Article: The Faustian Dilemma : To Have or to Be?

Sports, Books & Movies

The Faustian Dilemma : To Have or to Be?

By the time one realises the difference between tirelessly wanting power and then living with power alone for all your life, the damage has already been done
The Faustian Dilemma : To Have or to Be?
 

To what extent do humans disguise their desire for worldly power as a quest for knowledge and wisdom?

 

The unquenchable thirst to gain more knowledge and power has long been suspected by prosaic people to be a form of mental illness

 

By the time one realises the difference between tirelessly wanting power and then living with power alone for all your life, the damage has already been done..

Marlowe, a famous Elizabethan playwright, may perhaps have surpassed Shakespeare but did not live long enough. He is credited with reintroducing the concept of High Tragedy to the European thought for the first time since the ancient Greeks.

Doctor Faustus is his most famous and enduring play dealing with a learned man who sold his soul to the Devil in return for power and knowledge. The good doctor already has ample knowledge; he feels exhausted with the gigantic amounts he already knows in many schools of wisdom. He also feels they are arid and not really of value, rejecting in turn, Logic, Law, Medicine and Theology as being incomplete and unsatisfying. In his hubris of being the most learned man of his time, one who has literally reached the limits of each field, Faustus decides to learn Magic and wrest the ultimate answers from the Universe.

His magical incantations and presumptions cause a devil, Mephistopheles, to come to him. This being offers the doctor 24 years of complete power and learning after which he will be consigned to hell for all time. Faustus seems to think that in reaching the limits of learning he is damned anyway, and does not flinch. This attitude raises a lot of troubling questions, not least of which is that of destiny. Is one’s fate merely something one chooses in wilful stubbornness? Is the quest for power and ever increasing knowledge worth any price, no matter what the ultimate consequence is? Is it a delusion that acquiring knowledge and power will also ensure happiness? Is Faustus really in search of knowledge or the acclaim that comes in having a reputation for being wise? To what extent do humans disguise their desire for worldly power as a quest for knowledge and wisdom?
Faustus seems to have an insatiable appetite for more. Even the plays most famous lines echo his disappointment at reality that never matches his expectations, Conjuring up Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman of all time to comfort him, he muses, “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Illium?- {i.e. Troy?}

The unquenchable thirst to gain more knowledge and power has long been suspected by prosaic people to be a form of mental illness and the quest to have the ultimate power translates into living in your own self-created hell. Says Mephistopheles, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God, And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells In being deprived of everlasting bliss?”

To sin therefore creates an enduring experience of suffering, to be out of joint with happiness that each human feels instinctively drawn to as a blessed state. So great was the impact of the character of Faustus on the psyche of Europe that even Goethe made the story on the theme of his masterpiece, Faust.

Much of Faustus’ despair comes from the fact that he has no one but himself to blame. He curses his parents for giving birth to him, but quickly realizes where the real fault lies: “Cursed be the parents that engendered me!

No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer / That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven” Faustus knows that he at least shares the responsibility for his own damnation, even if he partly implies that the devil made him do it.

It is ultimately a work of moral seriousness, insisting that humans being should understand their limits, the consequences of their reckless actions in the pursuit of proud dreams, but most of all they should comprehend themselves. It pleads for responsibility and moderation even in virtues; Faustus was so used to, and so well pleased with the appellation of ‘Genius’ that his fellow men gave him that it became impossible for him to live without such praise. He was willing to descend to any level to keep that high reputation intact, speaking brilliantly and acting vilely at every chance, not a human but only all mask now. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, warns the old saying, and Faustus races along that path.

The Chorus emphasizes the lost potential represented by Faustus’ failure. He is the cut “branch that might have grown full straight.” In reaching beyond human limits, Faustus transgresses the natural order of the World and asks the same old question: “What does it profit a man to win the world if he lose his own soul?”

Faust as a contemporary metaphor is a haunting one. What it really means is that we have bitten more than what we can chew, that we have desired more than we have needed and consumed in excess of what is required. A cursory glance around our surroundings and it is clear that everyone is working harder and longer only so that they can keep up with mounting cycle of incredible expenses. To have more is to be less. An inauthentic life visits all those who stretch themselves into the realm of fulfilling their social needs and not cater for the higher aspects of their own psycho-spiritual lives. The human ‘being’ has progressively become ‘human-wanting’ and ‘human doing’. From more action and consumption comes the need for coping with psychological consequences. And the Occam principle is worth a mention here – ‘it is foolish to do with more where less will suffice’. Faustus’ greatest tragedy is that he had the potential for greatness, for heroism; he had the potential that could leave behind a lasting legacy. But he chose the path of least resistance, indulgence, and of frightening levels of pride. He held everybody in contempt and ridiculed. Bartering one’s soul is equivalent to the corporate executive’s golden cage who has a lovely house, a wonderful car, a busy day, a fatigued night and lives out his days as though all were ‘fine’ and ‘ok and’ ‘great’; quietly desiring more time with family; more time to read, but settling yet again to the demands of the bell curve.

Faustus had many flaws but the most abiding one was that he neglected his inner most self. He failed to seek out his authenticity and live out life on his terms. Always toyed by that insidious devil of excess, Mephistopheles. Here then is a reminder from TS Eliot:

“Where is the life you have lost in living/
where is the wisdom you have lost in knowledge/
where is the knowledge you have lost in information”

 

Read full story

Topics: Sports, Books & Movies, Leadership

Did you find this story helpful?

Author


QUICK POLL

As talent leaders reimagine workplace learning, what is most critical?

2 months free subscription
q_auto,f_auto/v1601902819/mag-october-2020.png

Subscribe to all new People Matters HR Magazine

.

Subscribe
And Save 59% plus Two months free

Subscribe now

How likely are you to recommend our content to a friend or colleague?

01
10
Selected Score :