Moliere's Defense of Comedy and Its Moral Purpose

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"The ridiculous then is the external and perceptible form which the providence of nature has attached to everything unreasonable, to make it recognizable to us and force us to flee it.  [. . .] [D]ecorum is reason made apparent, while appropriateness is the essence of reason.   This is why everything which looks fitting is always based upon some reason of appropriateness, and that which is ill-fitting upon inappropriateness; in other words, the ridiculous is based upon lack of reason."

-- Lettre sur la comedie de l'Imposteur, an anonymous work written to defend Moliere's plays.

Some basic claims concerning Moliere's comedy
  1. Moliere's worldview is deeply influenced by the Enlightenment's emphasis in general and Descartes' emphasis in particular on rationality as a guide to truth and behavior.
  2. Laughter is rational when it exercises taste and judgment and laughs at the ridiculous.
  3. Indiscriminate mockery is misplaced.
  4. Bienseance--decorum ("the right thing in the right way and at the right time") is of the utmost importance.
  5. Yet this stress on reason is not belabored and thought-out on the audience's part; rather, it is a quick understanding, reasoning through the laughter not before it.
  6. Moliere seeks a variety of responses from the audience throughout a play--a mixture of laughter and censure that changes with each character and scene.
  7. Honnęteté: a social code of behavior that stresses honesty, decency, candor, and integrity.  One knows one's true nature and how to live up to it.  Moderation, good judgment, and rational virtue are necessary to carrying this out.  Moliere assumes this code of behavior as the ideal for both his characters and his audience.

Moliere's defense of Tartuffe

  • According to Moliere, the function of comedy is "to correct men's vices" (301) and "to correct men by amusing them, I believed that in my occupation I could nothing better than attack the vices of my age by making them ridiculous" (304).
  • His depiction of the hypocrite is consistent throughout and only brings "out in the sharp relief the character of the truly good man which I oppose to it" (301).  Moliere stresses that has not confused good and evil in the play.
  • Comedy has its origin in religious drama and mystery.
  • Satire is more forceful than criticism because it exposes vices "to public laughter" (301-02).  Fools do not wish to be ridiculed.
  • Moliere admits that Christian tradition has been divided over comedy; some have approved, while others have rejected it.
  • He stresses that Aristotle, an ancient authority, approved of comedy.
  • He points out that good things can be corrupted, but that doesn't mean that comedy itself is always corrupt.
  • Comedy is innocent amusement at worst, and at best, it is something that can stir the passions for the good.
  • His enemies attack his play while ignoring others that deal with religion because Moliere attacks  religious hypocrisy directly, not false piety in general.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding