Mr.Cornet, period 7
17 May 2004
The Philosophies of “Les Miserables”
In the film Les Miserables, many different philosophical themes are addressed. Two which remain prominent were in the realm of politics and ethics. These themes interrelate as well. Part of the film, set in revolutionary Paris, deals with the idea of what is moral or ethical in politics and what is necessary for a government to do to maintain its power, as well as goodness and ethics.
As the film progresses, a political uprising on the streets does the same. The people of “the Republic” have had enough with their government and feel that it is necessary to make their move as soon as possible. When cross-pollinating the ideas with another literature source, one finds that the intellectuals on the floating island in Gulliver’s Travels would disagree vehemently. They believe that there is no reason to act in haste, regardless of the topic; they feel that by waiting, all problems may solve themselves. Unfortunately for The Republic, the problem has not solved itself and something must be done.
Upset by the idea that government is using their hero to manipulate the masses, they feel that violence is a necessary means of action. This idea goes in accordance with philosopher Max Weber’s views that violence is a decisive means for politics. Weber would presumably agree with the people, that in order to make the political impact that they are hoping for, they must use violence. Weber would also argue with the government’s idea that violence is needed to control the people, a view supported further by Machiavelli.
As explained by Thomas Hobbes in his State of Nature theory, “as long as there is no common power to maintain order, all people are in a figurative state of war with one another.” This would be the state of humans without civilization. In the film, the government is the common power and it is their duty to maintain order. Without the government, there would be no order and conflict would arise. What is happening in the film is that the government is losing its power to the Republic and can no longer properly maintain order.
In response to the government’s inability to sustain power, Machiavelli would explain that in order to run a state efficiently, a leader cannot be moral or ethical. This is illustrated throughout history. When young Gravoche runs out from behind the barricade, government soldiers do not hesitate to begin shooting, eventually killing him. LeMarc’s funeral serves as another example of the government’s absence of a moral or ethical conscience. LeMarc was a hero to the people. In order to manipulate the people into believing that they are on their side, the government held a formal funeral for him. Machiavelli would council in support of the government’s use of manipulation to keep their power over the people. This idea of manipulation of the people as a political tool goes along highlights a lack of morality and ethics.
Inspector Javert is a character whose personal philosophies may easily be related to ideas of other philosophers. As an inspector, he is working on the government’s side. While it is quite clear in the film that the government is not moral or ethical (to a certain extent), Javert feels that his job is extremely important and anyone who breaks the law is immoral and, in a sense, evil. Javert would agree with Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy that human behavior is controlled by imposing sanctions. Javert even tried controlling his own behavior by strictly following the law his entire life. He might also subscribe to Bentham’s idea that corruption is caused by lack of laws. Not only are laws needed but, as believed by Thomas Aquinas, they much also be concerned with human happiness. Obviously, the people are not happy with the laws that are currently in place; otherwise, they would not be attempting a revolution.
Javert’s beliefs also echo some similarities with Martin Luther. Luther believes that it is human nature for people to be corrupt, weak, self-centered and in a state of rebellion. Javert typecasts certain roles, ascribing that once a person is a criminal, they are always a criminal and are thus a corrupt person. Jean Valjean’s believes sharply contrast against those of Javerts, in so much as living the example that people can change, as illustrated by his own life experiences. He would probably agree with Jean Jacque Rousseau that man is by nature good, but that it is society which it the corrupting influence.
Valjean’s beliefs might also be similar to those of Erasmus, who asserted that it is in human nature to become a better person but it is necessary to have determination and moral achievement. Valjean committed a crime when he was a youth, but after nineteen years of hard labor, he has changed. He has made the choice to become a better person, yet society still sees him as a convict. He is a kind man and lives his new life in accordance with Moses Maimonides philosophy: that kindness, righteousness and judgment should motivate the moral life. Yet, no matter what he does, in the eyes of society and especially in the eyes of the inspector, he will always be a convict.
While his character seems to be different from Valjeans, Inspector Javert also follows some of Maimonides’ philosophies. Maimonides offered sermons asserting that the purpose of life is to convert the potentiality of perfection into the actuality of it. He also believed that the highest facility of the soul is the intellect and its highest function is to discern the true from the false. Throughout his life, Javert has lived in accordance with the law. By never breaking any laws he feels that he is in some way perfect, always operating between the lines. Just as Maimonides feels that it is important to discern the true from the false, Javert does the same with good and evil. It is Javert’s belief that if a person breaks the law, no matter the circumstances, they are a bad person. His idea of a good person goes along the lines of Thomas Aquinas’s belief that in order to be a good person you must have the following four virtues: justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence.
Javert followed the law so strictly that when he thinks he is wrong about denouncing Jean Valjean without proof, he begs to be punished. He exclaims to Valjean: “You must punish me or my life will be meaningless.” The idea that he has acted unjustly ruins everything he lived for and he cannot handle continuing life knowing that he is not perfect. Later in the film, Javert has another encounter with this idea of living without breaking a single rule. After finally capturing Valjean, he has to decide what he is going to do with him. At this point, Javert exclaims “It’s a pity the rules don’t allow me to be merciful.” He has just realized that he can no longer go on living the way he had before, because as Albert Camus would put it, it is “absurd.” Human awareness enables absurdity and only suicide can end this absurd awareness, not that Javert is aware of this absurdity he must decide if he is going to continue living this absurdity or end his life through suicide. Fortunately for Valjean, Javert felt that suicide was the only option.
Javert’s outlook on life did not allow him to be merciful, but Valjean’s beliefs are quite different. During the confrontation scene in the alley between the two men, Valjean is faced with the option of killing his longtime adversary and freeing himself, or being merciful and continuing his life on the run from the law. He chooses to be merciful and Javert proves incapable of comprehending why he made this decision. Like the little islanders from Gulliver’s Travels, Javert believes that one should have no mercy and should finish the enemy completely. There is no room for mercy.
Not only was Les Miserables an excellent film, it was also full of events with philosophical application. Because the events of the film are occurring, in part, during the time of a revolution, many of these ideas relate to the broad themes of political philosophy. The philosophy of politics has a strong relationship with morals and ethics.
 ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kristen graduated from Phoenix High School (Phoenix, Oregon USA) in June 2004. In 2011 she lived in New York, where she went to graduate school.