When he was a sprightly young lad of 58, Goethe wrote his Faust. The titular fellow is a man of a certain age and station. He has tried to find meaning in life through all the regular routes, studying religion and science and the humanities. He has come up short in the Meaning department. So he turns to studying forbidden knowldge. He does tons of magic wizard shit – but even that doesn’t make him happy. He’s ready to throw in the towel. At which moment the Devil shows up and says, “I bet you I can give your life meaning.” Faust accepts the wager. The Devil gets him laid. Faust falls in love with the pleasant normie lady Margarita. She then dies horribly. End of play.
It may not be a tale as old as time but it’s absolutely as old as the bougeousie. A wealthyish little bastard, middle-class, middle-aged, finally realizes his life is dumb and boring. He tries to solve the problem by marrying a hot younger woman. Tragedy ensues. Maybe it ruins her life but leaves the man generally unscathed. Maybe it hurts him more, costing him half his car dealerships to divorce his first wife, costing him another half to divorce the second. Leaving him with literally zero car dealerships. #tragedy
But even if it ends up Happily Ever After for them all, it makes painfully clear that the best Billy Bougie can manage for meaning is a hotwife. Maybe to start another family and so kick the search for meaning even further down the road to the next generation; maybe to just feel the envy of the other bored apes at the yacht club; probably to also buy a Mustang and die getting roadhead in second gear. The world all around him, its problems, its bounties, and all the wit and wisdom of human history – and this is all he needs to be happy? That is the tragedy.
It was a sadder and a wiser Goethe who, at 82, wrote an addition to the story. Nobody expected a sequel, let alone a continuation, and yet he labeled it “Faust: The Second Part Of The Tragedy.”
Part Two finds the Devil still trying to win his wager. Love was not enough to sate Faust’s appetite for meaning. So the Devil takes our boy on a superpowered tour of alternative solutions. He gets dropped into stories out of history and myth and legend. He gets to use all his present knowledge to change the past as he sees fit. He sit in the councils of the Holy Roman Empire and the French Revolution, he goes to a medieval carnival and gets wasted on fountain-wine, he jumps into the middle of The Iliad and fucks Helen of Troy. (The paralells between this great work of literature, and the Assassin’s Creed franchise, are troublingly nontrivial).
At length the Devil tries a new tamptation. Faust becomes the ruler of a little piece of land. He has Responsibility. He sets himself about being a good administrator, making improvements, dictating benevolently. He gets used to it. He gets old. He loses his senses one by one. At length he decides that the peasants will be happy if he converts the land’s fetid marshes to fertile fields. He instructs his advisors to drain the swamp. Little does he know that his advisors are actually little devils; they tell him they’re building dams and canals when they’re really digging his grave in the wet earth. Blind, ancient, fully removed from the world and its people, he thinks that he is doing something small but good in the world. He is happy. His life has meaning. The Devil wins the wager, and Faust is pwned.
Faust Part II is way less accessible than Faust Part I but is meant to be. Part I says that the guy has done all the things; Part II actually describes them. (And most of them are unreconstructed nerd shit. “Getting to dick down the chick from the Iliad” is what a genie would hear if his lamp got passed around an incel chatroom where every avi is a marble sculpture in a fedora.) Faust Part I is a small and straightforward story; Faust Part II is a wildly long and rambling motherfucker written by a guy who died before he got a chance to edit it (or after he got too famous for self-restraint). Part I is an old myth that survived because it was portable and of great resonance to an entire class – and a class that was, at that time, growing explosively.
Part II describes the tragedy of members of a much smaller class. Part I’s tragic subject is a man with enough comfort to have an easy life, and enough power to read a bunch of books. This is the bougeosie. Part II’s tragic subjects are those with an order of magnitude more power. Not the comfortable, but the rich as hell; not a mayor, but a reigning monarch; not just playing AssCreed IRL, but playing The Sims – or Minecraft; not the guy who made a bunch of money selling operating systems in the 80s and 90s, but the guy who spend the 0s and 10s singlehandedly setting global health policy… and hanging out with Jeffrey Epstein.
Faust Part II is the tragedy of one with the power almost of Deity. At the time it was applied to kings; today it applies also to billionaires.
Goethe lets his boy take command of the French Revolution, to use all the wisdom of hindsight to assure its success. He lets him adjust the fiscal policies of European feudalism so that the French Revolution isn’t even necessary. This is all too big for Faust; he cannot grasp it. But he can wrap his mind around a little local engineering project. It does not change the world – but it does not require a systemic critique. And it is enough for him.
We see this all too clearly today. At best we get Mackenzie Bezos, who we praise for taking her half of Smaug’s hoarded gold and distributing it to those she deems needy. What she is doing is an almost unfathomable exercise of power. We generally approve of it – but she didn’t ask us. Her largesse does nothing to change the circumstances which allowed a person to gain this much personal power. Quite the opposite; the actions of a benevolent dictator serve only as a counterargument against antidictatorial sentiment. Memories of the reign of Mackenzie The Good will weigh heavily upon us as we consider our revolt against XÆA-XII The Terrible.
And that is the best case. At worst we get The Munger Dorm.
An octagenerian billionaire, who made his money as an investment manager, decided to take up large-scale architectural design as a hobby. He designed a 4,500-student, 1.68-million-sqft dormitory to house every single freshman at UC Santa Barbara under one roof. If this does not already sound like a very bad idea, the design is also what the kids might call problematic. The building is monolithic. It looks like an Amazon warehouse. Meaning the vast majority of student rooms will have no windows. 4,500 new freshman, 0 natural light. And to assure his will be done, Charlie Munger donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the school – contingent on them building his building, just as he ordained.
Charlie Munger has taken up “deciding how others live” as a hobby. He has declared that he knows what buildings are good and what are bad. He does not involve other people in this analysis, let alone the people who will be forced to live with (in!) his largesse. Nor does he have to. The dollars – the power – are his. He can let himself be as blind as Faust became.
And you know, blindness is probably in his interest. He wants to be happy. He wants his life to have meaning. His life – that is to say, his billions. Having enough money in his purse to do anything and everything, he has decided to find this meaning by using his power to help others. The problem is not just the way he is trying to do good; it is that the exercise of such power over others is necessarily evil. No one should have such power. No one should be able to dictate these things. The more he listens to feedback from the people he supposedly cares about, the more he is ceding his power to them. Soon he will not be exercising power at all. That is contrary to his goal. Far better, then, that he close himself to the actual responses of others. Only sociopathy let him be happy enough to lie down in his little grave.
To fault the man who abuses his power is insufficient; the real fault is that men have such power to abuse. If Charlie says “Alright, alright, I’ll give you skylights, shut up and let me die,” and we are happy, then we are no different than old Faust with his swamp-draining. It is not enough to be content with discrete little successes – not when we have the power to implement systematic critiques.
The dream of a socialist future is one which would produce a Third Part Of The Tragedy. A just society, a sustainable society, a society where there is little difference in power amongst people, a society where one’s wealth does not determine one’s access to the necessities of life – let alone grant people power over others. A society where there are no billionaires – or where money is only useful for buying unnecessary things. Older wine. Fortnite skins. Not singlehandedly dictating national policy. Not fucking whoever you want on command. Not determining who gets access to the essentials of life and who does not. And not forcing kids to do their freshman year in the giga-obliette.
That world would not be without its tragedies. Perhaps they will be longing for the days of unequal societies – the days when men could build themselves up to the point where they could have power over their fellow men. You know: a longing to be evil. Perhaps Faust Part III will be an Abstergo tank that lets you play as Charlie Munger. Let us hope for a new Goethe who can capture the tragedy of this new era. Let us hope for a future whose great tragedy is that its tragedies are not great anymore.