Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope

A recent U.S. survey of adults who don’t attend church, not even on holidays, found that 72 percent don’t attend because they think the church is full of hypocrites. One wag commented: Don’t let that stop you. There’s always room for one more. In modern society people don’t always live the way they should or speak what’s really on their minds. Is this hypocrisy? Sometimes there’s a fine line between being hypocritical and just being plain polite. It hasn’t always been so. In primitive cultures people often spoke more honestly to one another, face to face. In The Iliad Achilles tells Agamemnon what’s on his mind: You thick-skinned, shameless, greedy fool!...we joined you, you insolent boor, to please you…You overlook this, dogface, or just don’t care…To this the high commander (Agamemnon) made reply:…No officer is hateful to my sight as you are… This is speaking honestly from the heart. Is it an improvement?

The Misanthrope is an exploration of how far we should go in speaking from the heart. Moliere is one of the few dramatists I know who can rival Shakespeare in laying open the human heart. The opening of the play poses the question of honesty versus hypocrisy for the audience:
ALCESTE: …I say it’s base and scandalous To falsify the heart’s affections thus; If I caught myself behaving in such a way, I’d hang myself for shame, without delay.
PHILINTE: It hardly seems a hanging matter to me; I hope that you will take it graciously If I extend myself a slight reprieve, And live a little longer, by your leave.
ALCESTE: How dare you joke about a crime so grave?
PHILINTE: What crime? How else are people to behave?
ALCESTE: I’d have them be sincere, and never part With any word that isn’t from the heart.
This is great drama. We have two distinct sides here. Alceste is on the side of honesty and openness. Our hearts should be sincere. Doesn’t Alceste have a point? Shouldn’t we be sincere in our dealings with others? But his friend Philinte has a different point of view:
ALCESTE: It chills my heart to see the ways Men come to terms with evil nowadays; Sometimes, I swear, I’m moved to flee and find Some desert land unfouled by humankind…
PHILINTE: Show some leniency toward human failings. This world requires a pliant rectitude; Too stern a virtue makes one stiff and rude; Good sense views all extremes with detestation, And bids us to be noble in moderation. The rigid virtues of the ancient days Are not for us; they jar with all our ways And ask of us too lofty a perfection. Wise men accept their times without objection, And there’s no greater folly, if you ask me, Than trying to reform society…I take men as they are, or let them be, And teach my soul to bear their frailty…you would do well, Sir, to be still. Rage less at your opponent.
Philinte has a good point too. What if we spoke with brutal honesty to everyone? What if we said, honestly: you’re too fat, and this one’s boring, and that one’s ugly…where would that lead? It would undo the social fabric and soon we’d all be undone. Better to be discrete and polite. Things go more smoothly that way. Besides, as Philinte goes on to say: This philosophic rage is a bit extreme…The world won’t change, whatever you say or do; And since plain speaking means so much to you, I’ll tell you plainly that by being frank You’ve earned the reputation of a crank. The world won’t change anyway and people will hate you besides. What good does that do anyone? Philinte is the voice of reason and moderation. Still, it’s good to have critics like Alceste. Socrates was a critic along these lines, exploring truth fearlessly wherever it may lead. And there’s a third character in the play which expresses a Socratic point of view. ELIANTE: The honesty in which he takes such pride Has, to my mind, its noble, heroic side. In this false age, such candor seems outrageous; But I could wish that it were more contagious… We may be hypocrites but we don’t have to like it.


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