The quest for knowledge and learning has been occuring since the creation of mankind. Ever since the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempted Eve to eat the forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, promising she would wise as the gods, man has been battling with this endless pursuit. Some men want wisdom so that they may be able to live a good and righteous life. Other men want only the power that knowledge can bring them, to use it for their own sinful purposes.
Literature tells the history of two very different men who had this desire for wisdom; King Solomon in the Old Testament, remembered for his wisdom and uprightness; and the legendary Doctor Faustus, known for his sinful pact with the devil. While driven by opposing forces, both men wanted to be exceedingly wise, and each had an encounter with a remarkable woman because of it.
The bible recounts the story of the great King Solomon, the son of the notable King David. By following God and his commandments, David had built his empire into a legacy, which was then passed on to Solomon. Soon after Solomon’s reign began, the Lord appeared to him in a dream, offering him anything he desired. Solomon’s request was wisdom and knowledge, so that he may govern his people fairly, and know the difference between good and the bad.
Therefore, God granted Solomon wisdom, that of which no one before or since has had in such abundance. And because Solomon chose wisdom, showing concern for his people, God decided to reward him with not only knowledge, but with riches and honor to set him apart from all other kings in history. Solomon then used his riches to build an official house for the lord, to show his love and reverence for God Almighty.
Solomon’s reputation quickly spread, reaching the Queen of Sheba. Intrigued, she visited him, bringing rich gifts with her: spices, gold, precious stones. The queen was very smart herself, almost an equal in money and riches to Solomon. Upon meeting Solomon though, the queen was immediately impressed by his wisdom. She soon converted to his religion, swearing that his God must indeed be the greatest.
Solomon’s righteousness and virtue are the antithesis of Doctor Faustus, the title character of Christopher Marlowe’s play, “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.” In this story, we see a man with no regard for his own eternal soul, nor for the welfare of anyone he encounters. Rather, he is willing to spend eternity in hell just so that he can fulfill his own selfish desires.
Marlowe based his tale on that of a magician name Doctor John Faustus who was well known in his day for his wickedness, blasphemy, and for sodomizing young boys. Protestant leaders used the story of Faustus, his heinous sins, and the horrible death he suffered as an example to unbelievers during the Reformation.
Marlowe took the character and wrote a play about him, capitalizing on the rumors and stories of his wickedness. In this version, Doctor Faustus is a man of learning who decided to cast away his studies and turn to black magic. He felt that he had come to the end of what he could learn under his own human power, and wanted to move into the supernatural world.
Faustus wanted not only answers to all of the questions he had been researching over the years, he wanted the power that knowledge can give. The power that Faustus gained corrupted him, and rather than a seeker of knowledge, he became a seeker of pleasure.
As Faustus pondered the idea of turning to black magic, a good angel and an evil angel joined the debate. The good angel pleaded with Faustus to turn away from the occult, while the evil angel tempted Faustus, just as the serpent did Eve. He told Faustus to “Be thou on Earth as Jove is in the sky, Lord and commander of these elements” (lines 76-77). In a later scene, the evil angel told Faustus to think of honor and wealth, rather than of heaven, as the good angel had advised.
However, there was no hesitation in Faustus, tempted as he was by the promise of knowledge, honor, and wealth. Even a visit from the seven deadly sins didn’t steer Faustus from his path. Instead, he then spoke with the devil, seeming to revel in the evilness of hell. Because he didn’t believe in the ancient Christian idea of hell, that of fire and brimstone, Faustus was not afraid of his pact with the devil and the consequences of his actions.
In one scene, Faustus and his fellow ‘hell’ mate, Mephatophilis, journey to see the Pope in Rome and to take part of St. Peter’ feast. There, Faustus takes the food and drink out from under the Pope, and then hits him in the head. This is a total lack of respect for God and his earthly representatives. Rather than the reverence that Solomon showed God, Faustus used his own newfound power and knowledge to defy God, practically spitting in God’s face by accosting the pope.
Soon, however, Faustus became dissatisfied with simply having all of the answers. He stated that due to his lustful nature, he could not live without a wife. Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” appears. Like the Queen of Sheba, Helen had been a woman of extreme beauty. Unlike the queen, however, Helen is not a Christian convert. Instead, she represents the dangerous beauty of evil, and the all too human desire for pleasurable things.
Had it not been for the enticement of having Helen in his bed, Faustus may have repented, and turned from his deal with the devil. But because he let his baser desires rule him, Faustus promised to do whatever necessary for the devil, just so that he may have Helen of Troy as his “paramour.” This carnal desire sealed Faustus’ fate, and in the end, he is taken away to hell by fiends.
Obviously, the desire for knowledge and the power that comes with it can be either a wonderful blessing or a damning curse. Solomon is an instance of how knowledge and power can be used for good. When encountering a beautiful, exotic woman, Solomon kept a level head and impressed her with his supreme brilliance and power. Solomon didn’t let his lusty desires rule his life; he let God hold the reins.
On the other hand, there is Doctor Faustus, whose arrogance and sinfulness led to his own downfall. At a point when he was considering turning away from the devil, Faustus lets the promise of fleshly pleasures with a beautiful woman steer him back to the devil. Although he was granted unlimited knowledge, Faustus clearly didn’t learn anything.