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An Ambition For Self-Destruction
December 9, 1990
In all people, there exists a desire to know; a need to understand. This aspiration is taken to the extreme in the character of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Faustus' whole being is driven by a craving for knowledge. This hunger so consumes him that he is willing to sell his soul to the devil in order to satiate it. As is clear from the first scene of Doctor Faustus, Faustus feels he cannot gain this knowledge by conventional means. Because of this, he turns to arcane methods in order to learn the secrets of the universe. I think that the texts Faustus reads in scene one are indicative of a blindness that ultimately leads him to his death. In the beginning of the play, Faustus reads several texts that concern themselves with the major pursuits of knowledge in his time: logic, medicine, law, and Scripture. He starts to read a line from each text and then cuts them off in the middle, as if there is nothing further to say on the subject. The first quote he reads is "bene dissere est finis logicis--,"1 "to carry on a disputation well is the purpose of logic (1832)." Faustus regards this passage and the whole subject as useless. He says, "affords this art no greater miracle? Then read no more; thou hast attained the end (1832)." I think this reaction partially explains Faustus' gullibility. He has never cared about logic so he has not mastered it. He seems to think he has, but through out the play he is persuaded by the simplest arguments. For example, in the following passage Faustus is easily persuaded not to repent.
G. ANG. Faustus, repent; yet God will pity thee.
B. ANG. Thou art a spirit; God cannot pity thee.
FAUST. Who buzzeth in mine ears I am a spirit?
Be I a devil, yet God may pity me.
Yea, God will pity me, if I repent.
B. ANG. Aye, but Faustus never shall repent.
FAUST. My heart is hardened; I cannot repent (1846).
Here, Faustus is only told he will not repent, so he does not, even though he knows that if he does, he will be saved. Because of this apparent inability to think logically for himself, whenever he is addressed to by a devil or angel he does not see the faults in the other speaker's logic and thus agrees completely with the character. Faustus never comes out ahead in any verbal exchange throughout the entire play. According to Faustus, "the end of [medicine] is our bodies' health (1832)," and this is a subject he claims to have mastered. Faustus has given prescriptions "whereby whole cities have escaped the plague (1832)." He is responsible for the cures to "a thousand desperate maladies (1832)." However, he dismisses this subject because all he can do is delay the inevitable. He can keep people alive a while longer, but they still die eventually. Here, I think Faustus is concerned with his physical self too much and worries too little about his soul. He wants to "make men to live eternally," but he cannot. I think he would realize that, since he has to die sometime (a lesson he has learned), he would be more concerned about the after life, but he is not. He does not understand that people can live eternally, but only after their bodies have died. He neglects this and thus perishes in the end.
Next, Faustus reads from Justinian, an ancient authority of law. First, he reads "If something is bequeathed to two persons, one shall have the thing itself, the other something of equal value (1833)." Faustus was supposed to gain true knowledge from his pact with the devil but all he received was death. I think that Marlowe is trying to say that true knowledge and death are equivalent. Faustus' crave for knowledge led him to his death. True understanding can only be gained after we have left this life and entered the next.
Again reading from Justinian, Faustus says "Exhaereditare filium non potest pater nisi (1833)," which translates to "A father cannot disinherit his son unless (1833)." Faustus rejects law because it deals with trivial things that a great mind like himself should not waste his time with. However, this line is directly connected to Faustus' fall from God's grace. God, the Father, cannot disinherit his son, Faustus, unless . . . unless what? Unless the son turns away from his Father. Faustus never worries about this when he is reading because he probably cares little about his earthly father and does not make the connection to his heavenly Father. He does not realize that this passage has immediate significance to himself. Because of this, he ends up losing that which he inherits from God, namely his soul and an eternal place in heaven.
Lastly, Faustus quotes two passages from the Bible which, when translated, mean "The reward of sin is death (1833)" and "If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us (1833)." From this Faustus reasons that people, by nature, sin and that those who sin die, so there is no point in studying Scripture since all people are fated to die and there seems to be nothing to do about it. I think this is partly the reason he is not worried about his soul and never repents for his evil deeds. He does not see the point since, no matter what he does, he is going to die anyway.
All of the passages Faustus quotes he cuts off in the middle. I think he does this because he believes that the whole worth of each of those disciplines is summarized in the few passages he reads and he has learned all they have to teach him. He does not believe there is anything more that needs to be said about any of those subjects so he spurns them each in turn. However, there was a lesson in each of them that Faustus needed to learn that would have helped him overcome the temptations he faced. If he knew logic, he could have better repudiated the speeches of the devils. Medicine should have taught him that he is going to die so he needs to be concerned with what happens next. Law was trying to tell him that he had a obligation to his Father that he needed to fulfill if he was going to receive his "inheritance." The apparent contradiction that Faustus found in the Scriptures should have made him realize that there was more to it than what he saw on the surface and that he should have studied them more deeply. If he had learned all of these lessons, he would have been more prepared for the temptation that magic and the devils confronted him with and he may have been able to resist them.
I think there is a little bit of Faustus in all of
us; a piece of our being that desires an answer to the questions
of where did we come from? and why are we here? In some people
this dominates the whole persona. This is especially true in
the scientific-based world of the twentieth century. Some scientists
believe they will know the origins of the universe by the end
of the century. This drive for understanding has taken the achievements
of the human race to new ends, whether for good or bad. However,
there is limit to what is knowable and what is beyond the reach
of our understanding. Faustus thought he had found a way to break
the barrier between the knowable and the unknowable, but the only
thing he found was death. I think the moral of Doctor Faustus
is very pertinent to our modern world. If we are not careful,
our search for understanding could be our downfall, just as it
was for Faustus.
1 Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, in
The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Volume I, 5th
ed. (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985), 1832. Subsequent references
are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.