How is Jean-Baptiste Moliere's Tartuffe representative of the Enlightenment?

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The thinkers of the eighteenth century, the era that became known as the Enlightenment, emphasized the tensions between reason (intellect and logic) and passion, which included emotion and physical sensation. In Tartuffe , Orgon believes himself to be a reasonable man. He tells himself and the others that he is...

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The thinkers of the eighteenth century, the era that became known as the Enlightenment, emphasized the tensions between reason (intellect and logic) and passion, which included emotion and physical sensation. In Tartuffe, Orgon believes himself to be a reasonable man. He tells himself and the others that he is convinced by Tartuffe's example and his explanations of his way of life. The Enlightenment included challenges to the authority of the Catholic Church and a promotion of a scientific, evidence-based approach; the philosophers of the time did not, however, always challenge religious worldviews. The issue in Tartuffe, therefore, is not the man's beliefs or ostensibly religious way of life. The hypocrisy of his claims stands out: Tartuffe is, in fact, ruled by passions as he lusts after and pursues many women. Likewise, Orgon's gullibility is accentuated by his belief in his own reasonableness.

The voice of reason throughout the play is Cleante, who bears the burden of pointing out the many inconsistencies in Orgon's arguments. Explaining to him that Tartuffe's example demonstrates that he is ruled by passion rather than reason, Cleante notes that man rarely follows natural law:

But recklessly pursues his inclination
Beyond the narrow bounds of moderation,
And often, by transgressing Reason’s laws,
Perverts a lofty aim or noble cause.

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Satire is the form most characteristic of the Enlightenment, and religious hypocrisy is among the most frequent targets. The simple faith of Orgon might have been treated as admirable in Medieval or even Renaissance writing, but for Molière, it is mere stupidity to be duped by such a vulgar fraud as Tartuffe. It is not simply that Orgon cannot see through the charade of piety. According to Enlightenment ideas, expressed in the play by Cléante, there should be no charade to see through since religion is a private matter and ought not to be the subject of a display of devoutness.

Unlike other Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Molière does not attack religion per se but satirizes the presence of devoutness. He does, however, share Voltaire's views on the primacy of reason and excoriates unreasonable and immoderate conduct, not only in Orgon, but in Tartuffe himself, who is gluttonous, slothful, and lecherous. These faults are criticized not as sins in a morality play but as extreme departures from the Enlightenment standard of reasonable conduct.

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Moliere's farce Tartuffe ridicules demonstrative religious zeal that excludes reason and leads to folly. Rather than listening to the reasonable objections of others in his household, the wealthy Orgon invites Tartuffe into his home where he is duped by this impostor, believing him a humble and holy man when, in truth, Tartuffe is licentious and greedy. So fooled is Orgon that he succumbs to the oppressive force of Tartuffe by arranging for his daughter to marry this hypocrite, and by even giving Tartuffe his fortune.

This blind faith of Orgon is reflected in his mother, Madame Pernelle, who insists that Tartuffe is a good man, to whom others should listen. In Act I, she scolds her grandson Damis,

He[Tartuffe] is a good man and should be listened to; I can 't best, with patience , to hear him cavilled at such a fool as you.

Later, her son echoes her words in his slavish devotion to this "holy man" as he tells his brother-in-law, Cleante, his brother-in-law,

Bother, you would be charmed did you know him, and there would be no end of your raptures. He is a man that...Who always practices as he directs, enjoys a profound peace,....you can hardly imagine how good he is....

Dorine, a servant, comments that Tartuffe puts on a ‘‘pious mask’’ in order to gain financially from Orgon's devotion to him. Cléante later urges Orgon to admit that he has made the mistake of believing Tartuffe's "mask" of piety is the face of his true nature. Finally, it takes the empirical experiment--a method of solving scientific problems used by the leading minds of the field of science--to convince Orgon of the man's sordid nature. For, Elmire, his wife, has Orgon hide under a table so that he can overhear the attempts of Tartuffe to seduce her. 

Much like the great thinker of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Moliere presents the folly of intolerance in one's thinking and religious fervor as the hypocrite Tartuffe attempts to steal Orgon's daughter and his property. It is not until reason and empirical proof--those traits of the thinkers of the Enlightenment--are used that Orgon comes to realize the true nature of the impostor.

 

 

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