The Hubris of Dr. Faustus and Dr. Bonocolus’s Devil …
“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
The story of Dr. Faustus is arguably as old as humanity, being an archetypal story of how Dr. Faustus (or Citizen Kane, or others) ‘sold their soul to the devil’ in exchange for worldly gain – for “a mess of potage”. I think we would be hard-pressed to find anyone, anywhere, who doesn’t in some sense know the story. There is a particular version of this moral tale, however, written by Terry Jones, called “Dr. Bonocolus’s Devil”, that adds a really dire and meaningful twist.
Basically, the story of Dr. Bonocolus’s Devil is this: Dr. Bonocolus agrees, when approached by one of the Devil’s emissaries, to give his soul to the devil after his death. In exchange, Dr. Bonocolus gets to be the smartest man in the world while he is alive. Dr. Bonocolus’s reasoning is that, because he will be so smart, he will be able to prepare himself mentally for all of the horrors he may find when he finally, on his death, meets the devil. He imagines incredible ugliness, extreme horrific odors, and vile vicious behavior on the part of the devil. Finally, the day of reckoning occurs, and Dr. Bonocolus dies and must go to meet the devil. The punch line – and the twist in the story – is that despite Dr. Bonocolus’s preparations he was not prepared for one thing. On finally meeting the devil, and looking into the devil’s eyes, he realized the devil is stupid.
It is a peculiar form of pain we suffer when we are subjugated to our inferiors. Some of us will have worked for bosses that were clearly far less capable than ourselves. All of us must suffer the indignity of being citizens subject to politicians who, despite spin and image, are frankly not generally very bright. We seem to have in our minds, however, that a person can be both bad and bright. Popular culture is replete with examples of the evil genius, and many a ‘successful’ [sic] rich man or woman are considered extra-clever for their riches, despite the fact that many also gained their riches by either fortuitous luck or by some variation of theft.
To ascribe ‘being smart’ to people who are also ‘being evil’, seems very common. I once had a student offer me a bribe to change his grade, who made the comment “Everyone has their price”. In my case I decided the price of compromising the integrity of my grading wasn’t just too high, it was irrelevant. A price implies a market, and in my case, there was no market.
The point of Dr. Bonocolus’s Devil wasn’t that he gave himself over to something that was simply ‘bad’, but that he had given over his entire self to something that was stupid. And evil is, apart from being intrinsically evil, also stupid. Even if we attempt to rationalize our behavior if it is evil – harmful to others, deceitful, destructive – can our sense of self also justify our own stupidity in choosing these? I wonder?
So, the next time you see someone being celebrated for being smart, ask yourself if that ‘smart’ is evil or no. And if it is evil? Well, then, it isn’t smart.
Peter’s Thought for This Day!