Coming out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire by Douglas Boin

Douglas Boin has written a history geared towards a general audience in order to correct the misconception that all Christians in the ancient world were intolerant towards non-Christians and hated Graeco-Roman culture. In the book, he attempts to tell the story of the lives of early Christians who lived hybrid-lives; those Christians who saw themselves as both Romans and Christians.

Much of our evidence about these Christians come from Paul’s letters and the writings of church fathers such as Tertullian and St. Ambrose who often castigated these hybrid Christians. Boin is not denying that these church leaders criticized Christians who participated in Roman society and institutions, and by extension, the institutions themselves. However, it is easy to overestimate the average Christian’s antagonism towards Rome and Roman institutions by focusing too much on the writings of these particular church leaders; it is important remember that people with strong views tend to be the same people who express them the loudest.

“Many of these people—Christians—fought against it, as silently, steadfastly, and passionately as they knew how. They went to popular Roman festivals with their friends and neighbors. They served alongside other Romans in the army. They enjoyed the theater, cheered on their favorite horses, delighted in a day at the baths, even signed up for membership in their local Roman social club. Cyprian and others may have marveled at their peculiar ability to do two things at once . . . but after his death, the clock kept ticking, the world kept turning, and many of Jesus’s followers kept on living their hyphenated lives (147).”

While church leaders like Tertullian represented a virulent form of Christian intolerance for Roman customs, there were also many ordinary Christians who participated in Roman institutions and customs, while maintaining their beliefs in the central ideas of Christianity. They didn’t see the two as mutually exclusive. For example, from these same critics, we know of two Christians named Martial and Basilides in 3rd century Spain who participated in Roman civil and religious festivals. Martial was “able to embrace Roman culture without any qualms about sacrificing the essentials of his faith (30).”


Boin offers an interesting reinterpretation of some of the literature in the New Testament. Instead of seeing New Testament teachings about slavery and women as something peculiar to Christianity, Boin argues that these ideas found in Christian scripture about slavery, the role of women, the importance of honoring the Emperor actually represent Christian attempts to align themselves with existing Roman social values. In other words, these were Christianity’s way of saying, “hey, we aren’t so different from you guys” in order to gain acceptance by the general populace.


In relation to Paul’s letters, Boin addresses the lack of early archaeological evidence for Christian communities. Letters from Paul suggest communities of Christians existed at a very early date across various parts of the empire, but no archaeological evidence exists for many of these communities. Some scholars have argued that the reason for this is that the early Christian communities drew from the lower classes and were too poor to leave behind material culture, but Boin argues that the real reason we lack any unique early Christian material culture is that the Christians of this time blended into society and thus since they looked no different than any other Roman or inhabitant of these areas they didn’t leave distinct material culture. Many Christians may have been hesitant to come out to their neighbors and communities as Christians. Christians experienced persecutions under the reigns of Nero and Diocletian. Evidence such as 3rd century graffiti found during excavations of the Palatine Hill in Rome of a crucified donkey along with a man worshipping him named Alexamenos suggests more traditional Romans often mocked their neighbors for their Christian beliefs.

At times, various religious traditions struggled to find mainstream acceptability among the Romans. Like Christianity, other foreign religions such as the Cult of Isis and Judaism struggled to find their place in the Roman Empire as well. Since Hellenistic times, Jews struggled with their identity and what it meant to be Jewish with texts like Maccabees criticizing Hellenistic Jews. It is clear, though, that Jews also had members that lived hybrid lives. These Hellenistic Jews adopted Greek art, attended Greek plays, discussed and were influenced by Greek philosophy, and attended Greek gyms. Many Jews served in the army of the Ptolemy. The synagogue at Dura Europos contained paintings of Biblical scenes of Moses, the Red Sea swallowing Pharaoh’s army, the Ark of the Covenant all depicted in a Graeco-Roman style of painting. In Benghazi, Jews used a public amphitheater in the Graeco-Roman style as an assembly place for worship and in this space offered public dedications to members of the local government to show their appreciation. The Jews of Sardis even had a bronze monument in Rome itself to honor them. All of this suggests that many Jews did embrace Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman culture, while maintaining their own unique cultural traditions and religious practices. Christianity was in a very similar situation.


The very real potential for harassment, mockery, and persecution explains the hesitation among early Christians to come out as members of their religious community. It was only in 313 AD that Christians were granted the right to openly worship in the Roman Empire. At that time around 90% of the Empire was probably non-Christian. It is easy to claim every Christian Emperor stifled all forms of polytheism once they had power, and at times, under pressure from influential bishops they did advance laws to suppress polytheistic worship, but this isn’t so straight forward either. There is the issue that legal suppression may at times have had limited effect depending on the area of the Roman Empire much like occasional suppression by Romans had not quashed Christianity. Even Christian emperors sometimes supported polytheistic institutions and other religions. According to a dedication of a Temple for the Goddess Isis in Ostia, it was a Christian emperor who paid for the temple’s restoration and offered support for the community. The Christian Emperor Eugenius attempted to restore the state subsidies to the Vestal Virgins, which a different Christian Emperor Gratian (367 – 383 AD) had ended, although he received a harsh rebuke from St. Ambrose for doing so.


So then what happened? Boin argues that later conflicts between Christians and non-Christians has its origins in “the splintered and splintering Christianity communit[ies]” whose three hundred years of unresolved identity issues (127) spilled over into attacks on polytheism. This conflict was a war of ideas within Christianity about what it meant to be a Christian in which certain hardline Christians attacked other Christians who they accused of acting too Roman or too Jewish. These hyphenated Christians that are the focus of his book “had learned to see the Roman world in shades of gray, not in black-and-white.” At the same, certain church leaders such as Tertullian and St. Ambrose could only see the world as a divided place with no “ethical or moral in-between (147).”


Overall, Boin does a good job providing the context for Christian experience trying to fit into the sometimes unaccepting Roman world. Given the thinness of his evidence and the way he needs to draw it out from writers who are critical of the very people he is attempting to discuss, he does a reasonably good job at recreating the lives of these potential Christians. However, as I just hinted, one key problem is that the evidence is pretty thin at times. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t have more to work with to solidify his points such as actual letters from these hybrid Christians themselves. His argument rests on him drawing inferences from the writing of the Church Fathers who mention these types of Christian to criticize or correct them, larger context about other religions who experienced similar issues and the larger Roman religious culture in general, and some archaeological evidence of churches or Christian religious spaces that show their willingness to borrow from Graeco-Roman culture and participate in the broader culture in a civil way.


Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners by William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt was a professional literary critic, essayist, philosopher, and amateur painter who wrote in the early 19th century and the heyday of the Romantic poets. He scraped together a living as an art and theater critic for the newspapers of his day, but his writing transcended the typical ephemeral works of a journalist; his essays demonstrate a range of topics and quality of writing and thought that put him almost on the same level as great essayists like Montaigne.

Given his vocation and various occupations, it is no surprise that he has some ideas about art. In his first essay, “On the Pleasure of Painting,” Hazlitt compares the pleasure of painting with the act of writing. Although both can be called art, they have different goals. The goal of writing is to grapple with the world; it is not merely an act of revealing what you see in nature, but rather it possesses the ability to challenge the way the world is and call our attention to problems in it, it can try to convince us about some truth concerning our experiences in the world, and it can criticize and support ideas. For this reason, the act of writing is best conceived as a struggle with the world and a struggle with conveying the ideas in our own minds so that other people can understand them. Painting, on the other hand, is an act of imitation; the goal of a painter is to imitate what the artist sees and express how they experience nature. Having experience with both, Hazlitt deems painting the more pleasurable activity. He tells us that when he paints:

“The hours pass away untold, without chagrin, and without weariness; nor would you ever wish to pass them otherwise. Innocence is joined with industry, pleasure with business; and the mind is satisfied, though it is not engaged in thinking or in doing any mischief.”

The act of writing lacks such pleasure. We might enjoy thinking about ideas of which we might wish to write, but the actual act of putting thoughts into words and conveying our impressions and ideas is often a frustrating and difficult process. The failure to select the correct word or phrase can actually weaken the idea for a reader rather than effectively convey what we are trying to communicate. We become hyper-critical of ourselves when we write, whereas in painting we lose ourselves in the activity.

For those interested in art that wish to reach their full potential he recommends getting yourself to an art gallery and studying the Old Masters in person. When a young artist encounters the Old Masters it leaves an indelible stamp on the artist’s mind.

“It is stamped on his brain, and lives there thenceforward, a tally for nature, and a test of art. He furnishes out the chambers of the mind from the spoils of time, picks and chooses which shall have the best places—nearest his heart. He goes away richer than he came, richer than the possessor; and thinks that he may one day return, when he perhaps shall have done something like them, or even from failure shall have learned to admire truth and genius more.”

To view the greatest artists, the greatest poets, the greatest novelists, etc. teaches aspiring artists more than any set of abstract rules. It gives them an ideal to reach for, a standard from which to judge their own work and from which to learn. It is a spiritual experience that changes an artist’s perception of what is possible. Hazlitt describes his own experience of seeing the Old Masters for the first time as a life changing experience.

“I was staggered when I saw the works there collected, and looked at them with wondering and with longing eyes. A mist passed away from my sight: the scales fell off. A new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new earth stood before me. I saw.”

In “On Genius and Common Sense,” Hazlitt suggests art and taste cannot he reduced to rules or be analyzed by rationality alone, but is a matter of feeling and impressions we develop from an accumulation of experience. Whatever rules we may develop about art come from our many varied experiences. In other words, we shouldn’t say a painting is good because it follows some abstract rule about some supposed characteristic a critic or philosopher claims good art must possess, but rather as we have many experiences with different artistic works that we personally judge to be good and bad based on our own feelings and natural reactions, we can formulate some general rules and principles about good qualities in art. True art is not just about following and mastering rules; it’s about capturing the feeling behind nature. This is why you can’t really study art in the traditional sense like you can a skill such as juggling, but to do art well you must in some ways feel deeply about the object you’re trying to represent and sympathize with it.

Artistic genius rests in an artist’s ability to draw out new and striking qualities found in nature. The best artist relies on impressions and instinct rather than following technical rules. Art is a product of the greatest egoism; the work of art is about the artist’s unique perspective, their particular way of viewing a subject or an object of nature. Great geniuses such as Milton, Wordsworth, and Rembrandt create their art through the lens of themselves, their own vision, and what interests them. True genius is peculiar in that it excels at one particular area or skill or subject, while requiring the genius to neglect others. It is hard to be both a fantastic poet and master painter, a celebrated musician and groundbreaking mathematician, etc.

He also argues that genius and capacity are not the same thing. Capacity refers to the knowledge we acquire of a subject or topic, while genius refers to the quality and method of acquisition. Genius allows us to make new discoveries and formulate new ideas, while capacity might be said to refer to our ability to master what has already been done or known, even to an extremely impressive and high level. Genius allows us to achieve originality in that it allows us to see the world in a new light, while still portraying it as it is. We should judge a work of art by the originality it displays (and thus the genius of the artist).

“The value of any work is to be judged of by the quantity of originality contained in it. A very little of this will go a great way. If Goldsmith had never written anything but the two or three first chapters of the Vicar of Wakefield or the character of a Village Schoolmaster, they would have stamped him a man of genius. The editors of Encyclopedias are not usually reckoned the first literary characters of the age. The works of which they have the management contain a great deal of knowledge, like chests or warehouses, but the goods are not their own. We should as soon think of admiring the shelves of a library; but the shelves of a library are useful and respectable.”

In “On the Ignorance of the Learned,” Hazlitt finds that people who are learned, especially in the sense of those who have learned to read and speak dead languages such as Greek and Latin, often possess very little knowledge, lack true understanding, and lack creativity. They are not critical thinkers or even creative thinkers; they are not insightful or clever. They are good at memorizing information, but have no original ideas other than what they can glean from books. In a sense, they only understand a shadowy version of the ideas they study in books; they can repeat the ideas of others, but they don’t really understand it themselves on a deep level. Real knowledge is different from learning in that you can apply it to new situations, solve new problems, and offer new perspectives. For this reason, Hazlitt suggests it is always better to read the work of real genius directly than a commentary by some pedant. It is better to read Shakespeare himself in order to learn from his wisdom and insight than to read the various critics who have written about him.

In “The Indian Jugglers,” he compares physical skills to abstract skills like reasoning and artistic endeavors. Excellence in physical skills like juggling may be superior to intellectual excellence in part because it is difficult to discern what real intellectual excellence looks like; often well-seasoned good reasoners still struggle to win a debate against an opponent. In a discussion, bad reasoning can seem like good reasoning. You aren’t going to make that mistake watching someone juggle an object; they can either juggle the balls or they can’t. Moving back to the realm of art, even though a particular acrobat or juggler may be more proficient at their skill than a particular painter is at his, since it’s the artist’s goal to capture Nature, their role is the more respectable activity because even if they fail to do it perfectly they have the more difficult task and it’s more impressive when they do accomplish an achievement at a high level.

His essay “On Criticism” offers arguments for what makes good and bad literary criticism. The purpose of criticism changes with time and place. Often it takes the form of a critic declaring if an author is good or bad based on a few select lines to serve as evidence along with an analysis of all the different possible meanings of those particular lines as a way of further supporting the quality or lack thereof in a work. Hazlitt believes this sort of literary criticism is often more about the critic showing off his knowledge and skill of analysis than actually about admiration of the work itself. Good criticism reflects the soul of the work by finding what unique perspective, insight, or feelings an author brings to his subject whereas bad criticism focuses too much on whether the structure, plot, or moral meets pre-established formal rules and standards. In a way, these perspectives are opposites of each other; one searches for what is original about the work, the other looks to see how much a particular work follows the rules established by predecessors and tradition.

Some critics can look at a painting and notice all its formal aspects, but cannot see its substance; for this reason, they fail to truly see what makes it beautiful since they are judging paintings by received rules of composition. These sorts of bad critics also tend to believe that some forms are superior than others so that in their minds an epic poem regardless of quality is always superior to a limerick poem because the epic form of poetry is superior to limerick as a type of poetry, a symphony must be superior to a mere song, a landscape painting superior to a portrait. Taken to this extreme, the worst epic poem ever written would be superior to the best limerick poem ever written. Hazlitt agrees that subject does matter and a well-executed work of a high subject is generally superior and better to a well-executed work of a low subject, but a well-executed work of a traditionally low subject is also superior to a poorly done work of a high subject.

Another type of flaw in criticism overemphasizes all the good qualities of a work or all the bad qualities of a work as if it had no redeeming qualities. This is especially true of political criticism. He does recognize that sometimes critical disagreement comes down to differences in tastes, including national tastes. With this in mind, he warns that we should always be wary of criticizing an artist that is admired throughout a different country than our own because most likely the fault lies with us in that we cannot see what makes him or her interesting due to different preferences formed by different cultures. Similarly this can be true about tastes in writers in our own country. One poet may excel in correctness and simplicity; whereas other poets might excel at strength and sublimity. It is ridiculous for a critic to demand a writer adopt the exact same qualities as each other since each writer brings something interesting and unique to the table in their works, while perhaps not bringing other qualities that we might appreciate in other poets. There is another type of critic who enjoys finding secret beauties and meanings in work not apparent to others, while denigrating beautiful works whose meanings and beautiful qualities are obvious. This is the critic who only likes difficult dense works that the average person would struggle to understand. They will dislike or criticize a work simply for being popular or overly simple in style or obvious in meaning. Again, sometimes simplicity can be beautiful and sometimes density and difficulty can be interesting as well.

Beyond art criticism, Hazlitt also deals with other philosophical topics. For example, “On the Past and the Future,” Hazlitt argues that the past is as important as the future and finds it strange that we tend to perseverate on the future, while devaluing our past. After all, the future we imagine or fear may never even happen, while the past has already happened and has left its mark upon us. He argues that we focus so much on the future because we imagine we can the control its outcome with enough effort and foresight, whereas the past is already completed and therefore can’t be changed. With this in mind, we don’t take pleasure in the past because we fear it will slow down our progress of achieving our goals for the future. However, the consolation provided by the better parts of our past can support us during difficult times in the present and help us face an uncertain future.

He also challenges the argument of ancient philosophers that one should never call themselves happy or fortunate until they’re dead because fortune can change at any time. According to these philosophers, the capriciousness of fortune means that a happy blessed life can end as one of the most tragic and awful ones. Hazlitt argues against this point by noting that this argument unfairly focuses on a single bad period in life as way of judging the entire life instead of judging a person’s entire life as a whole or by the majority of its experiences.

“A man’s life is his whole life, not the last glimmering snuff of the candle; and this, I say, is considerable, and not a little matter, whether we regard its pleasures or its pains.”

On this matter, he also writes:

“The length or agreeableness of a journey does not depend on the few last steps of it, nor is the size of a building to be judged of from the last stone that is added to it. It is neither the first nor last hour of our existence, but the space that parts these two—not our exit nor our entrance upon the stage, but what we do, feel, and think while there—that we are to attend to in pronouncing sentence upon it.”

Why should we judge a life a failure or miserable because it contains a bad ending? Why is a life deemed misfortunate if it ends the last ten years in poverty and misery, but the first fifty were full of fortune and bliss? He believes that we need to consider the life as a whole, not on the basis of a single moment or period: past, present, or future.

In the essay “On people with One Idea,” Hazlitt mocks individuals who obsess over one idea that dominates their entire life whether it is about politics, religion, farming, business, poetry, art, or whatever. These people will trot out their idea and shoehorn it into any conversation regardless of the original topic, which is incredibly annoying for the rest of us. Hazlitt believe that the reason some people do this is that the obsessive person lacks ideas about other topics so they cover up their lack of knowledge and generally bland personality with a focus on this one topic that they think they know a lot about, although they might not in reality. Essentially what these people are doing is talking about themselves and how their conception of the idea shows their own superior intellect, even though in reality it’s all a cover for their lack of confidence and ability in other areas.

In “On Living to One’s-Self,” Hazlitt argues it is better to live an obscure life of contemplation away from worldly things in order to be able to contemplate nature, art, and philosophy than to try and make a name for yourself and be noticed by society; this only causes worry and egotistic vanities that interfere with your peace of mind. Many actors, politicians, poets and orators have learned this the hard way.

In “On Thought and Action” he notes that people who enjoy abstract thought are generally not men of action, while men of action are usually not good at abstract thought. In fact, a person of action like a farmer is likely to ruin his affairs by spending too much time reading abstract theories on the best way to farm instead of learning from trial and error and direct experience. However, both types of life styles have their merits. We shouldn’t judge a life of contemplation for being inactive and lacking practicality, just as we shouldn’t judge an active life by how much it is guided by deeper thoughts or principles.

He also mocks the way people try to control others through their wills in “On Will-Making.” The making of wills brings out the most ridiculous aspects of human behavior. The contemplation of death usually doesn’t make us change in positive ways, but often brings out our worst prejudices or eccentric whims. We use our wills to control people or horde money and property for some imaginary future for our descendants, while depriving ourselves of pleasures now.

In “On Paradox and Common-place,” he suggests that originality is not the same thing as singularity. A wise person looks to nature for truth and it doesn’t matter whether it has been said before or not. Some people refuse to challenge traditions, customs and authority, while another type of person seems to only find pleasure in novelty and paradoxes and new ideas. He names the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as an example in this vein whose writing seems to like to dangle new metaphysical ideas and enjoy the reactions of the public. The problem with this sort of thing is that it never advances knowledge or truth either, but its goal is only to challenge the old or established. He also critiques politicians who advocate turning to some idealized past for our happiness. Hazlitt argues people don’t change for hypothetical better futures or because of some idealized past, but rather people enact revolutions and demand changes because of the concerns and problems of the present moment and abuses that have built up over time from the past.

“On Vulgarity and Affectation” Hazlitt argues that people who are vulgar obsess over the idea of being refined and elegant, while people often considered gentile and elegant tend to obsess over the vulgar as a way of criticizing things they don’t like and think should be avoided. The problem is often people use this as an unthinking slander against certain places and types of people, etc. instead of on a case by case basis. These people think they are elegant and refined, but actually are just thoughtless and are obsessed with appearances rather than truth and actual excellences; they call others vulgar as a way of propping up themselves. Likewise, even boisterous actions from a drunken mob might seem vulgar, but at least they have the advantage of reflecting real feelings and sentiments instead of the false appearances and expectations of others represented in the abstract concept of gentility. It is a false belief that titles or high social class confers excellence upon them. Excellence of character transcends title, social class, and rules of proper decorum and gentility; they’re not a matter of social rules, but real qualities and virtues within us as individuals.
“On Coffee-House Politicians” refers to gentleman who spend large portions of their time in coffeehouses sitting and reading newspapers in order to gossip about the day’s news. Hazlitt censures these men as not really being interested in the news or the issues themselves, but obsessing over them in order to have something seemingly important to talk about with others. In the same essay, he discusses what qualities make for good society; good society involves people who are honest, genuine, and witty. He argues that city society is preferable to country society because your real qualities matter in the city whereas in the country people tend to care more if your rich or have a title or have political connections.

In “On Great and Little Things,” Hazlitt notices that people are often bothered by very little issues and inconveniences than bigger problems. We often get more annoyed when we come close to winning a game then when we lose by a large amount. It is often the case that we lose control of our emotions over minor issues, but we bear and accept our fates during a major tragedy. Hazlitt believes the thing that truly angers us is not the importance of the object, but the time and energy we put into it.

In “On the Knowledge of Character,” Hazlitt acknowledges that it is difficult to get to know a person’s character, even people we have known for years. The best tools we have to ascertain character is “by looks, words, actions.” First impressions of people often prove the most accurate. Looks may be the easiest way to come to know a person because we often cannot control our emotions. Our real feelings often appear on our face whereas we can attempt to hide our real thoughts and character through our words and actions. In other words, people can say one thing and do another. Speech can be used to conceal our thoughts as much as reveal them. Sometimes we may come to think we are judging another person well, but in reality remain ignorant of their true character; the usual reason for this is that we are either too close or too distant to the person to see them in their true nature. Often this is the reason that lower class people and upper class people struggle to understand each other’s minds and characters. Even education can divide people beyond economic differences. Education in abstract ideas such as philosophy and art, train one to value truth over self-interest and everyday petty concerns, but people who lack this sort of training and education worry only about how they can turn anything that comes their way to their advantage, how they can use things to help them in their everyday concerns. Not only do people of different classes fail to understand each other, but so do men and women. Hazlitt advocates that it is best for men to know their own characters by being aware of their worst faults and to excel in their best skills by focusing only on one or two of their best qualities.

In “On the Fear of Death,” Hazlitt argues that the best cure for the fear of death is to remember that “life has a beginning as well as an end.” We should consider that once we didn’t exist and this idea doesn’t bother us. Part of the reason we fear death isn’t because we care about the future, which is an abstract idea, but rather we desire to perpetuate the present into perpetuity. Young people have trouble imagining they will in fact die some day; they may accept the abstract idea as being true, but they struggle to picture it in reality. We never suspect when death will actually arrive; even though it could happen tomorrow, we have a natural propensity to assume there’s still more time and it’s still far off. When we think about death and worry about it, we approach it from the perspective of how we feel as a living person, not how the dead feel. Since the dead can’t think, the dead don’t worry about the fact that their dead. Hazlitt believes that modern society (in this case, the 19
th century) makes people more effeminate towards death; the ancient fought violent wars and other acts of violence and passion without suffering deep existential angst that such actions could lead to their death. It’s not clear this is really true. Nevertheless, for this reason, Hazlitt believes men of action tend to deal with the inevitability of death better than intellectuals because they understand how precarious life can be from direct and constant experience. In self-reflection, Hazlitt considers regrets over his unhappy marriage and wonders if it was good to spend so much time living a life dedicated to abstract thoughts, books, and philosophical ideas rather than spending more time enjoying the everyday pleasures of the world, which interestingly contradicts some of his points he makes in other essays.


How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

“Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share one nature that writes and reads (34).”

Why do we read? What is great literature? And why read specifically great literature? Some would argue these are the questions that plague those who take literature seriously, the clandestine nightmares of the English Major who has doubts about the value of his scholarship and field of study, and the fundamental issues that spawn a mélange of half-baked theories and endless abstruse answers. In this appropriately titled book, literary critic Harold Bloom adds his voice into the discord in order to address why we should read and how.


Against the more recent trends of Postmodernist philosophy and politically-oriented scholarship, Bloom challenges the efficacy of literature as social program. Most readers don’t pick up a book to correct social wrongs of the past or present. Similarly, a book is not an essay, although granted some essays such as those of Montaigne can be great literature; it is more than just a contrived and artificial way to deliver an important social, political, or philosophical message. In other words, a big mistake of many literary theorists, teachers, and readers is to assume the point of reading literature is to get the message, along with the idea that the message can somehow improve society and correct social ills. Bloom sees the goal of reading as a slightly more selfish act in that it is meant to “to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests (25).”


In this view, the reading of literature is an important tool in forming ourselves, our identities, but more broadly it is there to help us discover ourselves. Although superficially similar to identity politics, this is a more radical statement than mere expressions of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Just as our first kiss, our first experience with the death of a loved one, and the birth of our first child are life-altering events so too is the reading of the great works of literature. We cannot improve the lives of others or society by reading great books in themselves, but we can improve ourselves and broaden our horizons, which then in an indirect way may allow us to help others. The great books allow us to experience lives, people, time periods, and worlds different than our own, as well as reflect on lives similar to ours, which further allows us to know more people and ourselves better by helping us take stock of what really matters to us. Fiction and literary language helps us escape our everyday worlds for a moment so that we can reflect upon it through another person’s eyes and through new symbols. Instead of a message delivery systems, stories, poems, essays, and plays are experience delivery systems! The style and presentation cannot be separated from whatever messages a book may contain.


Likewise, Bloom reminds us not to lose sight of literature as a type of pleasure or entertainment. Literary reading is a higher and more difficult type of pleasure than watching a funny Youtube video, but it still is supposed to be a form of enjoyment. It is precisely the mental effort required on my part to achieve the most enjoyment from its form that assists in its ability to cause deep change and cause self-reflection. Literature forces us to consider and weigh how the world is, our own relationship to it, and see it through the eyes of other people (whether the broader vision of the author or the individual characters), while there is a distinct pleasure in trying to understand and unravel some of its more difficult styles (sort of like putting the pieces together of a complicated puzzle).


According to Bloom, the best literature is idiosyncratic; it is unique, and each work is unlike any other work, yet simultaneously the best authors work within conventions and expectations of established literary modes, themes, and periods. For this reason, Bloom argues that there are no absolute aesthetic standards. It is impossible to declare what shared qualities all good books should have, except in a very general way such as their idiosyncrasy, since what makes a particular author great in terms of style and content is their ability to stretch conventions or break them in unique ways different from all other authors. The reason we should be selective with our reading is that we have a limited amount of time on this planet since we all inevitably will die, and so when we choose to read something it should be with the best and most fruitful books.


Along with these views about what makes certain works great literature and why we should spend our time reading such works, Bloom also offers his views on what makes a good reader. Here are some his principles of reading that he has picked up along the way:

  • “Clear your mind of cant.”

This idea derives from Samuel Johnson and suggests that we should let the work teach us how to read it. Good readers stop themselves from imposing their own desires or ideologies onto the work. Let the work reveal its artistic vision. No checklist criticism!


  • “Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or neighborhood by what or how you read.”


Literature can improve you by expanding your horizons, your imagination of what’s possible, it can teach you what people valued in the past, and offer insights into what makes your neighbor tick, while transporting you to different times and places, but Bloom warns that it won’t change the world for the better in terms of offering some kind of social program. At best, it can only assist indirectly by helping you learn what it means to be human and help you come to know yourself as an individual.


  • “A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light.”


This idea he borrows from Ralph Waldo Emerson. It suggests that authentic readers improve others and society at large by improving themselves through their books and studies. The reading of great books and the serious study of them is a reward in itself and generally improves the population by making them more educated and broad-minded.


  • “One must be an inventor to read well.”


Also an idea inspired by Emerson. This seems like it would contradict the first piece of advice to avoid imposing our wills on the text. However, this is about balance. The best literary critics and readers allow the text to dictate the themes and issues, but are still inventive enough to come to new and personal understandings and insights of works of literature.

Bloom demonstrates these principles by taking us through some of his favorite short stories, poems, dramas, and novels. In the realm of short stories he compares two modes typified by Chekhov and Borges respectively.

“We want them for different needs; if the first gratifies our hunger for reality, the second teaches us how ravenous we still are for what is beyond supposed reality. Clearly, we read the two schools differently, questing for truth with Chekhov, or for the turning-inside-out of truth with the Kafkan-Borgesians (86).”


On poetry he writes:

“Poetry, at the best, does is a kind of violence that prose fiction rarely attempts or accomplishes. The Romantics understood this as the proper work of poetry: to startle us out of our sleep-of-death into a more capacious sense of life. There is no better motive for reading and rereading the best of our poetry (142).”

Poetry awakens us from our quotidian routine; it pulls us out of the everyday, to help us see broader possibilities for our own lives and our relationship to the world.

This is what he has to same about novels:

“Major novels do, however, tend to address crucial enigmas, or brood upon central questions. One mark of good reading is to allow such enigmas or concerns to reveal and uncover themselves, rather than hunt them out too strenuously (196).”

A good reader knows that he should pay attention, but more importantly when to listen.

The Completed Stories by Franz Kafka (trans. various)

Franz Kafka’s tales are a strange assortment of bizarre fantasies full of psychological explorations of obsessions and invisible power struggles. Stories such as “A Report to an Academy,” “Investigations of A Dog,” “The Burrow,” “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” and even “The Metamorphosis” feature animals as the main characters, often imbued with a sense of human rationality, as a way of  critiquing various aspects of the human experience. For example, in “The Burrow” we read about a mole-like animal who obsesses over ways he can improve the defense of his burrow, all while fearing an imminent attack by a rival or a predator. His obsession over this potential problem prevents him from actually enjoying his time in the burrow, but Kafka implies it is the creature’s love of the burrow that causes him to obsess so much over its defenses. In other words, we want to protect and keep the things we love most, but our obsession over protecting that which we care about often prevents us from truly enjoying it completely. Yet, by the end of the story, a possible intruder is slowly moving towards the burrow; although perhaps this is all in the creature’s mind, his obsession transformed into an auditory illusion.

Characters succumbing to their obsessions might be described as a key idea that Kafka explores in much of his fiction. In what I would rank as Kafka’s second best short story, “In the Penal Colony,” we find an officer justifying the use of an elaborate torture machine to a famed explorer visiting a foreign penal colony. The officer believes that if he can convince the explorer of the efficacy and sacredness of this machine and its form of punishment, then he can defend the practice to the new commandant of the penal colony who has shown a dislike for the practice and is slowly dismantling it. The officer struggles to accept change and longs for the old commandant and the penal colony who occupied a kind of cultish religious position. As we learn at the end of the tale, there are stories that the old commandant would arise from the dead at some future date. Similarly, in “A Hunger Artist” which features a character who starves himself as a type of performance art, the reader encounters another character who struggles to adopt when society’s tastes change and they no longer care about his artistic efforts to starve himself. In both of these stories each character’s obsession, one with the torture machine and the other with the art of starving himself, serve almost as a kind of religious ecstasy they desire to achieve. The officer sees the torture machine as offering a sacred epiphany, while the hunger artist thinks that by starving himself beyond the permissible days of a performance, he will achieve a euphoric level of artistry. However, only they can see the secret glory in these activities, the outside world naturally views this as strange, cruel, and bizarre, suggesting our own petty obsessions that seem important to us might be at minimum meaningless to another and downright bizarre and dangerous at its most extreme. This focus on obsession and petty arguments continue in “The Village Schoolmaster” in which a schoolmaster and another younger researcher become intellectual rivals over their research and pamphlets about a local village mole. Nobody in the outside world, of course, cares about their frivolous debate, but to them it seems like one of the most important scientific questions in the world.

The most famous story of his shorter works is The Metamorphosis. One morning Gregor Samsa, the primary breadwinner for his family, awakens to find himself transformed into a gigantic bug. He is late for work and his family knock on his locked door anxious over his tardiness. His manager arrives to check on the reason for his delay. This draws the transformed Gregor out of his room to plead with his boss. When the manager sees him in this transformed state he tries his best to escape as quickly as possible, his family freaks out, and his father forces him back into his room by smacking him with a newspaper. The family shifts between anxiety and terror over their son’s new transformation, while Gregor starts adjusting to his new state, changing his dietary habits and beginning to crawl upon the walls. The family talk in private about how to deal with the situation, mentally, emotionally, and monetarily. To make up for Gregor’s lost revenue they all have to get jobs. Gregor continues failed attempts to communicate with his family members. For a short period they seem to grudgingly come to terms with his new existence, opening the door of his room in the evenings so he can listen in on the family during social hours after work. Then they invite some boarders to come live with them in hopes of earning a little extra cash and cheapen their living expenses. One night when Gregor’s sister plays the violin for the new boarders, the music attracts Gregor the vermin into the living room, which scares off the boarders. The family grows frustrated. His sister claims the monster isn’t really Gregor because if it was, then he would’ve left a long time ago for the sake of his family, and not hung around to be a burden upon them. Gregor in his despair over his family’s rejection crawls back into his room, weak from not having eaten much, and dies overnight. The family finds him dead the next morning. All of them call out of work because they desperately need a vacation from the stress they have experienced over the past few months and spend the day together.

Kafka’s work is more about symbols and textures than about plot. In his novel, The Trial, much of the novel is spent on Josef K.’s psychological reactions to an ongoing investigation for an unknown crime. Josef K struggles to make sense of the court system, and by extension the society that fosters such a system, while accepting and rejecting the help of others who might help him navigate such a convoluted and frustrating system, even as they themselves are a intricate part of the court’s labyrinthine nature. Josef K. fights to maintain a semblance of his normal life, while the investigation intrudes into that life, and his psychological reaction to his upcoming trial intensifies.

Likewise, Gregor Samsa tries to negotiate his everyday reality with this sudden transformation in his life. Instead of a trial changing his everyday life and demonstrating the precariousness of his relationships like in the aforementioned novel, the normal everyday course of Gregor Samsa’s life is interrupted by a transformation into a giant insect. So at heart of Kafka’s two stories are protagonists trying to make sense of their everyday lives and deal with the psychological repercussions of major devastating changes in those lives. More importantly, both novels share protagonists that discover that their seemingly high status in their jobs and families mean nothing once these tragedies; they have their realities turned upside down and in doing so learn that they never understood the nature of the lives and social existence to begin with. The two protagonists of Kafka’s stories soon learn how small and unimportant they truly are, how fortune and status can disappear in a blink of an eye. Even how our relationships with other people, even our relationships with our family, depend on the status quo. People are willing to extend their friendship and love when times are good, but willing to jump ship so to speak when time grow rocky and tragedy inconveniences them.

Kafka opens his narrative with Gregor awaking transformed after having some “unsettling dreams.” Many critics have tried to find Freudian connotations in the “unsettling dreams,” but the “unsettling dreams” seem to be more of an image there for contrast. The real world and the family’s reaction to his transformation is far more unsettling than anything that happens in a dreamscape. There is nothing so unsettling as the real world. Kafka’s story reveals how life itself seems like one long unsettling dream in which Gregory finds not a supportive loving family, but one that is terrified and antagonistic towards him. After being transformed Gregor Samsa loses his ability to communicate with his family. Kafka reminds us how much we take it for granted in everyday lives our ability to communicate with other people. Gregor Samsa doesn’t only lose the ability to communicate with other human beings, but he also loses control of his own body. He struggles to adapt to his new body. His insect body continually exudes strange fluids when he scrapes against furniture and Gregor struggles to negotiate his physical surroundings without arms or legs.

The books never offers a reason for his transformation. The transformation itself functions as a symbol for the alienating nature of modern social existence, an existence that even manages to alienate us from our own bodies. Without the ability to communicate to directly link him to other human beings socially, Gregor starts to adopt the habits of an insect, crawling across walls and eating rotten food. Kafka understands that it is only through social relations that we act the way we do, through the process of enculturation. Without language and the ability to communicate Gregor is cutoff from his family and culture, and by extension, his humanity. But is Gregor’s humanity lost forever? The ending denouement, if such a story has one, suggests otherwise in which he leaves his bedroom, unable to resist the attraction of his sister’s musical performance on the violin. His reaction to the music is strikingly human.

“Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.”

It is not clear in the text why he stops eating physical food, but I believe he is trying to kill himself. He has no reason to live since his family has abandoned him and he has been cast out of all social relationships. From his observations earlier in the novel, which mostly focuses on his family’s reaction to his changed state, his desire to communicate with them, reminiscences about them and his willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for theirs, I think we can conclude that he loves his family very deeply. The music his sister is playing feeds his undernourished soul. The music reestablishes for a moment his connection with other human beings. Multiple times in the narrative Gregor Samsa tells us that he planned to send his sister to a music conservatory as a Christmas present. The music connects him to that memory and to his life as a human being, it reconnects him to the love he has for his sister–the most human emotion of all. Additionally, music itself, and by extension art and literature, has the ability to connect and reconnect us with people. One almost wonders if his family had treated him differently, had demonstrated the love and compassion a family should have during such a crisis, if those feelings of love and human connection would’ve eventually restored him into a human being. Unfortunately that isn’t what happens and the music leads him out into the open, which brings on the final rejection of Gregor the vermin, denounced by his own sister, the very person who almost restores his connection with humanity through her music.

“You just have to try to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor. Believing it for so long, that is our real misfortune. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn’t possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will. Then we wouldn’t have a brother, but we’d be able to go on living and honor his memory. But as things are, this animal persecutes us, drives the roomers away, obviously wants to occupy the whole apartment and for us to sleep in the gutter.”

Kafka continually shows how major events can not only completely transform our everyday lives, but also our social relationships. His stories are there to remind us of the precariousness of our relationships with other human beings, how modern society alienates us from each other, and prevents us from true communication. Before the transformation Gregor Samsa is the breadwinner of the family. No one else works. Gregor Samsa complains about his early morning commutes and doesn’t seem to like his job, but feels an obligation to continue at the job he dislikes because his father owes a debt. Meanwhile at the beginning his father wakes up late in the morning and lounges around reading the paper. But suddenly once Gregor is transformed and cannot work anymore, everyone is able to get a job to help make ends meet. This of course raises an interesting question: why didn’t the other family members do this prior to Gregory’s transformation and strengthen their economic stability?

Clearly the rest of the family are capable of working, but instead they preferred to sponge off their son and have him pay off their debts. The whole story is essentially a reversal of this situation. He can no longer work because of his condition and they must support him. Far from appreciating all the help they received from him before the transformation, they resent him for not being able to continue with these arrangements.  They resent that he causes them to miss opportunities that would help them get ahead in life, meanwhile before the transformation he sacrifices for the family and keeps his resentments to himself despite his unsatisfying job preventing him from starting a relationship with any women or leaving his job and picking up a career he would find more satisfying.  He gladly sacrifices for them, but when the time comes for them to sacrifice for him they ultimately fail and voice their resentments out loud. This is a very cynical portrayal of the family unit, far more unsettling than the conceit of a person turning into a giant vermin. Kafka’s point seems to be you can’t trust family; they’ll let you down when the time comes for them to step up to the plate, but they’ll gladly mooch off you and drain you like a bunch of parasites and extend you their love as long as it is beneficial to their needs.

The Book of J by Harold Bloom

In this book, the great literary critic Harold Bloom attempts to tackle the J writer as an ancient poet. In some ways it is refreshing to read a literary critic who is not a professional theologian, religious philosopher, or even a trained secular scholar of Biblical studies. Bloom’s fame perhaps rests in his ability to continually extend himself beyond his original area of specialty, the English Romantic poets, and read and write about all areas of literature. To his credit, and out of necessity, he does quote some other biblical scholars, both theological and secular, to support his points and readings. Indeed, his entire reading requires him to accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to comment on the great “epic” writer who makes up the core of the Bible: the J writer.

The weakest part of the book is when Bloom attempts to imagine the life of J.  He surmises that J is a woman of the royal line, descended from David and Solomon, who is now living under the ineffectual king Rehoboam after the United Monarchy splits into two separate kingdoms. He also imagines her to be in literary competition and have a healthy rivalry with the Court Historian who wrote 2 Samuel who might also her husband. All of this seems to be a figment of Bloom’s imagination, which he readily admits, but comes off as bad literary criticism and history. Since many scholars consider the J source to be the oldest of the four writers, Bloom argues that J’s work is the true core of the Bible in which every other writer extends, challenges, or tries to edit.

Bloom is at his strongest in the book when he deals with J as writer and not when he tries to historicize his or her identity or surmise a make-believe background for the possible author. For him, J is a dramatic ironist rather than a theologian or historian. She isn’t interested in developing a cohesive or correct theology, nor does she want to portray history as it actually occurred. In fact, the way she portrays God in her portions of the Torah is rather irreverent. Her Yahweh is neither good or bad. He is more like a living force, with a personality that both destroys and creates.

“For J . . . Yahweh is not to be conceived as holiness or righteousness but as vitality. If God’s leading attribute is vitality, then his creature the human is most godlike when most vital. A monistic vitalism that refuses to distinguish between flesh and spirit is at the center of J’s vision, which is thus at the opposite extreme from either the Gnostic or the Pauline Christian dualism (277).”

He is a Being that unleashes potential, while preventing illegitimate expressions of potential. In sense, this is how you can read Yahweh and his relationship with humans and patriarchs throughout the portions ascribed to J. Yahweh is constantly molding humans beyond the initial Creation story, teaching them how to exist properly in the world, showing them His vision and expecting them to obey, and then sometimes reacting ferociously when they don’t.

“[His] leading quality is . . . The sheer energy and force of becoming, of breaking into fresh being (294).”

He sets the limits on human activity and potential, the boundaries, while always pushing them to be more, to thrive, but then coming back with a vengeance when they go too far. The patriarchal stories are about this give and take, push and limit relationship. The patriarchal stories are not real histories, but psychological dramas.

“Probing psychological elements in the stories of how Yahweh deals with Abram or Jacob or Moses is the heart of J’s activity as a writer (287).”

Her literature, as Bloom insists, is a literature of incomensurates. Human beings challenge God or obey Him or follow his voice (in the case of Abraham), but ultimately it’s a one-sided act. The fight to resist or obey God is a fight humans can’t really win, but the beauty of J’s art work is in showing that despite these incommensurates between man and the divine, man and other men, the humans still try to thrive and survive anyway. Some instances include Abram challenging the justice of God and haggling to save the city prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Moses the stutterer inflicting plagues on mighty Pharaoh, and even Pharaoh foolishly attempting to challenge the might of God, etc.  God is a force beyond their ability, yet many characters still strive against this incommensurate force. At the same time, He is the force that makes everything happen, blessing who He will and Creating.  Bloom’s insight into Yahweh’s character and central issue in his relations with humans: be like me, but don’t be too much like me.

For Bloom, J’s greatest originality is the scope of her work. It is full of puns, jokes, ironies, a God who creates and destroys, who pushes forward and limits, all while employing a minimalistic style. J tells wonderfully creative stories and probes deeply into the human mind, along with the unknown, while giving us bare minimum details, making her a master of minimalistic writing.  Likewise, her great character as an author is Yahweh. However, her portraits of Yahweh are anything but reverential. Only Shakespeare and handful of other writers outperforms her in their insight into humanity and sheer writing ability according to Bloom.  For all these reasons, this is a work that will probably annoy both traditional theologians in the way it challenges traditional readings and reverent portraits of God, as well as secular scholars in the way it abandons traditional scholarly standards, relies heavily on surmise and generalizations, and sometimes ignores scholarly debates.

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais (trans. J. M. Cohen)

Francois Rabelais earned his living as a physician, and earned his fame as a writer of the satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel. His name in the form of an adjective, Rabelaisian, has come to denote literary works or ideas, “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of character, or bold naturalism. “ Although not abandoning religious piety completely, the book brings an earthy materialism as part of its atmosphere, aesthetics, and themes. Rabelais brought his knowledge of anatomy directly into his fictional book, which often displays an obsession with the physical processes of the body. Pages upon pages are dedicated to farting and defecation. If Rabelais didn’t invent the fart joke, he made a strong attempt at perfectly it.

A good example of this use of anatomical descriptions and physical pleasures of the body can be found early on during the birth of Gargantua. These early chapters are dedicated to Grandgousier, the sire of Gargantua, and his wife, Gargamelle, enjoying a feast of tripe and booze out in the fields.  The consumption of too much tripe causes Gargamelle to go into a painful labor. It is so painful that she threatens to chop off her husband’s genitals so that she never has to experience anything so painful again, but then concedes that she is jesting as she quite enjoys his intimate parts. Then finally comes Gargantua’s miraculous birth from Gargamelle’s ear!

“By this misfortune the cotyledons of the matrix were loosened at the top, and the child leapt up through them to enter the hollow vein. Then, climbing through the diaphragm to a point above the shoulders where this vein divides in two, he took the left fork and came out by the left ear (52).”

Here the description allows Rabalais to show off his learning as a physician, while also describing her body as a veritable maze and serving a playful take on the miraculous birth narrative found in so many ancient sources. Meanwhile, these opening chapters that involve feasting on delicacies, drinking, arguments about body parts, and a fairly graphic birth sets the earthy tone for the rest of the work with its focus on the pleasures, pains, and physical realities of this life. All these fart jokes, bodily pleasures, and descriptions of anatomy serve a crucial purpose in the narrative. They are there to remind us that although God and the afterlife are important, we must also not forget to enjoy the physical pleasures of this life. Indeed, each book begins by addressing his audience as a bunch of wine-guzzling drunks. The ethos of the book might be described as: drink today and enjoy life with all its varied pleasures and colorful cast of characters, for tomorrow you may die!

Gargantua and Pantagruel consists of five books. The first two books explore the birth, childhood, education, and victory in battle by both Gargantua and Pantagruel respectively. Gargantua defeats his former friend and ally, Pirochole, who invades Gargantua’s lands after the latter overreacts to an incident between their peasants over a bunch of cakes. This leads to many funny incidents; in particular, the extremely bad advice Pirochole receives from his advisers that he should use this military invasions as the beginning of world conquest and that his victory over the rest of the world is assured. The final three books involves the cowardly and wily Panurge, a friend and companion of Pantagruel, who wants to get married, but fears becoming a cuckold. Pantagruel convinces him to consult different oracles and omens in an attempt to learn what will happen should Panurge choose to get married. All the omens point to the fact that he will be a cuckold, beaten, and robbed by his future wife, but Panurge keeps interpreting these same omens as being favorable to him. At last, Pantagruel, Panurge, and their other companions go to seek the advice of the Oracle of the Bottle, which leads them to brave dangers at sea and visit many strange islands.


The Renaissance saw the birth of the Humanistic spirit through the rediscovery of Ancient Greece sources and forgotten Latin ones, especially new works by Cicero. Like the essayist Montaigne who often developed his thoughts on a topic by turning to the Ancient writers as exemplars for a deeper perspective, the characters throughout Gargantua and Pantagruel quote ancient sources from the Greek, Latin, and sometimes the Bible as support for their arguments about life. Cicero is an especial favorite, and is not only treated as a talented rhetorician, but a topnotch philosopher, reflecting his important status for the Renaissance Humanists.


This new learning and its contrast with the old ways is a major theme within the book. Gargantua is originally being “educated” by Sophists and this causes him to lead a wasteful life gaming and boozing, and doing little of value. Similarly, the old-style of medieval education, even particular textbooks, are castigated in favor of learning to read Latin and Greek, and reading the original ancient sources. In the Humanist tradition, Rabelais hints that the point of education is to make virtuous human beings who enjoy life, but also balance it with wisdom, bravery, and other desirable attributes. After receiving a better education, Gargantua comes to embody many of these characteristics, but it is Pantagruel, his son, that represents the epitome of this educated virtuous human. It is Pantagruel who is celebrated for his learning, who shows prowess and bravery in battle, but also honors his friends, and maintains an appropriate balance between religious sentiments and enjoying the pleasures of this life. Pantagruel is the righteous and rational anchor that balances the narrative’s bawdiness and some of the characters’ less virtuous and irrational tendencies, especially Panurge, who shows a wily and cowardly nature, and whose pranks on those who irritate him sometimes lead to their death or extreme humiliation.

The final books where they visit many strange islands is a forerunner of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and reflects the age of exploration. At one point, Canada is mentioned explicitly as is the Protestant reformation. The islands are full of strange wonders, giving us a sometimes over the top depiction of how Europeans must have viewed these new “worlds” full of “strange” peoples, while also allowing Rabelais to satirize his own culture, such as when they land on an island full of Papists who are obsessed with Papal decretals as if these official decrees by the Popes over the ages are even more important than the Bible itself.

Faust, Part 1 by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Selling one’s soul to the Devil is a common trope in various forms of media these days. The psychological literary power of such a trope resides in the duality inherit in Christianity between spiritual gain in an unseen spiritual realm versus material gain in this world. In most cases where a character sells their soul, they are trading their spiritual reward for some material desire in the here and now. On a more fundamental psychological level, they are trading long-term satisfaction for instant gratification. The Faust tradition represents one of the most famous traditions of this literary trope. The most famous versions of the Faust story were created by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and the Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.


Christopher Marlowe’s version of the play presents Faust as a dissatisfied scholar who employs magic to contact the devil. He makes his deal with the devil in order to discover the ultimate answers hidden from humanity and experience forbidden pleasures.  Marlowe’s work serves as a meditation on the dangers of giving up one’s soul for forbidden pleasures and secret knowledge in this world.


Goethe’s Faust also is a scholar. He has mastered the fields of law, theology, philosophy, and medicine. He, too, has elements of the dissatisfied scholar, but Goethe goes further with the character and presents a Faust that is tired and weary of life in general. Faust makes a deal with Mephistopheles to experience the world and find the elusive sense of joy in life that books and immersing himself in scholarship have never brought him. Much like Marlowe’s Faust the work critiques the formal education systems of the time, and draws on the general human desire to know and explores the limitations of knowledge, but Goethe’s version shows us a Faust who wants more than just new knowledge, this Faust seems hungry to experience life to its fullest. This Faust feels that all this study has been a waste of time. He makes the deal not only from a desire to have new experiences, but also because at this point he has come to believe he will never experience true bliss so in a way the deal seems like a good bet. He will only lose his soul if Mephistopheles can get him to experience a moment which he doesn’t want to end. Since he believes he can’t experience such happiness, it seems unlikely to him that he will ever lose the deal.

Goethe also recasts the play into a failed love story, which aligns it with his other work, such as his novels, which also features relationships that falter. In this version, Faust pursues his lust for the pure-hearted innocent and religiously inclined Gretchen, which ends up ruining the life of Gretchen. Goethe reminds us that the pursuit of our own selfish desires can harm other people. It also adds another dimension to the deal with the devil trope as Faust not only promises his own soul, but almost costs Gretchen her soul. She even kills their child in a fit of madness after Faust disappears for a while, which perhaps is an allusion to Euripides’ Medea who also murders her own children when Jason abandons her. Faust functions as Gretchen’s devil, her temptation, the irresistible force that causes her to betray the moral standards in which she has lived the first half of her life. Why does she go along with this temptation? I think Goethe implies that for all her humble peasant upbringing in contrast to Faust’s elite education, she also feels a dissatisfaction with life.

The beginning prologue in which Mephistopheles asks permission from God to tempt and corrupt Faust is an allusion to the biblical Book of Job. Unlike Job who begins with everything a person could want and has that taken from him, the situation is flipped, Faust has nothing he wants in life and makes the deal with Mephistopheles to find the happiness that is missing from it. Job is brought to the height of unhappiness only to be confronted by God and have new rewards bestowed upon him for his faithfulness, whereas Faust sells his soul and betrays his loyalty to God to find elusive happiness in the world.