the theosophist, especially, this book is a perfect treasury of interpretations of inner meanings in Goethe's poem.

The action of "Faust" was tersely characterized by Goethe himself, in conversation with Eckerman, as "From heaven through earth to hell, and back to heaven." Faust himself, the hero, is the representative man, the type of humanity in its contest with the obstacles and temptations within and without, which beset his path. In the development of the Faust legend, what may be fairly so called, though the name of Faust is not always found in it, can be seen in three forms; the medieval, the protestant, and the modern.

In the medieval, which we first find about the fifth or sixth century of our era, the hero is known by the name of Theophilus; he renounces the faith, denies its power, uses magic arts, sells himself to Satan, but is at last, by special interposition of the Virgin, turned from his fate, and dies penitent and devout. This is the medieval form of the legend; a contest between the church and the devil, in which the church wins; the eternal womanly is the saving element here, but in the form of the Virgin Mary; any lower feminine element, if present at all, is only as an ally of the satanic power.

The Protestant Faust, the Faust of German legends, is in a certain sense a popular hero; he defies everything in his ambition for knowledge and power; he does not generally use his compact with Satan for malicious purpose. He must fall, the ideas of divine government demand it; but he commands our admiration as he goes down; he falls under the divine stroke, but "impavidum ferient ruinae."

The problem of our day demands that Faust should question everything, defy precedents and tradition, try every power of the human soul for pain and joy; and yet not perish like the Protestant Faust, not surrender in blind faith to the church, like the medieval. This is the problem that the poem we are considering is to solve.

The poem is emphatically the work of Goethe's whole life; begun very early, finished in his very last years, it illustrates every period of his literary style, and yet it is an organic whole, every part in living relation to the rest. A short dedication, written twenty-four years after the poet began the work, and in which he recalls the memories of the earlier days, is followed by the Prologue on the Stage, in which the manager, the actor, and the poet set forth their various ideals of a play. Gain is the object of the manager, applause that of the actor, while the poet speaks from that higher standpoint above personal motive. One word of his I think we will find gives a clue to the right interpretation of individual references in Goethe's works. The object of the poet is "to call the individual to the universal consecration." A scene, a character, may have been drawn from some event in Goethe's experience, from some person of his acquaintance; but in the work it stands not merely for the individual; we must understand it as having the universal consecration.

Then comes the Prologue in Heaven; one of the grandest scenes in literature; the song of the archangels defies translation; a hint of its grandeur may be obtained in our language, but hardly more.


The sun-orb sings, in emulation,
     'Mid brother-spheres, his ancient round;
His path predestined through Creation
     He ends with step of thunder sound.
The angels from his visage splendid
     Draw power, whose measure none can say;
The lofty works, uncomprehended,
     Are bright as on the earliest day.


And swift, and swift beyond conceiving.
     The splendor of the world goes round,
Day's Eden-brightness still relieving
     The awful Night's intense profound:
The ocean-tides in foam are breaking,
     Against the rocks' deep bases hurled,
And both, the spheric race partaking,
     Eternal, swift, are onward whirled!


And rival storms abroad are surging
     From sea to land, from land to sea;
A chain of deepest action forging
     Round all, in wrathful energy.
There flames a desolation, blazing
     Before the Thunder's crashing way;
Yet, Lord, Thy messengers are praising
     The gentle movement of Thy Day.


Though still by them uncomprehended,
     From these the angels draw their power,
And all Thy works, sublime and splendid,
     Are bright as in Creation's hour. (1)

This scene is in form much like the first chapter of the book of Job; the celestial hierarchy is assembled, the angels chant their grand calm hymn; they seem wholly absorbed in the contemplative state, perceiving nothing of the discussion which occupies the rest of the scene. Their state seems to be one of Devachanic bliss, a strong contrast to man's earthly career of struggle, summed up by the words with which the Lord characterizes it

"Es irrt der Mensch, so lang 'er strebt"
"Man must err, as long as he strives."

Mephistopheles, who later in the poem describes himself as "the spirit that always denies," presents himself among the sons of God; every word speaks a satirical, mocking dissatisfaction and disgust with all the wonders of the universe; especially strong is his contempt for man, the wretched insect, who strives to be a god, and with such absurd results.

Heaven being represented somewhat in the guise of a medieval court, Mephistopheles takes his proper place in it as the jester, the court fool; considering him as such, the good-natured tolerance which the Lord shows for his half subservient, half insolent familiarity, becomes comprehensible to us. In the clear vision of infinite wisdom, what can the spirit of denial be but a mocking buffoon. As the Lord says to him:

"Ich habe deines Gleichen nie gehasst.
Von allen Geistern, die verneinen,
Ist mir der Schalk am wenigsten zur Last."
"The like of thee have never moved my hate.
Of all the denying spirits,
The waggish knave is the least burdensome."

And after Mephistopheles has wagered that Faust's strivings will end in his falling completely from the right way, the Lord tells him:

"A good man through obscurest aspiration,
Has still an instinct of the on true way."

The heavens close, and Mephistopheles is left alone, a characteristic sneer from him ending the scene.

"I like to see the Old Man, now and then,
And take care not to break with him entirely;
It's really very kind in such a noble lord,
To talk so sociably with a poor devil."

Now we can see that though the framework of the prologue much resembles that of Job, there is this difference; in the older poem Job is the true worshiper of Jehovah, and Satan's wager is that he serves only for reward; take away his prosperity, and he will cease to worship God. Mephistopheles on the other hand mocks at the blind struggles of Faust to reach truth, and wagers that they will end in disappointment and disgust, and finally lead him to the spirit of pure denial. The form of the problem has somewhat changed in 3,000 years, and the form of its solution must be somewhat different.

The scene is now transferred to earth, and Faust is introduced, and in the very first lines we see the conflict going on in him between the aspiration, the inner conviction that there is a higher, truer knowledge, a genuine wisdom; and the spirit of negation which finds only disappointment in every effort to attain this lofty truth.

Through the first act this conflict continues in Faust's soul; the contest is as yet internal, and we hear it in the form of his soliloquy. He has studied the four faculties, and now finds that the truth is no more within his grasp than before; he has much learning, but it does not give him the truth. Now he turns to magic; what the ordinary learning of the schools cannot give him, he will seek from the great spirits of nature; and by the sheer force of his aspiration he brings before him the two spirits, the nature spirit and the earth spirit, but he cannot hold them, and when for the moment he speaks to the earth spirit as to an equal, he is crushed by the contemptuous reply.

"Thour't like the Spirit which thou comprehendest, not me!"
The spirit disappears, and Faust, overwhelmed, exclaims:
"Not thee!
Whom then?
I, image of the Godhead!
Not even like thee!"
A knock at his door from his Famulus, answers his question.

This stinging repulse brings Faust down lower than before. In the moment that he thinks himself the equal of the mighty spirit, he is told he can comprehend nothing higher than the dull routine of a scholastic pedant. Intellectual denial has again conquered aspiration. The world can give him nothing, but at this moment his eye falls upon a vial on the shelf; another possibility opens to him: what he despairs of life giving him, death may give, and he raises the poison to his lips. At this moment, from without, the Easter songs reach his ear: he hesitates, and as the angelic song rises higher and higher, the glass falls from his hand: he will live.

Faust has been defeated in his three attempts to reach the truth; through study, through magic, and through death. But if the mind cannot reach truth, it can be used for sensuous gratification, and in the next scene we see Faust in the company outside the city gate. The Easter festival, which in its spiritual sense held Faust back from suicide, now appears in the bright spring-time, bringing out from the winter seclusion every form of life. The procession from the city, apprentices, servants, students, maidens, citizens, soldiers, all brought out by the warm sun to enjoy the pleasure of awakening spring and sense, is true to the life, even of to-day. The ease with which the spiritual aspiration passes into the lower emotion is shown by this Easter festival culminating in the Song under the Linden, whose sensuous excess is prophetic of the results of Faust's new tendency.

Faust himself almost involuntarily invokes the elementary spirits, to bring him, if they can do so, to a new and brighter life: and almost immediately the black poodle is seen running about near them. The negative evil half of Faust's nature has taken objective form; no longer is the conflict to be internal only; and as the desire for animal happiness has created the external form, the animal shape is the most fitting for it to assume. Faust intuitively perceives something unusual in the dog, but Wagner, like so many of the commentators of Faust, sees a "poodle and nothing more;" he is a type of those who positively refuse to see anything but the external husk, and have no patience with those who desire to discern an inner meaning. In the next scene, Faust has gone home, taking with him the poodle, who lies quietly down beside the stove.

Aspiration is again in the ascendant in Faust, and he now meditates and comments on the first words of the gospel of John; but as the sentence "In the beginning was the Word" inspires him to lofty thoughts, the dog becomes restless and uneasy, and disturbs Faust by barking and howling. This reminds us of what the occultists teach is a general law; that whenever the higher part of our nature aspires and strives to the divine, the lower part of one's self stirs to fiercer opposition.

Apprehending at last that something more than a mere animal is concerned, Faust evokes by spells of increasing power, the inner form from out the beast. First the Seal of Solomon, the interlaced triangles, as a spell for elemental spirits; and we may note his incidental remark that these forms are only powerful when used by one who knows the true nature of the elements. Stronger spells are needed, and at last are efficacious, and Mephistopheles appears as a travelling scholastic; a solution, as Faust says, that makes him laugh.

After a little conversation, in which Mephistopheles states clearly enough his character, and is treated rather contemptuously by Faust, he asks for leave to depart, and explains that he must go out by the same way he came in, but is barred by the pentagram, the five pointed star, traced on the threshold, which, imperfect in one point, let him come in, but will not let him go out. The law of Karma is recalled to us by this necessity of evil going out as it came in; for we know that every wrong action must pay its penalty in its own kind, before we can get clear of it.

In the next scene, Faust again is visited by Mephistopheles, now in his characteristic costume, which he will wear through most of the drama; the feather, sword, and dress of the man of the world. His bargain is soon made: when he can satisfy Faust through the senses, then he wins him forever: he is at Faust's bidding day and night till then, but when once Faust says to the moment, "delay, thou art so fair," then the wager is won. A profitable bargain for the devil, it would seem, and it is reckless enough in Faust to make such a bargain; but after all, would it not be the same, bargain or no? When aspiration is satisfied with sense, what is there more? it is all over with the man, and he is lost at any rate. We need not fear for Faust, for even as he makes the agreement, his contempt is great for all that Mephistopheles can offer:

"Was willst du, armer Teufel, geben?"
"You poor devil, what can you give?"

A short scene follows in which Mephistopheles, disguised in Faust's professorial robes, has an interview with a boy just come to college, and asking advice and instruction. In the advice and instruction that Mephistopheles gives him is concentrated about as much of bad advice and sensual suggestion as could be condensed in few lines; and yet we must note that here, as indeed throughout the whole of the drama, Mephistopheles uses hardly a single direct falsehood. The incarnation of evil and denial, he shows a vast knowledge, an equanimity that rarely is disturbed, and a directness of assertion that does not need to use any literal misstatement. In a later scene, when Faust fiercely denounces him and accuses him of bringing evil on Margaret, Mephistopheles is able calmly to point out that he has only clearly stated the thoughts and fulfilled the wishes which Faust himself had, but was ashamed to acknowledge.

But now Mephistopheles is to show Faust the world, and this world is naturally a world suited to Mephistopheles' purpose, a world with its institutions and society, but all perverted. Self is the object in all; the sensual gratification of self. But Faust must pass through all this: as we are told in Light on the Path,

"All steps are necessary to make up the ladder. The vices of men become steps in the ladder, one by one as they are surmounted."

Now we are to see man guided by the spirit of denial, in his relations to the world. The first scene, Auerbach's cellar, shows us the repulsive result when the ordinary needs of life, eating and drinking, become the object of life. We may consider it as representing the state of those in whom the three lower principles of the occult classification have the highest place in the consciousness. This scene causes only disgust to Faust, and we next have "The Witches' Kitchen," a strange scene, a riddle to commentators, which is perhaps rightly interpreted by Mr. Snider as representing the perverted relation of the sexes; a view which we may broaden a little and consider as representing the supremacy of the fourth (Kama Rupa) principle. Here Mephistopheles seeks to captivate Faust by passion, but he only partially succeeds; instead of mere lust, Faust finds a higher ideal, his admiration for the beauty of form redeems his passion from the animal character it would otherwise have, and it leaves him still unsatisfied, aspiring for something higher.

So far, he has dealt with a perverted Mephistophelean world; but now he is himself, under the guidance of Mephistopheles, to pervert the hitherto calm and quiet world of Margaret. The story of Margaret, though naturally an episode in Faust's progress, is yet in one sense a complete story in itself, and appeals strongly to our emotions. To many it is the Faust story, being so much simpler and easier of comprehension than the "world bible" of the whole great drama that it has readily adapted itself to scenic and musical representation. And Gretchen's story is in many respects the same as Faust's, but simpler and less complicated intellectually. There is not in her case the intellectual denial of truth; her mind is naturally more intuitional, and her fall is through her affection for Faust; but misguided by this, the consequences are indeed terrible for her; she sins against the two great institutions which are her safeguard, the family and the church; and her fall will bring about the destruction of her mother, her brother and her child; when she turns in terror at the approaching shame and pain, and prays to the Virgin in an appeal of wonderful force and pathos, there is no answer. Then the terrible scene in the church, when she kneels among the multitude, and the Dies Irae of the choir alternates with the accusing voice of the "Evil Spirit" her conscience, whispering in her ear; neither of them sparing her or offering her any forgiveness. It is the inexorable law of Karma! she has sinned, she must suffer the penalty. The church cannot remove an ounce weight from her suffering in this life; afterwards, it promises nothing, but reserves judgment.

Faust has now left her, and we see him in another of the relations to the perverted world, in which Mephistopheles has placed him; the Brocken scene, which under the form of a midnight gathering of witches to do honor to their master, represents a type of society in which selfishness is supreme. Multitudes flock to the gathering, with similar aim, but there is no sympathy; the selfish object may be wealth, sensuality, fame, or anything else; and there is no crime that they are not ready to commit, if necessary for their object; no one will lend a helping hand to another. In many cases, the love of evil has become a passion for evil for its own sake, and we may see here an image of the man in whom the higher principles are drawn down to the service of the lower self; whose fate will be far worse than that of those who live in the lower nature without development of the higher.

Mephistopheles is perfectly at home here, but not Faust; he but half enters into it, and at the point when the wild carnival is at its highest, there rises before him a vision of Margaret, sad, pale, and with a slender blood-red mark about her neck. Instantly he realizes what has been the result to her, in his absence, of their love. It is the turning point in his career; hitherto he has followed Mephistopheles' lead, and even urged him faster on; and now that that lead has brought Margaret into misery, crime, and under sentence of death, Mephistopheles only says "she is not the first." If Faust were to follow the devilish advice and leave her to her fate, it is hard to see how he can ever escape from the downward path he has so far followed. But he does not leave her to her fate; his love for her now shows itself no longer the passion that demands its gratification; it becomes the unselfish desire to save her from the results of his acts. Mephistopheles, hitherto his willing guide, now is his unwilling assistant, and he turns back to save Margaret.

But her redemption must be different from his, as the motives of her fall were different; not undermined by doubt, but falling through her affection, punishment and salvation must correspond. In prison, she acknowledges the justice of her fate; crazed with suffering, she does not at first recognize Faust, who comes to release her; then when she does know him, and he urges her to escape with him, she refuses. Half confusedly she goes over all the story of the first meeting and all that followed; she cannot go with him, and as she sees Mephistopheles at the door, urging haste before the daylight comes, she shudders; Faust in desperation attempts to carry her away by force, but though the vision of her coming execution rises before her, she turns from him, saying, "Judgment of God, I have given myself over to Thee." Her only possible salvation is here; acceptance of the result of her actions, refusal to escape even with the one she loves; yet her last words before she falls, lifeless, are apprehensive for his fate; and as her spirit passes away, we hear from above, fainter and fainter, her voice lovingly calling his name.

Mephistopheles coldly exclaims "She is judged;" but a voice from above replies "She is saved!"and we all feel that her total sinking of all personal hope or fear in the unselfish love for another, has redeemed her. Faust's nature, however, needs a much longer experience and trial; the evil spirit must go out of him by the way it came in. The episode of Gretchen is ended, as far as Faust's earthly career is concerned: but we may note the half reminiscence, half prophecy of her words in the last scene: "We shall meet again, but not at the dance," which recall to us the Linden song at the beginning of the drama, and point to the final scene of the second part, which is yet far before us.


1. Taylor's Translation. (return to text)

The Path