A philosopher in spite of himself: Molière, spokesperson for lucidity and fair measure

This is what William Marx seems to suggest when he says: “Literature, in general, nobody knows what it is, except perhaps that it is a particular use of language. But what is the relationship between the two disciplines? We can believe that philosophical discourse is at the antipodes of literary discourse.

We can therefore remember one of the first philosophers, in this case Plato, who saw in bards and rhapsodists (poets of the time) only charlatans who should be banished from the city. Plato’s rational discourse does not support the rantings of poets who were then seen as being possessed by demons. In the Muslim tradition, poets are not without reproach.

The Koran presents them as immoral and thoughtless: “And as for the poets, it is the misguided who follow them. Don’t you see that they wander in every valley, and say what they don’t do? (Sura 26 “The Poets”, 224-225). Nevertheless, literary discourse is by no means limited to the extravagances of the mind. He also showed common sense and depth in putting the big questions that concern humanity at the center of the text.

Molière is unquestionably one of the most beloved playwrights and poets of all time. Behind the laughter provoked by his comedies and the rhythm of his poetry, however, hides a whole philosophy. In this century of reason, marked by Descartes and Pascal, Molière also promotes reason as a guideline for man. Literary criticism speaks of a so-called “reasoner” character in the playwright’s plays, a spokesperson for lucidity and fair measure.

see the truth

In Le Tartuffe, for example, the character Orgon embodies excess by being excessively credulous. He blindly believes that Tartuffe is the best man in the world, he is “coiffed”, “infatuated” and “crazy”, terms used to castigate the character’s lack of common sense. After so many attempts, his wife Elmire succeeds in making him “see” the truth (the verb to see is of great importance, its etymology refers to knowledge).

When the truth bursts forth in front of poor Orgon, he bellows his despair like this: “It’s over, I renounce all good people: / I will henceforth have a terrible horror of them, / And I’m going to become for them worse than a devil. » Cléante, the reasoner of the piece, denounces the clumsy and frenzied character of Orgon, he calls him to order in eminently Cartesian terms: « Well! this is none of your outbursts! / You do not keep the gentle temperaments; / In the right reason never enters yours, / And always from one excess you throw yourself into the other” before then ordering “And be for that in the right environment” The lucidity of Cléante recommends common sense and the middle ground. Orgon is here the proof that “common sense [n’est pas] the most shared thing in the world”. Molière had clearly seen the Cartesian irony.

Le Tartuffe is a profoundly philosophical play. Molière makes the difference between knowledge and belief. If the belief concerns the metaphysical, God. Everything of this tangible world must be known and seen by reason. It is the error of Orgon who believes in Tartuffe as one believes in God. He forgets that it is a human being who must be “know”. The verb “to see”, whose repetition is striking, accounts for this idea. The human (including the devotee), unlike God, is visible, knowable, but we still have to “take our hair off”.

When Orgon finally sees, through the strength of Elmire and her stratagem, the reality of the impostor, he confronts another infatuated character, his mother. This one refusing to believe in the hypocrisy of Tartuffe, Orgon tells her the famous pleonasm, beautiful and philosophical: “I saw it, I say, saw, with my own eyes seen”. The disillusionment of the character is enormous. He has just realized that he had neglected to see (therefore to know) by limiting himself to a fallacious belief. The resumption of the verb “to see” symbolizes the regret of having annulled reason. If Le Tartuffe makes people laugh thanks to an outspoken liar, Le Misanthrope makes people smile thanks to a man who never loses his sincerity. It’s always a matter of taking “the right environment” as Cléante says.

It is therefore clear that this theater of Molière is not made only for laughs. If we laugh enough in Le Tartuffe, we laugh less in Le Misanthrope. Molière’s great comedies are also profound reflections on human beings that transcend the simple role of entertaining. “Pleasing and instructing” they said in the Grand Siècle. If pleasing is to make people laugh, to instruct is also to make people think. Molière was therefore a philosopher in spite of himself. Literature is fundamentally philosophical.

A philosopher in spite of himself: Molière, spokesperson for lucidity and fair measure