A Pact with the Devil (a deal with the Devil or a Faustian bargain), is an agreement with Evil, in the form of the Devil, often (as in the story of Faust) with the paradoxical intention of achieving a higher Good that is otherwise obstructed. The nature of an agreement is a risky accommodation, so at the crux of objections to such a thing are questions–what has the person making the agreement traded to the Devil? Can the person avoid being trapped or corrupted? Does the agreement strengthen the Devil? Is the greater Good compromised, and unachievable?
A pact with the Devil is a dangerous thing, for the only thing the Devil is said to want is the person’s soul, and that he will do anything to get it: he will lie, trick and cheat. It is a very rare person who once having dealt with the Devil, can avoid becoming corrupted and evil himself, ruining the “Good” he set out once to do.
A pact with the Devil is an essential ingredient in the legend of Faust. There is no greater gamble or risk than one’s soul. Faust arrogantly assumes he can control the Devil, but as the Church concluded long ago, humans are inclined to sin and few can resist being corrupted by the Devil or by the powers he grants, and the Devil invariably succeeds. This is the original Faust legend as a morality tale. This arc to destruction is often raised in discussions about technology, and reflects a social anxiety about technology as we power our way from Eden to Utopia.
Even if one is successful, God is always watching the outcome of such bargains, and for the careless Christian, the outcome may be eternal damnation.
“…the divine in many places commands that witches are not only to be avoided, but also they are to be put to death, and it would not impose the extreme penalty of this kind if witches did not really and truly make a compact with devils in order to bring about real and true hurts and harms.”Malleus Maleficarum Part 1, Q. 1, P. 1. The 1487 handbook on witch hunting.
At the height of success, one must not only win the bargain, but triumph over the Devil in the process and deal a powerful blow against him, presumably winning God’s approval, and inspiring others in their own dealings.
Goethe’s Faust makes not a pact with the Devil, but a wager:
“Only in Faust: Part One (1808) does Goethe commit himself to his second great divergence from the traditional fable: his Faust now makes not a contract with the Devil but a wager. Faust wagers that, however much of human life the Devil shows him, he will find none of it satisfying—and if he is wrong (i.e., if he is satisfied), he is willing to give up living altogether. Faust now appears as a singularly modern figure, racing through satisfactions but condemned by his own choice to discard them all. His tragedy (from 1808 the word appears in the play’s subtitle) is that he cannot experience life as, for example, Gretchen experiences it: not as a potential source of satisfaction but as a matter of love, or of duty. This theme is common to both the first and the second parts of the play.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (2010). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 11, 2010, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Johann-Wolfgang-von-Goethe.
A deal with the Devil doesn’t mean that there is Satanic worship! A deal is an agreement between opposed sides. Faust is independent; Faust doesn’t worship gods, if anything, he might want to overcome them, or become one himself. 1 He wouldn’t worship the Devil.
Pacts with the Devil are signed in blood, signifying that the person involved is the object being tendered, and that this is no ordinary deal.
The idea of a deal with the devil predates Faust. It’s not a stretch to go from making deals with humans, to pretending to make them with other beings. The idea of a deal with a dangerous god must have formed in human minds shortly after its invention, so it’s hard to say what the Faustian pact is influenced by.
One of the early historical references to a pact is in the story of sixth century Theophilus of Adana, a priest who was said to have signed a pact with the Devil in his own blood, and renounced Jesus and Mary to get the Devil to make him a bishop.
Another famous historical pact is that of Father Urbain Grandier from the early seventeenth century–around fifty years after the time of the first Faust stories (a few decades after Marlowe’s play) when witch hunting was at a pitch in France. His pact is reproduced below, but it’s likely a forgery made by his prosecutors–a case of murder by Inquisition.
“He is always duped and the vilest tricks are resorted to to cheat him. While thus the Devil, having profited by experience, always insists upon having his rights insured by an unequivocal instrument (which in later centuries is signed with blood); he, in his turn, is fearlessly trusted to keep his promise, and this is a fact which must be mentioned to his honor, for although he is said to be a liar from the beginning, not one case is known, in all devil-lore in which the Devil attempts to cheat his stipulators. Thus he appears as the most unfairly maligned person, and as a martyr of simple-minded honesty.”History of the Devil, by Paul Carus, 1900, at sacred-texts.com.
Around the time of the first Fausts, in the sixteenth century, many people had a literal fear of the Devil, based at least in uncertainty, and it was easy to imagine that another person with a special ability might have gained their skill from an arrangement with the Devil. Even more suspect were those who developed some skill in the developing sciences long before rationalism revealed such people to be normal, even necessarily pedantic and boring, in the eighteenth century.
How else to explain how Gutenberg in the fifteenth century could turn out book after book, each page with letters formed in the same way from book to book, each (un-paginated) page 50 exactly like every other page 50, without hiring any scribes, but that he had hired the Devil who did it all in one night?
Even if one wasn’t inclined to believe in the Devil, one couldn’t be sure–if there was a Jesus, then why couldn’t there be a Devil, too? Science hadn’t yet come forward to explain away natural phenomena in its dry, careful way, outlining all the steps from A to Z, and reassuring everyone that the world was material; no master hand was needed and no demonic spark detected.
Supposed Pact of Urbain Grandier:
Text (from Wikipedia) of an actual pact used as evidence leading to the conviction & execution/murder of Father Urbain Grandier. Despite torture, Father Grandier died at the stake denying the charges. He was likely framed.
- Pacts with the Devil: Faust and Precursors (No longer available).
- Wikipedia article “Pact with the Devil“.
- “A sound magician is a mighty god” – Tragical History Of Dr. Faustus by Marlowe, scene 1: