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The Dictionary of Seventeenth-Century French Philosophers

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Molière (né Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) (1622–73)

Molière (né Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) (1622–73)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350053250-0418

  • Publisher:
    Continuum International Publishing Group
  • Identifier:
    b-9781350053250-0418
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Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born into a family of wealthy artisans (his father was tapestry-maker to the king) in January 1622 in the neighbourhood of Les Halles in Paris; he died in 1673. According to his biographers, he studied (approximately between 1635 and 1640) the humanities and philosophy with the Jesuits at the Collège de Clermont (now the Lycée Louis-le-Grand). He must have met or rubbed shoulders with fellow students who were illustrious to a greater or lesser degree, including, perhaps, François Bernier and Claude-Emmanuel Luillier (known as Chapelle): it was with them, and with Cyrano De Bergerac , that he is said to have taken classes given by Gassendi (around 1641 to 1642); in any case, they were to become very close friends. After studying law in Orléans between about 1640 and 1642, he quickly turned to theatre and, in 1643, founded L’Illustre Théâtre in Paris with a group of mostly young actors including Madeleine Béjart, who shared the rest of Molière’s life even after he married her sister (or daughter?) Armande. The misadventures of L’Illustre Théâtre, particularly financial, led Molière (he adopted this name in 1644) and the company to undertake at the end of 1645 a long tour in the French provinces, which lasted until 1658.

The most important stage (between 1653 and 1656) was at Pézenas, where the company received the patronage of the Prince de Conti, governor of Languedoc. The prince’s ‘conversion’ (in the Pascalian sense of the term) in 1656 led him to dismiss the company in 1657; from then onwards, he was fiercely opposed to the theatre and became Molière’s enemy (Traité de la comédie et des spectacles, posthumous, 1666). Molière’s company, which had performed L’Étourdi in Lyons between 1654 and 1655, was in Rouen in 1658 (where it was appreciated by the Corneille brothers) and, from the end of the year, back in Paris where, now called the ‘Troupe de Monsieur’, it succeeded in performing at Court. The years that followed were marked as much by success and glory (the company became the ‘Troupe du Roi au Palais-Royal’ in 1665) as by personal and professional worries, illness, controversy, attacks and threats from rivals and opponents, from which royal favour only partly protected the group. From the end of 1659, the success of the Précieuses ridicules, which launched Molière as a comic author and a writer, provoked this kind of attack. The success of L’École des Femmes (end of 1662) led to a more serious quarrel started by scandalized prudes to whom he replied on stage in 1663 with La Critique de L’École des Femmes and L’Impromptu de Versailles. The bitter quarrel over Tartuffe, which lay at the heart of his career, was more long-term: the comedy, performed at Court on 12 May 1664, incited the anger of the ‘pious’ and was quickly banned from public performance. The authorization of the play under another title (Panulphe) in 1667 was followed almost as quickly by a new ban. It was not until 1669 that Le Tartuffe ou l’imposteur was finally authorized. Meanwhile, the scandal had intensified in 1665 with Dom Juan (original title: Le Festin de Pierre – first performance on 15 February) which, despite the text being toned down, was no longer performed after 20 March and was not published during the author’s lifetime. These controversies did not prevent the success generally encountered by the following plays, no doubt in return for a certain strategic withdrawal, the most famous being Le Misanthrope in 1666, Amphitryon, George Dandin ou le Mari confondu, and L’Avare in 1668, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac in 1669, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in 1670, Les Femmes savantes in 1672, and Le Malade imaginaire in 1673 which, created on 10 February, marked the end of the work and of the author: struck down by spasms of blood-spitting during the fourth performance on 17 February, Molière died that same evening.

Actor, leader of his theatre company, director and playwright, Molière did not write any theoretical works. The few texts where he uses his own name, whether expressly (Preface to Tartuffe: a parallel between comedy, medicine and philosophy) or by an unambiguous dramatic presentation (Critique de l’École des Femmes and Impromptu de Versailles, Amants Magnifiques through the voice of the ‘court jester’ Clitidas), merely outline certain doctrinal elements, primarily in the area of aesthetics. However, even though it is futile to search for one particular philosophy in his work, and even though it is illusory simply to attribute to him whatever is proclaimed by such and such a character, his work is steeped in philosophy from beginning to end. It first reveals many philosophical characters, those who are named as such, ‘Doctors’ or others, those who philosophize both badly and well: reasoners, hair-splitters and mumblers whose words feed on philosophical terms and discourses, themes and texts that come from philosophers and philosophies both ancient and modern, whether by name (Aristotle), by allusion (Cartesian vortices, small atomistic bodies), or in a more or less transparent manner (as in scene 1 of act III of Dom Juan, where we find the Gassendi of the Objections to Descartes and the Cordemoy of the Discernement du Corps et de l’Ame). More generally, Molière’s set of themes, which constitutes the substance of theatre and comedy, is in fact a philosophical one: life and death, health and illness, love and passion, virtue and vice, the individual and society, authority and freedom, age and generations, power and money, appearance and truth, the real and the imaginary, religion and unbelief, etc., and the philosophical elements from which it borrows are implemented in and for the organization of comedies and the unfolding of dramatic action, which owe to these elements a part of their vigour and comic strength. The primary function of a comedy of this sort is, naturally, a critical one: the implementation of philosophies often takes place in the form of a satire – that of the Aristotelian dogmatism of Pancrace and of its reversed double, the Pyrrhonian scepticism of Marphurius in Le Mariage forcé; a satire of general dogmatism in its various forms: the moral dogmatism of virtue in Le Misanthrope; medical dogmatism, culminating in Le Malade imaginaire; and pretentiousness in literature and society in Les Précieuses ridicules and Les Femmes savantes. These are, besides, features of imposture which – constitutive of comic structure in general and made up of mistaken identities and substitutions, devices and deceit, practical jokes and dupery, misrepresentations and delusions, including of oneself – is exposed in the plot and the behaviour and words of the various characters: the old man in love, such as Arnolphe in L’École des Femmes; the bourgeois who likes to think he is a gentleman in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme; the supposedly religious man in Tartuffe; this latter denunciation being pursued in Les Amants Magnifiques by that of astrological superstition in a battle against the contemporary forms of irrationalism, which echoes the battles fought by Cyrano de Bergerac. Satires and denunciations take place through the voice of ‘reasoners’ (Chrysalde in L’École des Femmes, Cléante in Tartuffe, Philinte in Le Misanthrope …), who highlight, against the many kinds of excess and dissoluteness of the central characters, whose name or characteristics often provide the title, the need for a happy medium in society (‘Perfect reason flees all extremism’ – ‘La parfaite raison fuit toute extrémité’, says Philinte), as is demonstrated by the development and unfolding of the plot, as well as by the way in which the person and the actions of those who break this rule are ridiculed. The morality that is put forward in these discourses is clearly based on Aristotelian ethics, which conferred on the virtue of ‘prudence’ the major role of determining this happy medium and the psychology it implied, where it takes on the more precise role of moderating the affects – ‘metriopathy’.

The obvious Aristotelianism of this morality with its social function should not, however, lead us to ignore the other philosophical orientations present in Molière’s theatre. This is the case with the very justification that is given, with its linguistic environment, to the dialogue in which it is contained, and the unfolding of the action. Within or beyond Aristotelian psychology, the plea for moderation of the affects is based on medical theories concerning moods and their healthy balance (the main characters, on the contrary, are melancholic, ‘atrabilious’, quick-tempered or fiery) and also refers to other philosophical schools of Antiquity, to the way in which each of them advocates and justifies ataraxia, the absence of trouble that prudence brings the wise man, on behalf of control of Stoic reason, sceptical doubt and abstention, and the Epicurean choice of pleasures. More broadly, the themes of passion, pleasure and love are based on the doctrine of Epicurus; the direct echo provided by Éliante’s tirade on the illusions of love beginning in verse 710 of Le Misanthrope is the probable remnant of Molière’s lost translation of the poem by Lucretius. The moderate scepticism or ‘academic scepticism’ that flourishes, for example, in the words of Philinte in the same play, should not be taken so much as a philosophical position adopted by Molière but rather as the most basic form of philosophical critique, an attitude that was common to all philosophical approaches of his century, at least at their outset; this refers us back to the contemporary philosophical background that becomes clearer in a philosophical play such as Dom Juan.

The speeches of the eponymous hero express the denials, gibes and blasphemy common in the libertine tradition that saw religious beliefs as imposture par excellence, whereas the inconsistency of the speeches made by Sganarelle in the scene cited earlier (III, 1) to thwart his master’s impiety and their derisory fall (‘there goes your reasoning with its nose broken’ – ‘voilà ton raisonnement qui a le nez cassé’, states Dom Juan) tend to shatter the philosophical apologetics that were then in fashion: that of Gassendi when he defended, in opposition to Descartes, the traditional proof of God’s existence by the order of the universe: the proof by effects; and that of Cartesians such as Cordemoy, Molière’s friend, inventing occasionalism in order to face up to the difficulties of the union between the body and the soul. Sganarelle’s praise of tobacco at the beginning of the play also implicitly fits into this context; it is a speech that contains the echo of a materialist argumentation inspired by medicine which, from Lucretius to La Mettrie via Huarte, Guillaume Lamy and Abraham Gaultier , emphasizes, against spiritualism, the psychotropic effects of all kinds of drugs. The challenging of the themes and debates of Descartes’s metaphysics extended into the humoristic mode, with the questioning of the extravagances of his physics; in the spiritualist speeches of the Femmes savantes, after the questioning of Cartesian egology and theology expressed, more profoundly than it first appears, in the dialogue between Mercure and Sosie in Amphitryon in which, when Mercury claims to be Sosie, the true Sosie defends his right to an identity with a problematic appeal to the Cartesian principle of divine truth: ‘Very well: I maintain it [that I am Sosie] by the important reason that / Such is the supreme power of the Gods / That it is not in my power to say no / And to be another than myself’ (‘Fort bien: je le soutiens, par la grande raison / Qu’ainsi l’a fait des Dieux la puissance suprême, / Et qu’il n’est pas en moi de pouvoir dire non, / Et d’être un autre que moi-même’).

In any case, the dramatic and comic implementation and presentation of ancient and modern philosophies produces reciprocal effects: the comedy both feeds off them and challenges them. Through these effects we can appreciate the work’s philosophical scope: effects of display and popularization (whatever the author’s intentions, Dom Juan reveals the themes and arguments of libertine non-belief); the satirical effects of limitation, peremption, demystification and subversion; those brought about by the ridicule incurred by various dogmatisms and grotesque demonstrations; the psychological and moral effects produced by the representation of passions, their structure, their interplay and their consequences; typological, almost mythical effects: an Alceste, a Harpagon, a Dom Juan, a Tartuffe have become, beyond the characters’ speeches and actions, long-term objects of reflection and questioning to which philosophers are led to make reference, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Bibliography

Les Précieuses Ridicules (1660).

Sganarelle (Paris, 1660).

L’École des Maris (Paris, 1661).

Les Fâcheux (Paris, 1662).

L’Étourdi (Paris, 1663).

Le Dépit amoureux (Paris, 1663).

L’École des Femmes (Paris, 1663).

La Critique de L’École des Femmes (Paris, 1663).

Le Mariage forcé (Paris, 1664).

La Princesse d’Élide (Paris, 1664).

L’Amour médecin (Paris, 1666).

Le Misanthrope (Paris, 1667).

Le Médecin malgré lui (Paris, 1667).

Le Sicilien ou l’Amour peintre (Paris, 1667).

Amphitryon (Paris, 1668).

George Dandin ou le Mari confondu (Paris, 1669).

Le Tartuffe ou l’imposteur (Paris, 1669).

L’Avare (Paris, 1669).

Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (Paris, 1670).

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (Paris, 1670).

Psyché (Paris, 1671).

Les Fourberies de Scapin (Paris, 1671).

Les Femmes savantes (Paris, 1672).

Posthumous Works

Dom Garcie de Navarre ou le Prince jaloux (in the 1682 edn).

L’Impromptu de Versailles (in the 1682 edn).

Dom Juan (in the 1682 edn) or Le Festin de Pierre (Amsterdam, 1683; Le Festin de Pierre [Dom Juan], crit. edn of the Amsterdam text [1683] by Joan Dejean, Geneva, 1999; Dom Juan …, German edn and trans. with Anmerkungen, Nachwort and Literaturhinweise by Hartmut Stenzel, Stuttgart 1989).

Mélicerte (in the 1682 edn).

Les Amants magnifiques (in the 1682 edn).

La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas (in the 1682 edn).

Le Malade imaginaire (1675, in the 1st edn of Œuvres, and in that of 1682).

Les Œuvres de M. de Molière …, 8 vols (Paris, 1682).

Œuvres complètes, ed. Georges Couton, 2 vols (Paris, 1971).

Other Relevant Works

B.A. Sieur de R[ochemont], Observations sur une comédie de Molière intitulée Le Festin de Pierre (Paris, 1665; in the Couton edn, vol. 2).

[Anon.], Lettre sur la comédie de L’Imposteur (1667; in the Couton edn, vol. 1).

Grimarest, Gallois de, La Vie de M. Molière (Paris, 1705).

Further Reading

Bloch, O., Molière/Philosophie (Paris, 2000).

Bloch, O., Molière, comique et communication (Paris, 2008).

Bourqui, C., Les sources de Molière (Paris, 1999).

Dandrey, P., La Médecine et la maladie dans le théâtre de Molière, 2 vols (Paris, 1998).

Duchêne, R., Molière (Paris, 1998).

Goldschmidt, G.-A., Molière ou la liberté mise à nu (Paris, 1973).

McKenna, A., Molière, dramaturge libertine (Paris, 2005).

Molino, J., ‘“Les nœuds de la matière”: L’unité des Femmes Savantes , XVIIe siècle, no. 113 (1976), pp. 23–47 .

Molino, J., ‘Molière: esquisse d’un modèle d’interprétation , XVIIe siècle, no. 184 (1994), pp. 479–90 .

Tout sur Molière (Paris, 1989, repr. of 3 back numbers of Europe: 1961, 1966, 1972).

Truchet, J. (ed.), Thématique de Molière (Paris, 1985).