English 287:  Great Books

Moličre's Tartuffe as a satire on religious fanaticism

Moličre's play repeatedly ran into difficulties with the religious censorship. It was only through the direct intervention of his patron, King Louis XIV himself, that he was able to obtain permission for it to be performed. But even so, he had to put it through several revisions, and orchestrate a campaign of pamphlets in its defense.  In his introduction to his translation of the play, Richard Wilbur describes how Moličre took the tack of insisting that the target of the play's satire is Tartuffe himself, and that Tartuffe is obviously not an example of religious faith but an example of a religious hypocrite.

But there is something disingenuous about Moličre's line of defense that Wilbur doesn't get at, and that should lead us to appreciate that, in an important respect, some of Moličre's fervent religious critics had a point.  For the play's comedy does not focus exclusively on Tartuffe.  The most savage butt of the play's comedy is Tartuffe's primary victim, Orgon.  Orgon is, undeniably, an example of a certain kind of traditional Christian.  He is not, of course, the only kind of Christian, nor the only kind of traditional Christian.  Audiences then (and students who have been paying attention in our class) will recognize that Orgon's contempt for reason and for the possibility of good will and good sense on the part of his dependents (his "subjects," the members of his household) is connected with his relish for something that looks like at least a caricature of the Augustinian theory of the effect of Original Sin on human nature.

Orgon is eager to believe in Tartuffe for a variety of reasons, but one of these is that the religion Tartuffe is peddling is a version of Christianity that Moličre regards as insane. According to this picture, mankind is totally depraved as a result of Original Sin, and therefore has to be subjected, for its own good, to dictatorial control by divinely appointed authorities (good puritan fathers [heads of households], for example).

Orgon's outlook is recognizably a parody of St. Augustine's authoritarian and misanthropic version of Christianity, which succeeded in imposing itself as orthodoxy towards the end of the Roman empire, and to which the Protestant Reformers Luther and Calvin wanted to return (in the [arguably mistaken] belief that it represented "original" Christianity). In the course of the middle ages, Catholicism moderated this position into the much more tempered picture expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas (d 1274), in the spirit of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). This more "optimistic" picture held that some remnant of the virtue and dignity with which God had originally created man survived the Fall (i.e., was not completely corrupted by Original Sin), so that human beings were able to contribute at least something, by their own efforts, to their salvation, and that some further legacy of Original Sin remained could be washed away in the sacrament of baptism. Individual sin thereafter might be inevitable, but God provided the sacraments of communion and penance for these to be effectively dealt with as well. This is the view the Catholic Church reaffirmed against the Protestants in the Council of Trent (1545-63). Moličre and his patron King Louis XIV shared this view. Meanwhile, the Jansenists (a movement within 17th-century Catholicism often accused of "Protestant tendencies") shared the general attitude of religious Puritanism towards the theater and court life as lax and dissolute.

The character Clčante in Tartuffe defends the King's view as reasonable, arguing that God expects us to enjoy our earthly existence as one of his gifts, not to curse it and spend our life neurotically mortifying the flesh.  Orgon, however, is in the grip of mid-life resentment of the social pleasures enjoyed by his children, and eagerly buys into Tartuffe's mindlessly disciplinary rigor (based on the "extremist" [Augustinian] theory of Original Sin).  He dismisses appeals to reason and common sense as signs of defective intensity of faith.  This is how he rationalizes his spiteful determination to boss his family into abject submission.  This combination of rigorism, elevation of "pure faith" (the sheer will to believe), and towards social and bodily pleasure condemns natural human faculties (the senses, desire, will, reason) as hopelessly corrupt. Against this, Moličre maintains that true religion requires respect for these.  The play is thus a way-station on the road to (perhaps we should even say "within") the Enlightenment.

In Moličre's day, there was a bitter conflict going on within French Catholicism between the Jesuits and the Jansenists.  One thing, however, that both groups were united in was the conviction that Moličre's Tartuffe was irreligious and deserved to be repressed.  The reason is not hard to seek.  The villain Tartuffe comes across as embodying characteristic features that each party, Jansenist and Jesuit, were passionate in attributing the other.

The Jesuits were relentless in their accusation that Jansenist Augustinianism was a form of Protestant Puritanism in disguise, and that their view of human nature was a slander upon God's favorite creature.

The Jansenists were adamant in the picture of the Jesuits as consummate casuists -- artful abusers of reason, skilled in fallaciously reconciling the commands of God with the demands of worldly interest.  (The most skillful and damaging exponent of this view of the Jesuits was the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, in his Provencial Letters.)

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  This page last updated 07 October 2002 .