This is a picture of Romain Duris as Moliere in a scene from a French biopic of the author.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Misanthrope

The misanthrope of the title is Alceste, who is romancing Célimène. He has a lawsuit that is in process, but refuses to curry favor at the court. He sees the world as being populated by hypocrites and incompetents, and he doesn’t mind speaking the truth to anyone who comes by. This insistence on constant truth-telling is an extreme thing. Alceste’s friend Philinte has a more moderate position. By portraying Alceste as an extreme person, and Philinte as more moderate, Moliere has instantiated the doctrine of the mean into his play, and the very Aristotelian notion that things are good not at the extremes, but at the middle. Always telling the truth is neither desirable nor good. It is not appropriate to volunteer shameful or scandalous information about a person. Sometimes, in order to hold a job, or survive, you have to hold your tongue. It’s not appropriate, or called for, to tell your Oriental rug salesman what you think of his native country. When I was much younger I thought nothing of making light of the faith of the people I worked with. This did nothing to endear me to them, and only made me miserable.

Alceste has fallen into the trap of always speaking his mind, even when it would be better to hold his peace. When Oronte asks him his opinion of his poem, he tells him that the poem is bad. Now while writers don’t like to be ignored, which is the greatest insult you can pay a writer, they also don’t like to be told that their work is awful. So Oronte makes trouble for Alceste.

Alceste is ready to forgive Célimène for what he believes to be her flightiness and infidelity. However, he makes the proviso that she join him in leaving society altogether. She is unwilling to do so, and he abandons her and society altogether.

Aristotle and the Greeks believed that man in a state of nature, outside of political and civic life, was a beast. Alceste’s extreme, immoderate personality, drives him to abandon society. His departure from society and the life of the court is a removal from civilized life and a descent into a bestial, barbarous life.

Next up, another Moliere play, Don Juan, and quite probably some comment on the libretto, by Lorenzo da Ponte, of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.