Paraphrasing Job, Goethe begins Faust in the Heavenly Court, where Mephistopheles complains that men torment each other so thoroughly that he hardly wants to bother them. In response, the Lord asks the devil if he knows “his servant” Faust, to which the devil responds, “He serves you in a curious way; not earthly are his meat and drink . . . and everything from near and far does not requite his deeply moved heart.” The Lord counters, “Man will err as long as he strives.” Thus begins the wager over Faust’s soul.
For his poem, Goethe required a protagonist who exemplifies Augustine’s restless heart because, left to their own devices, men fall into a torpor and seek unconditional rest, as the Lord tells Mephistopheles. Complacency is the characteristically modern sin. The human condition has not changed, nor can it, so long as men must die. But modern man is more susceptible to the illusion that he can mold his own identity and make his own destiny. Modern man can persuade himself that he is alone in the universe, improvising his ethics and identity as he goes along. He can fancy himself master of the universe through science. He can even imagine that brain science eventually will resolve the existential questions that have troubled his kind for millennia. Underneath this complacency lurks an antipathy to life, articulated wittily by Goethe’s devil.