A "Faustian bargain" is better known as "a deal with the devil." In exchange for their soul, humans can, for a limited time, appear to control nature and reality to suit all of their worldly desires. The term derives from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (1592), a play that deftly satirizes a profound shift in human consciousness toward rationality and technology. In the 21st century, has this ego-centered conviction nearly played out, hurtling the modern world toward tragic ends?
Doctor Faustus is a deeply symbolic play that explores a shift in thinking from the late Medieval world to the early modern age, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Faustus, the main character, is caught between two modes of thinking: cosmic connection founded on love and fate, versus a human order built upon individual free will. By the late 1600s, a competitive technology-driven patriarchy burgeons, a mindset that invites collapse in modern day. Twenty-first century man is no God, yet he believes it more than ever.
For earthly power, Faustus procures "magic" conjuring ability via a "special book" and agrees to exchange his soul to Mephistopheles for temporary supremacy. In Faustus' words, "Divinity is basest, unpleasant, harsh, contemptable, and vile. This is magic, magic that has ravished me!" Signing a physical contract in blood with the devil, a lust for earthly conquest is unleashed:
"Had I as many souls as there be stars
I'd give them all for Mephistopheles
By him I'll be a great emperor of the world,
I'll join the hills that bind the Afric shore
And make that country continent to Spain,
and both contributory to my crown."
With the devil's blessing, Faustus occasionally cloaks himself—a power of invisibility that he uses to commit acts of mischief, lust and greed. He slaps the Pope and conjures Helen of Troy, obsessed with dominance of her physical beauty. Similar abuses appear today when the American President feuds with Pope Francis, sexually harasses women and pays hush money to adult film stars —crass abuses of power that political supporters frequently tolerate and cloak via "fake news" accusations and/or disregard.
In the play, Doctor Faustus uses his great power to rip off a horse trader and a hay carter, "winning" the game of business with his materialist challengers. Additionally, he tricks a rival into wearing an ape suit. Contemporary American leadership offers similar antics with recent tax reform that favors the uber-wealthy over the average GOP supporter, exacerbating conditions that rip apart communities and bring further, long-term suffering to the average non-millionaire.
At one point in the play, Faust considers a return to God after meeting a wise old man with whom Mephistopheles holds no sway:
"His faith is great. I cannot touch his soul.
But what I may afflict his body with, I will attempt
which is but little worth."
The wise Old Man, immune to the spell of Mephistopheles, nearly inspires Faust to repent by pointing out the ephemeral nature of worldly gains, in contrast to the eternal life created by communal spirit. Yet worldly desire returns to Faust; ego and short-term illusion undermine his lasting peace.
The final scenes of Doctor Faustus show the impacts of a Modern Renaissance mindset upon those who remain after Faustus' death. When his orgy of greed and lust ends, Faust descends to hell, shrieks in terror while torn limb by limb. His disciples remain behind in the world. They acknowledge the suffering and horror, yet irrationally march in the same direction. This mindset is paralleled today with regard to global climate change. Houston floods, California wildfires, massive earthquakes and record temperatures are simply disregarded by the modern Faustian, who continues down the same road of "success" measured by quick stock market gains and pursuit of personal fortune.
Yet the seed of spiritual rebirth, the soul of the Old Man, is found in Faustus' death. The Chorus, representative of society, notes:
"Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo's laurel bough*
That sometime grew within this leaved man."
(*Apollo's bough is a symbol of spiritual wisdom.)
Scholar Richard B Sewall wrote in 1954 that tragedy is an overemphasis on physical form, an overvaluation of scientific properties over spirituality: "The spirit, It is, yet cannot be proven using the methods of modern science and rationality." Nietzsche described this force as "the mystical sense of oneness." Tragedy is confrontation with a universe where man is not the measure of all things. Tragedy is the struggle between rationality and faith, a struggle between mastery over the world and effortlessly living within its natural form. In many ways, Doctor Faustus and modern times are pure tragedies, caught between the shifting structures of hubris and holiness.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over fifteen years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column examines current events through the lens of quality literature.