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Faust’s Begehren: Revisiting the History of Political Economy in Faust II

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 21, 2014
pp. 103-128 | 10.1353/gyr.2014.0024

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Economic Readings of Faust II

Since The Publication of Faust II, commentators interested in economic aspects of the text have focused primarily on three of its five acts. Bernd Mahl, whose work on Goethe’s economic knowledge remains a standard reference, writes that the topics most frequently addressed following its publication are the creation of paper money in act 1, Faust’s renewed activity in act 4, and the commercial ventures of Faust and Mephistopheles in act 5. More recent investigations have generally continued this trend. Given this lengthy history of interpretation, what is one to make of the second and third acts of Faust II with respect to economic matters? In the “Ökonomische Lesart” (Economic Reading) section of his Faust commentary, Ulrich Gaier offers this assessment: “Angesichts der Tatsache, daß sich der 2. und 3. Akt in Fausts Kopf abspielen, kann es hier nicht um reales Wirtschaften in der geschichtlichen Folge des Wirtschaftsgebarens der Neuzeit gehen” (Given the fact that acts 2 and 3 are acted out in Faust’s head, real economic activity resulting historically from economic behavior in the modern era cannot be at stake here). While Gaier accurately describes the tendency of literary and economic analyses of Faust II—including his own—to focus on the other three acts, his claim deserves closer scrutiny. It clearly hinges upon what he calls “reales Wirtschaften” (real economic activity); yet he does not define it or specify how it relates to the history of modern political economy. Admittedly, the second and third acts do not appear at first glance to contain the traditional economic elements found in the other acts. However, as I shall argue, to discount the two acts encompassing the Helena episode simply because they unfold in Faust’s head severely underestimates the complexity of Goethe’s political-economic thought in this significant portion of Faust II. Goethe does not simply set aside the keen insight into economic matters that he skillfully demonstrates throughout the rest of his self-described “Hauptgeschäft” (main business). Rather, he accentuates in acts 2 and 3 the subjective nature of value, particularly as it relates to the economic principle of demand. Goethe repeatedly employs and couples Wert (value) and Begehr/en (demand) in scenes leading up to and including the Helena episode. Moreover, he demonstrates in these two acts a significant change in his own approach to value, from an intrinsic to a subjective view of it.

The model of subjective value Goethe presents in Faust II draws on his wide-ranging experience in Weimar as a privy councillor specializing in tax and finance matters, on the one hand, and his extensive knowledge of contemporaneous political-economic texts, on the other. In official writings from 1785 and 1793, Goethe relies on the concept of intrinsic value when addressing taxes and money, respectively. After the turn of the century, his introduction to the work of Adam Smith through Georg Sartorius demarcates a shift in his approach to value toward the subjective view that he presents in Faust II. Another, lesser-known Scottish economist likely contributed to Goethe’s understanding of demand. Goethe was introduced to the work of Sir James Steuart as early as 1777. Steuart was well known in Germany at the time, and his Principles of Political Oeconomy (1767) was in fact more prominent there during the 1780s and 1790s than Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). In Faust II, Goethe applies his practical experience and theoretical knowledge to the classical example of Helena. His point, I maintain, is that Helena does not possess any intrinsic value. Quite the opposite: she characterizes Faust’s subjective valuation of her or, to put it in Faustian terms, his striving. At the same time, Helena fleetingly embodies not only Faust’s “desire” but also his economic “demand,” as Begehr had become synonymous with Nachfrage (demand) by the middle of the 1820s. The duality of the key term Begehren—Faust describes Helena as “mein einziges Begehren” (7412; my sole demand/ desire [translation modified])—allows for an economic analysis of acts 2 and 3. Precisely by situating the Helena episode in Faust’s mind, Goethe models a subjective approach to value that anticipates the work...

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