Western Philosophy, period 1
One Long, Last Conversation: An Exploration of the Old Hermit
The sensibility of the revolutionary lies with resolving the ills of society, usually in regards to the infractions made against the poor—and the character who represents this mindset in the classic novel Les Miserables is an old hermit living in seclusion within the diocese of Bishop Myriel (although he is unable to actively change present society due to age). The old hermit introduced in the first book of Les Miserables is an elderly man on his deathbed, who in the space of a couple of hours challenges the personal bias of the distinguished Bishop Myriel regarding the French Revolution. As a character he is short-lived, transient, undervalued and obscure due to relatively short screen time and the time he spends in complex soliloquies and argumentation with the reluctantly fascinated Bishop Myriel. The character’s purpose is not to entertain but to represent philosophy especially in regards to the French Revolution.
A figure of French nationalism, the strength of the old revolutionary’s convictions and loyalty to his past intentions remain even to his final breath. This figure passionately argues for the idealistic nation he and his compatriots planned to create at the moment when “the old world, a vase of misery, overturned, becomes an urn of joy” (29) and disdains the regression of society back into a monarchy. Although he can admit to the excesses and instability of a society in the midst of rapid revolution and societal change, he also argues for the morality of the change and those who participated in it with the intention of improving the lives of the governed by removing the monarchy which he says “creates slavery for man, of night for the child” (29). Little personal information or history is revealed in his short-lived introduction except for these general facts: the old hermit is an old man who lives on the outskirts of the diocese, alone except for the care of a young boy, possessing a robust appearance despite his impending death, and regarded as unimportant by the present regime, shrouded by the general suspicion of the surrounding townspeople. The society of Les Miserables is set during the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814, following the tumult of the revolutionary years, and French society is finally settled into stable and strict rhythms with little respect for the purpose of the French Revolution
However, I believe the hermit’s greater importance lies in his effect on the saintly Bishop Myriel, who is a catalyst in regards to other character’s behaviors throughout the book. The hermit is introduced in concert with the Bishop and quickly creates a contrast between the patient benevolence of the bishop and the revolutionary’s notion of the need for rapid justice which Victor Hugo uses as an opportunity to “tell all for the inconsistencies of great souls should be mentioned” (28). The old hermit argues that the “wrath of justice is an element of progress” (29) while the bishop states his mistrust of anarchy using anger as its motivation. The confrontation between these two dissimilar men begins with the reluctant visitation of the bishop to this isolated parishioner and the stern stance the bishop takes in regard to the old revolutionary’s past activities. The tension displayed by the bishop is interesting in regards to the facts already known about his personality and his alleged devotion to his parishioners yet he recoils from the conventionist blindly although he admonishes himself; in every action he rejects the existence of this one old man because of the infamy of the actions taken by the hermit’s contemporaries.
The origins of this trepidation could be perhaps related to Msr. Bienvenu’s former wealthy lifestyle before the French Revolution, and the losses he suffered, as well as the suspicion of the townspeople in his diocese. The question of relevance in regards to this dying revolutionary is why the negative reaction on the part of his contemporaries exists. There is, after all, no reason to fear a harmless old man who was not worth the trouble of exile to the present regime. But regardless the memory of the conventionist’s status as “half a regicide” (26) with his ambivalence towards the execution of the king, the strange manners of the past regime in which he participated, and the “savageness of his solitude” (26) firmly alienates all of his neighbors including the typically content and friendly bishop. In this meeting, the bishop is determined to maintain moral high ground and berates the old gentlemen for his remarks on justice in regards to the Reign of Terror and the hermit counters by suggesting that the idea of retaliation against the nobles had been building for years with every infraction and injustice against the people. This is the first argument to truly move the bishop to see another perspective: it is the shift that allows a confrontation to become an intellectual argument and further compounded by each example of injustices allowed by the feudal system.
Both of these gentlemen, although they disagree on many things close this chapter with a mutual respect due to an intellectual process that occurred in their conversation, analogous to the Socratic dialogue, in which intellectual opponents challenge the basis of each other’s’ ideas. Although Bishop Myriel’s first intention had been to forgive the old hermit for his ‘sins’ during the French Revolution the bishop is moved by the hermit to instead beg his forgiveness before he dies. The hermit accomplishes this by reflecting on the years of the Revolution and defending the principles of it in a fashion that is both logical and passionate. He questions the motivations of the bishop, as he is a ranking official delegated privilege’s through his station, calling him “a prince of the church, one of those men covered in gold” (31) and questioning his inner worth. The bishop is thus humbled listening to the ideas of the hermit, and the loyalty he expresses to the ideal that brought him into conflict with the monarchy when his “country called [him] and ordered [him] to take part in her affairs” (33). In this way Hugo shows that even a man, such as the bishop, can become complacent in his goodness and the hermit allows the bishop to transcend his prejudice towards the Revolution. The bishop begs his blessing from the hermit and refuses to allow the man’s name to be tarnished by him and “his tenderness and brotherly love for the weak and suffering” (34) is increased. As Victor Hugo remarks in his closing line in the chapter known as ‘The Bishop in the Presence of an Unknown Light’ : “no one could say that the passage of that soul before his own, and the reflection of that grand conscience upon his own had not had its effect upon his approach to perfection” (34).
In the space of around three hours a philosophical tete a tete between Bishop Myriel and the mysterious revolutionary occurs before the revolutionary’s death. These two men argue over morality, political philosophy and the French Revolution. At first the bishop disdains the revolutionary before he meets him based on the unflattering hearsay in his village, refusing to visit the lonely hermit until it is reported that the old man is dying. The bishop sternly sweeps into the hermit’s house (not realizing the contradictions in his true beliefs and his actions) until he recognizes the hermit as a fellow moral soul and finds a chord struck within him at the words of the hermit. The original intent of the bishop had been to absolve the old hermit on the basis of his revolutionary activities and yet although he condemns the anger and excesses of the revolution he has an improved understanding of the principles of the French Revolution through the old revolutionary. The bishop accords him respect as a worthy intellectual foe and begs his forgiveness when the old hermit finally dies.