Review #29: Misanthrope

The role of truth in a society looking for lies


Lies, lies, lies! When someone lies to your face, it can be painful and frustrating. But what do you do when an entire society uses lies as the partial basis for its daily interactions? That’s the question that seventeenth century playwright Molière asks in his play The Misanthrope.

The play follows the difficulties of Alceste, a French gentleman who interacts with the upper classes and those intimate with the royal court. Alceste hates dissemblance—the use of flattery, false sentiments, and outright lies to curry favor with others and to maintain one’s position in society. Instead, he believes in telling it like it is. The problem is that he is in love with Célimène, perhaps the biggest dissembler in all of France. By the final act, Alceste’s honesty has brought him nothing but lawsuits, financial ruin, and a life of solitude, while the flatterers—the liars—continue their courtly ways.

Molière’s play centers on the lies told among a small group of the upper classes. But as a satirist, his story actually reaches beyond this group to society at large. Through the language of a comedy of manners, Molière identifies the tragedy of using flattery to support key cultural norms. The lies work for a while to maintain civility. But when the lies are exposed, civility breaks down.

While the lies are bad, the core problem is the desire to be lied to. In the play Alceste tells Oronte truthfully that the latter’s poetry stinks. Naturally, Oronte sues Alceste. When Célimène praises Oronte’s writings, he offers her his love. His writing still stinks—Célimène says as much in a letter to a friend—but his desire to have comfort surpasses his interest in the truth. He wants to be lied to, as long as the lies bring comfort. It’s praise without accuracy, esteem without truth.

Although we in the US live without royal courts, Molière’s warnings about flattery and dissemblance are just as valid. Every time a politician spins the truth, every time an advertisement overpromises—every time we turn a blind eye to the truth and instead rest on the comfort of the lie—society takes a serious and painful hit. But it’s hard to see the damage when we rest in the comfort of those lies.

Our political language is filled with expressions like “hard working Americans,” “investments in our future,” and “the ninety-nine percent.” These terms of dissemblance feel good; they make us part of a just cause despite carrying almost no information at all. It is important to come to terms with the economic and political forces that drive our society. But it is more important to do so without dissembling.

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.


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