Moliere and Religious Hypocrites

Orgon catches Tartuffe seducing his wife

Spiritual Sunday

I think I’ve been devoting too many posts in recent weeks to criticizing other Christians. Generally I’m more interested in looking for the mote in my own eye, and after today I promise to leave politics out of my Sunday postings for a while.

But I’ve just had a student in my Senior Seminar, Abby Messaris, write about Louis XIV censoring Moliere’s 1664 comedy about religious hypocrisy, and she is upset about the same things I am. Abby points out that we have plenty of Tartuffes today, starting with a president who is idolized by rightwing evangelicals, and that such hypocrisy drives her generation away from the church. How can people call themselves “pro-life,” she asks, when they oppose universal health care and immigration? Some of these same Christians, I would add, are justifying voting for a child molester in Alabama so that there will be enough GOP senators to pass a tax bill that delivers billions to the wealthiest Americans while throwing 13 million people off of healthcare.

Today’s Gospel reading could not be more relevant:

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Now to Tartuffe, a play about a religious conman who bamboozles Orgon into giving him his estate and promising him his daughter. Not until Tartuffe attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife do the scales fall from his eyes. Because he has revealed certain compromising secrets to Tartuffe, however, the conman has him in his power and calls in the law. Only because the king understands the situation is Orgon saved and Tartuffe arrested, a true deus ex machina ending.

Abby says that church pressure caused the first two versions of Tartuffe to be banned. Although Moliere insisted that he was satirizing only hypocrites, not true believers (“vrais dévots”), his satire apparently cut too close to home. Moliere therefore added a character, Cléante, an authentic Christian who functions as a contrast to Tartuffe. Religious conmen, Cléante says,

cloak their spite in fair religion’s name,
Their private spleen and malice being made
To seem a high and virtuous crusade,
Until, to mankind’s reverent applause,
They crucify their foe in Heaven’s cause.

Rather than placating the Church, however, Cléante only made the situation worse. That’s because, in the words of one Moliere scholar, his “cool and reasonable piety” was “unappealing if not repugnant to the adorers of the hidden god of the Holy Sacrament.”

“Cool and reasonable piety” was a bigger threat than charges of hypocrisy. Authors, after all, had been satirizing church hypocrisy since Chaucer and before and the Church always survived. The reasonable Cléante, on the other hand, threatened institutional religion in a whole new way. If such views prevailed, Faith would be subject to Reason. This struck at the Church’s reliance on received authority and would represent a major paradigm shift.

Incidentally, in 1712 Jonathan Swift penned a comic satire that clarifies the Church’s concerns about Tartuffe. In his Argument against Abolishing Christianity, Swift has his narrator justify religion on rational grounds.

You can tell from the essay’s entire title– An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand Today, be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby—that it resembles “Modest Proposal.” In both cases, reasonable sounding men come up with preposterous solutions to social issues. With friendly advocates like these, who needs enemies?

Essentially, Swift was challenging those who think that Reason can dispel all doubt and that religious belief can be reduced to logic. Such figures became increasingly prominent as the century wore on.

Abby smartly uses two of the theorists we studied to explain the commotion caused by Tartuffe. Hans Robert Jauss describes how great works of art challenge a period’s “horizon of expectations,” which in this case included unquestioning faith in the Church’s sacraments. No wonder he caused an uproar.

Brecht, meanwhile, advocates for revolutionary art that denaturalizes a prevailing and oppressive world view. If audiences can see existing power relations as constructed rather than just the way things are, then they are more likely to take action. What is constructed can also be taken apart. Abby specifically mentions Brecht’s play about Galileo, who like Moliere shook the very pillars of the Church by elevating empirical observation over faith. Both men helped set the stage for the Age of Reason, which (if you want to take the long view) would pave the way for the French Revolution and the overthrow of all religious institutions.

Abby notes that, while a third version of Tartuffe finally made it to the stage in 1669, it was not because of Moliere’s changes. Rather, for reasons that I’d like to hear more about, the opposition had become weaker.

In my own view, faith that cannot stand up to reason is not true faith, just as reason that thinks it is the key to everything is not true reason. A bracing satire like Tartuffe is good for religion, then and today. Laughter is holy.

This entry was posted in Moliere and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete