By John Kaag and Clancy Martin
I HAVE, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before.
For two professors, the opening words of Goethe’s Faust have always been slightly disturbing, but only recently, as we’ve grown older, have they come to haunt us.
Faust sits in his dusty library, surrounded by tomes, and laments the utter inadequacy of human knowledge. He was no average scholar but a true savant — a master in the liberal arts of philosophy and theology and the practical arts of jurisprudence and medicine. In the medieval university, those subjects were the culminating moments of a lifetime of study in rhetoric, logic, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
In other words, Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.