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Both Faust and Inferno contain extensive references to Christianity, and both are concerned with the destiny of the human spirit. Although they are seemingly similar works, and at face value it seems that they say the same thing, Goethe and Dante have very differing views concerning the philosophies of good and evil.

The landscape of Inferno consists of the world, divided into two halves: A hemisphere of water and a hemisphere of land. At the center of the hemisphere of land lies Jerusalem, beneath which lies the inferno. The inferno is best described as a large funnel which begins just underground, and whose focal point resides at the center of gravity. The funnel has grooves around it, in each of these the sinners guilty of a particular sin are punished together, at the bottom rests Satan. Past the center of gravity a tunnel connects to the other side of the world surfacing at the foot of Mt. Purgatory, which rests in the center of the hemisphere of water as the only land. Mt. Purgatory is composed of several steps, on each of these is punished the repentant souls guilty of one of the seven deadly sins. At the peak of Mount Purgatory is Eden, the terrestrial paradise. Above the world are the spheres of heaven, each containing a specific type of soul that has attained salvation. He says that when Satan fell from Heaven (which he did in a quite literal way in the Inferno) that the Earth was so horrified at the sight of him that it hid itself behind the ocean, creating the two hemispheres. Then, to escape contact with the lord of corruption, the Earth was hollowed out, creating the pit of Hell. The earth thus moved now constitutes the bulk of Mount Purgatory .

Christian doctrine is followed to the letter in all of Dante’s ideas. Although it may seem that he digresses from that doctrine in the order of his fictional universe one must remember that the Inferno is intended to be taken symbolically, and the literal meanings are not the intended ones. Any judgments passed on the souls residing in the Inferno are taken directly from classic Christian doctrine. Dante’s universe is constructed on several texts from the Bible taken literally. It contains Purgatory, a concept found in the Catholic religion of his day, as well as Eden, the terrestrial paradise, residing on top of Mount Purgatory. It portrays Hell as a real place, although its structure is fashioned to represent the nature of sin, rather than the actual destiny of the sinners.

Dante uses mythological references in his work. This adds a surrealistic sense and was possibly intended to help the reader interpret the poem symbolically. It also ties the poem to other works and ideas which previously existed and allows it to immediately strike a chord in the minds of the reading audience. Dante uses mythological characters as symbols for sin itself, and uses the punishments as symbolic of the mindset of the sinner. In the third circle of the Inferno sinners guilty of Gluttony are punished in a constant deluge of rain, mud, and general filth representative of their own corrupted spirits. Those souls are eternally tormented by Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld in Greek mythology, whom Dante has reassigned meaning to. Dante makes Cerberus the eidolon of gluttony by virtue of his three heads and ferocity. This demonstrates Dante’s use of mythological characters as a tool. He has no real reverence for them, except perhaps secondarily through his respect of Vergil.

The basic philosophical implications of the Inferno are that Satan, representing evil, is the center of gravity, and because of this all humans are naturally drawn to him. God, representing perfect salvation, resides beyond the highest sphere of heaven in the Empyrean, and is the most difficult thing in the universe to reach. The three beasts eternally block the right path: The leopard of treachery, the lion of violence, and the she-wolf of incontinence. These creatures represent their respective sins, and that they block the right path for all souls residing on the earth. The fact that the right path is vacant tells us that no man is capable of right living, and so the journey through the inferno is necessary.

Faust is the story, written in dialogue, of the legendary Doctor Faustus, who makes a deal with the Devil. It is loosely based on previous works concerning the Doctor, who may have been a real person, including Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. Goethe relates the story of the Doctor who, having studied and searched in every field looking for enlightenment, has now become desperate. Seeing this opportunity, as is related in the “Prologue in Heaven,” Mephistopheles asks The Lord’s permission to tempt Faust. The Lord agrees rather amiably and the action of the play begins. Mephistopheles makes a pact with Faust and they agree that Mephistopheles will be Faust’s servant and will show him everything there is to see. The wager is if Faust is contented by Mephistopheles’ antics so that he finds true happiness in luxury, he will lose his immortal soul. The play concerns Mephistopheles’ attempts to corrupt Faust so that he may find pleasure in worldly things, which the Devil can offer.

Goethe uses Christian references as a background for the story. He is not entirely faithful to the doctrines of the church. Cottrell, in his “Seven Essays” on Faust, has this to say:

"At the end of the eighteenth century{...} faith in Christian doctrine was waning and knowledge of the natural sciences rising{...} Faust explores the radical changes demanded by the new orientation{...} Most of Goethe’s references to the Bible are used incorrectly and in a blasphemous way. Goethe portrays Christianity as another set of myths to allude to.”

Goethe uses mythological references (other than Christian ones) for more than one reason. At times, he uses them to display that Faust is no longer following Christianity and is instead delving into heathen lore in search of truth. The dropping of the name Helena is a mythological, but perhaps also classical, reference that is used to portray an idea. When Mephistopheles says that Faust will “see a Helena in every girl he meets”, we know from past readings of Homer that Helen is the most beautiful woman in the world, and so we understand what the potion Faust is about to drink will do. Just like Dante, Goethe uses mythological references simply because they are well known. The introduction of several such characters at the Walpurgisnight in the second part of Faust works primarily to show examples of what sin can do.

The symbolism in Faust is very intricate, and only sometimes stoops to the level of simple allegory. The Prologue in Heaven is a comical device and an introduction, which follows closely with the Stage Managers Prelude on the stage. The real action begins with the first act, as could be expected of a play. In the opening scene, appropriately title “Night”, we find Faust in his study lamenting his place in life:

FAUST. I’ve studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine,
And even, alas! Theology
All through and through with ardour keen!
Here I stand, poor fool, and see
I’m just as wise as formerly.

Faust is representative not of mankind in general, but of mankind ideally. His quest for wisdom through normal means is futile, but he is still trying to gain wisdom. This suggests that, although the best of us will thirst for knowledge, it is a difficult task to undertake. As Faust begins to despair, his self-control and sanity in general begin to lose their power. This allows Mephistopheles, representing Faust’s primitive soul, a chance to appear. The incident with the pentagram restricting Mephistopheles’ movement is a demonstration that Faust is still in control, but when Mephistopheles’ put Faust to sleep and escapes, we know that Faust has now given in to his own chaotic nature. Once the pact is made, Mephistopheles stands in for Faust in dealing with a student, the scene that follows is a foreshadowing event that closely parallels the use of “The Dumb Show” in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Stoppard, NY, 1991). The remainder of Part One deals with the life and times of one whom the Devil is trying to corrupt. Each scene follows sporadically, illustrating various ways in which Mephistopheles tries to tempt Faust to decadence, but always Faust keeps to his higher goal of obtaining experience, and narrowly evades corruption.

While The Divine Comedy was written in a time when the church had much power and an absolute following; Faust was written in a time when faith in church dogma was decreasing and knowledge of the natural sciences was increasing. Each work portrays the aura of its own time, and both depart from the generally accepted conventions in a way that betrays the authors own personal beliefs, as well as their personal vendettas. The Divine Comedy strives to adequately represent the truths of human nature and spirituality. At times it manages to fulfill the question of “Why” something is bad with a more satisfactory response than “Because God said so.” Faust achieves the same purpose, not to justify religion, but to belittle it.

In The Divine Comedy salvation is symbolic of divine grace, and is in fact very nearly meant literally. Salvation is based on repentance and faith in Christ as a savior, however Dante does not let souls off that easily. Souls must first examine their own state of sin, and then they must repent and atone for their sins. Those who commit no blatant sins, but do no considerable good either are destined for the vestibule of Hell. This is where those souls without infamy or fame reside for the rest of eternity chasing the shifting banner. This is the punishment Dante allots to those who live without purpose or goal, and they will not be resurrected at the time of the apocalypse. This scene is mirrored in a far less grotesque manner in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and it seems Dante had a strong aversion to the absurd, preferring to think that everything has a reason. Minos, who tells in which circle they will spend eternity, then judges damned souls. Souls who are saved are not punished for minor sins, and need not even atone for them. They are simply filed away into their appropriate heavens. Those without God’s grace will be eternally punished for any sin, no matter how small, that they once indulged in. Those who die before they are able to atone must do so in Purgatory before they can reach Paradise or the Empyrean. Furthermore, souls in Hell are incapable of repentance because it is a divine grace that is not present in Hell, where not even the name of God or Jesus may be spoken. In Faust, salvation is an indicator of whether or not a person has lived well or had the right priorities in Goethe’s eyes, and therefore some people are saved in ways that the Bible does not condone. Each individual is either good or bad, but few individuals are perfect. Any individual who is imperfect can be swayed by Mephistopheles’ (primitive thought) power. Those whose goals are righteous will invariably be saved, regardless of their stance on religion, and those who succumb to primal urges will fall. Gretchen is saved despite her fall from grace in a very deus ex machina style turn of events, but this is not very strange when you consider that once Gretchen fell, she was able to see how arrogant and condescending she was as a sinless person. Faust is saved at the end in another deus ex machina turn of events because, unbeknownst to Mephistopheles, he repents. This is not consistent with the rest of the poem because Mephistopheles is part of Faust’s lower nature, and Faust cannot escape him.

In Dante’s Time, evil was considered to be an outside force. All that we call sin, destruction, or evil, was thought to be the work of Satan. Satan is blamed for illness, corruption, and for tempting men to sin. Evil is a thing to which men are subjected, and the trial is whether or not they can withstand its corrupting touch. Satan is seen as a universal force striving to defile and claim part of God’s perfect creation, tempting men to sin for no reason other than to spite God. This is demonstrated symbolically in The Divine Comedy by the fact that man inhabits the Earth, which is at the point of equilibrium between Heaven and Hell. Man then must work to fight the gravitational forces pulling him toward Satan to avoid damnation, and must exert much effort to scale Mount Purgatory and reach the Heavens. In Dante’s world evil is inescapable, and it is necessary to face it. This is why it is only by climbing on Satan’s hair that Virgil is able to extricate Dante from the inferno and take him on the path of repentance.

In Faust no such implications are present. Man is born into an ever-changing world with the capacity for righteousness or decadence. It is through experience, knowledge, or self-control that man overcomes his primitive and base nature to achieve salvation, but he is not necessarily damned at the start. Some are not easily swayed by their chaotic natures, and some seem destined to brutishness. The only universal that is mentioned is mankind’s arrogance which is presented in this quote from the “Prologue in Heaven,” wherein Mephistopheles makes a case against mankind. The entire thing seems to be more of a shot against religious doctrines than an observation of mankind itself:

Mephistopheles. {...}
Of suns and worlds I’ve naught to say worth mention.
How men torment them claims my whole attention.
Earth’s little god retains his same old stamp and ways
And is as singular as on the first of days.
A little better would he live, poor wight,
Had you not given him that gleam of heavenly light.
He calls it Reason, only to pollute
Its use by being brutaler than any brute.

It shows that the fault of evil lies on man himself, because even a devil is angered by man’s abuse of Gods gifts. It is then left to each human individually to make the most of what they have, and the next level above righteousness is godliness. This is what Faust strives for; he is willing to entertain the devil to get the opportunity to experience all things.

Despite the fact that evil is interpreted as an outside force in Inferno its presence is considered absolute and inescapable. This is in alignment with the concept that salvation can only be achieved through faith in Christ. The implication of this is that it must be impossible to avoid sin; else it would be possible to enter Heaven without Christ. This is demonstrated in the first Canto of The Divine Comedy when the beasts, representing sin, block Dante’s way to the right path. Then he notes that no man walks upon that path. This is also shown by the fact that only God, his angels, and the Saints are capable of reaching the Empyrean. All other saved souls are sent to one of the imperfect heavens for those repentant, but still guilty of, various sins, or for those who committed sins in the name of their God, and are therefore denied perfect oneness with God.

In Faust it is said that evil is an internal thing, and yet it is portrayed by the wholly independent character of Mephistopheles. This seems to indicate that, although the primitive spirit is part of us all, it is not in any way connected to who we really are. It simply lurks in the background, awaiting its opportunity to sow discord. The lower spirit in Goethe’s world is a dormant quality that exists within each human being, which is not the cause of temptation, but is awakened by it. In Goethe’s world, all sin is comparable to Dante’s “Sins of incontinence”, and the notion of true evil is a concept born of narrow perspective and is a caricature more befitting a devil than an actual person. Goethe’s view of the world is by no means black-and-white, and in fact may not contain any of either. It would be folly to describe Goethe’s perspective as one of shades of gray, though, it would be more fitting to say that it is green. Faust is green with the infinite diversity of an organic world, devoid of set rules or boundaries. Life is only what you make of it, or rather, what you make of yourself.

Again we find that Dante seems to be contradicting himself by placing Satan, the source of all evil and the universal tempter, in a place devoid of power or influence. One must remember that in this case Satan is representative of sin itself, and more specifically, the sin of betrayal against almighty God. Satan is at the center of the earth in the frozen pool of Cocytus, farthest removed from God’s light of all things in creation. It would seem that such a position would leave him powerless over man, and indeed it does, but man is not unaffected by his presence. It is important to remember that the Devil is in the details. Satan’s position at the center of the world also places him at the center of gravity, and because the Earth was thought to be the center of the universe at this time he is said to be the point towards which all things are drawn, excepting the immobile empyrean. Thus the pull of Satan is as inescapable as gravity itself. All things in the universe: All objects, all souls, all points, all possible things, therefore, are drawn inexplicably and consistently toward the source of evil. Thus Satan’s is similar to a black hole sapping the universe of its strength, the place into which all things forgotten will fall, the source of all entropy, and the ultimate cause of the world’s destruction.

In Faust evil plays a very different role. Mephistopheles is not ever-present in reiteration of the fact that the concept of pure evil is flawed. The fact that Mephistopheles does not appear as a black fiend with glowing eyes and an overbearing presence shows that this evil is not elemental. In Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, the devils do appear in such a way. Mephistophelean evil is the disruption of the rhythm of life. To even be susceptible to Mephistopheles’ works, one must have already abandoned much in the way of reason of their own volition. Once this has occurred, Mephistopheles’ goal is to corrupt one of the basic tenets of life: either the need for love, or the need for sustenance. For example: Jay Gatsby, a character in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, lives his life desperate for Daisy. Such an occurrence would qualify one for Faustian Hell. In part one of Faust, this is exactly what Mephistopheles attempts to do with Faust. He first takes him to the tavern, but finds that Faust has no natural affinity to gluttony and indecency, and so he decides to appeal to Faust’s more civilized side. He has the witch brew a potion that will make Faust “see a Helena in every girl he meets.” Rather than fall for a random girl on the street, which is where Mephistopheles has taken him immediately after taking the draught, he instead falls for a well-mannered girl who is devoid of sin. He falls in love, rather than lust. So in Goethe’s view evil works within the confines of our own wants and needs, and is the fault of no outside force. It is the result of wanting too much, or mistaking want for need, or need for want. It is the misunderstanding of the very fabric of our own lives, but as such it is also conquerable of our own accord. There is no need for divine aid in the world of Faust, because it will surely come to those who help themselves. To borrow a line from Shakespeare’s alleged work Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

The image of good and evil is one of mankind confronting their own imperfections. Dante’s view is that the imperfections are inflicted upon men by the will of God and the presence of Satan. Goethe sees God and the Devil as constructs of man’s imperfection, and that, in the end, souls judge themselves

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