Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, February 24, 2014

4-04.1 MOLIERE: The Misanthrope (Act 1)

The Great Books Series forms the heart of a reading program that covers many of the classics of Western civilization. But what lies at the heart of the Great Books? The Bible and Shakespeare are repeated in all five sets of readings. Plato has four readings and Aristotle has three. Moliere is represented by one play: The Misanthrope. These readings (the Bible, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle and Moliere) don’t seem to have much in common at first glance. They cover religion, history, literature and philosophy. But the common thread running through all these readings is called The Great Conversation. That’s how we’ll approach Moliere this week.
How does Moliere fit into The Great Conversation? For starters, Moliere wrote in French. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek. Shakespeare wrote in English. Plato and Aristotle wrote in Greek. But all the Great Books readings are English translations from the original text. So this Great Books set is intended for English-language readers. Having crossed the language barrier we still bump up against another tough question: what does Moliere have in common with, say, Plato? It’s easy to see the connection between Moliere and Shakespeare. Even though Moliere was French and Shakespeare was English, they were both dramatists. They both spoke the same “language” of drama because they both wrote plays. They would have understood one another. But how can Moliere carry on a Great Conversation and “talk to” Plato? Well, if we look closely at the dialogs of Plato it’s not that hard to imagine them as plays instead of philosophical treatises. Plato was one of the most dramatic of the philosophers. His works are almost as much poetry as they are philosophy. It’s harder to make the connection with Aristotle because Aristotle is so straightforward. He’s among the most un-dramatic and un-poetic of the philosophers. And yet even Aristotle and Moliere can talk to one another.
Consider this passage from Alceste in Moliere’s play The Misanthrope: “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.” What would Aristotle have to say about that? Plenty. In his work on Politics, Aristotle says “the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature…” Aristotle thinks Alceste is misguided when he wants to go somewhere far away from human society. Aristotle agrees that life in society isn’t always pleasant. But he thinks more like Alceste’s friend, Philinte. Philinte says “in polite society, custom decrees that we show certain outward courtesies…” These “courtesies” Philinte is talking about are the same things Aristotle calls “a social instinct implanted in all men by nature.” This is a serious conversation we have going on here.
Over the years Great Books authors have taken both sides of this question. Writers like Rousseau and Thoreau agree with Alceste. They think society is a corrupting influence. Their solution is to get back to nature. This may be what the Bible calls The Garden of Eden. Of course Aristotle disagrees with that solution. So does Plato. They believe we live in a real world of people in civilization. We have to bloom where we’re planted, so to speak. In The Apology we find that Socrates had the option to go into exile. He could either leave the civilization of the Athens he loved, or else face the death penalty. Socrates chose the death penalty. This choice is going too far for Philinte. For him philosophy is all well and good in its place but (he says) “it hardly seems a hanging matter to me.” He wouldn’t die for it. It is for these reasons and others that the Great Books thinks Moliere has earned his place at The Great Conversation table.


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