|The Historical Faustus|
So familiar in world literature, music and the arts, Faust is a figure whose origins are almost forgotten, or even quite unknown. Most popular is the argument that there really existed such a fellow in Germany in the early 1500s. It is certainly true that literary scholarship has been pursuing its quest for an "historical Faust" within the homeland ever since the beginnings of that discipline among the German Romantics. Scholars still value the Faust Book (Historia von Dr. Johann Faustus, late 1500s) as a source of information about this celebrated national figure.
Reciprocity between history and legend is familiar to students of ancient lore, witness Arthurian romance, or the monumental work by Robert Graves with Greek myth. Whether you are trying to discern "authentic" parts of a tale, or using the tale to infer historical fact, you are liable to bump into your own nose, since literary and imaginative components of a tradition soar far beyond actual events. Obviously, precisely those tales in the Faust Book which are not confirmed in German archives are the ones more likely to be authentic literary creations.
Unlike King Arthur or Theseus, however, the Faust figure rose to notoriety through the print medium, still new in the 16th century, and on a tide of religious dispute with its flood of popular pamphlets and chap books. Among these, the first surviving Faust tales turn up in Nuremberg. In one little collection, that by Christoph Roßhirt in about 1580, tricks on peasants, moneylenders, and on the nobility, etc., differ from other tales of rascality in that the prankster is a sorcerer aided by a familiar spirit. About the same time, and probably in the same city, a truly gifted writer puts together a charming little novel using some of these same Faust tales, and some more besides. This is the manuscript which I offer here in English translation. It is important as one of the very earliest novels in any modern language.
Why do I call it a novel? The
Faust Book author pulls all his episodes together artistically, no
accomplishment at this early date in northern Europe. His work
a beginning, a middle and an end, all narrated with grace and a sense
humor that sets the author apart from the tales he tells. Yet he
the whole story into the service of his own idea, his personal sense
view of the world. That is no doubt what directed his choice of protagonist
in the first place. Faustus was already a name which meant a great deal
the religious debate at the focus of intellectual life in 16th-century Germany.
Nuremberg was one of those cities still wrapped in the church schism
by Martin Luther and finalized by a separate council of the Roman
Church at Trent in 1545, not attended by Luther's reform clergy from northern Europe.
They, of course,
differed among themselves, too. Doctrine played a central rôle in
thinking. It constituted the
guide not only in private life but also for public policy and even for
business assumptions. In Nuremberg Luther's pupils (among them
Andreas Osiander, famous today as publisher of Copernicus' work) occupied important church offices. The unknown author of the
Faust novel need not
been a preacher, or at all connected with the church, to have been
in the terms of the debate. For most participants the name Faustus was already charged with a
meaning quite its own. To theologians, Faustus was
connected with the central
problem in Christian doctrine: can salvation be
attained through a man's good works, or only by God's redeeming
grace? --Or perhaps by both working together, as claimed by some in
a narrower Protestant controversy of the 1580s? It was in
this context that the Faust figure began to capture
imaginations. The novel quickly took
a life of its own, quite independent of the church.
Eventually of course,
the denominational quarrels which had loomed so large in 16th-century
thought became outdated and were forgotten.
are not so religiously involved. Scholars of history and
literature associated Faust less with faith than with an Enlightenment
classic, and then with a folk
tradition. Enthusiasts began to call the Faust Book by the Romantic term Volksbuch. No longer able to see
religion as central to thought or to writing, researchers devoted their efforts and enormous
to their quest for a "historical Faust"--by which they meant a secular figure more or less contemporaneous with the novel itself. And they found him, of
course. Several plausible
individuals could be attested in archives, in memoirs, and in public records. Some of these may have been known to the author of the
Book, or to the citizens of Nuremberg. Perhaps not.
But a truly historical Faustus was very well known among Luther's
though he had lived nearly a thousand years earlier, and not in German lands
at all, but in Roman Africa. To theologians, the teachings of this 4th-century Numidian bishop were closely related to the dispute between Catholic and Protestant and then also among Protestant
factions themselves. Faustus was prominent in the
writings of Saint Augustine (published in 1506 by Joh. Froben, then widely circulated in the ten-volume edition by Desiderius Erasmus. Here the
largest individual work
comprises Augustine's treatises Contra
Faustum (précis here).
As Augustinian monk, Luther had naturally sought authority, next only to the Bible, from the patron saint of his order, Aurelius Augustinus (354-430). Augustine's decisive rôle as Church father during its formative years lay in setting orthodox Catholic belief off from unacceptable heresies. Among his principal opponents was the leader of a sect to which Augustine had himself earlier belonged, the redoubtable debater Faustus of Mileve. He was a bishop among the Manichees, a sect which claimed to base everything on reason. Its members were in fact skilled in astronomical calculations and predictions. But Faustus made his greatest pretensions to understanding good and evil. Characteristic of Manichaeism was an incisive dualism which saw all creation as divided between powers of light and darkness. To Augustine, that seemed tantamount to rejecting monotheism. Fortunately, Augustine preserved for us his own trenchant debates (ca. 383) against Faustus, as cited above. Lutherans gratefully found support in them for their own insistence that the Grace of God is all inclusive, yet everywhere and always present in the world, far surpassing human understanding. As to Faustus' confidence in the intellect, they easily equated reason with the influence of the devil, and of course Luther liked to draw a parallel between the Manichees and the Church of Rome, which he charged with also dispensing and manipulating God's Grace.
The Augustinian / Lutheran
notion of an all-encompassing Grace of God seems to be the central
in the Faust Book. Faustus simply cannot believe it. The
us over and over again how Faustus is committed to the proud imagining
wicked deeds surpass even God's forgiveness. That leads him to
the fundamental sin of despair. We see Faustus availing
of every means he can devise to persuade himself that the Grace of
God is valid.
His devil tells him flatly that by these very efforts he damns himself
hell. The Faust Book's preoccupation with this problem of
"justification" reflects the concerns of Protestantism toward the end
of the sixteenth
Martin Luther devoted the last few years of his life toward the
diplomatic effort to present a united
at the anticipated Church Council. He invited colleagues from
South and West Germany, even England, first to Wittenberg, then to
where their "Articles of Faith" were indeed formulated. But the
did not convene until the year of his death, and the Germans were not
Although one of the council's first acts was to affirm Papal authority in
matters of doctrine (rejecting Lutheran sola scriptura), the council did
also reject the heresy that man can effect his own salvation (Pelagianism). Subsequent Protestant debate continued to dispute this question as to whether man's good works cannot at
least prompt God's grace.
This socalled "synergism" dispute culminated in the Book of
(1579-81), formulated during the same years as the Faust Book.
Gustav Milchsack, the first editor of theWolfenbüttel MS, urged us to read it in the light of those contemporary
arguments. Should we do so, then
stubborn persistance in trying to achieve salvation on his own hook might be
Pelagianist: Faustus embodies the heretical notion that man can
original sin to achieve moral freedom and responsibility.
or read about the Faust Book --and I would be most grateful for your comments.