The Role of Reason in Religion: A Reading of Tartuffe
What happens when hypocrisy invades religion in the absence of reason? This is the very question that Moliere addresses as he establishes the characters in his work of political and social satire Tartuffe. In satire, characters are usually one-dimensional and unchanging; they are simply there to represent an idea. Therefore, rather than using character development, Moliere uses character establishment to shape his story and theme. This is most notably seen in the last two scenes of act one in Tartuffe as he establishes the characters of Orgon, Cleante and Tartuffe. In the establishment of these three characters Moliere forms a strong point about reason’s role in religion and the rightful way to pursue genuine belief.
In the last scenes of act one in Tartuffe, Orgon’s character is established by his attitude towards his family, his misplaced respect for Tartuffe, and his blindness towards Tartuffe’s hypocrisy. As Orgon makes his entrance into the story, he inquires of his brother-in-law that state of his house. Dorine reveals that the lady of the house has been very sick, even going as far to say that a bleeding “has saved her from the grave.” Orgon takes the information without acknowledging it. His only concern is for Tartuffe, the religious man he has taken in and aspires to be like. This nonchalant attitude toward his family reveals disconnect that is only made up for in his relationship to Tartuffe. This replacement of a practical stranger for one’s family immediately brings Organ’s character into question. In the next scene Orgon cements his character by arguing with Cleante. Orgon tries to justify Tartuffe’s character to Cleante, but falls short with this remark: “This is a man…who…ha!…well, such a man.” This inability to come up with words to describe the man he venerates so highly reveals Orgon’s faith to be empty. The reason for this emptiness is his lack of personal reasoning. He believes in Tartuffe, but doesn’t know why or what he believes, as evidenced by his inability to describe the man. He is allowing someone else to do his thinking for him. All of these factors work together to establish Orgon as an oblivious character that is devoid of reason.
In his argument with Orgon, Cleante establishes his personality and comes out as superior to his brother-in-law’s character. Cleante claims, “Religious passion worn as a façade abuses what’s sacred and mocks God.” He accuses Tartuffe of this very sin by stating, “what I see is loud lip service merely.” He does not believe Tartuffe’s shows of service to God are sincere in the simple fact that he makes a loud show of them. Orgon deems him an atheist for his disbelief in Tartuffe. Orgon is calling for blind belief in a religious man rather than studying the religion and coming to one’s own definition of true religious belief. Cleante reacts by saying this accusation is only rooted in the belief that one cannot find “reason and the sacred intertwined.” In this statement, Cleante establishes his character as both a religious man and the voice of reason in the story while hinting at an underlying philosophy by which to pursue true religious belief. This establishment places Cleante’s character above Orgon’s because of the employment of reason. This makes the audience more receptive to Cleante’s philosophy and assessments.
By the end of act one Tartuffe has yet to appear. However, Orgon and Cleante have already mostly established his character. Orgon paints Tartuffe as a saint and praises his religious piety with little to support his faith in the man. Due to the unreliable nature of his character that has been previously established, Cleante’s view of Tartuffe is taken to be more genuine. Orgon speaks of Tartuffe’s religious nature by stating, “The way he humbly bowed and kissed the floor? And when they tried to turn away their eyes, his fervent prayers to heaven and deep sighs made them witness his deep spiritual pain.” He is a man who makes a show with his worship and intends his own worship to bring praise for himself from others. Cleante condemns this form of worship by saying that true believers “are not the ones who groan and lay prostrate.” He therefore infers true religious devotion is something within and is not something to be outwardly shown or praised. Due to his reliability that has been established, the audience is more open to his interpretation of Tartuffe’s actions. This allows Tartuffe’s character to be cemented as fortune-seeking hypocrite that only gives the appearance of religious devotion. Due to the fact he has constructed this clever plan in order to live lavishly, he can be seen as a man with much reason and devoid of religion. In this sense, he is the opposite of Orgon and as such, he becomes the symbol of religious hypocrisy that should be condemned because of its empty worship that is simply for show and self praise. Cleante condemns this kind of religious belief by telling Orgon, “I believe you praise him quite sincerely, I also think you’ll pay for this quite dearly.” This is both a warning for this kind of belief system and also foreshadows Orgon’s unfortunate belated revelation towards the end of the story.
These characters come together to form the theme of the story. Tartuffe embodies religious hypocrisy and reason without religion. Orgon is the embodiment of religion or belief without reason or self-assessment. In the character of Cleante, a medium or balance between religion and reason is shown. Orgon’s predicament at the end of the story reveals blind belief to be unwise while Tartuffe’s treachery that is revealed at the end shows the evil in religious hypocrisy. Cleante’s philosophy is left as the only good path to true religious worship and belief. The point of the story can be gleaned from these establishments. Moliere’s theme in the story is that true religious belief is found only with genuine worship and the use of reason to discern for one’s self the way by which to achieve the faith outlined in the religion itself while warning of the dangers of religious hypocrisy or religion without substance.
Despite the one-dimensionality of these characters, Moliere uses their presence to develop a theme that makes an important point about religion. He establishes the reliability of each character and that causes the reader not only to question the genuine nature of each character’s claim, but in turn encourages the reader to question all things and to employ reason. More specially, he calls for this use of reason in religion in order to eliminate the problem of religious hypocrisy. This call for reason is at the heart of the story. The extremes of reason and religion are both illustrated and a balance between the two is deemed the correct way to true religion. This theme is a strong one and is as applicable today as it was in Moliere’s time due to the fact that religious hypocrisy still exists and the danger of allowing reason to disappear is ever-present.
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