Thursday, October 08, 2015
Active vs Reactive Man
As one advances in life, one realizes more and more that the majority of men - and of women - are incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed on them as a reaction to external compulsion. And for that reason, the few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated, monumentalized, so to speak, in our experience. These are the select men, the nobles, the only ones who are active and not merely reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving, an incessant course of training.
- Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (pp. 65-66)
The drama Faust by Goethe is a work that I have read and returned to over the years. In addition to the enjoyment of the drama I have found it a font of ideas containing connections with other works. Reading Ortega y Gasset's seminal The Revolt of the Masses raised one of those ideas, reminding me of the importance of Goethe's drama for modern thinkers like Ortega y Gasset. For it is the realization man gains through the experience of life that extends only to those who choose to think and act. Men and women of principle who have identified their goals, and who act upon them with a "spontaneous and joyous effort", are those who strive with a purpose. It is in opposition to this that we consider the directionless striving of Goethe's Faust. His action is that which leads not to nobility, but rather to the ultimate dissolution of his life and ideals.
Faust Part I, embodies a search for the essence of human spiritual growth and understanding. Early in the play we find Faust concluding, "and see there is nothing we can know!" (I, 364). He says this following a life whose purpose was the pursuit of wisdom and understanding. It was a pursuit that appeared to be fruitless yet, in spite of his apparent conclusion, moments later he is seeking and finding, "enchantment at the sight of this" (sign of the Macrocosm) (I, 430). The enchantment he seeks is that which comes with the union of human spirit with the spirit of nature, or the universe, for which all noble humans strive. Yet this is not possible for Faust, for he is torn apart by a duality of spirit, as shown by the famous lines:
Two souls , alas, are dwelling in my breast,
And either would be severed from its brother;
The one holds fast with joyous earthly lust
Onto the world of man with organs clinging;
The other soars impassioned from the dust,
To realms of lofty forebears winging. (I, 1112-17)
This duality is the manifestation of Faust's ultimate inability to focus on a purpose for his life and his striving. He wagers with Mephistopheles (I, 1692-8), but by that point he has succumbed completely to a permanent separation from the Macrocosm, and thus from the reality of himself. It is Mephistopheles who identifies this separation (I, 1346-54), which seems not unlike the separation of man and god presented by Augustine in his Confessions (Book I, 1).
What do we make of this separation or duality? When combined with Faust's striving - or perhaps avoiding - it becomes the path to Faust's ultimate dissolution. For it is this separation that prevents Faust from focusing on a purpose for his life, without which he he cannot gain the understanding he is seeking. And what do we see as the role of knowledge? It seems that knowledge is not enough to save Faust, not just because he views the attempt to gain knowledge as futile, but because he lacks a purpose or goal for that knowledge beyond the striving itself. Faust becomes like the man described by Ortega y Gasset, "incapable of any other effort than that strictly imposed . . . as a reaction to external compulsion."
But , you may say, is he not inwardly driven toward the striving or action for some purpose? An answer to this question may be found in Mephistopheles request to, "explore what life can be." (I, 1543), and in Faust's reply in which he concludes, "Existence seems a burden to detest. Death to be wished for, life a hateful jest." (I, 1570-1) Faust's inward compulsion is seen to be directed toward death, and only Mephistopheles is able to compel him toward action in this world. Thus striving in this world cannot be maintained by Faust alone, without purpose, and we ultimately see him as an empty creature waiting to be fulfilled by death and, he hopes, union with god.
Is this the nobility of the sort desired by men and women of principle? Those who are "active and not reactive" reject the lure of Mephistopheles and the irrational; focusing on their purpose in life with a joyous rationality. They are driven by an inward striving toward knowledge and understanding as suggested by the famous statement of Aristotle at the beginning of his Metaphysics, "All men by nature desire to know" (980a). These are the men and women described by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics:
Now those activities are desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the activity. And of this nature virtuous actions are thought to be, for to do noble and good deeds is a thing desirable for its own sake. (1176a 33)
That the doing of noble and good deeds requires a purpose distinguishes the active man from the merely reactive. It is this that leads to the nobility of spirit and it is this that Faust rejects as he says, "Thus I reel from desire to fulfillment, and in fulfillment languish for desire." (I, 3249-50) Later in the same scene Faust again admits the purposelessness of his striving (I, 3348-9). We thus see in Faust the rejection of the virtuous activity that leads to nobility in man, a rejection that leads Faust to death and dissolution.
Faust Part I by Johann Goethe, trans. by Walter Arndt. Norton Classics, New York. 1976 (1808)
Confessions by St. Augustine, trans Rex Warner. Penguin, New York. 1963 (401)
Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, trans. David Ross. Random House, New York. 1941.
The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset. W. W. Norton, New York. 1957 (1930)