Thirst for knowledge: Dante and Faust

Muhammad Kamruzzamann | Published: 00:00, Apr 28,2019


Faustus, the protagonist of the play Doctor Faustus (1592) by English playwright Christopher Marlowe, is a notable character who goes too far to quench his thirst for knowledge

With allusions to two classic European literatures, Muhammad Kamruzzamann talks about the unquenchable thirst for knowledge of Dante and Faust

What does make Doctor Stephen Strange, the neurosurgeon, say: ‘Teach me’?

ACCORDING to Socrates, ‘The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing’. Henry David Thoreau, in his Walden, as well, quotes a few lines of Confucius that also share a quite similar thought ‘To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, this is true knowledge’.

To have greater knowledge about the issues a person does not know means there are issues one needs to study to acquire knowledge about. In Alighieri’s Inferno, Dante has a clear sense of the issues he needs to know; and to learn, he keeps asking questions. Likewise, Faust, in Goethe’s Faust, becomes unhappy knowing that there is nothing new for him to learn.

In both these characters, there is a constant tension of learning and to keep the journey of acquiring knowledge alive, and both go beyond the human-made conventionality of knowledge to fulfil their appetite of knowing the unknown.

In Canto 1 of Inferno, Virgil’s description of souls in Inferno, and their sufferings arise the desire of experiencing the unknown, the inexperienced in Dante. In response to Virgil’s description, Dante says that he is not interested in the horror of Inferno and, in fact, he wants to escape it but, contrastingly, he is curious about the suffering spirits of ancient time.

It is clear that Dante wants to leave Inferno, as he is eager to meet Beatrice, the love of his life. But he also wants to meet the ‘desperately sad’ souls. What could be the reason behind his meeting the souls?

It could be that Dante, seeing Virgil suffering because of being a ‘… rebel to His [God’s] law,’ presumes that there could be more like Virgil living in the Inferno. Dante, being a reader, an admirer and a poet, cannot leave the opportunity to meet the souls like Virgil who had great influence in shaping Dante’s intellectual life.

It is clear that he is familiar with the works of Virgil and other great literary figures. But to meet them physically could be one of the reasons behind Dante’s wish to meet the souls to know the people behind those influential works.

On the other hand, in Goethe’s Faust, Faust, the protagonist, says, ‘And see that nothing can be known! | That knowledge cuts me to the bone’. These lines are self-contrasting, in a sense, because Faust is a scholar indeed. As he says, ‘I’ve studied now Philosophy | And Jurisprudence, Medicine, –– | And even, alas! Theology’.

But he does not seem happy at all with all his acquired knowledge, ‘And here, poor fool! With all my lore | I stand, no wiser than before’. Rather, it is killing him from inside that there is nothing left for him to become a Master of.

Faust’s discovery of the fact, on Earth there is nothing challenging for him makes him upset, but there is a thirst for knowledge that keeps the ‘tension of not knowing’ alive in Faust, and, ultimately, motivates him to cross the limit to acquire the unknown, the inexperienced and the unearthly, as well as the unimaginable.

In ‘Canto 3’ of Inferno, Dante, hearing some sounds, asks, ‘… Master, what’s this noise that I can hear? | Who are these people crushed by what they suffer?’ Virgil, to fulfil the appetite of knowing the unknown of Dante, says, these are the creatures who ‘… earned no infamy, and earned no praise,’ and ‘The heaven, lest their beauty should be flawed, | Reject them, whom deep hell cannot receive | Lest it should gain some glory on that head’.

Dante has no need to ask Virgil questions about hell and its inhabitants. Rather, he needs to hurry to meet Beatrice, the inhabitant of heaven. But Dante asks anyway, he wants to know the unknown, and he is utilising his opportunity to fulfil his appetite of knowing the unknown.

Dante only had ideas about hell and heaven, as well as the other theological and mythological concepts, but experiencing the inexperienced part of god’s creation through acquiring knowledge of the surroundings by asking questions shows the level of curiosity that is working as a driving force for Dante.

However, not everyone, as a character, is as lucky as Dante; there is Faust, the sufferer of earth’s limitedness. Faust’s words are evidence of his grief, ‘Ah, me! This dungeon still I see, | Hemmed in by many a toppling heap | Of books …’

It is very unfortunate that Foust’ study-room is a prison to him. As he is finished with all his books, his own life has become monotonous to him. Though he is done with philosophy, law, medicine and theology, his appetite for knowledge is not over yet. Faust says, ‘And do I ask, wherefore my heart | Falters, oppressed with unknown needs?’

As the human world has its limitation, Faust, being finished with all its limited knowledge, wants the limitless one. His hunger for knowledge motivates him to know beyond the reach of the human mind. He wants to know the impossible with the help of the unearthly power. It is clear that, for Faust, saying ‘I do not know’ is the most irritating one.

So, what are the unknowns that have motivated Faust to seek power from spirit? It could be that Faust’s knowledge of philosophy, law, medicine and theology help him no more to find out the answers to the questions — what is the reason behind earth’s firmness? What does help earth moving accordingly? What is the secret of natural power?

Fortunately, Faust thinks, with the assistance of spirit, he would be able to know the unknown. Thinking that Faust seems hopeful, he says, ‘And rummage in empty words no more!’ He considers that, with the help of spirit, he would overcome his problem of not knowing. 

In ‘Canto 4’ of Inferno, Dante and Virgil enter Limbo, the first circle of Inferno. As Virgil has a clear account of Dante’s curiosity of asking question to fulfil his appetite for knowledge, Virgil forbids Dante to ask questions about the inhabitants of Limbo.

Virgil presumes, Dante, being a Christian, has the idea that good people, who are not baptised because of living before Christianity, live in Limbo. But Dante to remain without asking a question it is an un-Dante-like situation.

He asks, ‘has anyone ever, through the good he did, | Or others’ help, gone out from here to bliss?’ Virgil fulfils his hunger mentioning the great names like Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, Israel and Rachel, who had been taken by Christ to Heaven.

Dante, being a normal man, could remain far away from visiting Inferno, but he chooses to go through it to meet Beatrice. Though it is a journey of a man to see his beloved, it is also, at the same time, a journey of a man to fulfil the thirst of knowledge –– to know beyond the human world.

To acquire the unacquired could be one of the motivations working behind Dante’s entering Inferno and that may work as a source that has provided the hope to overcome the human limitation to experience the inexperienced.

Dante has Virgil to guide him, but, contrastingly, Faust has nobody yet. He seeks power from spirits and wants them to guide him. Faust wants to make nature his own property. He says, ‘Thee, boundless Nature, how make thee my own?’

Metaphorically, it could be interpreted like this: Faust might have wanted to explore the boundless nature through studying nature and its boundless elements. This indicates towards his eagerness, the thirst of knowledge, the will to fulfil his appetite of not knowing. And his appetite to know beyond the limit is the driving force in his character that makes Faust, the scholar, say, ‘I stand, no wiser than before’.

Dante and Faust, being two different characters from two different masterpieces, Inferno and Faust, are similar in one context: They both have the experience of experiencing the impossible –– the supernatural. And, for them, it was possible because, in their heart, they have the eagerness to go beyond their limits. And the thirst for acquiring knowledge makes them more alive as human beings.

Dante’s approach towards the completely unknown territory and his questions to fulfil the appetite make him a continuous learner, who, like Faust, already knows a lot, though, he never stops learning.

Oppositely, Faust claims, he knows nothing, though he is far beyond normal scholars of his time. He, too, like Dante, keeps asking questions and wants to know the seemingly impossible knowledge or the thing none has ever tried to explore before.

For both, their clear knowledge about the concepts that they are unfamiliar with helps them to go beyond the reach of earthly limitedness and their thirst for knowledge and knowing the unknown work as the driving force to help them to acquire the desired knowledge.

Muhammad Kamruzzamann is a student of Jahangirnagar University.

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