Study Guide

Tartuffe Morality and Ethics

By Molière

Morality and Ethics

Madame Pernelle:
"What he reproves deserves reproof,
He's out to save your souls, and all of you
Must love him, as my son would have you do." (1.1.34)

Madame Pernelle treats Tartuffe as a supreme moral authority. His power is reinforced by the endorsement of both Madame Pernelle and Orgon.

Madame Pernelle:
"I tell you that you're blest to have Tartuffe
Dwelling, as my son's guest, beneath this roof;
That Heaven has sent him to forestall its wrath
By leading you once more, to the true path;
That all he reprehends is reprehensible,
And that you'd better heed him, and be sensible." (1.1.34)

Madame Pernelle repeats what she said earlier, but this time she claims that Tartuffe has the authority of Heaven behind him.

Orgon:
"To keep his precepts is to be reborn,
And view this dunghill of a world with scorn.
Yes, thanks to him I'm a changed man indeed.
Under his tutelage my soul's been freed
From earthly loves and every human tie:
My mother, children, brother, and wife." (1.5.4)

Is there anything of true moral worth in this sentiment? Is there some valid philosophy embedded in there that has, perhaps, been twisted?

Dorine:
"It's hard to be a faithful wife, in short,
To certain husbands of a certain sort,
And he who gives his daughter to a man she hates
Must answer for her sins at Heaven's gate." (2.2.30)

Dorine takes an ethical situation that seems straightforward – "thou shalt not commit adultery" is one of the Ten Commandments – and suddenly calls the conventional interpretation into question.

Elmire:
"All your desires mount heavenward, I'm sure,
In scorn of all that's earthly and impure."

Tartuffe:
"A love of heavenly things does not preclude
A proper love for earthly pulchritude.
Our senses are quite rightly captivated
By perfect works our Maker has created." (3.3.27)

Once again, it seems as though there's truth to what Tartuffe said; taken out of context, his statement is perfectly moral. When you add adultery to the mix, well…that's a whole different story.

Cléante:
"Assuming, then, that you have been ill-used
By young Damis, and groundlessly accused,
Ought not a Christian to forgive, and ought
He not stifle every vengeful thought?" (4.1.1)

Cléante points out to Tartuffe that he's not acting particularly Christian. After all, he seems to be ignoring the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Cléante:
"Leave vengeance to the Lord, Sir; while we live,
Our duty's not to punish, but forgive;
And what the Lord commands, we should obey
Without regard to what the world may say." (4.1.3)

Cléante contradicts what Madame Pernelle says about Tartuffe earlier in the play. Only God, he says, has the authority to judge and decide what's right.

Tartuffe:
"Again, Sir, let me say that I've forgiven
Damis, and thus obeyed the laws of Heaven;
But I am not commanded by the Bible
To live with one who smears my name with libel."

Cléante:
"Were you commanded, Sir, to indulge the whim
Of poor Orgon, and to encourage him
In suddenly transferring to your name
A large estate to which you have no claim." (4.1.4-5)

Cléante has a pretty good point. Has Tartuffe really done right by the "laws of Heaven"?

Tartuffe:
":If you're still troubled, think of things this way:
No one shall know our joys, save us alone,
And there's no evil till the act is known;
It's scandal, Madam, which makes it an offense,
And it's no sin to sin in confidence." (4.5.19)

When you were little, did you ever think that, when you closed your eyes, people couldn't see you? Crazy, right? Well, Tartuffe's argument makes just about as much sense as that one, if not less.

Orgon:
"These papers vexed my conscience, and it seemed best
To ask the counsel of my pious guest.
The cunning scoundrel got me to agree
To leave the strong-box in his custody,
So that, in case of an investigation,
I could employ a slight equivocation
And swear I didn't have it, and thereby,
At no expense to conscience tell a lie." (5.1.8)

Here's another case of totally illogical moral arguments. Think of it this way: by giving the documents to Tartuffe, Orgon's actually doing more to hide the documents from the King – or so he thinks.

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