Study Guide

Doctor Faustus Wisdom and Knowledge

By Christopher Marlowe

Wisdom and Knowledge


So much he profits in divinity
That shortly he was graced with doctor's name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th'heavenly matters of theology. (Prologue.15-18)

Becoming a doctor of divinity in a medieval university was a process that took almost fifteen years. Yep, you read that right. First you had to study the classics, and in the end you had to study the Bible in detail.So the fact that Faustus has this degree means he's smart. We're talking genius level here, folks.

Act 1, Scene 1

Is to dispute well logic's chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle? (1.1.8-9)

Faustus is trying to decide which body of knowledge is worth his time by discovering what the goal of each discipline is. See, the problem with logic is that the whole point is to make you a good debater. But, really, who cares?

The end of physic is our body's health. (1.1.16)

Faustus sums up the study of medicine with this line. It may be true, but it occurs to us (as it does not to Faustus) that achieving that end is super complex and complicated—and well worth the time spent, right?

How am I glutted with conceit of this!
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,
Resolve me of all ambiguities.
I'll have them read me strange philosophy
And tell the secrets of all foreign kings. (1.1.76-78, 84-85)

Faustus's quest for knowledge transforms into a need to learn the "secrets of all foreign kings," suggesting how much Faustus's desire for knowledge is tied up with his equally strong need to have a ton of power.

"Exhaereditare filium non potest pater, nisi—"
Such is the subject of the Institute
And universal body of the law.
This study fits a mercenary drudge,
Who aims at nothing but external trash;
Too servile and illiberal for me. (1.1.29-34)

The line from Justininan's Institutes that Faustus reads here translates into "a father may not disinherit his son unless—". What Faustus seems to be objecting to, then, is the focus of the law on issues of inheritance and property. Maybe that's why he calls it fitting for a "mercenary drudge"—someone who serves for money, and nothing else. Of course we're a little suspicious of his logic here, because when he learns magic, he doesn't exactly complain about the wealth it brings him.

He that is grounded in astrology,
Enriched with tongues, well seen in minerals,
Hath all the principles magic doth require.
Then doubt not, Faustus, but to be renowned
And more frequented for this mystery
Than heretofore the Delphian oracle. (1.1.131-136)

Faustus's friend tells him he's already well suited to learn magic because of his education in astrology, languages, and alchemy. Now isn't that convenient? Hmm… maybe Faustus was predestined for magic ages ago…

Good and Bad Angels

Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art
Wherein all Nature's treasure is contained. (1.1.72-73)

Although by referring to "Nature's treasure" the Bad Angel seems to be holding out the promise of wealth to Faustus, he could also be referring to the knowledge of Nature. Medieval and Renaissance scholars often described Nature as a book whose secrets could be discovered by the careful reader.

Act 2, Scene 1

So now, Faustus, ask me what thou wilt.
First I will question with thee about hell.
Tell me, where is the place that men call hell?
I think hell's a fable.
Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind. (2.1.109-111, 122-123)

One of the perks of Faustus's bargain with Lucifer is that he can ask Mephistopheles whatever he wants, and ol' Meph will have to deliver the scoop. And what does Faustus want to know about? Hell, of course. No doubt, he's hoping to learn that hell's a fable (understandable), but Mephistopheles just tells Faustus to wait for the wisdom of experience. In other words, time will tell. Faustus, though, with years of book learning behind him isn't used to waiting around for the wisdom of experience. He'd rather just use the Internet.

Act 2, Scene 3

I am resolved, Faustus shall not repent.
Come, Mephistopheles, let us dispute again
And reason of divine astrology.
Speak; are there many spheres above the moon?
Are all celestial bodies but one globe,
As is the substance of this centric earth? (2.3.30-35)

While Faustus hems and haws, wondering if he should regret his decision to make a deal with Lucifer, it's Mephistopheles that helps convince him he made the right call, because Mephistopheles promises that Dr. F will gain a ton of knowledge as a result of handing over his soul. In a way, this means that knowledge has become a kind of idol for Faustus—something that has taken the place of God for him.

Act 3 – Chorus

Learnèd Faustus, to find the secrets of astronomy
Graven in the book of Jove's high firmament,
Did mount him up to scale Olympus' top,
Where, sitting in a chariot burning bright,
Drawn by the strength of yokèd dragons' necks,
He views the clouds, the planets, and the stars. (3.Chorus.1-6)

Faustus's relationship with Mephistopheles enables him to get firsthand knowledge of astronomy in a way that we bet makes his colleagues insanely jealous. Even as this knowledge is described as book-learning, as "graven in the book of Jove's high firmament," it is in fact much closer to scientific analysis than anything Faustus has done before.

But new exploits do hale him out again,
And, mounted then upon a dragon's back,
That with his wings did part the subtle air,
He now is gone to prove cosmography,
That measures coasts and kingdoms of the earth. (3.Chorus.16-20)

Faustus has totally achieved a god's-eye view of the earth. In other words, he can see everything. He's omniscient, which is often a word the devout use to describe God. One of God's powers, as told in the Christian creation story, is as measurer and analyzer of his creation. But Faustus takes this role upon himself when he seeks to measure the earth's kingdoms from above.

Act 3, Scene 1
Pope Adrian and Bruno

Go forthwith to our holy consistory
And read amongst the statutes decretal
What, by the holy council held at Trent,
The sacred synod hath decreed for him
That doth assume the papal government
Without election and a true consent. (3.1.105-109)

The Pope relies upon book-learning… sort of. Really, he's counting on the law books to help him in his case against Bruno. This is quite a different kind of knowledge than the one Faustus has come to rely on—the experience and exploration of the world, all thanks to Mephistopheles.