Renaissance and Reformation Elements Found within ‘Doctor Faustus’

How Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus explores the balance between Science, Philosophy, and Religion.

Upon first reading Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the readers are introduced to a main character who is well-respected and incredibly knowledgeable in many different fields of study. A main theme of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is that “Faustus is gone. Regard his hellish fall Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise Only to wonder at unlawful things, Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits To practice more than heavenly power permits” (Marlowe, 122). Considering that this was written during the time of the Renaissance when knowledge was so heavily sought after, it leads one to question where the source of this idea could have come from. In truth, when this play was written, there was a growing belief and fear over the idea that the Renaissance influence would soon lead to the increase of ‘atheism’, this worry being spearheaded by Marsilio Ficino with his book Platonic Theology(1482) that was based in the impact the words and ideas of Greek and Roman philosophers would have on the Christian psyche.

The Renaissance is an interesting period of study in which people all across Europe and even other places in the world sought to better understand the world around them. The ‘rebirth’ started in Italy and soon spread all the way across Europe and up into England. A main principle of this time period was the focus on individuals. During the Medieval time period, it was communities that mattered in the minds of European citizens; a time when the Catholic Church ruled absolutely and fought to have a cohesive congregation of individuals bunched together in communities in Europe. But, as people began to question the authority of the Catholic Church, individuals began to break from this cohesion and fight against the accepted traditions of Europe with their own ideas and beliefs such as John Wycliffe (14th century) or Nicholaus Copernicus (15th century). It was due to the actions of Martin Luther that this push exploded into the Reformation, leading to an eventual coup by Protestantism over Catholicism. Protestantism pushed the idea that individuals could gain their own revelation from God and did not need the help of the clergy in this act. This religious view soon began to meld with the intellectual beliefs of the time, leading to many people exploring the ideas of religion and science in new ways. When one thinks of the Renaissance in modern times, they picture religious icons like Da Vinci’s the ‘Last Supper’ and Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel and the statue of David. Another important icon equal to these is Raphael’s painting of the ‘School of Athens’.

It is truly a curiosity that, during a time of such religious upheaval of the Christian world from Catholicism to Protestantism, that this ‘Renaissance’ is caused by the rediscovery of the works and writings of Greek and Roman philosophers like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. These are all men who were born long before Christ was. Their religion, if they practiced, was towards Pagan gods such as the Greek or Roman Pantheons. Yet, during the Renaissance they were upheld as true geniuses whose writings could help all people better understand the world around them. What effect could this mesh of pagan ideas with a Christian world have on the events of the Reformation and Renaissance itself? That is what Marsilio Ficino focuses on in his work Platonic Theory(1482) and how this work was at the forefront of all Renaissance discussion of atheism. Ficino spent his years studying the words of the Greek and Roman philosophers, trying to reconcile their words with the Christian world. 

In his book ‘Renaissance and Reformation’, Denis Robichaud states that in trying to understand the religious beliefs of ancient philosophers, Ficino tried to display many of the men as open minded about God, even Diagoras who was called ‘the Atheist’. The fact that Ficino is writing eighteen volumes on the ideas of Plato, trying to connect him with the Christian ideas, shows just how much of an issue this is for him and many of the Christians at the times. Ficino’s Platonic Theory was ultimately successful in pushing forward the revival of these ancient philosopher’s texts, yet it cannot hide the fact that these incredible ideas did not come from God to his Christian followers. It brings about the question of if these men could create such ideas without the input of the Christian God so many centuries ago, then what could be added to them in this ‘modern time’? How much of a role does God play in man’s intelligence? Can modern men create their own ideas that are not influenced by God? Can the encouragement of these ideas lead to less of a reliance on God?

An important distinction during this time period is in the popular idea of Humanism. In her book ‘Poetry and Humanism’, M.M. Mahood talks about the two kinds of Humanism: Religious and Secular. She quotes Jacques Maritain by saying that Religious Humanism “…recognizes that the center of man is God; it implies the christian conception of grace and freedom…” while Secular Humanism “…believes that man is his own centre, and therefore the centre of all things. It implies a naturalistic conception of man and of freedom’” (18-19). In his book ‘In Defense of Secular Humanism’, Paul Kurtz mentions the writings of Socrates and Aristotle in arguing “…that it is possible to ground ethical choice in rational intelligence” (7) and that this is a foundational idea in Secular Humanism and separate from any religious entity.

In her book, M.M. Mahood argues that Doctor Faustus in the very model of “…the Elizabethan experience of humanism’s self-destructive nature” (21). She comments that Doctor Faustus is in the position where “Pride in man’s potentialities is swiftly reversed to despair at his limitation” (66). From the moment the reader is introduced to Doctor Faustus in the chorus, he is seen as a prideful man “swoll’n with cunning, of a self-conceit, His waxen wings did mount above his reach” (Marlowe, 6). In referencing this pride and despair, Mahood states that it is Faustus’ pride that truly dooms him in the end by stating that his salvation could have come from God’s love if he had turned towards it while he was walking “…through the misdirection of his desire for knowledge” (71). It was Faustus’ lust for knowledge that truly started him down this tragic path towards eternal damnation. 

Mahood states that, “The experience of despair in itself gives the opportunity for recovery, and the play’s suspense consists in this; but Faustus’ despair is pagan and stoical rather than Christian. With Renaissance man, he asserts his self-sufficiency and rejects the grace which is offered him” (74). Faustus is the very center of his own universe and so he sets out throughout the entire play trying to gain advantages for himself. He deems his soul as worthless, willing to sell it to the devil himself in order to gain more knowledge and understanding of the world around him. Here is a man who “profits in divinity, The fruitful plot of scholarism graced, That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name” (6) and is very much revered by the men around him for his knowledge, yet that is not enough for him. He wishes to know and understand more. With the first five lines of Faustus’ first statement, he states that he will “live and die in Aristotle’s works [Picks up book] Sweet analytics, ‘tis thou hast ravished me!” (7) and goes on to state that the purpose of logic is to argue well as footnote 7 says. He goes on to speak about the Greek physician Galen and then moves onto the Roman emperor Justinian. The footnotes of the Doctor Faustus book states that he quotes Petrus Ramus, Aristotle, and Justinian, building off the knowledge and writings that each of these men have all so that he can argue well and appear more knowledgeable than anyone else around him. 

Though this man has a Doctorate in Divinity, he has no true understanding of God or religion, having twisted it around to fit his own means and wishes. This is shown by the way he interprets the words of Jerome’s Bible, cutting up verses to better fit his beliefs and ideas even though he is taking them out of context. After this hurried process, Faustus turning away all of these men both learned and religious due to his own ‘superior’ intellect and show of mastery, his lust is still not satiated and so he turned to and states that “metaphysics of magicians And necromantic books are heavenly” (9), seeing this as an area that he has no understanding or background on. Like a typical Renaissance man, Faustus has read the works of the Greek and Roman philosophers and even one Emperor enough to be able to somewhat quote parts of their words from memory and he has read Jerome’s Bible and studied it enough to gain a Doctorate from it, yet his knowledge is based in his pride and lust for knowledge and nothing more.

It is this insatiable lust and disregard for the words of philosophy and Christianity that leads Doctor Faustus to his doom. He has no care for other people; everything that he does is centered on himself. “A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit” and “The end of physic is our body’s health” which causes him to turn away from the words of philosophy; “Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man. Wouldst though make men to live eternally” is the thought that causes him to turn towards the words of the Christian Bible, but the words of “Why doctrine call you this?…What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!” (7-8) cause him to turn away from this as well. All these foundational ideas of the Renaissance and the Reformation, he rejects with a casualness that is almost appalling. “O, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honor, of omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artisan! All things that move between the quiet poles Shall be at my command” (9) that is the very reason behind all of Faustus’ actions. His quest for knowledge has become perverted to a lustful quest for power and personal status. He has no allegiance to God or other men, his only allegiance is to himself- his pride and lust for power.

Throughout the play, he ignores the words of the Good Angel, his closest connection to God and instead consistently listens to the words of the Evil Angel, Mephistopheles, and the other demons of Hell. He looks down even further on the Greek and Roman philosophers when he states, “This word ‘damnation’ terrifies not him For he confounds hell in Elysium. His ghost be with the old philosophers. But, leaving these vain trifles of men’s souls” (16). These great geniuses he spoke of before are ‘trifles’ to him- even more, his own soul is worthless as well. His casualness about all of this is striking, as he just relegated these men that he spent years learning about and studying their words below him all while denigrating his own soul and then just continues on to question Mephistopheles about Lucifer, Hell, Heaven, and other such areas. He is willing to turn away from anything in order to satiate his lust for knowledge- a position that slowly ebbs away until all he lusts for by the end of the play is wealth and power.

It is only in his last moments before damnation that he truly turns away from this lust, but by then it is too late. In his last words, he realizes just how important the soul he saw as worthless is and calls out to God for salvation. He quotes others again, something he has not done since early on in the play by saying “O lente, lente, currite, noctis equi!” which is to say ‘O, run slowly, slowly you horses of night’ from the great writer Ovid. He continues to beg God and Christ for salvation of his soul as, in the end, he has realized that it is his soul that truly matters as what is the point of the knowledge and power he has gained these last twenty-four years if all it gets him is an eternity in Hell and a servitude under Satan himself. He then turns to the words and ideas of Pythagoras, harkening back to his old knowledge “Ah, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis–were that true, This soul should fly from me and I be changed Unto some brutish beast” (52) which is this idea of the body passing on from one body to another upon death. It is a last, hopeful, and desperate call out to the philosophies he once put so much stock into in the hopes that he can be saved by them. When none of this works, he then turns towards Satan and Mephistopheles and begs them not to come. Yet, in the end he is dragged to Hell.

This play is truly steeped in the ideas of the Renaissance and the Reformation, as the main character Doctor Faustus is truly a man of the Renaissance. He has studied the words of the Greek and Roman philosophers and other figures enough that he can say them on demand. He has studied Jerom’s Bible enough to gain a Doctorate in Divinity. Yet, his lust for knowledge leads him to reject all the foundational ideas of the Renaissance and Reformation, to reject God himself as Faustus instead turns towards Satan for power. His pride and lust is what leads him to his downfall as he soon relegates his own soul to nothingness in his own mind. Even his original quest for knowledge fades away as he soon only lives for power and status. All of this was caused due to his reliance on Secular Humanism and the most perverted parts of that idea. Truly, Doctor Faustus is a play that teaches man that knowledge is incredible, as long as one does not turn against God in their quest for it for, if they do, they will inevitably fall into disaster. A fitting play to be written in a time when religion is such a focal point of society and citizens are expected to be obedient to the leaders around them, especially as the Renaissance of knowledge continued onward.

Link to the Play

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/779/779-h/779-h.htm
Project Gutenberg is the best place to find free copies of classic literature! Here is a free copy of the entire play of Doctor Faustus!

Works Cited

Campbell, Lily B. “Doctor Faustus: A Case of Conscience.” PMLA, vol. 67, no. 2, 1952, pp. 219–239. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/460096. 

“Famous People of the Renaissance:  .” Biography Online, http://www.biographyonline.net/people/famous/renaissance.html.

Kurtz, Paul. In defense of secular humanism. Prometheus Books, 2010.

Mahood, M. M. Poetry and Humanism. Kennikat Press, 1967. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=cat03146a&AN=BYUID.9850&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Mazur, Piotr Stanisław. “Aristotle and Aquinas: Two Teleological Conceptions of Equality.” Heythrop Journal, vol. 61, no. 1, Jan. 2020, pp. 5–14. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=reh&AN=ATLAiFZK200217000730&site=eds-live&scope=site.

McClinton, Brian. “Humanism in the Renaissance.” Humani 98 (2006): 10-16.

Petrov, George Daniel. “The Cognoscibility of God for Thomas Aquinas and in Orthodox Theology.” Cogito (2066-7094), vol. 11, no. 3, Sept. 2019, pp. 88–97. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=hus&AN=140756968&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Poole, Kristen. Dr. Faustus and reformation theology. na, 2006.

Robichaud, Denis J-J. “Renaissance and Reformation.” The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford University Press, 2013. 179-194.“The Internet Classics Archive: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.”

The Internet Classics Archive | Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html.