The Golden Assay is propelled by a headless lust for amazing knowledge. The quest will at times seem fruitful. In every case it is meaningless. The human desire to know is predicated on vanity and shaped by the individual’s inescapable sense of impotency in relation to the entire world.
Goethe uses triviality of knowledge as the opening dilemma in Faust. Before the play even begins, Faust has already spent a life time developing his expertise in a breadth of disciplines. Having found himself no closer to true understanding for it, he has cursed science and arts and by the play’s opening has resorted to a study of mysticism for answers (lines 354-390). The deal Goethe’s Faust makes with Mephistopheles is more complicated than in the traditional fable. Rather than exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasure, Faust wagers that no knowledge or pleasure that the devil might offer could ever completely satisfy him. In the end, Faust loses the wager in one sense but wins it in another. Over a period of time Mephistopheles endows Faust with ever growing power. He is given dominion over the earth and control over society that is so profound that he is able to command the harnessing of the ocean. It is a perfect and overriding assertion will. Ecstatic with pride, Faust concedes finally to have reached his höchsten Augenblick. If he could continue onward, it would be the progress of a god. But Faust cannot. Upon realization of his achievement, he immediately dies. Mephistopheles appears, complaining that power, no matter how great, and knowledge, no matter how extensive, is in truth nothing since it can all be erased by mortality (lines 11586-11593). “Why have eternal creation, / When all is subject to annihilation? / Now it is over. What meaning can one see? / It is as if it had not come to be…”