Western Philosophy

Mr.Cornet, period 2

17 May 2004

Les Miserables



Les Miserables tells the tale of one man struggling to live a good, moral life in spite of his criminal past, while an inspector tries to force him to face life in prison for refusing to obey the requirements of his parole.  The two men are practically polar opposites.  There are few similarities when it comes to their morals or what they see as what makes a good person.  They also do not agree on what they see as the reason for existing.  The film examines these different morals in connection with the struggle between good and evil, while also examining the purpose of life as they approach it. 


A prominent theme of the film revolved around morals and the struggle between good and evil.  Zoroaster, one of the earliest philosophers recorded in history, believed that good and evil vie for power within each person.  He expressed that in order for there to be good, evil must also reside within them and to equal measure.  This idea rings true in Les Miserables, where every character in displays both good and evil tendencies.  Inspector Javert follows every rule encoded in law, yet shows no sympathy, compassion, mercy or forgiveness.  At the time he might have been seen as good, but to viewers of the film he represents evil, or at least the antagonist when juxtaposed against his prey.   Concurrently, Jean Valjean is a convict who hides from the law for years, but does so in a generous and kind fashion, provoking a desire for his wellbeing.  Perhaps Valjean is seen as a positive force because he encapsulates the same idea as philosopher Immanuel Kant, who believed that the only thing good without qualification is good will.  The inspector demonstrates very little, if any, goodwill, while Valjeanís convictions seem guided by it.


The two men have very different moral compasses as well.  The inspector only believes in following the law.  He seems to agree with Socrates assertion that the rule of law, even when wrong, is more important than anything else.  For instance, he asks Valjean to dismiss him because he acted insubordinately in denouncing the mayor to the courts without proof.  On the other hand, Valjean seems to sympathize more with Moses Maimonidesís theory that kindness, righteousness and judgment should motivate the moral life.  After the priest offers him unconditional kindness, Valjean reciprocates by changing his ways and begins to practice charity work and taking care of those in need.  After viewing the film, one may argue the truth underpinning Jeremy Benthamís assertion that society is corrupt, because had the priest not shown mercy to Valjean, as it seemed no one else would, he never would have become the kind and charitable person he came to be.  The fact that he did proves he has good within him and supports Rousseauís belief that man is good in nature, but that society corrupts.


Walking hand in hand with morals is the question of the purpose of life, because morals dictate what one believes is the meaning and aim of life.  Discussions on this topic have a long, important history in philosophy, perhaps even beginning with Socratesí declaration that an unexamined life is not worth living.  The inspector would probably agree more, however, with Erasmusís claim that perfectibility is intrinsic in human beings, believing that he, at least, seeks perfection in himself.  The question then becomes one of a matter of morals and what people see as perfection. Both he and Valjean would likely agree with Moses Maimonides that the purpose of life it so convert potential for perfection into perfection.  His idea of perfection, though, differs from Valjeanís, in that he sees following rules and laws as perfect, while Valjean works more at being kind and charitable.  In terms of their own goals and beliefs, both men strive for perfection and, at least to some extent, achieve it.  The inspector might also subscribe to Aristotleís claim that the goal of humanity is the pursuit of happiness, as he would likely see that as the cause for sinfulness displayed by the lower classes.  He would probably change it to the goal of uncivilized humanity is the pursuit of happiness, while the goal of civilized people is perfection, which would be attained by following the rule of law without question of mistake.


While Valjean might not literally subscribe to St. Augustine assertion of ďLord, give me chastity, but not yetĒ, he certainly he could relate to the repercussions of St. Augustineís situation here.  That is, they both pondered how one may have negative morals and still desire to be pure.  Certainly, Valjean would agree with Hobbesís observation that human actions arise out of a desire for self-protection.  After all, Valjean ended up in jail because he stole a load of bread to keep from starving.  In the end, one may argue that Valjeanís view o the purpose of life is healthier that the inspectors.  Camus argues that the only philosophical question is whether or not life is worth living and the inspector, when confronted by this eventually decides it is not.  Valjean, but contrast, spends the entire film striving to life another day in freedom.  He never succumbs to a no-win decision.  The viewer might feel that by recognizing that his life is not worth living, the inspector comes to believe that the perfection he has sought is worthless or unattainable, while Valjeanís form of human perfection had merit and was worth continuing.  One canít help but wonder how much this decision by the inspector might be better illuminated and, consequentially, understood in the text rather than relying on the superficiality of the film for this evaluation.  Certainly there is more to this.


The philosophical examination of morals and the purpose of life in this film bring to light the differences between the prevailing beliefs in American culture today and those of France during the nineteenth century.  Despite the gap, philosophers throughout history represent views which may be applied to both Javert and Valjean.  Perhaps there is no single purpose to life.  Perhaps the real point of philosophy is not to find the right answer, but rather to offer options for every individual to choose from.  Javert and Valjean certainly offer differing views on morals and existence, leaving the viewer to choose whom to sympathize and agree more with.






[1] ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Bri graduated from Phoenix High School (Oregon) in June 2004.  She attended Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland) for a year before transferring to Oregon State University (Corvallis, Oregon, USA), where she studied forest recreation, Spanish language and English literature.  She has worked in orphanages in Romania and in one of the nationís most poverty-stricken schools in Louisiana under the auspices of the Americorps Program.  In 2011, she resided in Portland, Oregon USA.