English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities – Baroque & Enlightenment


Tartuffe as political parable:
reason, laughter, and responsible authority
in an age of absolutism


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The audience for which Molière wrote Tartuffe was a worldly sector of the social elite in Paris in the latter third of the Seventeenth Century. Indeed, its original audience was the royal court at Louis XIV's great palace Versailles. At least officially, that society remained unabashedly patriarchal: husbands and fathers exercised sovereign authority over their dependents.

The plot of Tartuffe concerns an incompetent head-of-household (Orgon) who abdicates his authority by assigning it to a counselor he has picked up off the street, on account of his impressive piety. This fellow (Tartuffe) turns out to be a religious confidence man, who, once he has acquired power over the master's property, moves to evict him and his family from the premises.  It is evident, then, that the play concerns itself with something of a "contradiction":  what happens when a sovereign authority (here, in a private household) is somehow incapable of exercising sovereign authority?

It happens, too, that this was an era in which the dominant personality in that court, the king himself, was asserting a relatively novel, “modern” theory of political legitimacy: the divine right of kings. The chief spokesman for this theory in France was Bishop Bossuet.  The theory is a kind of secular equivalent of the ancient papal claim that supreme authority (in matters of faith and morals) derives from divine appointment: the king in his realm (like the pope in his) is a vicar of the universal monarch, God Himself. His authority, in other words, does not derive from the consent of the governed. Subjects (the concept is distinct from that of “citizens”) are in the whole incapable of governing themselves, just as children are incapable of running a household. The Heavenly Father has therefore provided that a single political authority (a monarch) assume the management of their political affairs. The king is accountable directly to God, Who has vested him with this monopoly of final political judgment (the legislative and judicial power) and of legitimate force (executive power). God has willed that the subjects of the realm obey the king. Disobedience of the monarch (to say nothing of rebellion) is therefore not merely a crime but a sin — just as, under the 10 Commandments, disobedience of one's parents is a sin.

In other words, within the cultural context in which Tartuffe appeared, the following analogy was to be taken for granted:

the head-of-household is to his household dependents (wife, children, servants)


the king is to his kingdom of subjects


God is to His cosmos of creatures (and pre-eminently all mankind)

In light of this scheme of equivalence, we can picture God as a “king” and “father.” But, at least just as importantly, we can describe a king as a kind of “vice-god” and “virtual father.” Finally, a head-of-household counts as a metaphorical king.

This means that Molière's audience would have understood Orgon's behavior as, among other things, a model of bad kingship. What happens in Orgon's household automatically translates into the model of the kind of thing that can happen in a particular sort of badly run realm. And what sort is that? A kingdom in which the king surrenders his judgment to a bad counselor. More specifically, the play points to the kind of case in which that bad counselor happens to be a false religious counselor. And in Catholic France, the religious counselor likely to have the most influence with the king is the king's confessor. The danger is, that this individual, under the guise of serving the best interests of the king and his kingdom, may in fact be devoted to quite another interest.

In the case of France that dangerous interest is likely to be not the sinful desires (concupiscence) of the individual who happens to be the confessor, but the interests “fanatically” served by that confessor — those of Rome. The danger is especially not to be dismissed if the confessor happens to be a Jesuit, since a requirement to being accepted as a Jesuit is that one take an oath of personal allegiance to the pope.

It is important not to see Molière as contesting the divine right of kings (or its domestic corollary) itself. That is, he agrees that husband/fathers should run their households like absolute monarchs, just as he agrees that God has ordained that King Louis XIV is not constitutionally restrained in his conduct of the affairs of France. His point is rather that certain conditions must be met if these are to be competent and responsible in the discharge of the duties for the discharge of which they have been given exclusive authority.

The theory of divine right of kings holds that kings are appointed by God to rule, and that they are solely accountable to God for the discharge of their duties. They are not, in other words, authorized to rule capriciously or unjustly. Errant kings (like miscreant popes) can suffer grievously in purgatory or even be sent to hell. At the same time, however, if they rule badly, their subjects have no right of political rebellion to secure their removal. The only recourse for neglected or abused subjects is to bear their misfortune patiently, praying to God for relief.

In Tartuffe, Orgon represents one kind of dangerous ruler. He is saved in the end by a deus ex machina intervention by the Sun King himself, Molière's patron Louis XIV, who was actually in the audience during several performances of the play. The King orders the arrest of the traitorous villain Tartuffe, restores to Orgon the estate he has so improvidently devolved upon this confidence man, and pardons his offense in harboring incriminating papers for a political exile friend. This intervention is portrayed as enabled by Louis' vigilance, justice, and discriminating mercy (he recognizes Tartuffe as a scoundrel with whose record of crime he is already familiar, and he recognizes the loyal services Orgon had done him in the late civil wars). Orgon, on the other hand, has insisted on acting dictatorially out of spite for his subjects, who insist that his confidence is being abused by his chosen spiritual advisor, that the religious regime that latter has been empowered to impose on the household is extreme, and that his designation of Tartuffe as a husband for Marianne is wrongheaded.

Molière's point is not that absolute monarchs should rule without consulting advisors. On the contrary, (1) they should prudently weigh the advice of all whose interest is in question. At the same time, (2) the monarch must never delegate his judgment to another: he remains responsible for the wisdom of whatever advice he takes, and therefore must always retain the independent exercise of his own powers of mind. Most importantly, (3) this judgment itself must always be ruled in turn by reason and common sense.

The basic insight you want to get at is that despite the fact that divine right of kings is a theologically grounded theory of political legitimacy, the play implicitly insists that the monarch must never make his conscience the prisoner of his confessor or even of the pope. Even the religious policy of the nation he must determine on the basis of sober and humane reason (which is a faculty of the natural constitution of man) rather than on the basis of intensity of faith (which is to be suspected as an expression of irrational passion). Finally, if the king refuses to recognize these facts, he will not only risk the displeasure of God in the afterlife, but will make a fool of himself before mankind, and will suffer ignominy in history, as ridiculous and pitiful. This sanction, though informal, is powerful, and it is exercised in this world. For all these reasons, Molière's play, despite its endorsement of a theologically grounded political absolutism, represents an important way-station on the road to the Enlightenment.

It is also important to realize that, in order to recognize this dimension of the theme of the play, we do not have to attribute to Molière any deliberate intention to “lecture the king.” The implications we have been outlining are simply built into the structure of the situation that the comedy turns upon, when that situation is considered in the light of certain basic moral assumptions about which there was a public consensus in the general culture within which the play was produced and enjoyed. The play is manifestly concerned to afford its audience the rollicking good fun that we most immediately delight in today: an amazing fool goes to bizarre lengths to persist in his folly; an outrageous knave shows exhibits an amazing combination of cynical lack of moral scruple and brilliant flights of rationalization — perversions of the human rational faculty — to satisfy an astoundingly rampant concupiscence (sexual lust, greed for wealth, power and social standing, sheer pleasure in subverting legitimate authority). Our delight is capped by seeing the villain dashed, in a surprise come-uppance. Molière engineers this final satisfaction via a plot twist that enables him to play a gracious compliment to his patron and sovereign.

But it is the logic of the categories at work in the play that makes it impossible for the king to accept this compliment without at the same time paying court to the general principle that if an absolute king (hence he himself) were to behave in his kingdom (France) in a way analogous to that in which Orgon behaves, there might be no way for himself and his kingdom to be rescued from disaster except by a miracle.  And miracles are not something that responsible adults/administrators/monarchs depend upon in managing the affairs for which they are responsible.  For this, it is sober reason that is required.  

Moreover, even if political disaster were averted by a divine advent, an Orgon-like monarch would be a laughingstock of history.  And Louis XIV was a person whose priority in life, after of course his eternal salvation, was glory:  recognition in history, by qualified judges (hence, by reasonable men) for his achievements in history. (See Matthew and Platt, p. 358 and 355-57.)

Part of the enjoyment the play afforded the play's original audiences  — except, of course, those who, for one reason or another despised the King — was the recognition of their historical good fortune in having the ship of state, in their time and place, in the hands of a captain who appreciated his responsibilities, and who would guard the tiller by never relinquishing his own judgment, and especially not to extreme religious fervor.

This understanding, on the part of King and audience, works as a sanction (a carrot and a stick) upon the King, recognized as legitimate by both King and subject, for encouraging the King, in and despite his absolute authority, to behave with caution.  So, while it is impertinent for subjects to be lecturing the King on his moral and political responsibilities, and while it would be outrageously impertinent for someone in such a lowly social position as an actor (Molière) to engage in such behavior, the play inexorably does serve as such a caution.  It is enabled to do so by the fact that this aspect of its working remains completely implicit, and by the fact that the implication is logically inseparable from the elegant flattery with which it concludes.


Divine-right absolutism as a "modern" political theory.  We today are not accustomed to think of absolute monarchy as a “modern” theory of political legitimacy. The French Revolution (1789-94), after all, pointedly rejected the it as the linchpin of the ancien regime (the “Old Order”). And the “Glorious Revolution” in England (1688) put an end to what was perceived as the attempt of the last Stuart King, James II, to claim a monarchical prerogative to reintroduce Catholicism to the realm, as the religion of his personal choice. His brother Charles I had been restored to the throne to replace a virtual absolute monarchy (in the form of the Protectorate) instituted by the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell, who himself had participated in the execution of James II's and Charles II's father, Charles I, who had tried to act upon the theory of divine right of kings that his father, in turn, James I, had vigorously argued for in a number of political tracts (but prudently stopped short of asserting in practice). The American Revolution of 1776, for its part, rebelled against the exactions of the limited monarchy that had been established in 1688.  So, from the perspective of today, the system of absolute monarchy looks archaic.

This appearance does not, however, accord with history. In the Seventeenth Century, when the theory was being asserted by James I of England and Louis XIV of France, it was vociferously protested against as novel — both by partisans of genral papal supremacy and by the heirs of European feudal aristocracy, whose traditional prerogatives of more or less autonomous regional authority it was designed to set aside in favor of national consolidation under a centralized state. The traditional feudal theory of political legitimacy to which these provincial nobles appealed was the authority of historical precedent. (This was the theory that, for example, the English barons had forced King John to acknowledge in the Magna Carta in 1215.) To its proponents — many of them in the wealthier sectors of the middle class — the doctrine of the divine right of kings appeared positively progressive: trade would be stimulated by abolition of internal tariffs, by the regularization of the chaotic variety of legal traditions that had evolved in particular localities over the course of the middle ages, by the construction of canals and highways, and by the provision of naval protection for the suppression of piracy and the opening of imperial opportunities. These more enterprising elements of the French middle class found common cause with ascendant monarchies bent on curbing the “arbitrary” assertions of interest of the local nobles. (In England, the case was different: much of the smaller landed wealth and the middle class commercial wealth of the London metropolis was strongly represented in Parliament, and was overwhelmingly Protestant. James I alienated these interests by his attempts to exact taxes for foreign policy ventures that they viewed as crypto-Catholic. Hence, Parliament [by then a predominantly middle-class bastion] relied on the theory of historical precedent [originally invoked by the feudal barony] as a bulwark against “royal arbitrariness.” That is, in England, the economically novel elements found itself appealing, in politics, to the authority of tradition.)

It is in any case a measure of the prestige that had been acquired by Enlightenment ideals that Louis XIV's absolutism would seek to justify itself in terms of this ideal of historical progress, rather than in terms of adherence to continuous tradition.  The propaganda of Louis XIV as “the Sun King” — everywhere expressed in the architecture and decor of the palace he constructed at Versailles — is very much reflected in the King's view of his obligations as a monarch for the cultivation of the arts and sciences.  The King saw himself as on the side of light, in the modern line of Bacon and Newton, when he founded the Academie des Sciences. (See Figure 15.7 on p. 396 of Matthew and Platt.) He firmly believed that the binding together of the French nation (legally, militarily, economically, and infrastructurally in roads and canals) would foster the prosperity — the comfort and security — of its people. He was convinced that his power was beneficent, and that therefore the sun's warmth was a fitting emblem of his benevolence. Since these projects were represented breaks with historical tradition, the emblem of the Sun King, for the King himself, had an importantly different meaning than the emblem of the sun of Bernini's spectacular setting for Peter's Chair had for Urban VIII.  Bernini's symbolic complex in the apse of St. Peter's Basilica expresses the rootedness of the Pope's authority in historical tradition.  Louis XIV certainly regarded his legitimate succession from the line of Bourbons to be important, and believed that it is through this succession that he can be recognized as appointed by God to act as “father” to the French people.  But he saw his mission as to change what had been, and ultimately the test of his success would be whether he had been wise enough to envision the right changes, and clever and courageous enough to bring them into being.  Political authority may be reserved by God to the monarch alone.  But reason is not:  it is the inheritance of human beings as such.  Ultimately, then, the King's reputation in history is hostage to the judgments of a faculty that is shared among all his subjects.  

Thus, a century or so before the outbreak of the American Revolution, the stage is set for that next step:  declaring the divinely appointed sovereign to be the collective possessor of this faculty of rational choice, the People as a whole.  Return

Bossuet.  The chief spokesman for this theory in France was Jacques Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704), who, after preaching to the King in 1661, was appointed by Louis as tutor to the Dauphin (the male heir next in line to the royal succession) and later (1681) as Bishop of Meaux.  (See Matthews and Platt, pp. 391-93).  Both Bossuet (pronouced "boss-WAY") and Louis XIV were Catholics, but Bossuet defended and Louis upheld the chief principle of what was known as Gallicanism, according to which the French kings' authority was supreme in secular matters within the kingdom, and extended even to nominating French bishops and the use of revenues from vacant bishoprics.  The theory had earlier been argued by the English Stuart monarch, James I (though of course without the Gallican trappings, since James was a Protestant). (In fact, the first edition of James' Basilikon Doron circulated privately as early as 1597, while he was James VI of Scotland, and before he ascended to the English throne in 1603.)  Return.

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