How does the argument between Alceste and Philinte in the opening scene of The Misanthrope state the play's major thematic conflict?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The argument between Alceste and Philinte in the opening scene of this play centres around what Alceste has just witnessed his friend doing, which was flattering somebody without really knowing them. This, to Alceste, is a "base, degrading, infamous thing" to do because it means Philinte is being insincere and that he lacks integrity. Philinte, by contrast, takes a somewhat lighter view of the matter:

But surely if you live in the world you must observe such outward forms of civility as use and custom demand.

Philinte is able to be more circumspect and pragmatic in his understanding of such terms as "honesty" and "integrity." Alceste, on the other hand, is a man of extremes, and his inability to curtail those extremes is the comedy around which this play is based. The conflict between the "austere standards" of Alceste and the pragmatic approach of Philinte is set up, and the position of Alceste, whilst noble in its uncompromising nature, is shown again and again to lack wisdom. As Philinte argues, there are times "when it's as well to hide what we really feel."


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