Great Books 102: Renaissance to Modern

Goethe's Faust: The Glory and Tragedy of Romanticism


Goethe’s Faust, one of the most famous legends of Western history, tells the tale of a scholar selling his soul to the devil in pursuit of a narcissistic and ultimately self-destructive transcendence. This verse drama is at the same time a manifesto and a critique of romanticism, a movement that sought transcendence not through the embrace of God or through reason, but by means of the intensity of passion. The poem fosters sympathy in the reader for the idea that humans can live a full life only when immersed in a profoundly personal experience of oneself, stimulated by the natural world. At the same time, it offers a cautionary tale about a life lived in pursuit of romantic exultations.


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Discussion Questions

  • Why does Faust decide to sell his soul to Mephistopheles? 
  • What is the significance of the relationship between Faust and Gretchen? 
  • Discuss the key tenets of the romantic movement. How can the play be understood as a critique of romanticism? 

Q & A Session

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David M. Whalen is a professor of English at Hillsdale College, where he also serves as provost. Dr. Whalen obtained his Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Kansas. He has taught at the University of Kansas and Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. He teaches courses on the great books as well as Renaissance literature, the English novel, and the history and literature of liberal education. Dr. Whalen has written articles on numerous topics, including Victorian prose, Renaissance poetry, educational philosophy, and the writings of John Henry Newman. Among other honors, he has received a Salvatori Fellowship from The Heritage Foundation and a Weaver Fellowship from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is also a recipient of the Daugherty Teaching Award from Hillsdale College.