Paper: On Anagnorisis and Akrasia in Doctor Faustus

On Anagnorisis and Akrasia in Doctor Faustus

The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus is a tragicomical play by Christopher Marlowe, written in the sixteenth century. The plot is about doctor Faustus, who sells his soul to Lucifer in order to attain power and knowledge. The selling of his soul looks like an easy process but Faustus’ moral judgement makes it not so easy. Anagnorisis, which means “learning the truth concerning his own identity” (Johnstone, 1983) is an interesting topic to cover, because Doctor Faustus asks himself repeatedly whether he should continue practising the Dark Arts. While he does not turn his back to the evil side, it seems that Faustus learns critical knowledge about the nature of salvation and the role of free will. The question remains whether Faustus has gained enough insight about himself to repent. This paper will look at some of the instances Faustus has an internal moral struggle and will try to extract whether Faustus has learned something about his own nature.

The first time Faustus has a moral struggle about the selling of his soul is in Scene 5, lines 1-21:

Faustus […] Why waverest thou? O, something soundeth in mine ears: “Abjure this magic, turn to God again”

In this scene two angels, a good and an evil one, appear to Faustus. The good one tries to convince Faustus to stop practising the Dark Arts, while the evil one advises him to continue doing so. These two angels can be seen as externalizations of Faustus’ internal debate and might be sent by God and Lucifer to send Faustus to Heaven or Hell respectively (O’Brien, 1970). While Faustus learns that contrition, prayer and repentance gets him into heaven, he uses his free will to choose wealth and honor. One might say that Faustus has learned something here, however, he uses akrasia, which translates from Greek as “the state of tending to act against one’s better judgement” (Vasiliauskas, 2016).

Another instance in which Faustus asks himself why things are made difficult for him when he wants to turn to the Dark Arts is when his blood congeals when he wants to write the hellish contract:

Faustus […] Is not thy soul thine own? (Scene 5, ll. 68)

Since Faustus has studied theology, he should be aware of the fact that “Christ bought us with His blood and made us free from the Law.” (Galatians, 3:13) This means that your soul is not your own, it belongs to Christ. While this is not mentioned in the play, surely it would ring a bell with Marlowe’s Christian audience. Faustus appears to not apply what he has undoubtedly learned in his theology studies, which can be seen as another instance of akrasia.

A third instance in which Faustus learns something about himself is when Lucifer conjures the Seven Deadly Sins. The Seven Deadly Sins, Pride, Covetousness, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lechery all teach Faustus a bit about themselves. Since sin has been part of mankind since Adam and Eve’s misstep in the garden of even, sin is also part of Faustus. One could see the performance of the Seven Deadly Sins as a moral lesson to Faustus and the audience. When Lucifer asks Faustus how he liked the performance, Faustus answers with:

Faustus O this feeds my soul! (Scene 5, ll. 330)

, which could be interpreted as Faustus having learned something about the nature of sin. In Christian doctrine, sin is part of all of mankind after the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden – so part of Faustus too. By showing him the Seven Deadly Sins, which are part of Faustus too, Lucifer unintentionally teaches Faustus something about himself and how he could get out of the deal he made with Lucifer. After this scene, however, Faustus accepts the book from Lucifer that can turn him into every shape he wants. Faustus could have rejected Lucifer after thinking where sinning will get him but does not. This again shows that Faustus learns, but does not apply his learning to save himself.

In conclusion, Doctor Faustus is an example of what Aristotle has said in his Nicomachean Ethics (10):

Aristotle “Understanding, or Good Understanding, the quality in virtue of which we call men ‘persons of understanding’ or ‘of good understanding,’ is not the same thing as Scientific Knowledge in general (nor yet is it the same as Opinion, for in that case everybody would have understanding), nor is it any one of the particular sciences…”

Doctor Faustus is a learned man. He has studied philosophy, medicine, law, theology, and black magic. However, in The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus it does not seem like he uses his knowledge for his own good; in most instances, Faustus turns to the evil side after being presented with a choice. It seems that Faustus learns, but does not understand the consequences of his actions. Despite this, Faustus does learn things about himself and achieves what is called anagnorisis. However, Faustus doesn’t repent because it’d be “too late” for him (Scene 5, ll. 194-208) and his “heart’s so hardened [he] cannot repent” (Scene 5, ll. 194). It’s almost a shame Faustus doesn’t repent, since if he had, he’d have a throne next to God in Heaven after his death. May the reader learn from Faustus and use the knowledge he or she attains for betterment!


Works Cited

Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1934.

Johnstone, H. (1983). Truth, ‘Anagnorisis’, and Argument. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 16(1), 1-15.

Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”. Translated by Roma Gill. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century. General editor: Greenblatt, Stephen. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. Print.

O’Brien, M. (1970). Christian Belief in Doctor Faustus. ELH, 37(1), 1-11. doi:10.2307/2872271.

The Bible, New Life Version, Galatians. 1969, 2003. Barbour Publishing Inc.

Vasiliauskas, E. (2016). Mortal Knowledge: Akrasia in English Renaissance Tragedy. In Bloemendal J. & Smith N. (Eds.), Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy (pp. 221-238). Leiden; Boston: Brill.