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Literary works often reveal their authors’ views on particular social issues. Tartuffe (1669), a play by Moliï¿½re, and Candide (1759), a philosophical tale by Voltaire, both deal with the question of religion in society. Tartuffe is a satire on the attitudes of the bourgeoisie toward religion in seventeenth-century France. Moliï¿½re firmly believes in religious moderation and condemns religious hypocrisy and fanaticism. Published almost a century later, Voltaire’s Candide satirizes eighteenth-century European society by criticizing the hypocrisy of the clergy. As an Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire advocates the importance of free thinking and scientific reasoning.
Although he believes in the existence of God, Voltaire is severely critical of revealed religion as well as of religious optimism and fanaticism.
Tartuffe is a critique of religious hypocrisy as embodied in Tartuffe. Moliï¿½re’s Tartuffe is an imposter, who has no morals and merely uses religion as a cover-up for his vices and crimes. He pretends to be extremely pious, but his actions go completely against the moral codes of his religion.
In Act 3, Scene 2, when he sees Dorine, Tartuffe tells her:
Cover that bosom, girl. The flesh is weak,
And unclean thoughts are difficult to control.
Such sights as that can undermine the soul.1
Tartuffe preaches the importance of chastity here. However, in the next scene, he contradicts what he tells Dorine. He blatantly seduces Elmire and urges her to betray her husband. He “takes her hand and presses her fingertips” (Moliï¿½re 87) and lasciviously “places his hand on her knee” (Moliï¿½re 88).
Moliï¿½re’s juxtaposition of Tartuffe’s behavior in these two scenes enables the audience to clearly see the inconsistency between his words and actions. Tartuffe’s drastic change of behavior in the course of two scenes produces a comic effect that is intended to satirize the kind of religious hypocrisy embodied in Tartuffe.
Tartuffe is not only a religious hypocrite but also a religious fanatic. For example, in Act 3, Scene 2, Tartuffe calls to his manservant, “Hang up my hair-shirt, put my scourge in place” (Moliï¿½re 82). The hair-shirt and scourge reflect Tartuffe’s pseudo religious severity; he habitually purports to inflict self-punishment to assert his piety. However, in Moliï¿½re’s view, such religious fanaticism is unnecessary and foolish. Orgon, under the influence of Tartuffe, is also satirized. Moliï¿½re further exposes his disapproval of religious zeal through the use of dramatic irony when Orgon praises Tartuffe:
In the smallest trifles, he’s extremely strict.
Last week, his conscience was severely pricked
Because, while praying, he had caught a flea
And killed it, so he felt, too wrathfully. (Moliï¿½re 26)
The audience sees the absurd and pernicious effect of excessive religious piety. Extreme “piety” of this kind makes the audience feel that Tartuffe is absurd and ridiculous and wonder whether he is really as pious as he seems.
By satirizing Tartuffe’s religious fanaticism, Moliï¿½re advocates religious moderation, which is a central theme of Tartuffe. Moliï¿½re expresses his approval of moderation through the voice of Clï¿½ante. Many of Moliï¿½re’s views on religious religion and moderation are conveyed through Clï¿½ante’s speeches, which are also the longest in the play:
Those whose hearts are truly pure and lowly
Don’t make a flashy show of being holy. (Moliï¿½re 27)
They are never ostentatious, never vain,
And their religion’s moderate and humane;
It’s not their way to criticize and chide:
They think censoriousness a mark of pride,
And therefore, letting others preach and rave,
They show, by deeds, how Christians should behave. (Moliï¿½re 29)
Clï¿½ante’s use of measured and balanced language and ordered and structured argument reflects Moliï¿½re’s belief in religious moderation. In this speech, Moliï¿½re juxtaposes truly pious people with those, like Tartuffe, merely pretending to be pious. Truly pious people do not merely preach, for their actions speak louder than words. Ironically, those who always boast about and show off their piety are not truly pious. Moliï¿½re tells his audience that they should be like Clï¿½ante and practice religion moderately.
Like Moliï¿½re, Voltaire attacks religious hypocrisy. However, unlike Tartuffe, which embodies religious hypocrisy in a single person, Tartuffe, Candide focuses on the religious hypocrisy of entire religious organizations. Voltaire believes that the religious clergy of the Catholic Church and the Jesuits, in particular, are especially hypocritical. The clergy instruct people to observe a set of rules and moral codes and severely punish those who transgress them. However, they themselves do not follow these rules and codes. For example, Franciscans and Jesuits are found to have syphilis,2 even though, in accordance with their own rules, they are supposed to remain celibate. To protect their authority, the clergy persecute anyone who breaks or questions the rules. For example, Pangloss gets hanged because he expresses a philosophy that is different from Catholic doctrine (Voltaire 14-15). The punishment of Pangloss exposes not only the brutality but also the hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy, as Catholicism preaches the importance of compassion. What Voltaire attempts to show is the double standard of the clergy: they persecute others but they themselves do not get punished even though they have committed more serious crimes. In Candide, the examples of religious hypocrisy run on, one after another, as Candide travels around the world. Voltaire’s tone is not didactic, but light and comical, and in his narrative of Candide’s adventures, he presents the examples of religious hypocrisy more as comical anecdotes. Voltaire is not a mere moralist: he does not preach and instruct. He uses concrete examples of what Candide sees and experiences to expose the hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy.
The hypocrisy of the clergy is even more evident when juxtaposed with those who have no affiliation with religious organizations, such as Jacques the Anabaptist. The characterization of Jacques shows that people who do not belong to mainstream religious groups are, ironically, more moral and kindhearted than those who do. When a sailor falls overboard, Jacques jumps in and rescues him without hesitation. In the process Jacques is drowned, but the sailor, who is baptized, leaves him “to perish without so much as a backward glance” (Voltaire 12). Such a contrast between the sailor and the Anabaptist seems to suggest Voltaire’s belief that the world would be a better place if organized religion was abolished. Thus he introduces us, in Chapters 17 and 18 of Candide, to his vision of a perfect world, Eldorado.
As in Tartuffe, religious fanaticism is also strongly condemned in Candide. For example, when Candide contradicts the orator about Catholic doctrine, the Orator’s wife immediately “pours a pot full of… over his head” (Voltaire 7). Voltaire uses the ellipses to create a comic effect and to emphasize his disgust with the religious clergy. The behavior of the Orator’s wife shows her fanaticism and lack of reason and moderation. Voltaire further shows his disapproval of her when he comments in the next line, “Heavens! To what lengths the ladies carry their religious zeal!” (Voltaire 7)
Like Moliï¿½re, Voltaire is concerned with moderation. He believes that people should follow religion with reason and not blindly. Optimism, as a type of philosophy preached by Pangloss in Candide, leads people to believe that they can live “in the best of all possible worlds” if they blindly follow religion. In this philosophical system, evil is seen as being “just the shadows on a beautiful painting” (Voltaire 68). Pangloss believes that since God created the world and since God is the most benevolent and all-knowing force, the world must be the best world imaginable. According to Pangloss:
Things cannot be other than as they are. For, everything having been made for a purpose, everything is necessarily for the best purpose (Voltaire 2).
Voltaire attacks this kind of religious optimism that encourages blind religious faith and shows its flaws through Candide’s horrible experiences during his journey around the world, such as the drowning of Jacques the Anabaptist, the Lisbon Earthquake and the hanging of Pangloss. After these horrible experiences, Candide questions whether or not these disasters really are for the best in the “best of all possible worlds.” Why, he asks, can it be God’s will that such horrible things continue to happen?
Through the use of various literary techniques, Moliï¿½re and Voltaire have successfully conveyed their views about the negative aspects of religion in Tartuffe and Candide. By alerting people to the dangers of religion, they hoped to change society for the better. Although Tartuffe and Candide were both written a few centuries ago, their messages remain relevant today. Our world is torn by religious conflicts in many places such as the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia. The ongoing global war on terror is a war against religious fundamentalism. Moliï¿½re’s and Voltaire’s teaching of religious moderation and tolerance is perhaps more urgently needed in our time than it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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