Study Guide

The Misanthrope Society and Class

By Molière

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Society and Class

When someone greets us with a show of pleasure,
It's but polite to give him equal measure,
Return his love the best that we know how,
And trade him offer for offer, vow for vow. (1.1.38)

Yeah those things that Alceste is yelling about hating? They're called manners. Your momma (or some parental figure) taught you those.

But in polite society, custom decrees
That we show certain outward courtesies

Society, according to Philinte, is a series of rules that makes life go easier. You can't just ignore it. Society stops you from doing certain things in public, like yelling that people stink or spitting on the ground. (Or, at least it used to, if you can trust our grandparents.)

In certain cases it would be uncouth
And most absurd to speak the naked truth;
With all respect for your exalted notions,
It's often best to veil one's true emotions.
Wouldn't the social fabric come undone
If we were wholly frank with everyone? (1.1.74)

Philinte thinks that you've got to keep some things to yourself if society is going to run smoothly. But are we supposed to agree with him? We get the idea that Molière wants us to think that he is a bit of a liar, too.

When I survey the scene of human folly,
Finding on every hand base flattery,
Injustice, fraud, self-interest, treachery....
Ah, it's too much; mankind has grown so base

Alceste's view of society is polar opposite to Philinte's. He doesn't care if society helps people get along; all he sees it that it forces you to do base and immoral things.

Whenever his name comes up in conversation,
None will defend his wretched reputation;
Call him knave, liar, scoundrel, and all the rest,
Each head will nod, and no one will protest.
And yet his smirk is seen in every house,
He's greeted everywhere with smiles and bows,
And when there's any honor that can be got
By pulling strings, he'll get it, like as not. (1.1.138)

Certain societies encourage certain kinds of people. Apparently, seventeenth-century France encourages liars. We, on the other hand, encourage Mark Zuckerberg.

Why, no. These faults of which you so complain
Are part of human nature, I maintain,
And it's no more a matter for disgust
That men are knavish, selfish and unjust,
Than that the vulture dines upon the dead,
And wolves are furious, and apes ill-bred. (1.1.178)

We guess if you think humans naturally stink, it makes sense to excuse them. But is this compassion? Is it empathy? Or is it just expecting the worst?

This fawning age has praise for everyone,
And all distinctions, Madam, are undone.
All things have equal honor nowadays,
And no one should be gratified by praise.
To be admired, one only need exist,
And every lackey's on the honors list. (3.7.31)

Alceste thinks the idea of everyone being a unique and special snowflake is pretty stupid. So, apparently, all this business about how Millennials all think they're too special to do anything because they've all been told that they're little snowflakes is … actually pretty old. Like, hundreds of years old. Take that, Boomers!

Come then: man's villainy is too much to bear;
Let's leave this jungle and this jackal's lair.
Yes! treacherous and savage race of men,
You shall not look upon my face again. (5.1.38)

Alceste's totally mature approach to society is just to leave it. Hey, here's an idea, Alceste—why don't you write a play satirizing it, instead? Might be more useful.

And not this man alone, but all humanity
Do what they do from interest and vanity;
They prate of honor, truth, and righteousness,
But lie, betray, and swindle nonetheless.(5.1.37)

So, here's the question of the hour (or, you know, millennium): is lying just natural? Have people lied for as long as we've been walking on two legs? Or is it something that society forces us to do?

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