Friday, July 16, 2010

Freedom and wonder

Like most of us, I've long been vaguely familiar with the idea of a "Faustian bargain" - in other words, a "deal with the devil." And we all know how THAT kind of deal turns out!

But I'm learning that "Faust," by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (say something like go-tay, but, if you can, with a German accent), is a lot more interesting than just another "Eek! The devil screwed me!" story.

"Faust" comes in two parts, written over most of Goethe's long adult life. In the first part, Faust is a rich, land-owning polymath who knows all of human knowledge, but is bored out his gourd. He wants more - something he never will tire of - and sure enough Mephistopheles offers a deal that will give him such a thing, with the down-the-road price, of course, of Faust's soul.

It is only in part two, published after Goethe's death in 1832, that Faust is redeemed. He has a vision - apparently independently of the devil - of all the peasants toiling in his fields suddenly owning the land themselves - lives of others lived in freedom, lives free and open to possibilities that no one - not even polymath Faust - ever could tire of. A selfless freedom trumps all.

Goethe was part of what has been called the "Romantic Idealists." These were folks who reacted to the Enlightenment's rejection of any authority (kings, religious dogma, tradition) in favor of science. The romantics had the feeling that science - deterministic, indifferent to the human condition -can't be enough. Human's freedom, and their appreciation of beauty and wonder, had to be what counts.

These days, nearly two centuries after Goethe's death, after our experiences with communism, fascism, and currently terrorism, we're aware that Big Ideas about human life can be ill fated. But, after all these years, freedom and wonder still sound cool to me.

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