Western Philosophy

Mr.Cornet, period 2

25 April 2007

Les Miserables



Love verses hatred, extenuation verses absurdity, sympathy verses justice, and liberty verses fellowship; dualistic philosophies are what creates human society and way of life.  Such opposite philosophies may be found within the same matters in life, whether ethical religious or any other theme or point of view.  Actual life illustrates it through contradictory beliefs of thinkers and philosophers in history, but one of the best pieces of literature showing such dualism is Les Miserables and its two main characters, Jean Veljean and Inspector Javert.  They both have a completely different and independent prospective and view on life and its meanings.  As much as one sees sympathy in the behavior of the protagonist, Valjean, justice and law remain the only things which count to Javert.  His strong belief in absurdity doesn’t match the forgiveness and extenuation of Valjan.  From the several themes which are addressed in the story, ethics and politics remain more prominent and the most significant and deeply analyzed through the characters in the film.


“I am I and my circumstances”, as stated by Jose Ortega y Gasset, is the base of the ethical philosophy applicable to both the original book and 1998 film.  By this statement, the philosopher recognizes that human nature is not static.  It can be changed and reformed by the circumstances it is passing through.  It is applied in the story through Valjean and how he changed from being an angry convict mad at society and laws to a benevolent, compassionate man knowing God and helping the needy.  His turning point is after he meets the Bishop, who shows him unconditional love.  Valjean finds then inspiration of a totally new life of righteousness and self-sacrifice of others.  His portrayal is a merger of a ‘no fixed human nature’ mindset, as Giambattista Vico believes, and the ‘humankind is perfectible’ stance of William Godwin.  This means it can get better by experiences and life challenges.


According to Hegelian philosophy, Javert is the antithesis of Valjean.  His philosophy of life and ethics is based on absurdity.  In his mind, there is no such thing as an extenuating circumstance; a man is guilty when law declares him so.  His beliefs go along with Niccolo Machiavelli’s, who asserts that human beings exist in a state of permanent discontent, and Frederick Neitzsche, who postulated ideas about humanities universally objectionable behaviors of destruction.  So a convict should stay a convict for the rest of his life.  He never stops to question himself whether the laws themselves are just or not.  Everything is distorted beyond recognition and human nature is static and unchangeable beyond any circumstance.


Another ethical point the film addresses is the definition of justice.  Javert strongly believes that justice is set by law and law only.  There is no place for special conditions or exceptions, but the film shows that this philosophy can be challenged by analyzing the life of Valjean.  Javert forgets that “reason leads to truth; truth leads to justice” (William Godwin).   This implies that people should look for facts and reasons before judging and sentencing people.  Also, a second point that the story emphasizes is to make Javert look wrong in that his “sympathy is the sentiment that is the basis of moral judgment and it’s the major factor in creating and maintaining a social order” (Adam Smith).   Javert is portrayed as a harsh police officer who has total lack of sympathy or pity.  His cruelty toward Valjean blinds him to the several times the old convict tries and attempts to convince him of his innocence.  Valjean, on the other hand, has that sympathy and therefore it saved him from wrongly judging Javert and made him accountable until the end to his principles in life.  Javert is struck by such sympathy to the point of committing suicide after discovering and realizing his wronging about true judgment of people.  By this, the conclusion would be that sympathy is one of the ethics that has an impact on human behavior and even the society as an entirety.


Hegel’s theory of thesis and antithesis doesn’t stop on ethics at that period of time; it goes onto the political philosophy of society and the meanings of law and government.  A considerable part of the film plot takes place during the June Revolution of 1832 in France, when the people wanted to stand up against the monarchy.  And set a free government based on equality and freedom loose.  Carl Marx has an explanation for this stage of rebellion.  He calls it the transformation point form step three to the fourth step in societies movement toward the perfect Communistic state,  on step three, people are working for little money just to gain protection but it is not enough for them to live on because the great majority of the goods goes to the ruling class.  Citizens would then feel abused and enslaved so a revolution would occur to provide and secure rights for the people to own property and businesses which reflect capitalism (the eventual failure of capitalism, he argued would lead to communism).  John Locke defines this state of revolution in the stressing of the message: “you [monarchy] have failed to govern us properly and so we take back our consent to be governed.”  He believes as Marius and the other revolutionaries do that “government is an agreement between the ruled and the rulers, and that the chief reason for the establishment of government is the preservation of private property.”  In other words, French people believed that having a monarchy is inefficient for the prosperity and growth of the country, and therefore a new governmental system should be put to work which can secure the rights for everybody to have the opportunity to excel and live a satisfactory life.  Mary Wollstonecraft philosophically defines too that “unwilling submission to a person, institution or custom is limiting, degrading and destructive.”


Nevertheless, this belief has an antithesis to it.  Niccolo Machiavelli explains it on a different perspective.  He would argue that the revolution occurred due to the lack of strictness and relatively benign rule of the monarchy.  “Cruelties inflicted to secure one’s position are well inflicted” and “man should be treated generously or destroyed because he is liable to take revenge for the small injuries; heavy injuries eliminate these inconveniences.”  Thomas Hobbes supports this position of favoring the monarchy, but for different reasons.  He believes that monarchy is more efficient than a government based on equality.  The synthesis of all this is concluded in Godwin’s philosophy.  He says that “the greatest obstacle of human happiness is government” because it usurps private judgment and individual conscience.


Dualism is the center and heart of ethical and political philosophy in the film Les Miserables.  By showing such extremes simultaneously, philosophical points have more value and significance to them.  Both extremes as flexibility and absurdity, monarchy or capitalism, can be put onto a debate and still have each of them a value and respect from different people.  The film shows that humans can have different and even totally opposite perspectives of life and society within the same matters and would still hold onto them until the end of their lives despite all the evidence which shows the wrongness and inconveniences.  That leads to a conclusion that in life there is nothing such as universal law and going by Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, each person should have their own philosophy in life.





[1] ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Souha attended Phoenix High School (Phoenix, Oregon USA) for a year as an exchange student from her native Tunisia.  She went on to attend Columbia University in New York, where she was studying human rights and environmental science.