, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 257-266
Date: 17 Feb 2012

Doctor Faustus in the twenty-first century

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Abstract

In the medieval legend, Doctor Faustus strikes a dark deal with the devil; he obtains vast powers for a limited time in exchange for a priceless possession, his eternal soul. The cautionary tale, perhaps more than ever, provides a provocative lens for examining humankind’s condition, notably its indefatigable faith in knowledge and technology and its predilection toward misusing both. A variety of important questions are raised in this meditation including What is the nature of knowledge today and how does it differ from knowledge in prior times? What is its relation to technology and power? What paths are we heading along and which alternative ones are being avoided? Not insignificantly, we also raise the issue of civic ignorance, including that which is intentionally cultivated and that which is simply a lack of knowledge. We also consider the identity of Doctor Faustus in the twenty-first century and in a more material world like ours, what is the soul that he would lose in the bargain, and what damage might be done to Faustus and to innocent bystanders. Finally since people don’t always live up to the terms of agreements they make, what, if anything, could Faustus do to wriggle out of the bargain, to avoid the loss of his all-important soul. Our response is not to disavow knowledge (as the implicit “lesson” of the original myth might suggest) but to shift to another approach to knowledge that is more collective and more responsive to actual needs of our era. This approach which we call civic intelligence is considered as a way to avoid the possible catastrophes that the Faustian bargain we’ve seemingly struck is likely to bring.