Monday, October 17, 2011

Mephistopheles, Metaphysics, and Mind Games

New post about Marlowe's
"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" each Monday

Last week I left Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" around the point at which Faustus reveals his bargaining strategy.

Outwitting the Devil?

Stories of someone outwitting the devil were old when Stephen Vincent Benét wrote "The Devil and Daniel Webster."1

I enjoy some of those those tales, but really matching wits with a fallen archangel? I'd rather take on a main battle tank, armed with a stick.2

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus used a remarkable strategy when negotiating an exchange of his soul for two dozen years of Mephistopheles' services. The learned doctor decided that Hell doesn't really exist.

Faustus explained to Mephistopheles that "hell's a fable." He then told the demon that, since Hell didn't really exist, he'd lose nothing by trading an imaginary eternity for having Mephistopheles at his command for two dozen years.

Someone's being outwitted here: and it ain't Mephistopheles.

Summoning a demon, negotiating a contract with an agent of Satan/Lucifer, and firmly believing that Hell doesn't exist might daunt a lesser mind. Or a different one, anyway. Faustus didn't even seem to notice the contradiction.

Doublethink, Self-Deception, and Doctor Faustus

I've noticed that with practice, folks are able to juggle mutually incompatible ideas.

Like claiming total commitment to free speech, while silencing advocates of unwanted views. McCarthyism and political correctness weren't all that much unlike, and that's almost another topic. I suppose that folks who have decided on some action that they know is wrong have a lot of incentive to come up with plausible excuses. Or ways to avoid thinking about the issue entirely.3

That was last week. Let's see what Faustus is up to now.

Marlowe's Mephistopheles, and Metaphysics

Mephistopheles has told Faustus that Faustus is in Hell already. He's got a point. Faustus read the terms of his contract, signed it - in his own blood, yet - and shows no signs of changing his mind.

On the other hand, John Faustus is presumably still alive, and has free will. Also an appalling lack of common sense. Faustus could, in principle, repent.4 With his talent for evading the obvious, I'd say the chances of a reformed Faustus coming out of this are slim: even if I didn't already know how this turns out.

Assuming that Marlowe's fictional world of Faustus is pretty much like the real world, Mephistopheles is a fallen angel: which means that his choice has been made, and is irrevocable.5

I gather that the difference has to do with time, free will, and the nature of:
  • God
  • Humanity
  • Angels
Metaphysics, the study of being and knowing, is fascinating stuff. I think it's prudent, though, to remember what we are. I can no more 'thoroughly understanding' how God 'sees' time and choice, than I can start with nothing and make a universe.

I've read the Book of Job. God's God, I'm not: and some things I simply can't understand.6 Which doesn't keep me from trying. And that's almost another topic, too.

Marlowe's play now takes a decidedly odd turn.

More posts in this series:
More-or-less-related posts:
  • God
    • Infinitely greater than the universe
      Catechism of the Catholic Church, 300
    • Upholds and sustains creation
      Catechism, 301
  • Free will
    Catechism, 1730
  • Angels
    • Catechism, 328-336 
    • Pure spirit
      Catechism, 330
    • And
      • Jesus
        Catechism, 331-333
      • The Church
        Catechism, 334-335
      • Each human being
        Catechism, 336
  • Satan and the fall of the angels
  • Human beings
    • Rational and therefore like God
      • Made in the image and likeness of God
      • Catechism, 1700-1706
      • Created with free will
        Catechism, 1730
    • Original sin
      Catechism, 407
"...Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:

1 Tales of a canny man or woman outwitting some powerful otherworldly creature make good stories. Then there's Loki, the trickster from my Norse forebears' tradition, and that is another topic.

Folklore about outwitting a devil:
2 Satan is a creature, finite, limited. Satan can't win. God can't lose. On the other hand, Satan is a fallen angel.

That may not sound very impressive. For the last few centuries, Western art has shown angels as pale folks with wings, delicate features, and a wispy physique. Not exactly intimidating.

That's post-Medieval western art. Here's how an encounter with a real angel went down:
"His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men."
(Matthew 28:3-4)
Remember: That angel is one of the good guys. I've been over this before:
3 Doublethink - believing two contradictory ideas at the same time - is one of George Orwell's contributions to the English language. My take on doublethink, euphemisms, and fooling ourselves:
4 "While there's life, there's hope" has some truth to it. The Church teaches that we have the option of "either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ." While we're alive. (Catechism, 393, 1021-1022)

5 Briefly; God is large and in charge, and loves everything that exists; the fallen angels rejected God; and nobody's dragged, kicking and screaming, into Heaven:
6 I put links to some of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about God, angels, and everything else, under "Background," above.

As to the nature of time, and how God the Almighty, the Source of every good and all Love, of Whom St. Augustine said, "If you understood him, it would not be God," perceives and understands time? And our lives? God's God, I'm not. Job 38-42 gives a pretty good idea of how much of God's Mind we can understand.


Brigid said...

This seems awfully familiar... Anyway, I caught a slight redundancy you might want to look at. "wispy folks with wings, delicate features, and a wispy physique."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Down with redundancy! Found and fixed. Thanks!

About this being familiar? It should. I've harangued about angels, real and imagined, before. "Angels: Wings, Violins, and Swords" (February 20, 2011), for example.

I'll probably discuss (rant about?) angels again. It's one of the areas in which Western culture's folklore, and Hallmark theology, get particularly far away from reality.

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Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

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