Man's Limitations and Potential:
The possible range of human
accomplishment is at the heart of Doctor Faustus, and many of the other themes are auxiliary to this one. The axis of this
theme is the conflict between Greek or Renaissance worldviews, and the Christian worldview that has held sway throughout the
medieval period. As Europe
emerged from the Middle Ages, contact with previously lost Greek learning had a revelatory effect on man's conception of himself.
While the Christian worldview places man below God, and requires obedience to him, the Greek worldview places man at the center
of the universe. For the Greeks, man defies the gods at his own peril, but man has nobility that no deity can match.
Doctor Faustus, scholar and
lover of beauty, chafes at the bit of human limitation. He seeks to achieve godhood himself, and so he leaves behind the Christian
conceptions of human limitation. Though he fancies himself to be a seeker of Greek greatness, we see quickly that he is not
up to the task.
Pride, and Sin:
Pride is one of the Seven Deadly
Sins, arguable the one that leads to all the others. Within the Christian framework, pride is a lethal motivation because
it makes the sinner forget his fallen state. For Christians, men are fallen since birth, because they carry with them the
taint of original sin. A men made haughty with pride forgets that he shares Eve's sin, and must therefore be saved by the
gift of grace. Only God, through Christ, can dispense this grace, and the man who forgets that fact deprives himself of the
path to salvation.
Faustus' first great sin is
pride. He does not stop there. Reflecting the Christian view, pride gives rise to all of the other sins, and ends ironically
with the proud man's abasement. Faustus goes quickly from pride to all of the other sins, becoming increasingly petty and
Flesh and Spirit:
The division between flesh
and spirit was stronger in Greek thought than in Hebrew thought, but Christians adapted the divide into their own belief system.
While Westerners now take this conception of being for granted, the flesh/spirit divide is not a feature of many of the world's
major belief systems. Nor is the flesh/spirit divide necessary for belief in the afterlife: both Hindus and Buddhists conceive
of the human entity differently, while retaining belief in life after death.
In Christianity, flesh and
spirit are divided to value the later and devalue the former. Faustus' problem is that he values his flesh, and the pleasure
it can provide him, while failing to look after the state of his soul.
Damnation is eternal. Eternal
hell is another concept that Westerners take for granted as part of religion, but again this belief's uniqueness needs to
be appreciated. While the Jewish view of the afterlife was somewhat vague, Christians developed the idea of judgment after
death. Moslems adapted a similar conception of hell and heaven, and to this day eternal hell and eternal heaven remain an
important feature of Christianity and Islam. While Buddhists and Hindus have hell in their belief systems, for the most part
in neither religion is hell considered eternal. For example, an eternal hell in Mahayana Buddhism would contradict Buddhist
beliefs about transience and the saving power of Buddha's compassion.
Not so in Christianity. If
Faustus dies without repenting and accepting God, he will be damned forever. As we learn from Mephostophilis, hell is not
merely a place, but separation from God's love.
Salvation, Mercy, and Redemption: Hell is eternal, but so is heaven. For a Christian, all
that is necessary to be saved from eternal damnation is acceptance of Jesus Christ's grace. Even after signing away his soul
to the devil, Faustus has the option of repentance that will save him from hell. But once he has committed himself to his
own damnation, Faustus seems unable to change his course. While Christianity seems to accept even a deathbed repentance as
acceptable for the attainment of salvation, Marlowe plays with that idea, possibly rejecting it for his own thematic purposes.
(See analysis of 5.2-end of the play).
Valuing Knowledge over Wisdom: Faustus has a thirst for knowledge, but he seems unable
to acquire wisdom. Faustus' thirst for knowledge is impressive, but it is overshadowed by his complete inability to understand
certain truths. Because of this weakness, Faustus cannot use his knowledge to better himself or his world. He ends life with
a head full of facts, and vital understanding gained too late to save him.
Talk and Action: Faustus is, with no exceptions, beautiful when he speaks and contemptible
when he acts. His opening speeches about the uses to which he'll put his power are exhilarating, but once he gains near-omnipotence
he squanders twenty-four years in debauchery and petty tricks. This gap between high talk and low action seems related to
the fault of valuing knowledge over wisdom. While Faustus has learned much of the Greek world's learning, he has not really
understood what he's been reading. He can talk about potential and plans in terms of a Greek worldview, but he lacks the internal
strength to follow through on his purported goals.