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A pact with the devil?

There is certainly nothing new about hubris, abuse of power, and moral compromise. Nor is there anything new about what is now called ‘gas lighting’, the blatant invitation to treat falsehood as truth, and lies as reality. We have been invited down this path before. In trying to understand it better, and the cognitive dissonance that follows from it, perhaps we should consider the myths and legends that we have developed on this theme? Foremost amongst these is the story of Faust and the sale of his soul to the devil. Emerging during the upheavals of the Reformation (Marlow) this story was later told in the age of Enlightenment (Goethe) and in the secular age (Thomas Mann), changing and evolving in the process. This legend is the subject of an essay by the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka newly translated as part of R&V’s project to create a Selected Edition of this philosopher’s work in English…


As usual with Patočka, his take on the Faust legend is complicated and heavily influenced by his own purposes, namely to explore the story in the light of European civilisation during the last half millennium. Diving straight into the version of the tale told by Christopher Marlow we confront the puzzling question of why it would ever make sense to obtain temporary human knowledge at the expense of eternal damnation. Surely no amount of knowledge could ever compensate for an eternity of pain? Patočka explains this version of the legend in Promethean terms. What is at stake, he suggests, is the ability to make a free choice, something that necessarily presupposes the possibility of a very bad choice, made purposefully. The price of human freedom is the capacity to make gigantic and self-defeating mistakes. In any event, Faust is unable to capitalise fully on his earthly powers. He gains knowledge without insight, and his abilities in the end amount to little more than magic tricks. Interestingly, Patočka places the birth of the Faust legend during the 16th century, and in the crucible of the Reformation, during which the notional overarching authority of the Holy Roman Empire has been lost, and at a time when the spiritual unity of European humanity has been fractured beyond repair. It is against this backdrop that Faust sells his immortal soul for authority and power in the real world. But Patočka also notes that his mentor, the philosopher Edmund Husserl, described the triumph of modern science in very similar terms, as a Faustian bargain in which big gains have been made, but at the expense of the loss of humanity’s whole sense of being in the world.

By the time we get to Goethe’s Faust in the early 19th century the face of Europe has changed. There is a desire for the reintegration of the German spirit into a new unity, based on the idea of a nation. The suggestion is one of reconciliation, and Faust’s deal has been converted from the outright sale of his soul to a mere wager, suggested by Mephistopheles. Faust’s temerity leads to the death of his beloved Gretchen and guilt provides him with a route back from his terrible bargain. Like an embodiment of Hegelian ideas, Goethe’s Faust is unable to sell his soul, which is rescued by the intercession of Gretchen, but must strive and overcome in order to reclaim this lost unity. Patočka clearly feels that this Enlightenment version of Faust will no longer do in a secular age.

By the time we get to the novelist Thomas Mann in the 20th century we find the spiritual idea of Europe buried by bloodshed. The world has revealed itself as soulless. The idea of the pact now returns to being a sale rather than a bet. But the meaning of the sale has been reversed. Now it is a question of whether a human being can, by exposing himself to risk, gain an immortal soul. It is a ransom masquerading as a sale. The idealism of the world of Goethe has gone. The new world is hard, irrational, and secular, present only in the material and the finite. In Mann’s story Dr Faustus is Leverkühn, a composer in a disenchanted world. Immortal salvation is no longer on offer (it is just a bad infinity of everlasting duration anyway, without any moral meaning). Instead the soul is properly understood as an encounter with primordial truth, and the question is whether such an encounter is in any way possible. Leverkühn is a seeker and prophet of truth, not a narrow empirical truth, but an unveiling of the world. This is achieved by excluding all human meaning and perspective and presenting through his art an image of reality in itself.


Leverkühn’s sale, his isolation from society and human warmth, his encroaching syphilitic madness, is not a self-aggrandising affair of unchained hubris, like that of Marlow’s Faust, but is conditioned by a service to the truth. A new element has emerged, the world itself. The artist’s ‘curse’ is to stand outside of the normal human point of view, observing coldly and dispassionately, and to consecrate himself to artistic truth. In a soulless world the artist takes on a new burden of guilt and responsibility for evil, and in himself embodies the sickness in the body politic. The Faustian desire is now one for purification, atonement, punishment. Through the artist’s creativity, Patočka says, ‘the immortal soul has come back to life’.

Through his interpretation of Thomas Mann’s story Patočka is rehearsing his own argument that the arts have a privileged role to play in engineering the transcendental turn mandated by the phenomenological method. The solitude of the artist, their creative freedom, ‘authentically generates universality’. It is ‘a dream of a new community’, and it is potentially ‘generative of society’. Patočka makes clear that this is not ‘the church’, and it is not a return to the universal spirituality of Beethoven’s age (as reflected in Goethe’s Faust). The soul newly awakened by the strokes of art ‘is not a redeemed soul, but a soul marked by the will to judgment’. As usual Patočka is using the theme for his own philosophical purposes. We are back to one of his key ideas, the soul as self-questioning, as a process not a destination, and yet grounded in being and therefore (in that sense) indestructible. The arts potentially assert a universal human consciousness of responsibility, moral, social, ecological.

This is an interesting and important line of thought, but arguably has taken us a long way from the idea of a pact with the devil which lies at the heart of the legend. It is perhaps rather difficult for us to find Mann’s Faust relatable in the 21st century. It all feels a little too like an apotheosis of the artist in a godless age. Anyway, Patočka is more interested in a rehabilitation of the arts as a conduit for phenomenological truth and for the making of new meanings. For me it is puzzling that he does not go on to explore another version of the Faust legend, that created by Klaus Mann (Thomas’s son) in his novel Mephisto, first published in 1936, and much later made into a movie starring the actor Klaus Maria Brandauer in 1981. I wonder if Patočka was aware of this novel?


Klaus Mann reframes the Faust story in more literal terms as the story of a theatre actor who trades his integrity for success by becoming a leading figure in Nazi-run theatre. Like the first (Promethean?) Faust of Marlow he achieves worldly success, but in the process (and in the popular sense of the phrase) loses his soul. The retelling loses none of its potency for being based on one of the author’s own distant relatives by marriage (the actor Gustaf Gründgens) who did indeed take the Nazi soup. After Gründgens's death his adopted son was successful in getting the novel banned in West Germany until 1981.

For me, the corrosive effect of accepting promotion and reward from a disreputable regime best recreates the Faustian bargain in a secular world. The situation is a real one, and it continues to resonate with us. Would we accept generous arts funding and recognition tomorrow in return for tacitly supporting a wicked and dishonest government? Would we step up and parrot official ideology and become complicit in officially sanctioned lies in order to hold on to this status and power? If we did, would we not also suffer slowly corrosive effects on our soul? This ‘pact with the devil’ scenario seems to me to be rather more topical and philosophically interesting than the slightly abstract dilemma of the artist Leverkühn. If we do not believe in an actual devil, or in the objective claims of religion, why does it still make sense to talk about losing one’s soul in this kind of scenario? For it most certainly does make sense. This seems to me to connect us much more emphatically with the sort of ‘living in truth’ which forms the basis of Patočka’s main project. Who says that philosophy and real life do not operate in lockstep?


Graham Henderson

27 May 2020

Posted on:Thursday 25th June, 2020