In the Beginning was the Deed

One of the books in the LitHum curriculum that we read this year is Faust by Goethe. Even though I wish I could have read it in its original German (I am told it is a wonderful masterpiece, and I can only imagine how difficult it is to rhyme in German), I still enjoyed the book and our discussions in class. One of my favorite quotes from Faust is this:

"Tis writ, "In the beginning was the Word!"
I paused, perplex'd! Who now will help afford?
I cannot the mere Word so highly prize;
I must translate it otherwise,
If by the spirit guided as I read.
"In the beginning was the Sense!" Take heed,
The import of this primal sentence weight,
Lest thy too hasty pen be led astray!
Is force creative then of Sense the dower?
"In the beginning was the Power!"
Thus should it stand: yet, while the line I trace.
A something warns me, once more to efface.
The spirit aids! from anxious scruples freed,
I write, "In the beginning was the Deed!"

- Faust (Scene 3, The Study)

In this passage Faust is trying to translate the Bible, and encounters great difficulty in translating the first line. He is dissatisfied with beginning with "the mere Word," so changes it to the Sense, then translates Sense to the Power, and finally ends with "in the beginning was the Deed." I like the image of an angry, frustrated German professor alone in his study wrestling with the translation of a single word, but I like the philosophy and the idea behind the passage even more.

To Faust (and to Goethe), words are no longer enough. The deed is greater than the power that fuels it, is greater than the sense behind the words, is greater than the words itself. Faust hates words, because doing is more important than saying, but worse, merely saying drives you further and further away from the original action itself. Talking about something incessantly only makes you look at the action but never perform it. Faust, a religious, humanitarian, and scientific scholar, is a scholar of life, but makes his deal with Mephistopheles because he never really feels alive.

But what does a crazy and conflicted German scholar who has made a deal with the devil have to do with us?

A nice little quote goes:
"In the age of information, ignorance is a choice." 
Regardless of the shortcomings of the internet, it is an undeniably wonderful fact that anyone can look almost anything up, and a sufficiently motivated person can independently learn almost anything aided by nothing more than a good internet connection. For example, I know plenty of people who have self-learned the basics of programming and gone on to become excellent programmers, all off of their own efforts. 

In my own case, I always get very excited over something that I'm going to do, and fairly often I fail to see it through. Just talking about it to other people gives me a sense of self satisfaction that seems to be enough to actually forget doing the actual thing. Somehow, self assured that I'm going to get around to it one day, after I've drafted a plan and a goal, I never get around to following the plan.

I am reminded of a joke about mathematicians:
A physicist, an engineer, and a mathematician were all in a hotel sleeping when a fire broke out in their respective rooms.
The physicist woke up, saw the fire, ran over to his desk, pulled out his CVC, and began working out all sorts of fluid dynamics equations. After a while, he throws down his pencil, fills a graduated cylinder with a precise amount of water, and throws it on the fire, extinguishing it with not a drop wasted.
The engineer woke up, saw the fire, turned on all the faucets full blast, flooded the hotel, and went back to sleep.
The mathematician woke up, saw the fire, saw a fire extinguisher in the room, exclaimed "I have proven there exists a solution!" and goes back to sleep.

Sometimes, I feel like the mathematician- I see that a solution exists, I see that there is a plausible plan, and satisfied, I never put out the actual fire. It is the same with my math, often, happy that I know theoretically how to do something, I am perfectly willing to plug the computation into WolframAlpha, only to make a silly mistake later on the exam because of lack of practice. 

Words are important, sense is important, power is important, but the person who has all three but never does the deed is no different from the person who has not done any of the four.

After all, did God sit around talking about creating the world for 7 days, or did he actually create the universe?