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Tuesday, March 18, 2014
As the curtain falls on The Misanthrope we’ve come full circle. In Act One, Scene One the “misanthrope” (Alceste) says “mankind has grown so base, I mean to break with the whole human race.” By the end of the play he says “I’ll flee this bitter world where vice is king, and seek some spot unpeopled and apart where I’ll be free to have an honest heart.” A lot has happened in the course of this play but Alceste remains the same at the end as he was in the beginning. The experience of life hasn’t changed him at all. Is this a vice or is it a virtue? Is Alceste just being a stubborn hater? Or is he following a principled and noble act of reason? His friend Philinte tried to talk him out of leaving society in Act One and he tries again in Act Five: “I’ll readily concede this is a low, conniving age indeed; nothing but trickery prospers nowadays, and people ought to mend their shabby ways. Yes, man’s a beastly creature; but must we then abandon the society of men?” Philinte’s idea is that we should accommodate ourselves to the society we live in. He goes on to say that “Here in the world, each human frailty provides occasion for philosophy, and that is virtue’s noblest exercise.” This is exactly what Socrates did. The best place for philosophy isn’t in some academic tower or out in some lonely abandoned desert. Philosophy is something that goes on right here where we live now, in the marketplace, in our homes and out on our streets; even in the salons of France, philosophy can be found. But Philinte’s argument is lost and he’s wasting his breath. Alceste responds, “Sir, you’re a matchless reasoner, to be sure; your words are fine and full of cogency; but don’t waste time and eloquence on me. My reason bids me go, for my own good.” Note that Alceste doesn’t try to refute Philinte’s reasoning. He says MY reason bids me go. Question: If we’re guided by reason, then how can different men come to different conclusions? Alceste says his reason bids him go, “for my own good.” Here’s where the breakdown comes. Alceste believes it’s in his own best interest to leave society. Philinte believes it’s in his own best interest to be a part of society. Philosophers often disagree, even reasonable philosophers. Here the disagreement is about the basic understanding of what “the good” for man, as man, is. We had an earlier reading on this theme in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver found himself on a strange island with horses which turned out to be rational creatures. They could talk. They could reason. They were mannerly. And perhaps best of all, they were good. They didn’t steal, they didn’t commit murder or adultery, and they didn’t talk about other horses behind their backs. However, there were other creatures on this island called Yahoos. These were filthy, vicious, dangerous creatures and they turned out to be, much to Gulliver’s horror, human beings just like him. Here’s the connection between Gulliver’s Travels and The Misanthrope. Alceste looks at the French society around him and sees a bunch of Yahoos. What’s the point of trying to live a virtuous life around a bunch of Yahoos? Is it even possible to live a good life around this kind of people? Alceste thinks it is not possible here, so he wants to go somewhere else. Philinte decides to stay, even knowing that he’s living with Yahoos. He believes “A heart well-armed with virtue can endure.” Maybe it can. But Yahoos are hostile to people who try to live good lives. Good men like Socrates (in Plato’s Apology) and Jesus (in the Gospel of Mark) decided to live amongst the filthy and vicious Yahoos, and the Yahoos killed them. In France philosophy was something of a polite parlor game. French society wasn’t filthy, but it was vicious. What does polite society do with men like Socrates, Jesus, or Alceste; men who won’t compromise? In our next reading, that was exactly the same question facing the Romans.