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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony no. 9 in D minor, opus 125, Fourth movement 23:22

I wrote this analysis of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to aid my students in following along as the music played. The timings are based on the classic 1952 recording conducted by Arturo Toscanini (RCA Victor Gold Seal), but the timings could be adjusted to fit any other recording. Please keep in mind that this was written by a non-musician for non-musicians in a general humanities class and does not pretend to be a technical analysis–just a way of helping beginning listeners to classical music appreciate what is going on.

Elapsed time

0:00 The movement opens agitatedly as the orchestra picks up fragments of one theme after another from the previous three movements, as if seeking a satisfactory vehicle for its expression; but each is discarded in turn.

1:15 The first seven notes of the main theme to come are tentatively uttered, but it too is abandoned as the search continues.

2:17 Once again the theme begins, this time in the woodwinds, but it soon breaks off.

2:46 Finally, the theme emerges decisively in the basses for a subdued first statement.

3:24 The second statement is calm, tranquil, confident, and the theme continues onward in the various voices of the orchestra, broad and flowing.

4:38 The winds make a strong statement of the theme.

5:49 The flow of the music abruptly halts–there are rapid shifts–great agitation, until

6:02 the orchestra introduces the baritone singing the first three lines of the poem, rejecting the feverish discords of the previous passage, calling for a different music, whose nature is suggested by the strings beneath his voice:

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne,
O friends, not these notes!
sondern lasst uns angenehmere
Rather let us take up something more
anstimmen, und freudenvollere.
pleasant, and more joyful.

6:43 The chorus echoes his “Freude!” and he is off through the first part of the ode on the main theme:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Joy, lovely divine light,
Tochter aus Elysium
Daughter of Elysium
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
We march, drunk with fire,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Holy One, to thy holy kingdom.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Thy magic binds together
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
What tradition has strongly parted,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
All men will be brothers
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Dwelling under the safety of your wings.

7:12 The chorus recapitulates the last four lines of this section.

7:30 The theme is now presented by a vocal quartet, which continues the ode:

Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen,
He who has had the great pleasure
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein
To be a true friend to a friend,
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
He who has a noble wife
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Let him join our mighty song of rejoicing!
Ja–wer auch nur eine Seele
Yes–if there is a solitary soul
Sein nennt auf’ dem Erdenrund!
In the entire world which claims him–
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
If he rejects it, then let him steal away
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund.
Weeping out of this comradeship.

alternating with the chorus, which repeats the last four lines, and the quartet then sings:

Freude trinken alle Wesen
All beings drink in joy
An den Brüsten der Natur;
From nature’s breasts.
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
All good and evil things
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Follow her rose-strewn path.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben
She gave us kisses and grapes,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
A friend, tested unto death,
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Pleasure is given even to the worm
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
And the cherubim stand before God.

with the chorus repeating the last four lines of this section. Each time through the theme is treated to ever more elaborate variations.

9:10 There is a dramatic pause at the climax of the word “God”, and the theme emerges rhythmically transformed in the winds as a military march, matching the martial words of the tenor in these lines:

Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Happy, like thy Sun which flies
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Through the splendid Heavens,
Wandelt, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Wander, Brothers, on your road
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Joyful, like a hero going to victory.

10:53 An orchestral interlude.

12:30 The chorus re-enters, repeating these lines :

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Joy, lovely divine light,
Tochter aus Elysium
Daughter of Elysium
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
We march, drunk with fire,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Holy One, to thy holy kingdom.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Thy magic binds together
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
What tradition has strongly parted,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
All men will be brothers
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Dwelling under the safety of your wings.

13:16 There is a dramatic shift, and the poem continues:

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Be embraced, you multitudes,
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
In this kiss of the entire world.
Brüder–überm Sternenzelt
Brothers–over the canopy of stars
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen!
A loving Father must live.

and these lines are then repeated.

15:14 The religious section of the ode begins as the chorus intones in an awed manner: Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Millions, do you fall upon your knees?

15:30 The music rises hopefully toward God and the heavens as the final lines of verse are sung:

Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Such’ ihn überm Sternenzelt!
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.
Surely He lives above the stars.

16:58 The last section, from “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” is repeated triumphantly in counterpoint.

18:36 A dramatic hush, the music rises steadily.

19:23 The quartet then re-enters with the following lines from the beginning of the poem:
Tochter aus Elysium
Daughter of Elysium
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Thy magic binds together
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
What tradition has strongly parted,

20:06 The chorus underlines “Alle Menschen werden Brüder,” “All mankind will be brothers.”

20:50 The same line is repeated ecstatically by the quartet, which soars upward to

21:30 its peak.

21:41 The orchestra and chorus re-enter at a rapid tempo to bring the movement to its

23:22 conclusion.

More study guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics


Original German text, public domain; Translation by Paul Brians

First mounted June 16, 1995.

Last revised, February 9, 2010.

Giuseppi Verdi (1813 1901): La Traviata

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, 1982

Violetta Valéry (a courtesan, dying of tuberculosis): Teresa Stratas

Alfredo Germont (young poet in love with Violetta): Placido Domingo

Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s father): Cornell MacNeill

When Agenor, son of the Duc de Guiche, fell in love with a notorious if charming and brilliant courtesan named Marie Duplessis, his father was not amused. He feared that his naive son would ruin his reputation and his fortune by becoming involved with such a woman, and he forced the young man to break off the relationship.

Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, also had an affair with Marie in which she behaved rather badly, but he seems to have retained great affection for her even after breaking up with her.

Not much later, she died (at the age of 23) of tuberculosis, then called “consumption,” the most commonly deadly disease in the 19th century. Dumas then avenged the younger generation by blending his own story with Agenor’s by creating a novel, then a play, in which an idealized courtesan named Marguerite Gautier who loves camelias proves to be more loving and generous than the hero’s father. Both works became hugely popular under the title La Dame aux camélias (or in English, Camille).

The story is a quintessential romantic attack on conventional bourgeois morality, arguing that a good heart is more important than propriety, that the social distinctions which split the beau monde(high society) from the demimonde (the world of illicit sex) are cruel and hypocritical, and that true love must triumph over all. That the story ends tragically is today often smugly said to indicate that the 19th-century readers could celebrate sexual freedom only when they doomed those who exercised it. But this is unfair. Dumas is expressing the romantic notion that the highest virtue in a human being is a good heart. If some people are too good for this world, that is the world’s loss.

To understand the story, it is important to keep certain facts in mind. In mid-19th-century France, almost as much as in England, sexual hypocrisy was widespread. Prostitution and gambling were extremely popular and widespread even as they were being publicly condemned on every hand. Men were expected to have mistresses whom they supported financially; but they were expected to conceal that fact, and they were expected not to fall in love with them. Such courtesans were not classed with common prostitutes, but there should be no illusion about their motivation for participating in these affairs: they were in it for the cash and gifts, and were faithful to their lovers only so long as it suited them. (It should be obvious, however, why an opera about a good-hearted courtesan would be appropriate in a film like Pretty Woman (1990), where Julia Roberts is enchanted by Violetta’s story).

Any woman who slept with a man before marriage was thought to be “ruined” (i. e., rendered unfit to be wed), and should be shunned as a social leper. For many such women, some form of prostitution was the only means of survival. Respectable women feared and detested the courtesans, and would not permit them to mix in “polite society,” as it was then called. Further, they were presumed to be predatory temptresses, bent on extracting their wealth from guileless young men, then abandoning them. The very most respectable families would not even want to be associated with another family in which one of the members was entangled with such a creature. It is this stereotype that Dumas set himself to break. It is a commentary on the complexity of moral attitudes during the time that the result was wildly popular.

In 1853, one year after Dumas dramatized his work, the Italian Giuseppi Verdi turned the story into one of the most popular operas ever written: La Traviata (“The Wayward Woman”), retaining the Parisian setting but changing the heroine’s name to an Italian one: Violetta. The Italians were considerably more conservative in sexual matters than the French, and Verdi removed most of the seamier scenes from the original play and made his Violetta an almost angelic creature whose self-contempt and fear of risking love is almost incomprehensible unless one knows what everyone then knew: that she was a courtesan, loved only for her body and her high spirits, destined to die young and alone. This production hints at the shallowness of the affection her friends have for when, at the end of the first scene, one of her female guests placidly steals a valuable snuffbox off the mantle as she departs.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s striking production of the opera, we scan across Paris to the lavishly decorated apartment of Violetta, and, as the music from the prelude to Act V is “previewed” (there is no overture) we see her as she will appear in the last scene, abandoned, destitute, dying, her belongings being carted off to pay her bills. One of the young men who has come to help transport the goods is entranced by her portrait, and then catches of glimpse of her. Violetta then seems to see herself as she was in happier days; and as we travel swiftly back in time, the first scene begins. Although this unusual opening is not present in the original opera, it reflects the opening of Dumas’ novel, which depicts a dreary auction of the impoverished Marguerite’s belongings.

In the first act, Alfredo tries to persuade Violetta to abandon her current lover, an older baron. To love this young man who has no money of his own (though his father is rich) would not only impoverish her, but open her up to disappointment. So long as she is the mistress of men like the baron, her heart remains untouched; but if she allows herself to believe in true love, she fears disappointment.

In the second act, they have moved to the country; but Alfredo does not understand that this expensive way of life is being paid for by Violetta. His father comes to persuade her to give him up. Although he learns that, contrary to his expectations, she is not being supported by Alfredo, it is even more unacceptable to him (and polite society in general) to see a respectable young man being supported by the income of a “fallen woman.”

The third act features an elaborate ballet in which guests dressed as Spanish gypsies perform a dance combining the themes of passion, money, and death which run through Traviata. In order not to interfere with the viewing of the brilliant visual spectacle of this ballet, subtitles are omitted during this section, but you will want to know what is being sung, so a loose translation is offered here:

We are matadors from Madrid,
Heroes of the bull-ring.
We have come to enjoy the celebration
That Paris makes over the fattend ox.
There a story we can tell, if you’ll listen,
which will tell how we can love!

There’s a handsome, bold
Matador from Biscay
Strong of arm, and proud;
He is the lord of the arena.
He fell madly in love
With a young woman from Andalucia;
But the disdainful beauty
Spoke to her admirer thus:

“I want to see you kill
Five bulls in a single day;
And, if you succeed, when you return
I will give you my hand and heart.”

“Yes,” he said to her; and the matador
Stepped into the ring,
And became the conqueror of five bulls
which he stretched out in the arena.

The other guests then sing:

Bravo, bravo, matador,
You have shows yourself to be heroic
And in this way have proved
your love to the young woman!

The bullfighters reply:

Then, he returned, through the applause,
To the beauty he loved
And embraced his much-desired prize
In his loving arms.

Other guests:

This is how matadors
Prove themselves conquerors of women.


But we have softer hearts,
It’s enough for us to have fun and games.


Yes, happy friends, let us first
Try our luck at games of chance;
Let us open the contest
To the bold gambler.

(Translation by Paul Brians)

In this act, her sacrifice is completely misunderstood by Alfredo, which is partly as she wished it; but he behaves ignobly in deliberately treating her as a whore before a large assembly, provoking the Baron to challenge him to a duel. Note that Alfredo had come to the party bent on challenging the Baron, but in the end it is the Baron who defends Violetta by challenging the young man by ritually slapping him with his glove.

In the last scene, Alfredo has gone on a long voyage to forget her; but his father, realizing the true nobility of Violetta, has written to him to tell him the truth. She is hanging on, hour by hour, hoping to be reconciled with him before she dies.

By simplifying the emotions, purifying the heroine and pouring into this opera many of his most achingly beautiful melodies, Verdi created one of the masterpieces of romantic opera. Listen closely to the aria in the second act in which Alfredo sings of his love reaching across the universe. The melody recurs from time to time as Violetta is thinking of his love for her, including briefly just before the end. Contemporary critics usually scorn what they call sentimentality; but the romantics meant to soften the heart and render the audience more humane, tolerant, and loving by telling this kind of story. Thanks to Verdi’s genius, for audiences willing to set aside their sophisticated skepticism, it can still work.

A Note on Watching Opera

Opera is drama set to music, and both are important. The melodies of arias (solos), the complex interweaving of contrasting melodies in duets and trios, and the rousing harmonies of choruses are the very heart and soul of opera. Emotional raptures which might seem exaggerated in the theater are brought to life by music. It is crucial not to get so wrapped up in following the plot that you don’t pay attention to the music. This is, above all, one of the most glorious musical compositions produced in the Romantic era, filled with memorable melodies, duets, and choruses.

One of Verdi’s favorite devices is to have one or more singers perform a throbbing rhythmic pattern while another sings a long, soaring melodic line over the top. Listen for this effect in the duet between Violetta and Alfredo’s father at her place in the country, and again in the duet between Alfredo and Violetta when he returns at the end of the opera.

If you have never seen an opera before, it may take some time to get used to hearing characters sing their lines instead of speaking them. There can be a certain comic quality to some of the chorus’ unison exclamations, for instance; but such artificialities are required by the music; and experienced opera-goers take them for granted.

When you begin writing about the opera, please do not use the word “music” to mean the orchestral accompaniment as contrasted with the “singing.” Singing is music, the main form of music in an opera. If you feel that the “singing” gets in the way of the “music” then you aren’t really experiencing what opera is.

Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were originally written; hence you will hear these Parisians conversing in perfect Italian. The reason for not performing the opera in translation is that the musical values of certain syllables are not preserved when one changes languages. Instead, to assist those of you who are not fluent in Italian, the filmmaker has provided subtitles (supertitles are used in most modern American opera productions for the same reason). If you are not used to it, this may be a bit distracting at first, but without them you would get much less of the story. After a while reading the titles becomes automatic. Because they appear at the very bottom of the screen, it is important to sit close enough to read them clearly and to have a clear view of them, without some other student’s shoulder cutting them off. Choose your seat carefully. If you are watching the opera on DVD in private, be sure to use the menu to turn on the subtitles before you begin watching.

When the chorus or other singers begin to repeat the same lyrics over and over, the subtitles cease in order to let you concentrate on the music. During the ballet, much of the time there are no subtitles, to let you concentrate on the spectacle without distraction (see lyrics above); but the rest of the time you can be assured that if there are no titles on the screen, the words being sung are repetitions of phrases which have already been translated for you.

Important note: If the subtitles do not appear when the singers first start singing, go back to the main menu and choose English subtitles.

More study guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

First mounted June 17, 1995.

Last revised March 5, 2007

The Enlightenment

Although the intellectual movement called “The Enlightenment” is usually associated with the 18th century, its roots in fact go back much further. But before we explore those roots, we need to define the term. This is one of those rare historical movements which in fact named itself. Certain thinkers and writers, primarily in London and Paris, believed that they were more enlightened than their compatriots and set out to enlighten them.

They believed that human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and to build a better world. Their principal targets were religion (embodied in France in the Catholic Church) and the domination of society by a hereditary aristocracy.

Background in Antiquity

To understand why this movement became so influential in the 18th century, it is important to go back in time. We could choose almost any starting point, but let us begin with the recovery of Aristotelian logic by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. In his hands the logical procedures so carefully laid out by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle were used to defend the dogmas of Christianity; and for the next couple of centuries, other thinkers pursued these goals to shore up every aspect of faith with logic. These thinkers were sometimes called “schoolmen” (more formally, “scholastics,”) and Voltaire frequently refers to them as “doctors,” by which he means “doctors of theology.”

Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, the tools of logic could not be confined to the uses it preferred. After all, they had been developed in Athens, in a pagan culture which had turned them on its own traditional beliefs. It was only a matter of time before later Europeans would do the same.

The Renaissance Humanists

In the 14th and 15th century there emerged in Italy and France a group of thinkers known as the “humanists.” The term did not then have the anti-religious associations it has in contemporary political debate. Almost all of them were practicing Catholics. They argued that the proper worship of God involved admiration of his creation, and in particular of that crown of creation: humanity. By celebrating the human race and its capacities they argued they were worshiping God more appropriately than gloomy priests and monks who harped on original sin and continuously called upon people to confess and humble themselves before the Almighty. Indeed, some of them claimed that humans were like God, created not only in his image, but with a share of his creative power. The painter, the architect, the musician, and the scholar, by exercising their intellectual powers, were fulfilling divine purposes.

This celebration of human capacity, though it was mixed in the Renaissance with elements of gloom and superstition (witchcraft trials flourished in this period as they never had during the Middle Ages), was to bestow a powerful legacy on Europeans. The goal of Renaissance humanists was to recapture some of the pride, breadth of spirit, and creativity of the ancient Greeks and Romans, to replicate their successes and go beyond them. Europeans developed the belief that tradition could and should be used to promote change. By cleaning and sharpening the tools of antiquity, they could reshape their own time.

Galileo Galilei, for instance, was to use the same sort of logic the schoolmen had used–reinforced with observation–to argue in 1632 for the Copernican notion that the earth rotates on its axis beneath the unmoving sun. The Church, and most particularly the Holy Inquisition, objected that the Bible clearly stated that the sun moved through the sky and denounced Galileo’s teachings, forcing him to recant (take back) what he had written and preventing him from teaching further. The Church’s triumph was a Pyrrhic victory, for though it could silence Galileo, it could not prevent the advance of science (though most of those advances would take place in Protestant northern Europe, out of the reach of the pope and his Inquisition).

But before Galileo’s time, in the 16th century, various humanists had begun to ask dangerous questions. François Rabelais, a French monk and physician influenced by Protestantism, but spurred on by his own rebelliousness, challenged the Church’s authority in his Gargantua and Pantagruel, ridiculing many religious doctrines as absurd.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, in a much more quiet and modest but ultimately more subversive way, asked a single question over and over again in his Essays: “What do I know?” By this he meant that we have no right to impose on others dogmas which rest on cultural habit rather than absolute truth. Powerfully influenced by the discovery of thriving non-Christian cultures in places as far off as Brazil, he argued that morals may be to some degree relative. Who are Europeans to insist that Brazilian cannibals who merely consume dead human flesh instead of wasting it are morally inferior to Europeans who persecute and oppress those of whom they disapprove?

This shift toward cultural relativism, though it was based on scant understanding of the newly discovered peoples, was to continue to have a profound effect on European thought to the present day. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. Just as their predecessors had used the tools of antiquity to gain unprecedented freedom of inquiry, the Enlightenment thinkers used the examples of other cultures to gain the freedom to reshape not only their philosophies, but their societies. It was becoming clear that there was nothing inevitable about the European patterns of thought and living: there were many possible ways of being human, and doubtless new ones could be invented.

The other contribution of Montaigne to the Enlightenment stemmed from another aspect of his famous question: “What do I know?” If we cannot be certain that our values are God-given, then we have no right to impose them by force on others. Inquisitors, popes, and kings alike had no business enforcing adherence to particular religious or philosophical beliefs.

It is one of the great paradoxes of history that radical doubt was necessary for the new sort of certainty called “scientific.” The good scientist is the one is willing to test all assumptions, to challenge all traditional opinion, to get closer to the truth. If ultimate truth, such as was claimed by religious thinkers, was unattainable by scientists, so much the better. In a sense, the strength of science at its best is that it is always aware of its limits, aware that knowledge is always growing, always subject to change, never absolute. Because knowledge depends on evidence and reason, arbitrary authority can only be its enemy.

The 17th Century

René Descartes, in the 17th century, attempted to use reason as the schoolmen had, to shore up his faith; but much more rigorously than had been attempted before. He tried to begin with a blank slate, with the bare minimum of knowledge: the knowledge of his own existence (“I think, therefore I am”). From there he attempted to reason his way to a complete defense of Christianity, but to do so he committed so many logical faults that his successors over the centuries were to slowly disintegrate his gains, even finally challenging the notion of selfhood with which he had begun. The history of philosophy from his time to the early 20th century is partly the story of more and more ingenious logic proving less and less, until Ludwig Wittgenstein succeeded in undermining the very bases of philosophy itself.

But that is a story for a different course. Here we are concerned with early stages in the process in which it seemed that logic could be a powerful avenue to truth. To be sure, logic alone could be used to defend all sorts of absurd notions; and Enlightenment thinkers insisted on combining it with something they called “reason” which consisted of common sense, observation, and their own unacknowledged prejudices in favor of skepticism and freedom.

We have been focusing closely on a thin trickle of thought which traveled through an era otherwise dominated by dogma and fanaticism. The 17th century was torn by witch-hunts and wars of religion and imperial conquest. Protestants and Catholics denounced each other as followers of Satan, and people could be imprisoned for attending the wrong church, or for not attending any. All publications, whether pamphlets or scholarly volumes, were subject to prior censorship by both church and state, often working hand in hand. Slavery was widely practiced, especially in the colonial plantations of the Western Hemisphere, and its cruelties frequently defended by leading religious figures. The despotism of monarchs exercising far greater powers than any medieval king was supported by the doctrine of the “divine right of kings,” and scripture quoted to show that revolution was detested by God. Speakers of sedition or blasphemy quickly found themselves imprisoned, or even executed. Organizations which tried to challenge the twin authorities of church and state were banned. There had been plenty of intolerance and dogma to go around in the Middle Ages, but the emergence of the modern state made its tyranny much more efficient and powerful.

It was inevitable that sooner or later many Europeans would begin to weary of the repression and warfare carried out in the name of absolute truth. In addition, though Protestants had begun by making powerful critiques of Catholicism, they quickly turned their guns on each other, producing a bewildering array of churches each claiming the exclusive path to salvation. It was natural for people tossed from one demanding faith to another to wonder whether any of the churches deserved the authority they claimed, and to begin to prize the skepticism of Montaigne over the certainty of Luther or Calvin.

Meanwhile, there were other powerful forces at work in Europe: economic ones which were to interact profoundly with these intellectual trends.

The Political and Economic Background

During the late Middle Ages, peasants had begun to move from rural estates to the towns in search of increased freedom and prosperity. As trade and communication improved during the Renaissance, the ordinary town-dweller began to realize that things need not always go on as they had for centuries. New charters could be written, new governments formed, new laws passed, new businesses begun. Although each changed institution quickly tried to stabilize its power by claiming the support of tradition, the pressure for change continued to mount. It was not only contact with alien cultural patterns which influenced Europeans, it was the wealth brought back from Asia and the Americas which catapulted a new class of merchants into prominence, partially displacing the old aristocracy whose power had been rooted in the ownership of land. These merchants had their own ideas about the sort of world they wanted to inhabit, and they became major agents of change, in the arts, in government, and in the economy.

They were naturally convinced that their earnings were the result of their individual merit and hard work, unlike the inherited wealth of traditional aristocrats. Whereas individualism had been chiefly emphasized in the Renaissance by artists, especially visual artists, it now became a core value. The ability of individual effort to transform the world became a European dogma, lasting to this day.

But the chief obstacles to the reshaping of Europe by the merchant class were the same as those faced by the rationalist philosophers: absolutist kings and dogmatic churches. The struggle was complex and many-sided, with each participant absorbing many of the others’ values; but the general trend is clear: individualism, freedom and change replaced community, authority, and tradition as core European values. Religion survived, but weakened and often transformed almost beyond recognition; the monarchy was to dwindle over the course of the hundred years beginning in the mid-18th century to a pale shadow of its former self.

This is the background of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Europeans were changing, but Europe’s institutions were not keeping pace with that change. The Church insisted that it was the only source of truth, that all who lived outside its bounds were damned, while it was apparent to any reasonably sophisticated person that most human beings on earth were not and had never been Christians–yet they had built great and inspiring civilizations. Writers and speakers grew restive at the omnipresent censorship and sought whatever means they could to evade or even denounce it.

Most important, the middle classes–the bourgeoisie–were painfully aware that they were paying taxes to support a fabulously expensive aristocracy which contributed nothing of value to society (beyond, perhaps, its patronage of the arts, which the burghers of Holland had shown could be equally well exercised by themselves), and that those useless aristocrats were unwilling to share power with those who actually managed and–to their way of thinking,–created the national wealth. They were to find ready allies in France among the impoverished masses who may have lived and thought much like their ancestors, but who were all too aware that with each passing year they were paying higher and higher taxes to support a few thousand at Versailles in idle dissipation.

The Role of the Aristocrats

Interestingly, it was among those very idle aristocrats that the French Enlightenment philosophers were to find some of their earliest and most enthusiastic followers. Despite the fact that the Church and State were more often than not allied with each other, they were keenly aware of their differences. Even kings could on occasion be attracted by arguments which seemed to undermine the authority of the Church. The fact that the aristocrats were utterly unaware of the precariousness of their position also made them overconfident, interested in dabbling in the new ideas partly simply because they were new and exciting.

Voltaire moved easily in these aristocratic circles, dining at their tables, taking a titled mistress, corresponding with monarchs. He opposed tyranny and dogma, but he had no notion of reinventing that discredited Athenian folly, democracy. He had far too little faith in the ordinary person for that. What he did think was that educated and sophisticated persons could be brought to see through the exercise of their reason that the world could and should be greatly improved.

Rousseau vs. Voltaire

Not all Enlightenment thinkers were like Voltaire in this. His chief adversary was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who distrusted the aristocrats not out of a thirst for change but because he believed they were betraying decent traditional values. He opposed the theater which was Voltaire’s lifeblood, shunned the aristocracy which Voltaire courted, and argued for something dangerously like democratic revolution. Whereas Voltaire argued that equality was impossible, Rousseau argued that inequality was not only unnatural, but that–when taken too far–it made decent government impossible. Whereas Voltaire charmed with his wit, Rousseau ponderously insisted on his correctness, even while contradicting himself. Whereas Voltaire insisted on the supremacy of the intellect, Rousseau emphasized the emotions, becoming a contributor to both the Enlightenment and its successor, romanticism. And whereas Voltaire endlessly repeated the same handful of core Enlightenment notions, Rousseau sparked off original thoughts in all directions: ideas about education, the family, government, the arts, and whatever else attracted his attention.

For all their personal differences, the two shared more values than they liked to acknowledge. They viewed absolute monarchy as dangerous and evil and rejected orthodox Christianity. Though Rousseau often struggled to seem more devout, he was almost as much a skeptic as Voltaire: the minimalist faith both shared was called “deism,” and it was eventually to transform European religion and have powerful influences on other aspects of society as well.

Across the border in Holland, the merchants, who exercised most political power, there made a successful industry out of publishing books that could not be printed in countries like France. Dissenting religious groups mounted radical attacks on Christian orthodoxy.

The Enlightenment in England

Meanwhile Great Britain had developed its own Enlightenment, fostered by thinkers like the English thinker John Locke, the Scot David Hume, and many others. England had anticipated the rest of Europe by deposing and decapitating its king back in the 17th century. Although the monarchy had eventually been restored, this experience created a certain openness toward change in many places that could not be entirely extinguished. English Protestantism struggled to express itself in ways that widened the limits of freedom of speech and press. Radical Quakers and Unitarians broke open old dogmas in ways that Voltaire was to find highly congenial when he found himself there in exile. The English and French Enlightenments exchanged influences through many channels, Voltaire not least among them.

Because England had gotten its revolution out of the way early, it was able to proceed more smoothly and gradually down the road to democracy; but English liberty was dynamite when transported to France, where resistance by church and state was fierce to the last possible moment. The result was ironically that while Britain remained saturated with class privilege and relatively pious, France was to become after its own revolution the most egalitarian and anticlerical state in Europe–at least in its ideals. The power of religion and the aristocracy diminished gradually in England; in France they were violently uprooted.

The Enlightenment in America

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, many of the intellectual leaders of the American colonies were drawn to the Enlightenment. The colonies may have been founded by leaders of various dogmatic religious persuasions, but when it became necessary to unite against England, it was apparent that no one of them could prevail over the others, and that the most desirable course was to agree to disagree. Nothing more powerfully impelled the movement toward the separation of church and state than the realization that no one church could dominate this new state.

Many of the most distinguished leaders of the American revolution–Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Paine–were powerfully influenced by English and–to a lesser extent–French Enlightenment thought. The God who underwrites the concept of equality in the Declaration of Independence is the same deist God Rousseau worshipped, not that venerated in the traditional churches which still supported and defended monarchies all over Europe. Jefferson and Franklin both spent time in France–a natural ally because it was a traditional enemy of England–absorbing the influence of the French Enlightenment. The language of natural law, of inherent freedoms, of self-determination which seeped so deeply into the American grain was the language of the Enlightenment, though often coated with a light glaze of traditional religion, what has been called our “civil religion.”

This is one reason that Americans should study the Enlightenment. It is in their bones. It has defined part of what they have dreamed of, what they aim to become. Separated geographically from most of the aristocrats against whom they were rebelling, their revolution was to be far less corrosive–and at first less influential–than that in France.

The Struggle in Europe

But we need to return to the beginning of the story, to Voltaire and his allies in France, struggling to assert the values of freedom and tolerance in a culture where the twin fortresses of monarchy and Church opposed almost everything they stood for. To oppose the monarchy openly would be fatal; the Church was an easier target. Protestantism had made religious controversy familiar. Voltaire could skillfully cite one Christian against another to make his arguments. One way to undermine the power of the Church was to undermine its credibility, and thus Voltaire devoted a great deal of his time to attacking the fundamentals of Christian belief: the inspiration of the Bible, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the damnation of unbelievers. No doubt he relished this battle partly for its own sake, but he never lost sight of his central goal: the toppling of Church power to increase the freedom available to Europeans.

Voltaire was joined by a band of rebellious thinkers known as the philosophes: Charles de Montesquieu, Pierre Bayle, Jean d’Alembert, and many lesser lights. Although “philosophe” literally means “philosopher” we use the French word in English to designate this particular group of French 18th-century thinkers. Because Denis Diderot commissioned many of them to write for his influential Encyclopedia, they are also known as “the Encyclopedists.”

The Heritage of the Enlightenment

Today the Enlightenment is often viewed as a historical anomaly, a brief moment when a number of thinkers infatuated with reason vainly supposed that the perfect society could be built on common sense and tolerance, a fantasy which collapsed amid the Terror of the French Revolution and the triumphal sweep of Romanticism. Religious thinkers repeatedly proclaim the Enlightenment dead, Marxists denounce it for promoting the ideals and power of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the working classes, postcolonial critics reject its idealization of specifically European notions as universal truths, and postructuralists reject its entire concept of rational thought.

Yet in many ways, the Enlightenment has never been more alive. The notions of human rights it developed are powerfully attractive to oppressed peoples everywhere, who appeal to the same notion of natural law that so inspired Voltaire and Jefferson. Wherever religious conflicts erupt, mutual religious tolerance is counseled as a solution. Rousseau’s notions of self-rule are ideals so universal that the worst tyrant has to disguise his tyrannies by claiming to be acting on their behalf. European these ideas may be, but they have also become global. Whatever their limits, they have formed the consensus of international ideals by which modern states are judged.

If our world seems little closer to perfection than that of 18th-century France, that is partly due to our failure to appreciate gains we take for granted. But it is also the case that many of the enemies of the Enlightenment are demolishing a straw man: it was never as simple-mindedly optimistic as it has often been portrayed. Certainly Voltaire was no facile optimist. He distrusted utopianism, instead trying to cajole Europeans out of their more harmful stupidities. Whether we acknowledge his influence or not, we still think today more like him than like his enemies.

As we go through his most influential work, The Philosophical Dictionary, look for passages which helped lay the groundwork for modern patterns of thought. Look also for passages which still seem challenging, pieces of arguments that continue today.

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Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary: (Selections)

Houdon: Voltaire, National Gallery, Photo by Paul Brians
Houdon: Voltaire, National Gallery, Photo by Paul Brians


The most commonly taught book by Voltaire is his amusing satire on philosophical optimism, Candide. It was even made into a delightful musical by Leonard Bernstein. However, it does not represent Voltaire at his most influential. Philosophical optimism is pretty much dead and has to be explained to students today so that they can grasp the point of his satire. Voltaire’s thought ranged much more widely than this, however. In a very long life of tireless intellectual campaigning he was the most widely-read of the Enlightenment spokesmen known as philosophes.

These writers prized clarity and wit, and Voltaire’s writing abounds in both. However, these qualities are somewhat dimmed for many contemporary readers who don’t have the background to appreciate his jokes or grasp his points without assistance. These notes try to provide some assistance in this regard, and draw the reader’s attention to the most important issues.

It has been said that “Voltaire criticized the Bible, but now everyone reads the Bible and no one reads Voltaire.” Besides being wildly overstated, this jibe misses the point: we no longer read most of Voltaire’s writings because the ideas he fearlessly promoted have mostly become commonplaces which we take for granted. The agenda of the Enlightenment is a familiar one to anyone studying classic American values: freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and opposition to the cruel caprices of unenlightened monarchs, to militarism and to slavery.

It is crucial to understand that at his time, organized religion in France (and elsewhere) ranged itself on the opposite side of every one of these issues, censoring the press and speech, opposing religious toleration, supporting the doctrine of the divine right of kings to rule and often endorsing slavery as well. Voltaire railed against the Catholic Church not because he was a wicked man who wanted freedom to sin, but because he viewed it as a fountainhead and bulwark of evil. He felt that no change of the kind he wanted was possible without undermining the power of the Church; that is why he devoted so much of his attention to ridiculing and discrediting it.

Unlike his arch-rival philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he was not a democrat. ( A comparison of the two.) Despite the stereotype of the Enlightenment as a movement of facile optimism, Voltaire was deeply pessimistic about the human nature. He never dreamed of creating a perfect world (despite the utopia depicted in Candide). He only argued that the world could be less bad than it is if we replaced ignorance and superstition with knowledge and rational thought.

His influence (along with Rousseau) on the French Revolution is well-known, but Voltaire would have been appalled by the irrational, violent excesses done in the name of enlightenment. Critics ever since have been arguing that the 18th-century crusade against faith has fatally wounded the Western World, promoting all sorts of social ills. Whether one sees the world as better or worse after Voltaire, there is no question that the issues which obsessed him are still important today. There are few of the questions treated below which are not still being hotly debated in contemporary America, and few of his arguments have lost their point in the ensuing centuries.

As you read this book, ask yourself to what extent are his views the very foundation stones of our culture and to what extent do they challenge it? Voltaire’s great ambition was to make his contemporaries think, and it is a tribute to his wit and his intellect that his writings can still accomplish that goal.

The following notes refer to the Penguin edition of the Philosophical Dictionary, but there is a different, older translation available on the Web.


Why does Voltaire think it is ironic that priests are called “father?” What does he think is the main fault of modern priests as opposed to ancient ones? What does the threat in the last line of this article mean?

Ame: Soul

In this article Voltaire ironically examines the concept of the soul, which had been finely subdivided as he describes by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose definitions were adapted by the thirteenth century Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas, and which became the basis of Roman Catholic teaching on the subject (see p. 24). Much of this article is spent mocking these teachings. Focus instead on Voltaire’s attitude toward knowledge. Some of his comments in this article are aimed at particular points in their philosophy and are of mainly historical interest. Focus on the points addressed in the following questions. Voltaire does not believe it is possible to observe what is usually called the “soul.” Notice how he ridicules the idea that there is a spiritual entity separate from the body by discussing the nature of flowers and dogs. Voltaire, like most modern scientists, sees humans as being part of a natural continuum with animals and plants. In the last sentence on p. 21, Voltaire introduces the rest of his discussion by suggesting that religious teachers (by “supernatural help”) are the sole source of the notion of the soul: reason alone does not suggest it. On p. 22, he uses the newly-announced theory of gravitation (developed by Newton and much admired by Voltaire) to argue that the fact that human beings are alive does not imply the existence of a soul separate from the body. Rocks do not have heaviness in them as something distinguishable from the rest of their nature: rocks are heavy. Similarly, living beings live not because they have souls which animate them; they are simply physical beings one of whose characteristics is life. What do you think of this argument? Voltaire repeatedly argues that the soul cannot be known without “revelation” or “faith;” is he therefore arguing in favor of the concept of an inspired Bible? How can you tell? On p. 23 he rejects the Greek concept of the animal soul. On p. 24, how can you tell that the sentence which begins “Saint Thomas wrote two thousand pages” is sarcastic? “Schoolmen” are the traditional theologians known as “scholastics.” What examples does he use to ridicule the concept of the existence of a soul existing after death? What does he say was the attitude toward the ancient Jewish people about the soul and immortality? “Decalogue” means the Ten Commandments. What kind of portrait does he give of Jewish law in his paraphrase of laws from Deuteronomy on p. 25? Why does he single out the passage on false prophets? What relationship does the last full paragraph on p. 25 have to the question of whether the Jews believed in immortality? Throughout his discussion of Deuteronomy Voltaire follows the common interpretation of his time that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible, though he elsewhere rejects this notion. He states on p. 26 that “several illustrious commentators” argue that when Jacob, mourning Joseph, said he would descend in infernum (orig. sheol) it is thereby proven that the ancient Jews believed in an afterlife; but he does not bother to answer this argument. Why is it an embarrassing argument even for those who use it? Since the Sadducees were the most conservative, traditional branch of Judaism, it is particularly significant that they did not accept the concept of immortality. According to Voltaire, Josephus says that the Pharisees believed in “metempsychosis” (reincarnation), while the Sadducees rejected life after death altogether. The Essenes were the least orthodox of all, yet their beliefs best match those of later Jews and Christians. On p. 27, “He who alone was to teach all men” is of course Christ. Why does Voltaire say that we’ve only been certain of the existence of the soul for 1,700 years? Note how Voltaire slips in a sarcastic comment on the Bible’s inconsistency in stating in one place that Moses saw God face to face and in another that he saw him only from the rear. What, for Voltaire, is the purpose of the mind, or “understanding?” On p. 28 he rejects the accusation that he supports belief in a material soul by repeating that knowledge of any kind of soul is impossible. How does he use the arguments of religious people in favor of divine revelation against them? How does he contrast the attitude of Philosophy (Enlightenment philosophy, of course) with that of religious thinkers in the last sentence of this essay?

Amour: Love

For Voltaire love equals sex. What quality of sexuality does he say is unique to human beings, denied to the lower animals? What do you think of his argument? What is the point of the quotation from the Earl of Rochester (a notorious skeptic) on p. 30? How does he argue on p. 31 that syphilis is not the result of God’s displeasure with human immorality, as many priests had argued? Can you apply this argument to the AIDS epidemic? Phryne, Lais, Flora and Messalina were all women notorious for their sexual excesses. “The pox” is syphilis.

Amour-propre: Self-love

What Christian traditions might Voltaire have had in mind in telling the story of the Indian fakir on p. 35? What is his position on self-love and self-sacrifice?

Athée, athéisme: Atheist, atheism

You can skim most of this article up to p. 55. Voltaire begins his discussion of atheism with a long list of distinguished people from the past who have been unjustly accused of atheism. On p. 50, why does Voltaire call the Romans wiser than the Greeks? Note how he calls modern Europeans “the barbarian peoples which succeeded the Roman empire.” Voltaire cites Vannini as a predecessor of the Enlightenment figures like himself who argued in favor of deism but who were attacked for atheism. How does he argue on pp. 54 and 55 that a whole society can exist composed of atheists? “Gentiles” are non-Jews–in this case ancient Greeks and Romans, many of whom he argues were in essence atheists. This was a strong argument since the French of his time particularly admired Classical thought. Which, on p. 56, does he argue is more dangerous: atheism or fanaticism? Do you agree or disagree with him? Why? What is the point of his reference to the “ massacres of Saint Bartholomew?” Despite his arguments than one can have a just society composed of atheists, why does he argue on p. 57 that belief in God is desirable in a monarchy? What is the sole reason he puts forward that learned men should not be atheists? Can you see any problems with this argument? The final sentence in the last full paragraph on p. 57 is a subtle rejection of Christian belief in creation ex nihilo (from nothing), considered disproved by 18th-century science, and leading perhaps to belief in an orderly Deistic universe but not to a conventionally God-dominated one. Something is said to have had a final cause if it has been called into being for some purpose. What is Voltaire’s opinion of final causes? In section II, what does Voltaire say are the main causes of atheism? What are your own reactions to his argument here? Atheism is common in France and most of Western Europe, rare in the U.S. Why do you suppose so few Americans are atheists?

Beau, Beauté: Beautiful, beauty

What is the main point of this article? Do you agree with it?

Bien (tout est) All is good

Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, satirizes the arguments of Leibnitz [here spelled Leibniz] and Pope that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” On the bottom of p. 68, what basic element of Christianity does he say Leibnitz has fatally weakened by adopting his thesis? He summarizes Lactantius’ devastating statement of the classic “problem of evil” on p. 69, delighting in drawing his arguments from an unimpeachably Catholic source.

To help you work through the “Problem of Evil” which he is here exploring, I’ve created a Web site that considers various options. Visit it now by clicking here. This should make clearer the philosophical context in which Voltaire is making his argument. See whether you can come up with additional arguments or replies to these arguments, and post them online.

What is his basic point here? What is the point of his argument about a Lucullus (a famously wealthy Roman)who can easily believe that all is for the best? He goes on to recount mockingly the attempts of various faiths to deal with the problem of evil, none of which works for Christians or Jews. What is the point of his fanciful tale of a supposed Syrian creation story? He says that “all is good” simply means “everything is as it has to be.” How does the central paragraph on p. 72 seek to refute the argument that the orderliness of the universe is evidence of a divine, benevolent will? Note his sarcasm at the end. How does he argue against Pope’s statement that particular evils form the common good? On p. 73, how does he react to those who find this theory consoling? What kind of a God does he say the theory implies? What is his final statement as to the problem of evil? What are your personal reactions to these arguments?

Bornes de l’esprit humain: Limits of the human mind

As elsewhere in Voltaire, “doctor” means “theologian.” In what way is the subject of this article related to the last paragraph of the previous one? What is his attitude toward those who claim to have absolute knowledge? Why is he so opposed to such attitudes?

Catéchisme chinois: Chinese catechism

Like most of Voltaire’s writings on Asian religions, this bears slight relation to real Asian thought. It is instead a vehicle for the expression of some of his more daring criticisms of Christian theology. By using the dialogue format, he can offer two disputants, one more skeptical than the other. What is his attitude toward the concept of Heaven on p. 79? Does he reject the concept that Earth is unique in the universe? In ridiculing the myth of Fo he is of course mocking the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ. With what objection does Koo meet the traditional argument that the marvel of the eye implies a creator? What attitude toward belief in God does his story of the crickets imply? Why does he quote Confucius on p. 81? What is he trying to imply about the ethics of Christianity? (Confucius lived several centuries before Christ.) Notice that Koo argues that humanity is more diligent in suppressing evil than is God. What do you think of this argument? What attitude toward immortality does Ku-Su express at the end of the Second Conversation? The Third Conversation offers familiar arguments against the existence of the soul (see Ame, Soul above). with some original twists. One of the most important passages occurs on p. 83, where Koo says “What impression do you want to give me of the architect of so many millions of worlds were he obliged to carry out so many repairs to keep his creation going?” What is the point of this question? Notice that on p. 85 he argues that at least half of the Ten Commandments (the laws of the Sinoos) are necessarily universal, thus implying that morality need not be based on any particular religious revelation. What arguments does he bring against the idea of divine judgment after death on p. 86? Koo seems to give in to faith grudgingly on p. 86: why does he do so? What are his arguments against prayer and sacrifice in the Fourth Conversation? What does Koo claim are the real motives of the bonzes (priests) in preaching as they do? What does Ku-Su argue on p. 88 is natural law? Why does Voltaire like King Daon? In the Fifth Conversation, what sorts of virtues are admired in a king? The king being ridiculed on p. 90 in Koo’s statement about those with 300 wives, etc. is Solomon. What relationship does the last paragraph on p. 90 have to the article Abbé, which you read earlier? Why does Ku-Su argue that friendship should not be made a religious teaching? Why does he claim that Confucius recommends to his followers to love their enemies? (In fact he does not.) On p. 92, the “impertinent peoples” referred to are of course the Europeans (see footnote). Voltaire’s criticisms of “taverns” reflect the low state of commercial hospitality in his day. Commodious hotels and restaurants were founded only after the French Revolution, when the wealthy could no longer automatically stay as guests in aristocratic mansions. Voltaire himself was a perennial house guest for many years. What criticisms does he make of the Christian concept of humility on p. 94? What do you think of these criticisms? What are the basic religious beliefs that Koo endorses at the end of the essay?

Certain, certitude: Certain, certainty

What is Voltaire’s basic attitude toward human certainty? What does he argue are the only kinds of “immutable and eternal” certainty? What Christian belief is he satirizing in his example about the Marshal of Saxe on p. 107? Why do you think this question of certainty and uncertainty is so important to Voltaire? How is it reflected in other articles in the Dictionary?

Chaîne des événements: Chain of events

Voltaire takes it as given that all events have causes, that the world operates like an “immense machine” (p. 110), but argues that not all actions have results. It may seem strange that someone so passionately attached to freedom should argue for determinism (the belief that everything happens by necessity). Why do you think this argument attracted Voltaire?


Voltaire begins this declaration of his personal theology with a joke in which Mlle Duclos is so ignorant of her religion that she has the Credo confused with the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer). The point of the paragraph at the bottom of p. 159 and the top of p. 160 is that the Christian Credo probably evolved some time after Jesus, and does not reflect the beliefs of his early followers. The paragraph about the belief that Christ descended into Hell is based on a now-obscure doctrine called in English “ the Harrowing of Hell,” which at one time was very prominent and is often depicted in Medieval art and literature. The so-called “Credo of Saint-Pierre” is, of course, Voltaire’s own composition. What does its strong insistence on monotheism imply about Christianity? What is the point of the long third paragraph of the “Credo,” and of the two paragraphs that follow? What is the evil that he most strenuously attacks? How does he say priests should be treated?

Égalité: Equality

What, according to Voltaire, is humanity’s greatest divine gift? And what is the result of not using this gift properly? He is echoing Rousseau’s famous statement that “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains,” and to some degree replying to the latter philosopher’s theories of human equality in The Social Contract. What does he argue is the cause of inequality on p. 182? What common human characteristics lead to inequality (p. 183)? Note his sly dig at the rivalries of theologians in the middle of the page. What does he say is the implied meaning of laws which forbid people to leave a country (as he was forbidden to leave Prussia by his former friend and supporter Frederick the Great)? To what basic principle does he reduce human equality? When Voltaire says that anyone who feels unjustly treated in a particular state should leave, he is not speaking lightly. He lived in exile from France for much of his life. Note that his attitudes are far removed from the extreme egalitarianism during the French Revolution.

Enthousiasme: Enthusiasm

Why does Voltaire label enthusiasm a disease? (Note that the 18th-century French use of this term is not identical with contemporary English usage.) His story about the young man so carried away by a tragedy that he decides to write one himself is a self-mocking comment: he wrote many tragedies. Ovid’s The Art of Love and The Loves are cynical observations on love affairs, whereas Sappho’s poetry is filled with passion. She was said in ancient times to have committed suicide for love. How does he contrast reason with religion? What sort of people are said to unite reason with enthusiasm?

États, gouvernements: quel est le meilleur? States, governments: which is the best?

Voltaire begins this article by mocking those who claim to be able to reform government based on an imperfect understanding of the world. The article really begins on p. 192 when he raises the question of what sort of government a “wise man, free, of modest wealth, and without prejudices” would prefer to live in. Typically, he sets this dangerous debate (remember that Voltaire lived in an absolute monarchy endorsed by the Church) by placing it in the mouths of two Indians. He begins by satirizing the republic of ancient Israel (on the top of p. 193). What does he say is the reason there are so few republics (states in which the citizens govern themselves)? The republic discussed by the councilor which lasted more than 500 years is the ancient Roman republic. What moral advantage is it argued a republic has over a monarchy? Voltaire amusedly alludes to Montesquieu’s theory that different laws are caused by different climactic conditions, but excludes religion from this variability. What does it mean to say that the best government is that “in which only the laws are obeyed?” (Hint: there is a common phrase in American constitutional law that states “We are a government of laws, not of men,” which means the same thing.) What does this last sentence of the article mean? Why do you think self-government has been so rare in human history?

Fanatisme: Fanaticism

What do Voltaire’s examples of detestable fanaticism have in common? What is the remedy he suggests on p. 203? What does he dislike about the stories from the Old Testament to which he alludes? What does he say is the basic problem with people who appeal to a higher divine law when they behave violently? By the way, he is quite wrong in his description of Confucianism as being free from fanaticism; Buddhism comes closer. Although Confucianism is based on rational principles, Confucianists could be quite fanatical in their opposition to Buddhism.

Foi: Faith

The story with which this article begins is loosely based on historical fact and allows Voltaire to remind his readers of some of the more unsavory aspects of the history of the papacy. What is his definition of faith? What criticisms does he make of it? Can you provide a different definition of faith which is not open to these criticisms? Why does he say faith brings no merit? He is parodying in the statement of the bonze toward the bottom of p. 209 the Christian doctrine that one can receive the grace to believe what one does not readily accept through prayer.

Guerre: War

In one of his most bitterly sarcastic passages, Voltaire “praises” war as a divine gift which unites all the worst evils, causing those who create it to be adored as gods on earth. The whole article drips with irony. When he comments on p. 232 that people today do not fight wars for such stupid causes as the ancient Romans, he is being ironic. What does he say on p. 232 is a common cause for princes going to war (hint: see Shakespeare’s Henry V)? What does he say should happen before a king should be allowed to become the ruler over a people? What relationship does he say the Church has to war (p. 233)? What distinction does he make between natural and artificial religion? When he contrasts “love” with war, he of course means sex. Does he believe war can be abolished?

Liberté de pensée: Freedom of thought

Voltaire places the debate over freedom of thought in the mouths of representatives of England (which he admired) and Portugal (which he detested). Medroso (the name means “fearful”) is a religious fanatic, ignorant of the most famous names from antiquity. What does he say at the top of p. 280 is the main danger of freedom of thought? The “holy office” referred to here is the Inquisition run by the Dominican Order which imprisoned, tortured, and executed those who failed to conform to Catholic orthodoxy. Banned from France, it still flourished in Spain and Portugal in Voltaire’s time. Why does he argue Christians should support freedom of thought? Hidden in the paragraph beginning “When some business matter . . .” is his answer to Pascal’s famous wager which argued that it makes sense to believe in God since if there is one, one will avoid going to Hell for disbelieving, and if there is none, one will have nevertheless led a good life. What is Voltaire’s objection to this logic? What is your own reaction to this argument? What are the respective virtues of the English and the Portuguese, stated on p. 281?

Note: Readers attracted by the nearby article on Free Will should be cautious in connecting it with this article. Voltaire argues against the Catholic doctrine of free will and in favor of a form of determinism. The reader should not assume that because Voltaire advocates freedom he accepts the philosophical concept called “free will.”

Préjugés: Prejudices

Under this heading Voltaire groups a wide variety of ideas–all of them various sorts of irrational opinions. What are good prejudices, according to him? (Compare with “natural law.”) What common European attitudes is he satirizing in the paragraph that begins at the bottom of p. 343? “Prejudices of the Senses” are simply sensory illusions, and “physical prejudices” are irrational beliefs handed on by tradition. He debunks a pious story about how Clovis converted to Christianity by pointing out that it is not natural to pray to a God in whom one does not yet believe. Note that most of his examples of religion avoid Christianity but can easily be paralleled with it. What does he say should be the final result of overcoming religious prejudices?

Secte: Sect

Why does Voltaire argue that the very existence of disputing sects within a religion disproves its truth? How does he contrast science with religion? Scientists also disagree among themselves; does this make them the same as religious people? Explain. What distinctions does he make between religious beliefs that everyone shares and those which are unique (and therefore false)? Pascal was not the only one to argue that there is special merit in believing difficult-to-believe Christian dogmas.

Théiste: Theist

Voltaire consistently uses the term “theist” where we would use “ Deist:” a believer in a minimal religion which reveres a creator but omits most of the elements of traditional religion: prayers of petition, miracles, divine revelation, incarnation, salvation, damnation, etc. What are the main characteristics of the theist, according to Voltaire?

Tolérance: Toleration

What does Voltaire say is the first law of nature? Voltaire is intent on showing that the Romans were unusually tolerant of foreign religions because the usual stereotype of their culture is that it was intolerant in its attitude toward Christianity. According to him, why did the Romans finally become hostile to Christianity? What does he say was the attitude of various groups within original Christianity? On p. 389 he engages in one of his periodic assaults on Jewish belief, but with the aim of maintaining that they were at least more open-minded than Christians. What seem at first to be antisemetic passages in his work are often simply ruses to attack Christianity. He depicts the religious conversion of leaders in Europe as having produced a series of catastrophes. In section II, what does he say is the attitude of Christianity toward other religions? The second paragraph, assuming a detailed familiarity with the Bible, is designed to demonstrate that Christians did not at first distinguish themselves from Jews, and that their subsequent intolerance was an unfortunate late development. On p. 391 he refers to the numerous sects into which Christianity has always been divided to refute the claims of the Catholic Church to universal authority. What does he say is the remedy for religious dissension? How does the argument on p. 292 relate to the article entitled “Secte: Sect?” What religious sect does he most admire and compare to the beliefs of the earliest Christians? What arguments does he give to show that Jesus was not a Christian? What is the point of the parable of the reed at the end of the article? Americans, like Voltaire, value toleration, particularly in religious matters, very highly; but they also tend to value faith, which he rejects. How do you reconcile these two values? Is it possible to believe profoundly in a religious faith without being tempted to coerce others into accepting it? Explain.

Tyrannie: Tyranny

Voltaire is of course being sarcastic when he says “there are no such tyrants in Europe.” What does he say is the advantage of living under one tyrant rather than under many?

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The Problem of Evil

The classic problem of evil is an issue only in certain monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity which assume the existence of a perfectly good (benign), all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient) creator God. In short, the question posed is, “If God is benign, omnipotent, and omniscient, why is there evil in the world?

In religions where God is not necessarily perfectly good, or all-powerful, or all-knowing, the problem does not arise. In early Judaism, for instance, God is sometimes said to cause evils (hardening Pharoah’s heart, tempting David to conduct a sinful census), and even to repent (the Flood). But Judaism eventually evolved to insist on a perfectly good God. Then it was argued that evil stemmed from some rival being, like Satan. However, if Satan can exercise his power independently of God’s will, then God is not all-powerful. If Satan acts merely as an agent for God’s will, the problem of evil remains: how does God want Satan to commit evils that he himself would not be willing to commit? If God is perfectly good, he should be unable to commit or create evil. Evil is contrary to his nature.

The problem has two branches: Physical and Moral.


Question: If God is good and created the world we live in, why does it contain such evils as disease, death, floods, fire, and earthquakes?


  • Such things are not evil in themselves, but only in our perception of them.
    • Argument:
      What appears to human beings to be evil is merely the necessary by-product of the nature of things. If we could see things from the point of view of God we would understand their purpose and accept them as ultimately good.
    • Objections:
      • This argument merely evades the question by pronouncing it unanswerable in our present state of existence. It is the equivalent of the parental “You’ll understand when you grow up.”
      • This argument is non-Biblical, in that it ignores the fact the Scriptures clearly present early death, disease, earthquakes, and other disasters as evils which are inflicted on sinners.
  • Such evils make up a larger good.
    • Argument:
      Things which appear to us evil are in fact necessary components of a larger good. If there were no death, the earth would become wretchedly overcrowded. A child who freezes to death in the snow is suffering an unfortunate side-effect of weather which provides the water to sustain millions of lives. God has created the best world that he could (or he could be accused of weakness or deliberate evil). A painting’s dark patches contribute to its over-all beauty.
    • Objections:
      This was a common argument among the “philosophical optimists” Voltaire so strenuously opposed. It is open to many objections.

This is a circular argument which simply states that things are as they have to be. Since we are positing an omniscient creator, why did he not create a world in which that which is good does not produce evil by-products? Since Christianity maintains that miracles do occur, the argument that the laws of nature require that children who find themselves lost in a snowstorm must necessarily freeze to death is invalid. Since God is said to have intervened frequently in the operation of the laws of nature to reward or punish humans, clearly he could do so on a regular basis. Indeed, the real question is, why does he not do so regularly?

Who determines what is the larger good? How important is it that volcanoes be allowed to erupt, often destroying the lives of innocent people who happen to live near them? If even the fall of a single sparrow is of concern to God, why should he endorse mere natural phenomena over the continued existence of human beings?

If this is the best of all possible worlds, why is it so easy to imagine better ones? In any case, the Bible clearly depicts this world as having degenerated after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The world is neither as good as it once was nor as good as it is promised to be at the end of time.

Voltaire ridiculed the painting analogy by saying that he might think a painting beautiful so long as he stood at a distance from it, but that once he had examined those dark patches filled with human suffering, disease, and death, he could no longer view it with the same enthusiasm. In any case, analogy is one of the weakest of all forms of argumentation: darkness is not the same thing as evil.


Questions:The problem of moral evil may be divided into two separate questions:


  •  Why does God allow human beings to commit evils?
    • Argument:
      • God wanted humans to worship him freely, not to act automatically. The existence of free will necessarily requires the possibility of evil choices. God does not will evil; he simply creates humans who make evil choices.
    • Objections: Although this is often presented as a powerful argument, it is open to several objections.
      • If freedom is good in itself, and therefore necessary in a perfect world, it is not necessarily implied that choices must involve good and evil. One can choose freely between good alternatives without becoming a mere robot. In any case, this argument simply ignores the original question. We asked not what the purpose of evil is in the world, but from whence it comes?
      • Why does God require worship at all? If he is perfect, he should not need anyone to praise or adore him, certainly not flawed, deluded beings such as humans whose adoration can hardly be as rewarding as that of angels, who understand God much more fully and clearly.
      • If the freedom to choose to do evil is essential to determine who should be saved, will the saved in Heaven also be free to commit sins? If not, is their state to be judged inferior to our own? Clearly not. So why not skip the mortal phase of existence with all its suffering and sin altogether and proceed directly from creation to heaven?
      • If God knows all, he clearly knew before creating human beings that they would fall into sin. How can he be held innocent for sins which he knowingly made inevitable? Since we are told in the gospels that the majority of people go to Hell, God must knowingly have set up a system which is at least remarkably inefficient, if not actually wicked.
  • Why do evil things happen to good people (and good things often happen to evil people)?
    • Why do the good suffer and the evil prosper? This was the form in which the Bible first addressed the problem of evil, as the Jews reexamined their traditional doctrines that God rewards the pious with many children, prosperity, and long life, and curses the wicked with sterility, poverty, and an early death. This was so clearly often not the case, that the inconsistency seemed to demand an explanation. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes, each in its own way, pronounce it an unfathomable mystery. The author of Job seems to regard the very asking of the question as an affront to God. He puts forward all manner of detailed arguments for questioning God’s justice; but the deity refuses to reply to his accusations, telling Job only to sit down, shut up, and fear him.
    • Argument: 
      • Some argue that sufferings are inflicted on the good to test them, to allow them to prove their virtue.
    • Objection:
      • Why is such testing necessary or desirable? Will the saved in Heaven be similarly tested? Surely not, since Heaven is said to be free of suffering. If virtue can only be displayed in comparison with evil, then it would seem that God is either limited in his powers or imperfectly good.
    • Argument: 
      • As the Beatitudes state, those who suffer here on earth will be blessed in Heaven.
    • Objection:
      • This argument provides consolation, but no explanation. Why should the good have to suffer at all? Like many others “answers” to the problem of evil, it evades the basic question by stating that it is unanswerable in this life. Only in Heaven are there answers.

Logical Answers to the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil as classically stated is probably insoluble, but people who ponder it deeply typically come to one of the following conclusions:

  • God is not perfectly good.
  • God is not all-powerful.
  • God is not all-knowing.
  • God does not exist.
  • This is a mystery. It is a mistake even to ask the question.

Saint Augustine attempted to deal with this issue by denying the actual existence of moral evil. What we perceive as evil is, he argued, merely distance from God. Hell is the ultimate alienation from God.

This page has been translated into Russian by  EduBirdie.

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If the Enlightenment was a movement which started among a tiny elite and slowly spread to make its influence felt throughout society, Romanticism was more widespread both in its origins and influence. No other intellectual/artistic movement has had comparable variety, reach, and staying power since the end of the Middle Ages.

Beginning in Germany and England in the 1770s, by the 1820s it had swept through Europe, conquering at last even its most stubborn foe, the French. It traveled quickly to the Western Hemisphere, and in its musical form has triumphed around the globe, so that from London to Boston to Mexico City to Tokyo to Vladivostok to Oslo, the most popular orchestral music in the world is that of the romantic era. After almost a century of being attacked by the academic and professional world of Western formal concert music, the style has reasserted itself as neoromanticism in the concert halls. When John Williams created the sound of the future in Star Wars, it was the sound of 19th-century Romanticism–still the most popular style for epic film soundtracks.

Beginning in the last decades of the 18th century, it transformed poetry, the novel, drama, painting, sculpture, all forms of concert music (especially opera), and ballet. It was deeply connected with the politics of the time, echoing people’s fears, hopes, and aspirations. It was the voice of revolution at the beginning of the 19th century and the voice of the Establishment at the end of it.

This last shift was the result of the triumph of the class which invented, fostered, and adopted as its own the romantic movement: the bourgeoisie. To understand why this should have been so, we need to look more closely at the nature of the style and its origins.


Folklore and Popular Art

Some of the earliest stirrings of the Romantic movement are conventionally traced back to the mid-18th-century interest in folklore which arose in Germany–with Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm collecting popular fairy tales and other scholars like Johann Gottfried von Herder studying folk songs–and in England with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele treating old ballads as if they were high poetry. These activities set the tone for one aspect of Romanticism: the belief that products of the uncultivated popular imagination could equal or even surpass those of the educated court poets and composers who had previously monopolized the attentions of scholars and connoisseurs.

Whereas during much of the 17th and 18th centuries learned allusions, complexity and grandiosity were prized, the new romantic taste favored simplicity and naturalness; and these were thought to flow most clearly and abundantly from the “spontaneous” outpourings of the untutored common people. In Germany in particular, the idea of a collective Volk (people) dominated a good deal of thinking about the arts. Rather than paying attention to the individual authors of popular works, these scholars celebrated the anonymous masses who invented and transmuted these works as if from their very souls. All of this fantasizing about the creative folk process reflected precious little knowledge about the actual processes by which songs and stories are created and passed on and created as well an ideology of the essence of the German soul which was to be used to dire effect by the Nazis in the 20th century.


The natural consequence of dwelling on creative folk genius was a good deal of nationalism. French Romantic painting is full of themes relating to the tumultuous political events of the period and later Romantic music often draws its inspiration from national folk musics. Goethe deliberately places German folkloric themes and images on a par with Classical ones in Faust.


But one of the early effects of this interest in the folk arts seems particularly strange to us moderns: the rise and spread of the reputation of William Shakespeare. Although he is regarded today as the epitome of the great writer, his reputation was at first very different. Shakespeare was a popular playwright who wrote for the commercial theater in London. He was not college-educated, and although his company had the sponsorship of King James, his work was not entirely “respectable.”

Academic critics at first scorned his indiscipline, his rejection of their concepts of drama which were derived in part from ancient Roman and Greek patterns. A good play should not mix comedy with tragedy, not proliferate plots and subplots, not ramble through a wide variety of settings or drag out its story over months or years of dramatic time; but Shakespeare’s plays did all these things. A proper serious drama should always be divided neatly into five acts, but Shakespeare’s plays simply flowed from one scene to the next, with no attention paid to the academic rules of dramatic architecture (the act divisions we are familiar with today were imposed on his plays by editors after his death).

If the English romantics exalted Shakespeare’s works as the greatest of their classics, his effect on the Germans was positively explosive. French classical theater had been the preeminent model for drama in much of Europe; but when the German Romantics began to explore and translate his works, they were overwhelmed. His disregard for the classical rules which they found so confining inspired them. Writers like Friedrich von Schiller and Goethe created their own dramas inspired by Shakespeare. Faust contains many Shakespearean allusions as well as imitating all of the nonclassical qualities enumerated above.

Because Shakespeare was a popular rather than a courtly writer, the Romantics exaggerated his simple origins. In fact he had received an excellent education which, although it fell short of what a university could offer, went far beyond what the typical college student learns today about the classics. In an age drunk on the printing and reading of books he had access to the Greek myths, Roman and English history, tales by Italian humanists and a wide variety of other materials. True, he used translations, digests, and popularizations; but he was no ignoramus.

To the Romantics, however, he was the essence of folk poetry, the ultimate vindication of their faith in spontaneous creativity. Much of the drama of the European 19th century is influenced by him, painters illustrated scenes from his plays, and composers based orchestral tone poems and operas on his narratives.

The Gothic Romance

Another quite distinct contribution to the Romantic movement was the Gothic romance. The first was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765), set in a haunted castle and containing various mysterious apparitions such as a gigantic mailed fist. This sort of thing was popularized by writers like Ann Radcliffe and M. L. Lewis (The Monk) and eventually spread abroad to influence writers like Eugène Sue (France) and Edgar Allan Poe (the U.S.). Rejecting the Enlightenment ideal of balance and rationalism, readers eagerly sought out the hysterical, mystical, passionate adventures of terrified heroes and heroines in the clutches of frightening, mysterious forces. The modern horror novel and woman’s romance are both descendants of the Gothic romance, as transmuted through such masterworks as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Another classic Gothic work, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is often cited as a forerunner of modern science fiction.


The Gothic novel embraced the Medieval (“Gothic”) culture so disdained by the early 18th century. Whereas classical art looked back constantly to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Romantics celebrated for the first time since the Renaissance the wilder aspects of the creativity of Western Europeans from the 12th through the 14th centuries: stained glass in soaring cathedrals, tales of Robin Hood and his merry men, and–above all–the old tales of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. This influence was to spread far beyond the Gothic romance to all artistic forms in Europe, and lives on in the popular fantasy novels of today. Fairies, witches, angels–all the fantastic creatures of the Medieval popular imagination came flooding back into the European arts in the Romantic period (and all are present in Faust).

The longing for “simpler” eras not freighted with the weight of the Classical world gave rise to a new form: the historical novel. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was by far its most successful practitioner. Although credit for writing the first historical novel should probably go to Madame de Lafayette for her La Princess de Clèves (1678), Scott is generally considered to have developed the form as we know it today. Almost forgotten now, his novels like The Bride of Lammermoor and Ivanhoe nevertheless inspired writers, painters, and composers in Germany, France, Italy, Russia and many other lands.


The other influential characteristic of the Gothic romance was its evocation of strong, irrational emotions–particularly horror. Whereas Voltaire and his comrades had abhorred “enthusiasm” and strove to dispel the mists of superstition; the Gothic writers evoked all manner of irrational scenes designed to horrify and amaze. Romantic writers generally also prized the more tender sentiments of affection, sorrow, and romantic longing. In this they were inspired by certain currents contemporaneous with the Enlightenment, in particular the writings of Voltaire’s arch-rival, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Rousseau was a moody, over-sensitive, even paranoid sort of fellow, much given to musing on his own feelings. Like the Englishman Samuel Richardson, he explored in his fiction the agonies of frustrated love–particularly in his sensationally successful novel The New Heloise–and celebrated the peculiar refinement of feeling the English called “sensibility” which we call “sensitivity.” Of all aspects of Romantic fiction, the penchant for tearful sentimental wallowing in the longings and disappointments of frustrated protagonists is most alien to modern audiences. Only in opera and film where the power of music is summoned to reinforce the emotions being evoked can most modern audiences let themselves go entirely, and then only within limits.

The great minds of the 20th century have generally rejected sentimentalism, even defining its essence as false, exaggerated emotion; and we tend to find mawkish or even comical much that the Romantic age prized as moving and beautiful. Yet there was more than cheap self-indulgence and escapism in this fevered emotionalism. Its proponents argued that one could be morally and spiritually uplifted by cultivating a greater sensitivity to feelings. The cultivation of empathy for the sufferings of others could even be a vehicle for social change, as in the works of Charles Dickens. That this emotionalism was sometimes exaggerated or artificial should not obscure the fact that it also contained much that was genuine and inspiring. It is not clear that we have gained so much by prizing in our modern literature attitudes of cynicism, detachment, and ruthlessness.

Of all the emotions celebrated by the Romantics, the most popular was love. Although the great Romantic works often center on terror or rage, the motive force behind these passions is most often a relationship between a pair of lovers. In the classical world love had been more or less identical with sex, the Romans treating it in a particularly cynical manner. The Medieval troubadours had celebrated courtly adultery according to a highly artificial code that little reflected the lives of real men and women while agreeing with physicians that romantic passion was a potentially fatal disease. It was the romantics who first celebrated romantic love as the natural birthright of every human being, the most exalted of human sentiments, and the necessary foundation of a successful marriage. Whether or not one agrees that this change of attitude was a wise one, it must be admitted to have been one of the most influential in the history of the world.

This is not the place to trace the long and complex history of how the transcendent, irrational, self-destructive passion of a Romeo and Juliet came to be considered the birthright of every European citizen; but this conviction which continues to shape much of our thinking about relationships, marriage, and the family found its mature form during the Romantic age. So thoroughly has love become identified with romance that the two are now generally taken as synonyms, disregarding the earlier associations of “romance” with adventure, terror, and mysticism.


Another important aspect of Romanticism is the exotic. Just as Romantics responded to the longing of people for a distant past, so they provided images of distant places. The distances need not be terribly great: Spain was a favorite “exotic” setting for French Romantics, for instance. North Africa and the Middle East provided images of “Asia” to Europeans. Generally anywhere south of the country where one resided was considered more relaxed, more colorful, more sensual.

Such exoticism consisted largely of simple stereotypes endlessly repeated, but the Romantic age was also a period in which Europeans traveled more than ever to examine at first hand the far-off lands of which they had read. Much of this tourism was heavily freighted with the attitudes fostered by European colonialism, which flourished during this period. Most “natives” were depicted as inevitably lazy, unable to govern themselves while those who aspired to European sophistication were often derided as “spoiled.” Many male travelers viewed the women of almost any foreign land one could name as more sexually desirable and available than the women at home, and so they are depicted in fiction, drama, art, and opera.

Just as Scott was the most influential force in popularizing the romantic historical novel, exoticism in literature was inspired more by Lord Byron–especially his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818)–than by any other single writer. Whereas the Romantic lyric poetry of Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth had a negligible influence outside of their native tongue, the sweep of Byron’s longer poems translated well into other languages and other artistic media.

Romantic exoticism is not always in tension with Romantic nationalism, for often the latter focused on obscure folk traditions which were in themselves exotic to the audiences newly exposed to them. Goethe’s witches were not more familiar to his audience because they were Germanic, unlike, say, the Scottish witches in Macbeth.


One of the most complex developments during this period is the transformation of religion into a subject for artistic treatment far removed from traditional religious art. The Enlightenment had weakened, but hardly uprooted, established religion in Europe. As time passed, sophisticated writers and artists were less and less likely to be conventionally pious; but during the Romantic era many of them were drawn to religious imagery in the same way they were drawn to Arthurian or other ancient traditions in which they no longer believed. Religion was estheticized, and writers felt free to draw on Biblical themes with the same freedom as their predecessors had drawn on classical mythology, and with as little reverence.

Faust begins and ends in Heaven, has God and the devil as major characters, angels and demons as supporting players, and draws on wide variety of Christian materials, but it is not a Christian play. The Enlightenment had weakened the hold of Christianity over society to the extent that some at least, like Goethe, no longer felt the need to engage in the sort of fierce battles with it Voltaire had fought, but felt instead free to play with it. A comparable attitude can be seen in much of the work of the English Pre-Raphaelite painters who began in mid-century to treat Christian subjects in the context of charmingly “naive” Medievalism.

The mixture of disbelief in and fascination with religion evident in such works illustrates a general principal of intellectual history: artistic and social movements almost never behave like rigid clock pendulums, swinging all the way from one direction to another. A better metaphor for social change is the movement of waves on a beach, in which an early wave is receding while another advances over it, and elements of both become mixed together. For all that many of its features were reactions against the rationalist Enlightenment, Romanticism also incorporated much from the earlier movement, or coexisted with the changes it had brought about.


One of the most important developments of this period is the rise in the importance of individualism. Before the 18th Century, few Europeans concerned themselves with discovering their own individual identities. They were what they had been born: nobles, peasants, or merchants. As mercantalism and capitalism gradually transformed Europe, however, it destablized the old patterns. The new industrialists naturally liked to credit themselves for having built their large fortunes and rejected the right of society to regulate and tax their enterprises. Sometimes they tried to fit into the traditional patterns by buying noble titles; but more and more often they developed their own tastes in the arts and created new social and artistic movements alien to the old aristocracy. This process can be seen operating as early as the Renaissance in the Netherlands.

The changing economy not only made individualism attractive to the newly rich, it made possible a free market in the arts in which entrepreneurial painters, composers, and writers could seek out sympathetic audiences to a pay them for their works, no longer confined to handful of Church and aristocratic patrons who largely shared the same values. They could now afford to pursue their individual tastes in a way not possible even in the Renaissance.

It was in the Romantic period–not coincidentally also the period of the industrial revolution–that such concern with individualism became much more widespread. Byron in literature and Beethoven in music are both examples of romantic individualism taken to extremes. But the most influential exemplar of individualism for the 19th century was not a creative artist at all, but a military man: Napoleon Bonaparte. The dramatic way in which he rose to the head of France in the chaotic wake of its bloody revolution, led his army to a series of triumphs in Europe to build a brief but influential Empire, and created new styles, tastes, and even laws with disregard for public opinion fascinated the people of the time. He was both loved and hated; and even fifty years after his death he was still stimulating authors like Dostoyevsky, who saw in him the ultimate corrosive force which celebrated individual striving and freedom at the expense of responsibility and tradition.

We call the reckless character who seeks to remold the world to his own desires with little regard for morality or tradition “Faustian,” after Goethe’s character, but he might as well be called “Napoleonic.”

The modern fascination with self-definition and self-invention, the notion that adolescence is naturally a time of rebellion in which one “finds oneself,” the idea that the best path to faith is through individual choice, the idea that government exists to serve the individuals who have created it: all of these are products of the romantic celebration of the individual at the expense of society and tradition.


The subject of the relationship of Romanticism to nature is a vast one which can only be touched on here. There has hardly been a time since the earliest antiquity that Europeans did not celebrate nature in some form or other, but the attitudes toward nature common in the Western world today emerged mostly during the Romantic period. The Enlightenment had talked of “natural law” as the source of truth, but such law was manifest in human society and related principally to civic behavior. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, Europeans had traditionally had little interest in natural landscapes for their own sake. Paintings of rural settings were usually extremely idealized: either well-tended gardens or tidy versions of the Arcadian myth of ancient Greece and Rome.

Here again, Rousseau is an important figure. He loved to go for long walks, climb mountains, and generally “commune with nature.” His last work is called Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker). Europe had become more civilized, safer, and its citizens now felt freer to travel for the simple pleasure of it. Mountain passes and deep woods were no longer merely perilous hazards to be traversed, but awesome views to be enjoyed and pondered. The violence of ocean storms came to be appreciated as an esthetic object in any number of paintings, musical tone poems, and written descriptions, as in the opening of Goethe’s Faust.

None of this had been true of earlier generations, who had tended to view the human and the natural as opposite poles, with the natural sometimes exercising an evil power to degrade and dehumanize those who were to drawn to it. The Romantics, just as they cultivated sensitivity to emotion generally, especially cultivated sensitivity to nature. It came to be felt that to muse by a stream, to view a thundering waterfall or even confront a rolling desert could be morally improving. Much of the nature writing of the 19th century has a religious quality to it absent in any other period. This shift in attitude was to prove extremely powerful and long-lasting, as we see today in the love of Germans, Britons and Americans for wilderness.

It may seem paradoxical that it was just at the moment when the industrial revolution was destroying large tracts of woods and fields and creating an unprecedentedly artificial environment in Europe that this taste arose; but in fact it could probably have arisen in no other time. It is precisely people in urban environments aware of the stark contrast between their daily lives and the existence of the inhabitants of the wild who romanticise nature. They are attracted to it precisely because they are no longer unselfconsciously part of it. Faust, for instance, is powerfully drawn to the moonlit landscape outside his study at the beginning of Goethe’s play largely because he is so discontented with the artificial world of learning in which he has so far lived.


Scholars of English literature are prone to make much of the distinction between the Romantic and Victorian Ages, but for our purposes the latter is best viewed as merely a later stage of the former. The prudish attitudes popularly associated with Queen Victoria’s reign are manifest in Germany and–to a lesser extent–in France as well. Victoria did not create Victorianism, she merely exemplified the temper of the time. But throughout the Victorian period the wild, passionate, erotic, even destructive aspects of Romanticism continue in evidence in all the arts.


Like the Enlightenment, Romanticism calls forth numerous counter-movements, like Realism, Impressionism, Neo-classicism, etc.; but like the Enlightenment, it also keeps on going. None of these were entirely to replace the Romantic impulse. Hard-bitten naturalism in fiction and film coexists today with sweeping romanticism; there are large audiences for both. The contemporary vogue for “Victorian” designs is just one of many examples of the frequent revivals of Romantic tastes and styles that have recurred throughout the twentieth century.

Looking back over the list of characteristics discussed above one can readily see that despite the fact that Romanticism was not nearly as coherent a movement as the Enlightenment, and lacked the sort of programmatic aims the latter professed, it was even more successful in changing history–changing the definition of what it means to be human.

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Jacob Bronowski: “Knowledge or Certainty” Study Guide

The Videotape

“Knowledge or Certainty” is an episode in the 1973 BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” a history of science from the prehistoric period to modern times. Although it shows its age a bit (smaller particles than that shown have been “photographed” since and the sexist title of the original series would probably be changed to something like “The Ascent of Humanity” today), most of it is still scientifically valid.

Jacob Bronowski (born 1908) emigrated with his family from Poland to Germany to England, where he studied mathematics at Cambridge University. During World War II, his work helped to increase the effectiveness of bombing raids. This connection led him to Nagasaki after the war to study the effects of the atomic bombing there, but he came away convinced that scientists needed to pay more attention to the ethics of science, and in particular the danger that their discoveries would be misused. This episode of “The Ascent of Man” concentrates on two catastrophic events of the 20th century for which scientists have often been blamed: the Nazi genocide of the Jews and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, we are viewing this film for a slightly different reason. The defense of science which Bronowski mounts depends on the “uncertainty principle,” or “indeterminacy” or–as he prefers–“the principle of tolerance.” His insistence that there is no absolute truth, not even in science, descends from the same line of reasoning as Voltaire’s insistence on the limits of knowledge. Both argue that the logical result of human limitations should be tolerance.

The Science

You do not have to understand modern atomic physics to follow his argument, but it helps. He begins the film by focusing a number of devices on the face of an unnamed elderly man to see how much detail each can produce. The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that all perception, including that provided by scientific investigation, is necessarily imperfect, limited. Some aspects of our knowledge of this man which cannot be conveyed by scientific instruments can be conveyed instead by an artist trying to convey the man’s spirit or by a blind woman actually touching the man’s face. Watch for this man’s face to return at the very end of the film in the context of another reference to “touch.”

It is crucial to understand that he is not saying that there is no such thing as knowledge, or that all approaches to knowledge are equal. He emphasizes that we can be very precise about what we can and cannot know through scientific means. That in itself is important knowledge. But all knowledge is limited, never absolute. Philosophers and other humanists have often seized on uncertainty theory and quantum physics to argue for skepticism, and tried to use it to deny all validity to science. Why this is unjustified in most scientists’ opinion is beyond the scope of these modest notes, but it is important to keep in mind that Bronowski does believe in scientific knowledge: he simply denies that it is complete or perfect.

His references to “the knowledge of gods” may mislead some into thinking that he is claiming that such knowledge exists. Not at all. Later in the film he specifically asserts that there is no such knowledge. Lurking in the background of his argument is the same anti-religious message that Voltaire is advancing in The Philosophical Dictionary. When he says “dogma,” think “religious belief” as well as “racist theories.” In order not to offend and distract his audience, Bronowski downplays this aspect of his argument. According to this view, the limitations of science provide no justification for religion to claim superior “knowledge,” for religion is much more subjective and inexact than science.

His use of the word “tolerance” may be unfamiliar to you if you have not studied engineering. Parts are often manufactured to a certain degree of tolerance in the sense that a bolt may measure .25 centimeters give or take 15 millimeters. The “give or take” part is the “tolerance.” It is not possible to make anything to perfect dimensions–not just because of human imperfection, but because of uncertainties built into the very nature of matter. Bronowski is punning on this meaning of “tolerance” to connect it with the more common use of the term to express open-mindedness. Note how his analysis of science emphasizes that it progresses through questioning and argumentation, refusal to accept any finding as the last word. For him, science which becomes dogma is not science.

He rejects the term “uncertainty” because we are certain about what we cannot know in subatomic physics, and can even measure precisely the “tolerance” within which our knowledge is bounded.


Listed in the order in which they appear in the film.

Karl Friedrich Gauss German mathematician, 1777-1855.

University of Göttingen, founded 1737.

Ceres. Strictly speaking, not a planet but an asteroid, but the distinction is irrelevant for the period Bronowski is talking about. True planets discovered after the classical seven (which included the Sun and Moon): Uranus (1781), Neptune (1846) and Pluto (1930, though some now dispute whether Pluto should be classed as a true planet). Of course we now class the Earth itself as a planet, which the ancients did not.

Friedrich Hegel German philosopher who argued humans are capable of absolute knowledge based on reason, 1770-1831. Karl Marx was an important student and critic of Hegel’s work, and the Nazis tried to use him to justify their own ideology.

German unification. Germany was created as a modern state through a long process during the 19th century.

Max Born, German physicist, 1882-1970.

Werner Heisenberg, German physicist, 1901-1976. Student of Born. The “Heisenberg uncertainty principle” is named after him.

Erwin Schrödinger, Austrian physicist, 1887-1961.

Louis de Broglie, French physicist, 1892-1987.

Max Planck, German physicist, 1858-1947.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, German physiologist and comparative anatomist, 1752-1840.

Note: most of the refugees in the following group were Jews.

Albert Einstein, German physicist, 1879-1955. Renounced his citizenship and fled Germany in 1933. Settled in the U.S.

Sigmund Freud, Austrian psychiatrist, founder of psychoanalysis, 1856-1939. Fled Hitler’s Nazis when they invaded Austria in 1938 to seek refuge in England.

Bertolt Brecht, German playwright, 1898-1956. Fled Germany in 1933 for exile in Denmark and the U.S. Later fled the U.S. to escape anti-Communist persecution and had a notable career and a Communist playwright in East Germany.

Arturo Toscanini, Italian conductor, 1867-1957. Avoided Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, settling in 1937 in the U.S., where he conducted the NBC Symphony, created for him.

Bruno Walter, German conductor, 1876-1962. Fled Germany for Austria in 1936, then on to Paris, and finally settled in the U.S. in 1939.

Marc Chagall, Belorussian painter, 1887-1985. Fled Germany in 1939 for France.

Enrico Fermi, Italian physicist, 1901-1954. Fled Fascist Italy in 1938 for the U.S. Fermi headed the Chicago portion of the Manhattan Project, the project to build the atomic bomb. He became an American citizen in 1944.

Leo Szilard, Hungarian physicist, 1898-1964. Fled Gerany in 1933 for Austria, then London, and–in 1937–the U.S. Helped Fermi design the first nuclear reactor. Like many in Chicago who had joined the project mainly to defeat Hitler, he objected to its planned use against the Japanese, particularly since they were not to be warned in advance. He dedicated much of the rest of his life to working against nuclear weapons.

Salk Institute of Biological Studies, La Jolla, California. Founded in 1963 by U.S. medical researcher Jonas Salk, most famous for his development of the first effective polio vaccine.

Arbeit macht frei “Work makes one free.” The notoriously ironic motto over the gate at the Auschwitz (Oswiecim, Poland) death camp. Shown are the gas ovens where the corpses of gassed Jews and other victims were incinerated, and the collection of glasses destined for “recycling.”

Oliver Cromwell, Puritan leader of the revolution which overthrew Charles I. His famous plea, “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken,” was made to his Scottish opponents just before he defeated them in the Battle of Dunbar (1650); but is often cited in defense of open-mindedness generally. “Bowels” here means something like “heart,” as used in the King James translation of Philemon.

More study guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics


Auschwitz Alphabet
Louis de Broglie
Albert Einstein
Enrico Fermi
Werner Heisenberg
Max Planck
The Salk Institute
Erwin Schödinger


What do you find most interesting or persuasive about this film?

What are the strong and weak points of Bronowski’s argument that science itself is not responsible for the purposes to which it is put by politicians?

Compare what he is saying about the limits of knowledge with what Voltaire has to say about the same subject.

What does Bronowski mean when he says “We have to reach out and touch people”?

Why was the elderly man we saw at the beginning of the film an appropriate choice?

Goethe’s Faust

Note: This study guide is based on the translation of Walter Kaufmann titled Goethe’s Faust (Anchor Books) which omits most of Part II.

This work is rich in wonderful contradictions and conflicts. Faust: A Tragedy is the title given his masterpiece by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yet it might almost as easily be described as a musical comedy, in that it has many comic passages, features many songs, and lacks a tragic ending. Faust himself is not a classic tragic figure either. In fact, his characteristic yearning for experience and knowledge created a type for the romantic age still known as the Faustian hero, though he can easily seem more of a villain than a hero; and the purported villain–Mephistopheles–is one of the most likable characters in the play. His yearnings draw him toward the heavens, yet he is also powerfully attracted to the physical world. The book was designed to be read rather than performed, yet many scenes are wonderfully designed for effective stage presentation.

It is useless to try to figure out what the “real” point of Faust is, or which of the many views of life it presents is the correct one. It is par excellence the Romantic masterwork precisely because it explores a wide variety of polar opposites without resolving them. Goethe has created a microcosm of life, trying to preserve its complexity, its tensions, and its dynamism. Appreciating the work’s complexity and enjoying it should be your goal.

One the most important tensions expressed in this work is between learning and experience. Faust himself rejects scholarship for life, but it would be a mistake to suppose that Goethe unequivocally endorses this view. Mephistopheles, who is usually both truthful and wise, warns him against this enthusiasm for raw experience; and Goethe himself was a scholar and bureaucrat who greatly valued the learning of the past and aimed at joining the pantheon of classic writers. Faust is a part of Goethe, but so is Mephistopheles.

This is a work that can be hugely entertaining, but only if one understands its references and ideas. These notes are meant to help you enjoy the work by pointing you to significant passages that need careful thought and providing crucial information on some difficult references. They are meant not to hand you a simple interpretation, but to stimulate thought about the work that can lead to an interpretation.

There are several passages in the Bible which must be read in connection with specific lines in the play.

None of them will take more than a few minutes to read.

Prologue in Heaven

In this overture to his drama Goethe creates a quaint and slightly comic Heaven in which the encounter between Goethe and Mephistopheles is planned. What signs can you find that Goethe does not intend this scene seriously to portray an orthodox Christian Heaven? To “intone” an “air” is to sing a song. A “tourney” is a tournament or conflict.

Raphael is describing a traditional concept called “the harmony of the spheres” in which each planetary sphere in the solar system emits a tone which blend together into a sort of heavenly music. In what way does the concept of a “tourney” conflict with this concept? What astronomical system is represented by Raphael’s description of the sun and its “brother spheres” moving around the earth? How does this system relate to that described by Gabriel, who describes the earth as revolving and fleeing through space? What references to motion can you find in the speeches of the three archangels? Can you find any pattern in the order in which they describe various kinds of motion? (Hint: look at the scale of things.) What contradiction is contained in the last line of Michael’s speech?

Mephistopheles’ witty, ironic tone in addressing God is quite different from that of the sober debate in the book of Job (be sure to read today’s brief assignment in Job; any translation of the Bible will do). But what are the basic similarities between the story in the Bible and this scene? After the angels have been praising God for his unfathomable splendor, how does Mephistopheles criticize God? Why is the Devil represented as being more interested in humanity than is God? What criticism does he make of humanity’s gift of reason?

How effectively does The Lord answer Mephistopheles? What are the chief characteristics of Faust that Mephistopheles describes? The Lord seems to agree with Mephistopheles’ description of Faust’s greatest fault when he says “Man errs as long as he will strive.” But he seems to value striving when he says “man’s activity can easily abate,/He soon prefers uninterrupted rest;/To give him this companion hence seems best/Who roils and must as Devil help create.” What reasons do you think Goethe might have had for having the Lord express two such opposite views of the roles of striving and activity? In what way does he say the Devil actually helps him to carry out his will?

Faust has studied all of the major subjects in which a Renaissance scholar could receive a degree, so can be understood to have exhausted traditional learning. What is his attitude toward his education? In what way does he feel he is smarter than others? What activity has he turned to after rejecting formal education? At line 386, where is he looking? At line 398? What contrast does he draw between these two sights? Worms and dust traditionally symbolize death; look for this symbolism to reappear. What do the images of imprisonment and escape here convey about Faust’s mood?

Nostradamus was a Renaissance prophet and astrologer; which of his roles is relevant in this context (line 420)?macrocosm is the universe at large, depicted in the Renaissance as a series of concentric circles surrounding the earth marking the orbits of the moon, sun, planets, and stars.

In this context the macrocosm is the universe at large, depicted in the Renaissance as a series of concentric circles surrounding the earth marking the orbits of the moon, sun, planets, and stars. How does viewing it make Faust feel? In lines 446-453 he envisions a dynamic version of the traditional Renaissance image of the “Great Chain of Being,” seemingly influenced by Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28:11-12). What is his reaction to it? Notice how Mephistopheles’ preference for the Earth in the Prologue in Heaven foreshadowed Faust’s preference for the Earth Spirit over the image of the macrocosm. Faust imperiously conjures the Earth Spirit to appear before him: what is his reaction when it actually appears? How does Faust react to its taunts? What does the Spirit mean when it says to him that he is a “Peer of the spirit that you comprehend/Not mine!”? Why does Faust call himself “image of the godhead?” (See Genesis 1:27)

Why is Faust so irritated when Wagner, his student, thinks that he has been reading classical literature and practicing rhetoric? What are the main points of the two sides of the debate between Faust and Wagner? What is Faust’s attitude toward classical study? What does this classical proverb (variously attributed to Seneca, Horace, and Hippocrates), quoted by Wagner, mean: “art is forever,/and our life is brief?” When Wagner claims that study of ancient writings is valuable because it helps us enter into the spirit of the time, how does Faust answer him? Why is Wagner’s final speech probably intensely irritating to Faust? How does it relate to what they have been discussing earlier? Which of the two do you agree more with? Why?

In line 808 Faust expresses his gratitude toward Wagner for having rescued him from the despair into which the Earth Spirit’s taunts had cast him; but he almost immediately plunges back into depression. He speaks to the absent Spirit, expressing his humiliation. The contrast he makes between fantasy and realism starting in line 640 is a typical romantic complaint about the rationalist period from which he was emerging. He is looking back with nostalgia to the Middle Ages, when the imagination was allowed freer rein and is repelled by the narrow rationalism of the eighteenth century. How does Faust again use the imagery of worms and dust in lines 652-659? The skull he sees on his shelf acts as a traditional memento mori: a reminder of death which some devout monks kept by their beside in the Middle Ages to remind them that they were mortal; but why might he realistically have a skull on his shelf? The bottle which is the next object to catch his eye almost certainly contains laudanum: opium dissolved in alcohol. It was an extremely common drug and relatively cheap. Though it could not cure diseases, it made people feel better–unless they took too large a dose, in which case they would pleasantly drop off to sleep and die. This quality made it not only the renaissance equivalent of aspirin but the drug of choice for suicide. How does he propose to prove “that mortals/Have as much dignity as any god”? In lines 712-719 Faust is contrasting himself with Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play (ll. 55-88). Note the Choir of Women. A similar group of women are going to appear at the end of the play, linked to the theme of salvation. Why doesn’t he drink? Does the song of the angels bring him to religious faith? What effect does it have on him?

Before the City Gate

What kinds of activities are people engaging in on this Easter morning? Are any of them religious? What is the attitude of “Another Citizen” toward war? Can you compare the attitudes of the young women toward love with those of the soldiers? What does Faust seem to feel is the meaning of the Easter holiday? What is Wagner’s reaction to Faust’s enjoyment of the scene? The song sung by the peasants has the typical folk theme of a young girl seduced and abandoned, and strongly foreshadows the plot of the play. Why does Faust, who is normally completely skeptical about religion, tell the peasants who praise him for his medical services that they should thank God instead? Faust rather hysterically compares the medical efforts of his father and himself to the plague (“pest”), not because they really intended to murder anyone but because–as Goethe knew well– renaissance medicine was more harmful than helpful to patients. In using the image of flight to symbolize his longing for transcendence and escape he imagines himself pursuing the setting sun, personified as a god, as by the ancient Greeks and Romans. As the sun sinks into the west, he pursues it out over the billows (waves) of the Atlantic Ocean. This image of eternal vain pursuit is central to Faust’s ideas about himself, which will be reflected throughout the play in many forms. What is the basic contradiction in human nature that Faust describes in the last part of this speech? What is Wagner’s reaction to it? In what two directions does Faust then say his soul is torn?

When the black dog appears (a large, shaggy animal, not a French toy poodle), what does Faust see that Wagner cannot?


Note that at the beginning of this scene Faust seems to be in a more nearly religious mood than at any other point in the play. Night, which was celebrated by romantic writers (in self-conscious contrast with the enlightenment), inspires in him a “holy dread.” What effect does the poodle have on this mood? When we learn that the poodle is really Mephistopheles, what do we realize he has accomplished in disturbing Faust?

When Faust “translates” the first verse of the Gospel of John, how does his vocabulary choice reflect his character? Based on what you read later, why do the spirits in the corridor say “One has been caught inside” in line 1259? During the Renaissance the salamander was thought to live in fire, the undene in water, and the sylph in air, while the kobold is a Germanic spirit associated with the earth. Thus each represents one of the traditional four elements of the natural world. Having exhausted the natural world, Faust will have to the demonic (“Hell’s progeny”). What is an incubus? (Look it up.)

Mephistopheles sets the tone for their whole relationship by greeting Faust sarcastically, belittling his prowess; but according to the traditions of the conjuring of spirits he is in real danger of being controlled if his intended victim can only identify his name. How does he distract him from that question? When Faust calls Mephistopheles “God of Flies” he is alluding to another traditional Jewish name for the Devil: Beelzebub. This passage is the source of the title of William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. How does Mephistopheles’ definition of himself in lines 1336-1337 relate to what The Lord has to say about his role in the Prologue in Heaven? How does Mephistopheles argue that darkness is superior to light in lines 1348-1368? In what sense did darkness give birth to light? (See Genesis 1:1-5.) Why does Mephistopheles say that his favorite element is fire? Rather than portraying Mephistopheles as a force for evil against good, Faust understands him as sterility against creativity. Which of these two forces do both of them seem to feel is the stronger?

Why could the magic pentagram (the witch’s foot) in the doorway let Mephistopheles in though it now will not let him out? Notice that it is Faust who first raises the possibility of signing a contract with the Devil. Goethe repeatedly emphasizes that Faust is not seduced into evil by Mephistopheles: he is already drawn to it, and tries to make the Devil his tool. Why do you think Mephistopheles is so anxious to leave instead of immediately negotiating the contract? How does Mephistopheles manage to escape?


Faust has to invite Mephistopheles into his study three times to symbolize his willingness to become involved in the evil the spirit represents. Why reasons does Faust give for saying there is nothing Mephistopheles can give him that he wants? How does Mephistopheles humiliate him when he declares that he wants to die in line 1571? Faust is like a patient who approaches a doctor, saying “I want to avoid heart disease, but don’t tell me to change my diet, exercise, or take drugs.” Perhaps because he is a bit nervous about the direction in which he is headed he is effectively ruling out just about everything that Mephistopheles could conceivably give him. When Faust gets into one of these melodramatic moods, Mephistopheles usually combats him with humor. Here it is his companion spirits who mock his words by saying he has “shattered the world” with his curses. Their song means, in essence, “Hey, relax, enjoy life!”

Faust has clearly read stories of other people who have signed contracts with the Devil and experienced disaster, and Mephistopheles tells the doctor that he will be Mephistopheles’ servant in hell, so why does Faust proceed with the negotiation? What examples does Faust give of the deceptive and transitory gifts the Devil has been known to provide? Why does Faust say that he is willing to die if he ever experiences a moment of complete satisfaction? Note these words: “If to the moment I should say:/Abide, you are so fair;” they are important at the end of the play. Mephistopheles insists on the signature being in blood to force Faust into taking a stereotypically self-damning step. He can hardly claim he didn’t know what he was getting into, since signing a contract with the Devil in blood is notoriously a damnable thing to do. Again and again Faust will seek to gloss over the true nature of his relationship to evil, and again and again Mephistopheles will rub his nose in it. Of the two longings Faust has spoken of before, which one does he say he now wants to pursue? Does he seek happiness? What warnings does Mephistopheles make about the probable outcome of their contract? Which of the two longings does Mephistopheles urge Faust to pursue? Notice the last two lines before the entry of the student mean in which Mephistopheles confirms that it is not he who is making Faust evil; Faust is evil already. Mephistopheles may in fact be seen in this play as the embodiment of the evil impulses within Faust. The fact that he is a lively and vivid character with a personality strikingly different from Faust’s own may obscure this symbolism, but Goethe repeatedly underlines it. Encheiresin naturae (l. 1940) is a technical term in alchemy having to do with the supposed way in which the spirit joints the soul to the body. Alchemists hoped to find an analogue to such a force in nature and use it produce to the magical “philosopher’s stone.” Mephistopheles here mocks their pretentious to knowledge. What career does Mephistopheles finally advise the student to take up, and what typically devilish reason does he give for doing so? People often wrote short poems or quotations in each other’s autograph books in Goethe’s time. What is the meaning of Mephistopheles’ inscription (“You shall be like God, knowing good and evil.”)? (See Genesis 3:1-5.)

Witch’s Kitchen

What is Faust’s attitude toward witchcraft? As when he forced him to sign in blood, Mephistopheles is maneuvering Faust into participating in obviously Satanic rituals so that he is forced to confront the evil nature of what he is doing. What alternative to drinking the magic potion does Mephistopheles offer Faust? Lines 2441-2442 sarcastically allude to the fact that in the Biblical account of creation God looks at each day’s work and sees that it is good (see Genesis 1). What does Mephistopheles suggest Faust should do with a beautiful woman should he find one? Compare this with what he actually does. In what ways does Mephistopheles say he has modernized his appearance? Line 2509 reflects the state of European civilization in the wake of the enlightenment, shorn of its religious superstitions, but no closer to virtue. It is important to keep reminding yourself that neither Goethe nor most of his readers believed in the traditional Devil. Mephistopheles is a symbol of evil–a very lively and vivid one–but still ultimately a symbol. In lines 2526-2527 he says that Faust can safely drink the potion because the latter is no novice at evil; he is sufficiently corrupted already to be “inoculated” against its dangerous effects. When Mephistopheles says that “Three in One and One in Three” is “illusion and not truth” he is of course mocking the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The belief that God can be simultaneously one and three persons is one of the most controversial aspects of Christian belief, giving theologians much exercise to explain this paradox in logical terms. Mephistopheles delights in pointing out such sore spots in conventional religion. Besides making him thirty years younger, what other effect does the magic potion have on Faust?


A properly brought up young woman of this time would never allow herself to be picked up on the street. She is correct in saying she is not a “lady” (a term reserved for the nobility at this time): she belongs to the lower middle class. She is, however, naive in thinking that she is not “fair” (beautiful); her difficult life has not exposed her to public admiration before and is genuinely unaware of her beauty until she catches sight of herself bedecked in jewels later, in a mirror. What is Faust’s reaction to her virtuous rejection of him? Why does Mephistopheles say he cannot deliver her to him immediately? What devilish reason does he give to justify the delay?


How could Gretchen–the nickname for Margaret by which she is known in the play–recognize that Faust belonged to the upper classes (besides the shape of his forehead)? Faust is so moved by Gretchen’s obvious innocence that he wants to abandon the planned seduction. How does Mephistopheles shame him into proceeding with the seduction? Note how cleverly he provides a virtuous motive for doing evil. Gretchen is made both innocent and erotic at the same time as she slowly removes her clothes while singing a romantic song about the king of Thule (a mythical far-northern kingdom)? The audience becomes voyeurs while Gretchen remains an innocent young girl getting ready for bed. What effect does putting on the jewels have on Gretchen?


How does Mephistopheles satirize the Church at the beginning of this scene?

The Neighbor’s House

How can you tell that Martha is not genuinely grieving for her missing husband? Why is she so eager for news of him? Mephistopheles’ clever compliments echo Faust’s addresses to her earlier. Whereas she had then denied being either a lady or beautiful, now she can deny only the former. Notice how cleverly Mephistopheles works Martha up into a rage against her missing husband by alternately telling her things that make her eager to be reunited with him and others that make her furious with him. She is angry that he left behind a request to have three hundred masses sung for the repose of his soul because such masses were very expensive. Supposedly he has spent all his wealth on another woman and then tried to impose an enormous debt on his wife.” How does Gretchen respond to Mephistopheles’ suggestion that she should get married? What is improper about the manner of mourning suggested by Mephistopheles in lines 2990-2991? How do you think Mephistopheles’ question on line 3006 affects her? Does her answer reveal blissful innocence or a guilty conscience? Watch for a speech by Gretchen later that implies the latter is the truth. Why is Martha so eager to meet the magistrate Mephistopheles says he will bring to her?


Faust is eager to seduce Gretchen, which will ruin her; but he is reluctant to tell a lie. What argument does Mephistopheles use to demonstrate that this is an absurd distinction? Again we see that he is cleverly maneuvering Faust into doing something obviously evil and distasteful in order to gain his ends. What argument does Faust use to maintain that his promises of eternal love for Gretchen will not be a lie? What is the logical flaw in his argument? What attitude toward his situation does Faust express in his last line in this scene, and is it justified?


How does Faust kissing Gretchen’s hand remind her of her poverty? What does Martha seem to be aiming at in her conversation with Mephistopheles? Gretchen suffers from an acute case of low self-esteem. In what ways does this make her more vulnerable to Faust’s seduction? What hint is there in Gretchen’s long speech about her family that she is not entirely pleased with her mother? Can you describe how the relationship between them has developed between this passage and line 2163, when Faust and Gretchen reappear together as they stroll around the garden? The technique used here is not unlike a scene change in a film, where matters have progressed much farther than one would have expected in the brief moments they have been out of earshot, but because we could not hear what they were saying, we are not bothered by this fact. What does Gretchen say her reaction was when Faust first spoke to her? Against whom was her anger ultimately directed? Why? Have you ever encountered this sort of emotional reaction in real life? Gretchen’s sound moral instincts make her shudder when Faust first clasps her hands. Watch for that reaction to return later in the play. Notice how Faust’s inelegant but passionate “No, no end! No end! seems to be less directed toward Gretchen than toward the mocking voice of Mephistopheles within him pointing out that by swearing eternal life he is lying. Faust had insisted he would be sincere, and now he is trying to whip himself up into a frenzied passion that will make his declarations sincere; but Mephistopheles’ intervention has prevented this self-delusion from working. The very next words (uttered by Martha) ominously foreshadow the very “end” which Faust is trying to deny.

A Garden Bower

Gretchen says “I love you;” but the closest Faust comes to saying it is during the daisy-petal-plucking scene when he says “he loves you.” What does this difference reveal about each of them? Gretchen is mystified as to what Faust sees in her. She is a classic victim of sexual aggression: too young and naive to realize that the erotic attractions of her body more than compensate for her lack of sophistication. She is still so impressed by Faust’s social superiority that she cannot grasp that he is drawn to her for purely sexual reasons.

Wood and Cave

The “exalted spirit” to whom Faust is addressing his remarks is clearly not Mephistopheles since he alludes to the latter in ll. 3243-3245 as someone distinctly separate, so the spirit addressed has to be the Earth Spirit which Faust conjured up earlier in the play. This may seem inconsistent since we have no reason to think that Faust has maintained any relationship with this spirit, and in fact it is partly a remnant of a plan by Goethe to have the Earth Spirit play a much larger role in the story than he finally did. However, we may also interpret this as a typical piece of self-delusion on Faust’s part: he declines to accept that Gretchen is a gift of the Devil and instead tries to credit a less obviously evil source. What is he trying to achieve out here in the wilderness? Why does he say he has not succeeded? In ll. 3282-3292 Faust’s romantic claims to be “communing with nature” are crudely dismissed by Mephistopheles as a form of masturbation, one of many instances of sexual frankness that would be avoided by writers later in the nineteenth century. How does he tempt Faust to continue his affair with Gretchen? What clues are there in their dialogue that Faust has already made love with her repeatedly? In lines 3334-3335 Faust blasphemously proclaims that he is jealous when Gretchen goes to Mass and consumes the wafer which Catholics believe is transformed into the body of Christ. Mephistopheles answers him with a clever erotic blasphemy of his own, based on Song of Songs (known in some translations as “The Song of Solomon”) 7:3 in which breasts are compared to twin deer. Mephistopheles is saying that he is jealous of Faust when the latter enjoys Gretchen with her blouse off. Readers who don’t know their Bible thoroughly will miss this clear statement that Gretchen and Faust have already been making love. In fact, she is almost certainly pregnant at this point, as we will discover later. Faust is reduced to spluttering protests by this sly remark, which Mephistophles answers with yet another sexually-toned blasphemy, arguing that since God made women to be the partners of men, he was the first pimp. What evidence is there in Faust’s last speech in this scene that he knows perfectly well that he is destroying Gretchen? How does he rationalize completing her destruction?

Gretchen’s Room

What feelings does Gretchen express in her spinning wheel song? This song has been set to music several times, most famously by Franz Schubert, as “Gretchen am Spinnrad.” Compare her feelings to what Mephistopheles said she was feeling in the previous scene.

Martha’s Garden

How does Faust respond to Gretchen’s pointed questions about his religious beliefs? How does he manage to change this troublesome subject back to his love for her? What important error does Gretchen make in this debate which prevents her from understanding that Faust is evil? Why should the audience become alarmed when Faust suggests using a sleeping potion to drug Gretchen’s mother, based what we have seen earlier in the play? Why, although it is made clear a little later that Gretchen is no longer a virgin and is in fact probably pregnant at this point, does Goethe seem to evade that point by using ambiguous language here which could be misread to mean that they have never had sex together when in fact it is only that they have never slept in her bedroom all night before? How would you feel about a real girl who was willing to give her mother a dangerous drug so that she could have sex with her lover in the same bedroom? What is there about the portrait of Gretchen that tends to make us more forgiving of her than of her real-life equivalent? What effect does it have on our feelings about Gretchen that her mother never appears on stage? What cynical reason does Mephistopheles offer for Gretchen’s curiosity about Faust’s religious beliefs? Mephistopheles does not really take pleasure in sexual desire for its own sake–only for the evil it may lead to. He anticipates in his last line the disasters to come.

At the Well

What is your reaction to the character of Lieschen? How does she cause us to side emotionally with Gretchen? What techniques does Goethe use in this scene and elsewhere to avoid presenting Gretchen as a wicked sinner? How does this scene indirectly make us aware that Gretchen is pregnant?

City Wall

The Mater Dolorosa is the image of the Virgin Mary grieving for the sufferings of her son Jesus. Is Gretchen’s prayer to her a prayer of repentance? Explain.

Night. Street in Front of Gretchen’s Door

What is ironic about the name of Gretchen’s brother? What are his feelings about her? Does he really care about her for her own sake? How many days away is Walpurgis Night (April 30)? What is the subject of Mephistopheles’ serenade? Why does Mephistopheles insist on parrying Valentine’s thrusts while Faust thrusts at him? How does Valentine’s dying speech make us more sympathetic with Gretchen? Martha is correct in calling his self-righteous words blasphemous since he is presuming to be more judgmental than God, whereas it can be argued that Jesus taught that humans should be more forgiving than God, who is the only one who can send sinners to eternal damnation without hope of forgiveness (see Matthew 18:22-35).


Gretchen is at the funeral of her mother, killed by the sleeping potion, and of Valentine, killed by Faust. She is crazed with guilt and terror for her role in this catastrophe. When the evil spirit which acts as her guilty conscience refers to a foreboding presence which frightens her (“underneath your heart”), what is he talking about? The choir sings the famous opening lines from theDies Irae, the traditional chant describing the Day of Judgment which is sung during the mass for the dead. How are their words related to Gretchen? [Dies iræ, dies illa,/Solvet sæclum in favila; Day of wrath, on that day when the world shall dissolve in ashes; Judex ergo cum sedebit,/Quidquid latet adparebit,/Nil inultum remanebit; So when the judge takes his seat, whatever has been hidden will appear, nothing shall remain unpunished; Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?/Quem patronum rogaturus?/Cum vix justus sit securus; What shall I, a wretch, say? Who shall I ask to plead for me, when scarcely the righteous shall be safe?]

Walpurgis Night

The eve of May Day is here observed as a kind of Halloween, filled with Devil worship in the Harz mountains, where Goethe had spent a memorable night after hiking up the famous site of this scene. Much of the opening is sung, and Goethe uses a variety of devices to create the illusion of climbing on a static stage. What references to motion of various kinds can you find in this part of the scene? Note how even the trees are brought to life. Will o’ the wisps were spirits (actually phosphorescent swamp gas) that were believed to lead the unwary traveler deeper and deeper into the wilderness until he or she was lost and destroyed. Why is such a guide chosen to lead them up the mountain? How is the theme of striving which pervades the play reflected in the Half-Witch? What is Mephistopheles’ reply to Goethe’s hope that he will finally achieve the answers to many riddles at the Walpurgis Night celebration? In traditional witchcraft, some ceremonies were performed nude. How does Goethe do a satirical variation on this theme? Why does Mephistopheles speak as if he were losing his power in lines 4092-4094? Is he really commenting on the impending Last Judgment or on the decline of religion in the age of Enlightenment? Keeping in mind the latter interpretation, notice how he ridicules the Huckster-Witch (a huckster is a sleazy, dishonest merchant). Lilith is rarely (and unclearly) alluded to in the Bible, but Jewish tradition makes her the first, rebellious wife of Adam, and later a symbol for everything evil about women. The impudently erotic song Faust sings as he dances with the young witch is modelled on the Song of Songs 7:7-8, in which a woman’s breasts are compared to fruit growing on a tree which man may climb up to gather. Note that Mephistopheles and the old witch use much more obviously obscene metaphors in the following exchange. What effect does the enlightenment rationalism of the Proktophantasmist have on the Walpurgis Night celebration? In mythology, Perseus rescued Andromeda by cutting off the head of Medusa, whose gaze could turn a person to stone. Goethe here blends that story with a traditional tale of a young woman who persisted in wearing a velvet band around her neck night and day. When her new husband removed it while she slept, her head fell off. She had earlier been executed, but kept alive by the witchcraft of the band. One theory has it that the story was inspired by the red thread which was tied around the necks of those intended for the guillotine during the French Revolution, to mark the place where the blade should fall. The American author Washington Irving retold a version of this story in “The Adventure of the German Student” (1824). This blending of northern European and Greco-Roman mythology is very typical of Goethe. This imagery also foreshadows the fact that Gretchen has been condemned to the executioner’s ax. How in this scene does Faust make it unequivocally clear that he had made love with Gretchen before this time?

Dismal Day

This is the only scene in the play which Goethe left in the original prose. Perhaps he thought its depressing subject was better suited to prose than poetry. Faust, feeling at last some qualms of conscience, has fled Gretchen again to commune with nature in the countryside. Evidently quite a while has passed since Walpurgis Night, for Gretchen has despaired after the night in which her mother and brother both died, feeling that she is to blame. Abandoned, she has killed the infant fathered by Faust by drowning it in a forest pool; but she has been caught, tried, and condemned to death. Infanticide by guilt-ridden young mothers was quite common at this time, and is hardly unknown today, though it has always been strongly outlawed in Europe since the advent of Christianity. Mephistopheles has just informed Faust of all this as the scene begins, and we must infer what has happened from his reaction and from what follows. Faust again tries to appeal to the Earth Spirit (addressing him as “infinite spirit”) to try to undo his relationship to Mephistopheles. How does Mephistopheles answer his hysterical accusations and turn the blame back around onto Faust? Mephistopheles proposes to stand guard, but Faust must be the one to actually help her escape from prison, just as in the duel with her brother Mephistopheles parried while Faust was forced to strike. The decisions involving moral responsibility must be Faust’s alone, despite his constant efforts to shift responsibility to Mephistopheles.


The character of Gretchen was inspired in the first place by a real-life story Goethe had heard of a young woman who was seduced and abandoned, who killed her illegitimate child, was condemned to death, and whose repentant lover joined her in prison to share her fate. In what important way does this scene differ from the original incident? Having been either directly or indirectly responsible for the death of her mother, brother, and baby, Gretchen has gone insane with guilt. As she sings madly in her prison cell, she blends the classical myth of Tereus and Procne (which involves cannibalism and rape) with a similar Germanic tale in which the victim is turned into a bird. In whose voice is she singing?

Who does she think is coming when she hears Faust and Mephistopheles enter? How does she speak differently than she might have if her madness did not prevent her from recognizing Faust, and how does that create a powerful effect on him? What has she learned that she did not understand earlier that explains why he seduced her? European brides wear wreaths of flowers on their wedding day to symbolize their unbroken virginity, so the torn wreath symbolizes her fall from virtue. Gretchen imagines that someone else has stolen and killed her baby, and complains of the sensational street ballads that are being composed about her crime. What evidence is there that Gretchen, though mad, has recovered much of her sensitivity to evil? In what way does line 4490 say more than Gretchen intends? At what point does she seem to emerge from her madness into relative sanity? When she imagines that she can still see Valentine’s blood on Faust’s hand Goethe is of course alluding to the famous scene in which Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, guiltily sleepwalking, imagines that Duncan’s blood is still staining her hands (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1, ll. 39-59). Why does she feel that she has to be buried “a little aside” from her mother and brother? How are you affected by her mad vision of seeing her baby still struggling in the pond? Although Faust never proposed to her, she has obviously been dreaming of wedlock since she fantasizes that the next day is to be her wedding day. The theme of the tragic young woman wed to death is a very old motif, going back at least to the ancient Greeks, with Sophocles’ Antigone being a classic example. Where the translation says “My veil!” (line 4583), she actually says “My [bridal] wreath!” The original has more directly sexual connotations.. As she imagines her own execution, she is finally saved–why? What is her final reaction toward Faust? What is the meaning of her last cry as she ascends into Heaven? How many different interpretations can you give it?

Charming Landscape

This scene’s setting in the Elysian Fields is similar to setting of the Prologue in Heaven, since both are antiquated, unbelievable versions of heaven used for their symbolic rather than their religious value. This part of the play was written under the powerful influence of Goethe’s conversion to classicism at the very time when many romantics were turning away from it. He divided Part II of Faust into five acts like a classical drama (Part I had been modeled on Shakespeare’s looser structure) and introduced into it many figures from Greek and Roman antiquity. What does it mean that both a Christian and a pagan heaven can exist in the same play? Accompanied by the mythical Aeolian harps of antiquity (carved stones which produced music when the wind blew through them), Ariel–a spirit from Shakespeare’s The Tempest–helps to revive Faust after his traumatic experience of Part I. Since he has done nothing to deserve this, such as repenting his evil deeds, why do you suppose it happens? What does it tell us about Goethe’s beliefs? His dramatic intentions? The river Lethe in classical mythology was the boundary between life and Hades, the land of the dead. Here its function is quite different, influenced by Dante Alighieri’s use of it in the opening of the Purgatorio, where saved souls wash away their sins in a sort of post-mortem baptism. The racketing sound of Phoebus Apollo’s chariot, drawing the sun over the horizon, is as old-fashioned, creaky, and implausible as the cosmological opening of the Prologue in Heaven. Rather than repenting, what does Faust vow to do when he reawakens? Compare the passage on the rising sun in lines 4695-4714 with the earlier passage on the setting sun in lines 1074-1099. What are the major differences? What are the similarities?

Open Country

Our translation now skips a vast portion of Part II. Be sure to read the “Synopsis of omitted portions” on pp. 32-44. Much of this part of the play wanders far afield from the central narrative of the old Faust legend; and although it was highly thought of by German romantic scholars, it has seldom caught the imaginations of other readers. Faust has been given a seaside kingdom by the Emperor, which he has enlarged by diking and draining the swampland–a common practice from the Middle Ages onward in Holland and southwestern Germany. The wanderer who appears in this scene is playing the role played by the gods in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when they test the hospitality of villagers by appearing in the guise of wandering beggars. Only an old couple named Baucis (the woman) and Philemon (the man) are willing to open their houses and cupboards to them, and only they are preserved when the rest of the village is drowned in a flood. Goethe expects his readers to know their Ovid well enough to recognize the names and make the proper associations. The wanderer is amazed to find the former seacoast where he was washed up years ago has become part of Faust’s kingdom. How does Philemon’s attitude toward this fact differ from Baucis? What is Goethe implying about the relative moral sensitivities of men and women?


How does Faust’s reaction to the ringing of Baucis and Philemon’s chapel bell compare with his reaction to the bells of Easter Morning in Part I? What does the difference tell us about the development of his character? Lynceus, the palace lookout (another classical figure), sees Faust’s merchant fleet returning? What evidence is there that he is using illicit means to conduct this trade? In line 11188 Mephistopheles alludes ironically to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, discussed above. Why is Faust’s line “One would as soon no more be just” ironic? As you would find it you followed up the reference to I Kings 21, King Ahab envied the vineyard of his subject Naboth. His wicked wife arranged for Naboth to be killed so that Ahab could seize it. Thus Mephistopheles is clearly preparing us to expect the deaths of Baucis and Philemon as Faust plays the role of Ahab.

Deep Night

Faust rages at Mephistopheles for his killing of Baucis and Philemon; but why might one see him as responsible for their deaths anyway?


As in a Medieval morality play like Everyman, allegorical figures enter who symbolize the approach of death. They also parallel the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: death, war, famine, and plague (see Revelations 6:1-8). In this context “Want” and “Need” mean “poverty.” Why is Faust not threatened by them? What does it tell us that Guilt cannot reach Faust? “Care” is used here in the sense of “worries, troubles.” Why is she the only one of the sisters to reach Faust? Does Faust’s wish to abandon witchcraft in lines 11404-11407 mark a change from his earlier attitudes? What philosophical conclusions does Faust draw from his life experience in lines 11433-11452? In what ways are these different from his earlier attitudes? In what ways the same? How does Care’s next speech hint that Mephistopheles may not win his end of the bet with The Lord, though in line 11485 he says he will send Faust to Hell? Since it is pitch black and Faust can see nothing anyway (he never realizes he’s been blinded), and since the effect cannot possibly be shown in the play, what is the point of having Faust be blinded at the end of this scene?

Large Outer Court of the Palace

As Mephistopheles has the Lemures (zombies patched together out of dead body parts) dig Faust’s grave, the former meditates on the absurdity of death, which is a frequent theme in his speeches. What does Faust think the digging outside is accomplishing? How does Mephistopheles sarcastically prophesy that all his hopes are in vain, and how does this comment connect with the Baucis and Philemon story in Ovid? Many readers have felt that Faust’s final speeches are meant to show a benign attitude that justifies his salvation; but has he actually changed? He does say, “Abide, you are so fair,” so why aren’t the terms of the contract fulfilled? What in Mephistopheles’ speech following his death hints that he realizes this fact?


As Kaufmann points out in the introduction, this was the last scene Goethe wrote, a wildly comic, blasphemous account of how Faust is saved, as if he wanted to underline that the final scene must not be taken seriously as a scene of orthodox redemption. It has utterly failed to achieve that goal with most scholarly readers, partly because they are too embarrassed by its obscenities even to discuss it. The Hell’s Mouth, like the heavens depicted earlier, is an obsolete bit of stage apparatus. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance such a prop was often used in religious dramas depicting Christ delivering the holy patriarchs from Limbo after his Crucifixion (there was such a prop listed in the inventory of Shakespeare’s theater). What in Mephistopheles’ speech indicates that it is not to be taken seriously? Psyche is the Greek mythological name for the human soul. How is the effort to capture the soul made grossly physical in this scene? Why does Mephistopheles call the angels “devils in disguise?” How is the Devil traditionally related to angels? What sight ultimately distracts Mephistopheles so that the angels are able to make off with the soul? Is he attracted by their virtue?

Mountain Gorges; Forest, Rock, and Desert

An “anchorite” is a religious hermit, usually living in the wilderness. They are given Latin names: Pater Ecstaticus, The Ecstatic Father; Pater Profundus, The Father of the Deeps; and Pater Seraphicus, The Seraphic (angelic) Father. How does Faust’s salvation in this Neoplatonic Heaven differ from that preached by conventional Christianity? In what ways is it similar to his rebirth at the opening of Part I? How does his journey through the levels of Heaven relate to the main themes of the play? According to the beliefs of Faust’s time, the souls of unbaptized infants went to Limbo in Hell. Here they are given the more Romantic role of guiding the soul to Heaven. Since The Lord said at the beginning of the play that “Man errs as long as he will strive” why do the angels here seem to quote him as stating that “Who ever strives with all his power,/We are allowed to save”? A “chrysalis” is the cocoon out of which a butterfly hatches. What seems to be the ultimate power that draws Faust into Heaven? The Doctor Marianus is a theologian (not a medical doctor) specializing in the veneration of the Virgin Mary, “heaven’s queen.” Why is he presented as being in the “highest, cleanest cell?” What is the significance of the Magna Peccatrix (woman who has sinned greatly)? See Luke 7: 36-50. She has been traditionally confused with Mary Magdalene, who is discussed elsewhere; and Goethe probably meant her to be identified as such; but which of her characteristics is particularly relevant here? What is relevant in the story of the Mulier Samaritana (Samaritan woman) in John 4:1-30? Maria Aegyptica , whose story of sin and repentance is told in the Medieval Acts of the Saints, is the third of these women. How does Gretchen (Una Poenitentium, A Penitent) fit in with them? Her role her is clearly modeled on that of Dante’s Beatrice in The Divine Comedy, in which the poet’s human beloved is transformed into an agent of salvation. In what way are the defeat of Mephistopheles and the salvation of Faust caused by the same force? The final lines of the play are mistranslated. They actually say, “Eternal womanhood draws us onward.” Considering the themes of the rest of the play, why is this a fitting ending? Since Goethe was clearly not a Christian, why do you suppose he wrote this scene in Heaven? Since Faust never repented his sins and did no notably virtuous deeds and never expressed any religious faith, why do you think he is saved?

18th and 19th Century European Classics (Humanities 303)


Related Links

There is also an edition of Christopher Marlowe’s much easier play on the same subject, Doctor Faustus.

The libretto of Gounod’s opera based on Faust, in French and English.
An essay on alchemy in Faust

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

First published June 14, 1995.

Last revised April 15, 2015.

Realism and Naturalism

In Music and Art

As intellectual and artistic movements 19th-Century Realism and Naturalism are both responses to Romanticism but are not really comparable to it in scope or influence.

For one thing, “realism” is not a term strictly applicable to music. There are verismo (realistic) operas like Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier created in the last decade of the 19th century in Italy, but it is their plots rather than their music which can be said to participate in the movement toward realism. Since “pure” untexted music is not usually representational (with the controversial exception of “program” music), it cannot be said to be more or less realistic.

In contrast, art may be said to have had many realistic aspects before this time. The still lifes and domestic art of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin1 (1699-1779) anticipate many of the concerns of the 19th-Century Realists, and he in turn owes a debt to the Netherland school of still-life painting of the century before him, and one can find similar detailed renderings of everyday objects even on the walls of 1st-century Pompeii. Realism is a recurrent theme in art which becomes a coherent movement only after 1850; and even then it struggles against the overwhelming popularity of Romanticism.

In mid-19th century France, Gustave Courbet2 set forth a program of realistic painting as a self-conscious alternative to the dominant Romantic style, building on earlier work by the painters of the Barbizon School (of which the most famous member was Jean-François Millet), which had attempted to reproduce landscapes and village life as directly and accurately as possible. Impressionism can be seen as a development which grew out of Realism, but in its turn still had to battle the more popular Romanticism. Realism has never entirely displaced the popular taste for Romantic art, as any number of hotel-room paintings, paperback book covers and calendars testify. It became just one more style among others.

In Fiction

Realism’s most important influences have been on fiction and the theater. It is perhaps unsurprising that its origins can be traced to France, where the dominant official neoclassicism had put up a long struggle against Romanticism. Since the 18th century the French have traditionally viewed themselves as rationalists, and this prevailing attitude in intellectual circles meant that Romanticism led an uneasy existence in France even when allied with the major revolutionary movements of 1789 and 1830.


Novelist Honoré de Balzac3 is generally hailed as the grandfather of literary Realism in the long series of novels and stories he titled La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), and which attempted systematically to render a portrait of all aspects of the France of his time from the lowest thief or prostitute to the highest aristocrat or political leader. The title of the series was chosen to contrast with Dante’s Divine Comedy, which had portrayed everything except the earthly human realm.

His attention to detail was obsessive, with long passages of description of settings being a characteristic feature of his work. Today readers resist such descriptive writing, but before films and television were invented, it had a magical effect on people, causing the world depicted to explode from the page in an almost tangible fashion. It is important to remember in reading all 19th-century fiction that those people who had the time and inclination to read novels at all generally had a lot of time to kill, and none of the cinematic and electronic distractions which have largely replaced recreational reading in our time. They welcomed lengthy novels (often published serially, over a series of weeks or even months) in the same way we greet a satisfying television series which becomes a staple of our lives.

Like such a television series, his works also incorporated a device for maintaining his audience: the continual reappearance of certain characters from one work to the next–now as protagonists, now as secondary figures. The idea is an old one, going back to classic bodies of work such as the Homeric epics and the Medieval Arthurian romances; but it had a different effect in Balzac’s work: readers could recognize a slightly altered version of the world they themselves inhabited as they moved from story to story.

What is not realistic about Balzac’s fiction is his plots, filled with sensational conspiracies and crimes and wildly improbable coincidences. Balzac’s works are still essentially Romantic creations with a Realistic veneer.

Gustave Flaubert

It was Gustave Flaubert who in 1857 produced the seminal work from which later literary Realism was to flow: Madame Bovary.4 Flaubert had begun his writing career as most young authors in his time did, as a Romantic, laboring on a tale of Medieval mysticism which was eventually published as La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). When he read an early draft of this work to some friends, they urged him to attempt something more down to earth. He chose the story of an adulterous woman married to an unimaginative country physician unable to respond to–or even comprehend–her romantic longings. Drawing on the real-life stories of two women–Delphine Delamare and Louise Pradier–whose experiences he was intimately familiar with, Flaubert labored to turn journalism into art while avoiding the romantic clichés he associated with his heroine’s fevered imagination.

Like Balzac, he engaged in systematic research, modeling the village in his novel on an actual country town and even drawing a map of it detailed enough to allow scholars to catch him when he has Emma Bovary turn in the wrong direction on one of her walks. Unlike Balzac, he avoided the sensational sort of plot lines characteristic of Romantic novels. To modern readers a married woman carrying on two adulterous affairs and then committing suicide may seem fairly sensational, but it is important to note that there was a long tradition of tales of female adultery in French literature stretching back as far as the Middle Ages. What Flaubert did with the theme was give adultery the shocking impact of the tabloids by stripping his tale of the high romantic idealism that usually justified adultery; instead he systematically satirized his heroine’s bourgeois taste for exotic art and sensational stories. The novel is almost an anti-romantic tract.

Despite the fact that it is generally agreed to be one of the most finely crafted works to be created in the 19th century, it would probably never have had the impact it did if Madame Bovary had not also been the subject of a sensational obscenity trial. So restrained were the standards of polite fiction in mid-19th-century France that many modern readers go right past the big “sex scenes” which got Flaubert into trouble without noticing them (hints: look for Rodolphe to smoke while working on his harness just after making love with Emma for the first time while she experiences the afterglow, and for Emma to toss torn-up pieces of a note out of her carriage during her lovemaking with Léon). However, they were enough to outrage the defenders of middle-class morality. The prosecution was particularly indignant that Emma did not seem to suffer for her sins. Flaubert’s clever lawyer successfully argued that her grotesquely described death made the novel into a moral tale; but the fact is that she dies not because she is an adultress but because she is a shopaholic.

It is not only the literary style of Madame Bovary that is anti-Romantic, it is its subject as well. The narrative clearly portrays Emma as deluded for trying to model her life after the Romantic fiction she loves. The novel is a sort of anti-Romantic manifesto, and its notoriety spread its message far and wide. It is worth noting, however, that Flaubert returned to Romanticism from time to time in his career, for instance in Salammbo, a colorful historical novel set in ancient Carthage.

Influence of Realism

Realism had profound effects on fiction from places as far-flung as Russia and the Americas. The novel, which had been born out of the romance as a more or less fantastic narrative, settled into a realistic mode which is still dominant today. Aside from genre fiction such as fantasy and horror, we expect the ordinary novel today to be based in our own world, with recognizably familiar types of characters endowed with no supernatural powers, doing the sorts of things that ordinary people do every day. It is easy to forget that this expectation is only a century and a half old, and that the great bulk of the world’s fiction before departed in a wide variety of ways from this standard, which has been applied to film and television as well. Even comic strips now usually reflect daily life. Repeated revolts against this standard by various postmodernist and magical realist varieties of fiction have not dislodged the dominance of realism in fiction.


The emergence of Naturalism does not mark a radical break with Realism, rather the new style is a logical extension of the old. The term was invented by Émile Zola partly because he was seeking for a striking platform from which to convince the reading public that it was getting something new and modern in his fiction. In fact, he inherited a good deal from his predecessors. Like Balzac and Flaubert, he created detailed settings meticulously researched, but tended to integrate them better into his narrative, avoiding the long set-piece descriptions so characteristic of earlier fiction. Again, like Balzac, he created a series of novels with linked characters and settings (“Les Rougon-Macquart: Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le second Empire”–“The Rougon-Macquart: Natural and Social History of a Family During the Second Empire”) which stretched to twenty novels. He tried to create a portrait of France in the 1880s to parallel the portrait Balzac had made of his own times in the Comédie humaine. Like Flaubert, he focused on ordinary people with often debased motives.

He argued that his special contribution to the art of fiction was the application to the creation of characters and plot of the scientific method. The new “scientific novel” would be created by placing characters with known inherited characteristics into a carefully defined environment and observing the resulting behavior. No novelist can actually work like this, of course, since both characters and setting are created in the distinctly nonobjective mind of the writer; but Zola’s novels do place special stress on the importance of heredity and environment in determining character. They are anti-Romantic in their rejection of the self-defining hero who transcends his background. History shapes his protagonists rather than being shaped by them. This leads to an overwhelming sense of doom in most of his novels, culminating in a final catastrophe.

Zola further tends to create his principal characters as representative types rather than striking individuals. He also places great emphasis on people acting in groups, and is one of the few great writers of mob scenes. Humanity in the mass is one of his chief subjects, and his individuals are selected to illustrate aspects of society.

Zola can be said to have created in Germinal the disaster narrative exemplified in the 20th century by Arthur Hailey’s novels (Airport) and movies like The Towering Inferno and Titanic. The formula is a classic one: assemble a varied group of representative characters together in some institution or space and subject them to a catastrophe and watch how they individually cope with it.

Zola also took frankness about sexual functions much further than the early Realists had dared; and it is this, combined with a pervasive pessimism about humanity, which chiefly characterizes the Naturalist novel.

Unlike Flaubert, Zola was not a meticulous craftsman of beautiful prose. At times it seems as if he is writing with a meat ax; but he undeniably infused French fiction with a refreshing vigor, giving it a tough, powerful edge far removed from the vaporings of high romanticism.

If Zola often startled the French with his frankness, he shocked readers in other lands, where his works were often banned, regarded as little more than pornography (an assessment which is quite unfair, but unsurprising given the temper of the times).

Zola has had an enormous impact on the American novel. Americans with their preference for action over thought and for gritty realism were strongly drawn to his style of writing. Early 20th-century writers like Theodore Dreiser applied his approaches to American themes successfully, and Frank Norris practically stole large chunks of Zola’s novels in some of his own works. The mainstream American novel is preponderantly naturalistic, and gives rise to another genre which still lives on: the hard-boiled detective story.

For all these reasons, Zola strikes us as far more “modern” than Balzac, or even Flaubert. It can be argued that the “default” style of modern narrative is Realist, with the various forms of fantastic narratives which dominated the writing of earlier ages relegated to the margins; and even fantasy is often judged as to its plausibility. Without altogether banishing Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism have had considerable success.

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics



1 For a brief survey of Chardin’s work with examples, see this exhibition at The MET
2 For more on Courbet’s life and works, look here.
3 For more information about Balzac, see this online literature.
4 For more information about Madame Bovary, see here.


Created by Paul Brians March 13, 1998.

Zola’s Germinal


Not content merely to follow in the footsteps of such realists as Gustave Flaubert Madame Bovary ), Émile Zola decided to create his own literary movement and call it “naturalism.” A variant of realism, it emphasizes even more than realism careful research to prepare settings and other details to be described. Zola’s theories also embody a kind of determinism in which the characters’ heredity and environment essentially determine their actions. Characters are representative types rather than unique individuals. Groups are often important. In addition, Zola’s naturalist novels usually end in some sort of large-scale catastrophe. Modern disaster novels and films can trace their heritage back to Germinal.

Germinalis part of a 20-volume series of novels depicting various aspects of life in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, intended as a kind of sequel to Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy, which was a lengthy series of stories and novels depicting the early part of the century. Characters reoccur in various books and are related to characters in other books. Étienne Lantier, for instance, was born to alcoholic parents in L’assommoir (1877) and became a leader of the radical and disastrous uprising of the 1870-1871 Commune in La débâcle (1892) and is the brother of the protagonist of Nana (1880). The series as a whole is called after the two families whose genetic inheritance determines the fates of their members: the Rougon-Macquart.

Labor groups objected that in L’assommoir Zola had depicted the laboring classes in an entirely unflattering light, neglecting the labor movement which was in the process of transforming capitalism; so he set himself the task of researching radical and reformist labor movements for this novel. The result is the only important 19th-century piece of fiction to take seriously the ideas of the labor movement of the time. Not that he entirely endorsed them: although Zola was eventually to become a socialist, at this point he did not ally himself entirely with the workers. Although he clearly sympathizes with their sufferings, he also portrays them as irrational and destructive.

It is vital to keep some facts in mind about the labor movement in France. As in most industrialized countries, workers tended to want more than higher wages and shorter working hours. In many cases, the labor organizations were socialist, aiming at the total transformation of society and the redistribution of property. The bourgeois readers who made up most of Zola’s audience certainly viewed them that way, and made no distinctions between mild reformers and revolutionaries. Essentially all labor organizing activities, including all strikes, were illegal, and were routinely broken up by force.

Most members of Zola’s audience in 1885 could remember the disastrous Commune of 1870, the first communist revolution in world history. When the characters of Germinal, set in 1866-67, predict that the revolution will come they are uttering a prophecy that the audience knew had come true just three years later. This is no empty radical gesturing, but a sober statement of historical fact. And the readers doubtless saw these predictions as a warning of what could happen again in the near future if conditions for workers were not improved.


Part One

Chapter 1

Germinal is famous for its use of a carefully controlled palette. Here the color black is prominent, and will remain so throughout the novel. What other colors can you find recurring throughout the novel, and what significance do they seem to have? It is March 1866 when the novel begins. Late March and early April together formed the Revolutionary month called “Germinal,” the month of germination. The calendar used during the French Revolution substituted rational, natural names for those traditionally given the months of the year: the rainy month, the foggy month, the windy month, etc. Germinal is the month in which plants first begin to sprout from the ground; but the image of sprouting plant life is also used throughout the novel (and particularly at its conclusion) to symbolize the rising consciousness of the workers as they realize the sources of their suffering and organize to combat them. Look carefully for mentions of growing things and germination, especially as they are linked to sex and reproduction. Although Zola claims to be a meticulous realist, in fact his descriptions are often deliberately overstated to achieve poetic effects. How realistic is it that a man’s hands would actually be bleeding from the lash of the wind if he could stick them in his pockets?

Le Voreux means “the voracious one.” Note the use of the word “devour” on this page. Look for instances in which the mine is compared to an all-devouring beast. This is one of the central metaphors of the novel, based partly on the legend of Melek or Moloch, a Canaanite god to whom children were sometimes sacrificed, and which came to represent human greed (Amos 5:26, compare “Mammon” in Matthew 6:24). Flaubert had memorably depicted such a child-devouring god in his novel of ancient Carthage, Salammbô. What does the imagery imply about the nature of the mine itself and of the economic system which has produced it? Montsou means “mountain of pennies,” which suggests a large number of very poor people clustered tightly together.

Bonnemort means “good death.” What about Grandfather Maheu has caused him to be given this nickname?

What evidence is there that Bonnemort has black lung disease?

Why is it ironic that his grandfather had discovered the mine? What connection is there between hard work and ownership in this novel?

What earlier image does Bonnemort’s vision of the “crouching god” connect with? What do you think this second god represents?

Chapter 2

Montsou is a “company town,” a relatively new, artificial mass of crowded-together buildings erected to house the miners and workers brought into the area. It has no historic roots, and little sense of itself as a place. How does Zola convey the depersonalized nature of this town as he introduces us to it?

Catherine is going to be the most important young woman in the novel. How is her description strikingly different from the sort of portraits we find of young female protagonists in most nineteenth-century novels? On the next few pages, how many instances can you find of a carelessness about sex that would have shocked Zola’s staid middle-class audience? What is he trying to say about the effects of poverty on these people?

Maheu’s brutality here is not paralleled anywhere else in the novel. Usually he is a model father and husband. Keep an eye on him as a representative of the miners. In this particular area of France (the far northeastern corner, near Belgium), the miners have adopted the custom of calling women by the feminine article La and their husbands’ or fathers’ last names with a feminine ending. Thus the wife of Maheu is La Maheude, the wife of Pierron is La Pierronne, and the daughter of Old Mouque is La Mouquette. A similar effect in English would be to call Mr. Smith’s wife “The Smithess” or “Smithette.” This pattern would have seemed as strange to Parisian readers as it does to modern Americans. La Maheude is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and the one whose transformations most fully reflect its themes. Try to note the changes she goes through.

Chapter 3

“Richomme” means “rich man.” Dansaert, as chief foreman, is neither owner nor laborer. Chosen by the mine administration to oversee the other workers, he is identified by both sides as not being truly one of them. How is his exploitative role reflected in his private life as well?

On his tour of a typical coal mine, Zola had taken careful notes about the cage (the elevator in which workers and coal are raised and lowered) which he here incorporates in the novel. What elements of his description go beyond mere documentation to a kind of symbolism? Many readers would have regarded La Mouquette as a “slut.” How does Zola try to convey a more positive image of her?

What does it tell us about Catherine that Étienne can mistake her for a boy? What has caused her immaturity?

Note the mentions of the leaks in the shaft casing which allow subterranean water to leak into the mine. Zola sets up in this scene much of what you need to know to understand the action in the rest of the novel, but without embarking on a dry technical lecture. He is highly skilled at integrating description with action, a technique that many other authors were to imitate.

The Maheu team calls the passageway where it works “hell.” Hellish metaphors are going to occur frequently in the novel. Chaval is pronounced almost the same as cheval– “horse.” What about Chaval is horse-like?

Chapter 4

What is the dilemma that keeps the team from paying proper attention to “timbering” (shoring up the roof with large timbers)?

Pierrot is a traditional Commedia dell’Arte figure you have probably seen in the form of porcelain figurines: a sad-looking clown dressed in white ruffles and a tall peaked cap. In what ways does Zola continue to break with the Romantic stereotypes of depicting the first encounter of two people destined to be lovers in his portrait of this encounter of Étienne and Catherine?

Lydie exemplifies the premature sexuality which pervades the novel. What causes this phenomenon? What effect is it designed to have on the reader? How is sex made animalistic here?

Zola began this novel with the intention of showing how Étienne had inherited his parents’ alcoholism. Try to decide as you follow his story whether he is genuinely an alcoholic.

Firedamp (methane) is an invisible, odorless, but deadly gas which occurs frequently in coal mines. It can cause suffocation or, by being ignited by a random spark, explosions. It is still one of the chief hazards of coal mining.

Chapter 5

Paul Négrel represents the type of the rebellious offspring of the bourgeoisie who rebels against his upbringing, but who does not really identify with the workers. Note his transformation in the crisis which comes later.

Explain Maheu’s analysis of what the change in payment means.

In classic love stories the lovers must overcome external obstacles, often in the form of a tyrannical father who opposes the match. What keeps Catherine and Étienne apart?

How does the protest against the Company begin? What role does Étienne play in it?

Rasseneur is a former activist, leader of an earlier strike, now living off what his wife’s tavern makes in defiance of the Company. Watch how his relationship with Étienne develops. Note that it is taken for granted among the workers that women work both as laborers and as business owners. The 19th-century stereotype of the housewife was reserved for the bourgeoisie.

Pluchart is an organizer for the Communist International Workingmen’s Association, an organization to which Karl Marx and Friederich Engels originally belonged. It tried to organize laborers from many countries into a single movement to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism.

Why does Étienne decide to continue working at Le Voreux?


Part Two

Chapter 1

Compare this chapter with Chapter 2 of Part One. In what ways are the settings, characters, and events deliberately contrasted to stress the differences between the workers and the owners? Have the Grégoires become rich through hard labor, or any other virtue? How does their story illustrate Marx’s dictum that those who work acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work?

Chapter 2

How do the pressures of poverty interfere with education?

Maigrat suggests maigre, “meager,” which alludes to the storekeeper’s stingy, greedy nature. He runs the company store, which is the only store that will advance credit to the miners when they have no ready cash. Perpetually in debt, they can only shop at this store where they are overcharged and abused in a pattern which in agricultural settings is known as debt peonage. They are never able to accumulate enough money to escape from the Company’s demands; and since they live in company-controlled housing, they have no basis for independence whatsoever. Company stores and towns were not built out of a charitable concern for workers: they were a means of shackling them firmly to the company in a state of semi-slavery. Zola here explores a theme much discussed currently: sexual exploitation by men in authority of women in their power.

The Grégoires have conventional ideas about charity. What do we know about the Maheus that makes their ideas unfair?

Why do the poor have more children than the rich?

Note La Maheude’s humble philosophy of life, and how it will change.

Chapter 3

What evidence is there that the workers lack a sense of solidarity with each other?

Why do mothers object to their sons getting married early?

How does Mme Hennebeau try to deny the suffering in front of her?

Chapter 4

Why would it make economic sense to reserve scarce meat for the father of the family?

Jeanlin’s tyranny over Bébert and Lydie is going to parallel that of the owners over the workers. Watch how he becomes transformed into a monster incarnating all the evils of their lot.

102-103: Why do you think sex is so insistently linked with reproduction in this novel? How is it linked to nature, to germination?


Part Three

Chapter 1

111-112: Why does Catherine allow herself to be dominated by Chaval when she really loves Étienne? How is the image of germination used here?

113-115: Souvarine (Russian Suvarin) is modeled on the violent anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), who escaped from exile in Siberia to London. His split with Karl Marx caused the first International Workingmen’s Association eventually to collapse. He advocated terrorist acts of assassination and destruction to disrupt governments and inspire people to rise up against them and create a peaceful egalitarian utopia. Marx rejected secret conspiratorial activities on the grounds that only an open movement could provide the necessary basis for a true socialist revolution. Czar Alexander II was in fact assassinated by a terrorist plot in 1881, just four years before the publication of Germinal. The violent anarchists of Russia called nihilists were the leading image in most people’s mind of radical activists. They were said to act out of an irrational desire for destruction, and their ideals were normally ignored. Zola demonstrates remarkable insight in portraying Souvarine as a sensitive man traumatized by love, who has turned to violence out of compassion. This pattern in fact fits many of history’s most violent nihilists. What signs can you find here and later that Souvarine is in fact a loving, kindly man? It should be noted that although all anarchists were lumped together in the public mind, many of them rejected nihilism, and were in fact pacifists. Much of Poland was dominated by Russia in the nineteenth century. Why do you think the Russian Souvarine calls his pet rabbit “Poland?”

How do the workers view the famous French Revolution of 1789? Why do they feel the need for another revolution? The so-called “iron law of wages” of the English economist Ricardo was adopted by Marx in his own philosophy. It argues that in a capitalist society wages tend always to be depressed to the lowest minimum capable of allowing the workers to reproduce. How is this mechanism used to portray the workers as being treated as a commodity rather than as living people? Étienne is interested the ideas of Ferdinand Lasalle (German, 1825-1864), who believed in achieving socialism by popular elections which would force governments to set up self-governing , worker-owned cooperatives. His ideas lie at the opposite end of the radical political spectrum from those of Souvarine. Note how Zola is careful to distinguish among the many shades of radical opinion, usually lumped together in the popular mind.

The method of having teams of workers bid for mining contracts had in fact been outlawed shortly before this novel is set; but Zola includes it to illustrate how wages are set in a competitive environment in which there is a surplus of labor. What effect does this bidding process have on wages? How does it illustrate Ricardo’s “iron law of wages?”

Chapter 2

The nailmaker’s fair is a classic example of “slice of life realism,” a detailed description based on his observations and notes. Zola was an extremely efficient writer: he used in his novels almost every note he made, which led sometimes to more detail than is strictly relevant to the action being depicted. But in a time without film or television, readers were entranced by detailed depictions of unfamiliar places and customs. Note how in the dance scene he manages to describe the movements of the group as a whole, a technique he specialized in.

How is Étienne being changed by his studies?

How is the image of germination being used here? Keep this passage in mind. It is echoed at the end of the novel. The image of a crop of men growing out of the land comes from the Greco-Roman myth of the dragon’s teeth. Cadmus slew a dragon and planted its teeth, which sprouted into armed men. Zola was not the only writer to use this myth for political purposes. Upton Sinclair, an American radical writer, called his third novel Dragon’s Teeth (1942). Both ignored the part of the myth in which the newly-born men slew each other and had to be replaced by a new generation. Zola may be also drawing on the story of Deucalion and his wife, who plant bones which become a new race of men and women. Despite his radical literary theories, Zola was very fond of using classical mythology in his works.

What does the socialist slogan, “To each according to his worth, and his worth according to his work” mean? What changes would its implementation cause in the society of Montsou? How does La Maheude react to Étienne’s radical talk?

Chapter 4

In 1866 the French coal industry was struck by a crisis. America had stopped importing massive quantities of steel to build its railroads, which had the effect of lessening the demand for coal to manufacture the steel (see p. 306). What great historical event had interrupted the export trade and was eventually to lead to America building its own steel industry and becoming one of the world’s great industrial powers? Why is this a bad time for the workers to go on strike?

How does the Company try to separate the workers from Étienne? This technique is very widely used by oppressive groups: identify leaders as “outside agitators,” and insist that “our people” are contented if not “stirred up.” Is this a fair analysis of the situation in Montsou? Might the workers have struck even without Étienne?

Chapter 5

Note Jeanlin’s prophetic comment early in the chapter.

The cave-in is the first in a series of disasters in which Zola methodically explores all safety hazards of coal mining. Why is it logical that he should begin with a cave-in, given the developments that have preceded this accident?

How is La Maheude’s grief over Jeanlin’s accident warped by her poverty?


Part Four

Chapter 1

Madame Hennebeau’s affair is meant to provide the mine company manager with suffering to balance that of the miners. Is Zola successful it making you feel that his sufferings equal theirs? This motif is developed further in a passage below that Zola cited to someone who criticized his novel as being too sympathetic with the miners.

Marx argued that capitalists tend, during periods of economic growth, to over-expand, leading to the creation of excess capacity which is reduced only in times of economic recession. How does Hennebeau’s explanation of the current crisis reflect this theory?

Why is it ironic that Hennebeau thinks Rasseneur is responsible for pushing the miners toward a strike?

Paul Négrel is obviously familiar with the popular socialist slogan, “Property is theft,” which meant that under capitalism wealth was created only by owners expropriating the profits generated by underpaid workers. Socialism was driven not merely by a desire for equality, but by the conviction that the current system of economic exploitation was a form of legal robbery. What three conventional arguments does Grégoire give to defend himself as a capitalist? What weaknesses can you find in his arguments?

Why is Hennebeau not necessarily opposed to a strike? What advantages for him might a strike have over massive lay-offs?

Chapter 2

How well does Maheu serve as a spokesman for the miners?

What is the significance of the unknown god referred to at the bottom of the page?

Chapter 3

How has La Maheude changed?

What keeps Catherine from leaving Chaval?

Chapter 4

How have Étienne’s political ideas changed?

How do Souvarine’s ideas differ from Étienne’s? Note the reference to Bakunin (Pt three, Chapter 1).

What do we learn here about Souvarine that explains his powerful aversion to getting involved with women?

What effect does the attempt of the gendarmes to break up the meeting have on the miners?

Chapter 5

How is La Maheude continuing to develop?

Chapter 6

The wildness of Jeanlin and the other children prepares us for the animalistic behavior of their elders later.

Chapter 7

Note how the rally is punctuated by an ominous silence.

Zola does a fair job of summarizing typical 19th-century socialist ideals here. What are their main features? Note in the rest of the chapter how he depicts the collective emotions of the miners.

How does Étienne make use of Bonnemort?

Note the recurrence of the dragon’s teeth motif. How is it further developed here? What other motif is it connected to?

What effect does Zola create by balancing the shouts of the crowd against the silence of nature?


Part Five

Chapter 1

Le Tartaret refers to the Greek hell, Tartarus. What is Zola’s intended symbolism in creating an inferno underground which creates a paradise on the surface? What idea is he trying to convey?

Chapter 2

How does Catherine’s nakedness reinforce the symbolism?

What does Catherine’s fatalism tell us about the lives of most of the mining women?

Before the days of steam-powered lifts, ladders were used to descend into the mines and haul the coal out. Now they serve as emergency exits. Catherine has almost been asphyxiated when this crisis begins. Follow her through the rest of the following episode and see how Zola subjects her to almost unbearable suffering, though in the end she survives remarkably well. Try to list all the things that happen to her.

Chapter 3

Étienne begins drinking. Try to follow the course of his drunkenness. Does Zola convince you that it is the alcohol that causes his actions?

Note that although three thousand had sworn to strike last night, only a tenth as many have shown up for this protest. Watch as the numbers grow throughout the day.

Jeanlin with his horn is meant to suggest the Greek god Pan, who could inspire panic (named after him) by blowing on his pipes. Pan had goat’s legs, suggested here by Jeanlin’s crippled limbs.

How does Zola make the mine seem more human than ever here? Why is it ironic that it is Deneulin’s mine which is the first to be damaged?

Chapter 4

The immediate cause of the French Revolution was a shortage of bread. Both the miners and the owners are keenly aware of this as the former shout “Bread! Bread! We want bread!” They are symbolically calling not only for food, but for revolution. Is Étienne leading this riot? Is his drunkenness causing him to urge them on to excesses?

Old Quandieu (“when God”) faces down the crowd according to the standard 19th-century view of crowd behavior which argued that one bold individual could turn away a riotous mob.

What techniques does Zola use here and elsewhere to depict the mob as a group?

Are you convinced that Étienne’s actions are satisfactorily explained by his alcoholism?

Chapter 5

Why does Zola time Hennebeau’s discovery of his wife’s ether flacon to coincide with the arrival of the workers?

Zola prided himself on his visual sense. He was an important art critic, especially as a friend and defender of the Impressionists. He often spoke of his writing as a kind of painting. If he had lived in our time he would probably have become a film director. Try to visualize the scene that follows, as the women hiding with Paul Négrel peer out the barely-opened stable door and see the mob thundering past. The point of view is clearly established. How does Zola build this scene to a climax? The singing of the Marseillaise, the revolutionary anthem that was written for the 1789 revolution, was strictly forbidden. The miners are committing a revolutionary act by singing it. Which is the last and most violent group to pass? La Mouquette’s ultimate gesture of contempt may be Zola’s one slip in trying to build this awesome scene to a grand climax. Does he convince you that there is nothing comic about it?

Chapter 6

Although it is rather crudely done, Zola’s contrast between the point of view of the miners, which we know so well, and that of the owners is powerful. How do you react to it?

Vol-au-vent (“fly in the wind”) pastry shells are classic lighter-than-air containers for creamy fillings of various sorts, and are highly fragile.

Note how even Hennebeau, more sophisticated than most of the bourgeois, is so poorly informed about the political currents among the miners as to suppose that Rasseneur is some sort of revolutionary leader. See page 300 for Rasseneur’s real attitude.

This incident, in which the mining women and Bonnemort almost kill Cécile, is one of their more repulsive deeds. Why do you think Zola included it? To what extent it is symbolic of the entire class struggle depicted in the novel?

How does Zola contrive to make Maigrat at least partially responsible for his own death?

How does Zola use the scene of Maigrat’s mutilation to underline the theme–which runs throughout the novel–of the contrast in sexual experiences and attitudes between the bourgeoisie and the workers?


Part Six

Chapter 1

During the riot, most of the miners’ rage was directed against inappropriate targets in a way that did not further their cause. How is the owners’ revenge similarly inept? How is the Abbé Ranvier different from his predecessor, and what are his motivations?

What does Zola present as Étienne’s main contradictions and failings?

Chapter 2

Zola shows the miners as conducting a fairly successful campaign to continue the strike, and yet as lacking much of a sense of community. Do you find it persuasive?

How has the strike changed La Maheude?

Chapter 3

Note the ominous news of the collapse of the International. Try to note how many other disasters follow during the rest of the book.

What do you think of Souvarine’s critique of Étienne and the others?

Zola here avoids the traditional successful union of the lovers (or postpones it). How realistic do you think this scene is? What does it tell you about the two characters?

What is the significance of Jeanlin’s murder of the little soldier? What points do you think Zola is trying to make in this scene?

Chapter 5

This scene depicts a kind of confrontation repeated many times during labor and political struggles in modern times: angry protesters armed only with stones and bricks facing armed militia. Such confrontations have often had momentous consequences. How does this scene illustrate Étienne’s musings in the last chapter about the way poor people are manipulated into opposing each other? How do the deaths of the miners affect you? Does having lived with these characters through 350 pages make you regret their deaths more?


Part Seven

Chapter 1

The opposition newspapers would be those owned by parties opposed to the current government, and therefore seeking to make use of the shootings to discredit the leadership.

How has the strike affected Deneulin?

Probably no other 19th-century writer would have dared to use a girl’s first menstruation in this way. What is Zola trying to symbolize here?

How does the relationship between Étienne and Rasseneur change?

How does the transfer of the abbé Ranvier fit in one the other events in this chapter?

Chapter 2

Are Pluchart and Étienne completely discredited as leaders now? Why does Souvarine object to Étienne’s interpretation of Darwin?

How convincing do you find Souvarine’s explanation of his total opposition to love among revolutionaries? Can you understand his motivations in acting as he does in the rest of the chapter?

Why do you think love inhibits Étienne and Catherine?

Chapter 3

How does Zola’s description of the Torrent here go beyond the strict limits of realism?

The spectacular collapse described in these pages may seem far-fetched, but in fact it follows quite closely newspaper accounts of a similar event (an accident) which had happened at a coal mine in France the year before the novel was published. Does knowing that fact make you regard it as any more realistic? Should it? How does transform Souvarine into a symbol at the end of the chapter?

Chapter 4

Why is the Company anxious to hush up the fact that the disaster was caused by sabotage?

Which of the many forms of possible disaster in coal mining is depicted here?

What do you think of Zola’s attempt here to create an encounter which will encapsulate the conflict between workers and owners? Is it credible? Is it effective?

Chapter 5

Bataille means “battle.” Why is it an appropriate name here?

Does Zola convince you that this episode is caused by alcoholism?

Sensational stories of subterranean starvation or suffocation were very popular in the 19th century. What are the main effects of this one? How does Zola try to de-romanticize the experience? Does he also romanticize it? How? How does tragedy overcome old enmity here?

Chapter 6

This final chapter is a prose poem drawing heavily on the mythical themes that Zola had used earlier. Remember that Étienne is going off to join a revolution in Paris that in fact proved temporarily successful, if ultimately disastrous. Although the miners have seemingly been defeated on every front and the Maheu family has been reduced to a fragment, Zola has taken pains to plant signs of hope for the future throughout this chapter. How many of them can you find? Remember that hope for the miners may mean a successful uprising. What is the final stage in La Maheude’s development? How does Zola use nature imagery to reinforce his revolutionary theme? Note that the novel ends, as it began, in the month of Germinal (early April).

What do you think Zola was trying to accomplish in writing this novel? Revolutionary agitation? Conservative warning against revolution? Something else? What is your reaction to the events in this novel? With whom do you ultimately sympathize? How do you feel about the political views of the various characters?

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

First mounted June 15, 1995.

Last revised March 22, 2005.