Western Philosophy

Mr.Cornet, period 1

29 May 2003

Les Miserables



As people travel through life they are shaped by their surroundings, limited by their thoughts, foes, and friends, and lice to create a life that comfortably collaborates with their environment.  the individuals that further ponder their exact positions in the world re forced to find a foothold in seemingly random thoughts on which they can base future decisions.  It is through this process of learning from the world, and partially being programmed by instinct, that man conceives ideas that they wish to spread, and wish others would conform to.  A good representation of the truth about past human interactions and thoughts can be seen in the film version of Les Miserables.  This story deals with a manifold of philosophical concepts, especially those pertaining to ethics, morality, interpretation, ideology, freedom, and good and evil.


Ethics maintain an important role in the lives of the post-Napoleonic age citizens of France.  They have an extremely structured society, one that Socrates would not so much have enjoyed, since he believed more in personal interest and liberty.  While people were almost forced to vote in these times, Socrates felt that it should be a choice if a person would want to participate in a democratic process at all, for a government would hold a discordant place in society either way.  However, in these times, the structure of the government was extremely pertinent to the people through France.  Not only was it always there to judge the doings of the people, it was also a necessary unity that would keep foes at bay and create a more tightly knit society.  This society might have been considered feasible by someone such as Pythagoras, because it placed the most capable people in power (or so the leaders claimed), designating  different descendants of people into certain positions in society, and held closely the truths (rules and regulations that depended on pervious knowledge) that were designed by people overall.  Another who would have completely abhorred the society as portrayed in the film would be Plato, who would have questioned the balance of power, the use of laws and lawyers, and the sexual inequality.  The ethical themes produce an aristocratically-influenced image of a society struggling for the most past yet with small, internal elements pushing for progression.


It is an interesting exercise to ponder the differences between a society that has come to grips with its ethics and sets people free within boundaries of thought that are taught at an early age, and a society that – through internal turmoil – has created a world of free thought in which people no longer choose to follow any formal code of conduct.  One sees a strong desire in Inspector Javert to follow something that has been created for him already.  His infatuation with law has almost become a religion, and his job is similar to a crusade through the masses to spread his ethical views.  Strangely, he feels so comforted by his obligations to the laws of France that he does not feel the slightest human compassion when he acts accordingly.  It is hard to decipher if there is an element of brainwashing or de-humanizing which takes place in the full study and practice of “justice” in these scenarios, or if the counterpart to instinct that law creates is a gradual increase of awareness which might make the human species superior to its own past, and to every other creature.  It is important to ponder whether Javert, by following a path that has been paved by many thousands of brilliant minds before him, creates a better life for the common people as would be advocated by the philosophers Bentham and Mills, or if he does unnecessary pursuits against a common created will of God as St.Augustine believed.  Due to the single-minded embrace of his purpose, his actions are effectively pre-determined, so he does not really think for himself anymore as Immanuel Kant would want him to.  He strongly opposes the views of several philosophers, such as Ghandi and Plato, in his stern dedication to an immovable system.  Javert strangely contradicts the Western view of friendliness, even though he makes his every move in a manner which, on its surface, is proper and legal.  Strangely enough, the westerner’s view of law, in general, is that it serves everyone for the common good.  Yet selfishly, one  wants to break the law, or bend its meanings for their own good in such a disparate society as nineteenth century France/  when one sees the seemingly twisted effects of abiding completely by an inflexible law, inhumanity was consequentially created by many.  The resulting shudders may be explained upon examination of interpretation, an important lesson whose subtext is lined throughout the film.


Several shocking events are created by differing interpretations by different people.  First there is the scene where Jean Valjean steals silverware ad candleholders from the Priest, an act that can be interpreted as necessary in desperation or immoral after the hostility he received.  However, the interpretation that is given by the priest creates a new air of questioning related to the wrongfulness of any act that is done out of need.  One is forced to ponder whether stealing for necessity is excusable, and whether the distinction between wealthy and impoverished should be delineated by their own set of societal rules for conduct.  Naturally, in the absence of any rules or laws to control savageness and looting, there would be a complete lack of control, and a definite chaos among people.  Philosopher David Hume would certainly not allow this to proceed unaddressed, just as he would tackle topics of faith and science.  Since he believed in the effectiveness of neither, he would have made Jean Valjean seem in the right, as he was acting out of personal will.  Also, he would have agreed that the priest would be most righteous by his presenting a personal opinion about the punishment of Valjean.  Each person must use their own feelings to define their reality, and since each individual has different emotions, then the irrationality of this scene can be acceptable, though not to a western mind. 


Another shocking instance is when Javert decides to trade Valjean for Marius, since this does not line up with the rest of Javert’s decisions.  T is the dropping of common interpretation that leads us to confusion, since Javert is known for making decisions based on his strictly structured interpretation of the law.  However, the scene quickly re-settles itself when Javert commits suicide, having breached his own laws, he interprets that not as correctness in one’s own will, but as a destruction of necessary goodness in structure that conforms society as best fit for survival and progression. 


In Les Miserables, it becomes obvious that interpretation of the world around the characters shapes their every action, and that their individual interpretations of the world are created by memories of experiences and sometimes decided on in an instant out of necessity.  The differences between a “right” and “wrong” decision, however, may become skewed.  An abstract interpretation wherein Javert is the key to the progressive future, the priest is the one who through forgiveness encourages complete disorder and created a ripple effect of resultant havoc when weighed against societies linear definitions, and Valjean is the victim of society, is not inconceivable.


The film furthermore explores several topics relating to morality.  One perceives the importance of morals in the life of Jean Valjean, who decides to change his actions based on a moral good will.  Javert, for his part, does not appear to have to rely on morals to make his decision, as his professional ethics offer his guiding light.  Marius finds purpose for his moral consciousness in a movement toward freedom and puts the morality of self will before state laws.  Then there is Fantine, who in selling herself to support her daughter Cossette demonstrated a complete loss of morality born out of desperation.  It remains debatable is there could or should be redemption for any of these characters, and if any of them are actually in the right or wrong.  The film makes clear there are different views on life, and that depending on one’s position, they have a different tolerance for divergent moral conducts.  Though no single set of behaviors leads to believing there is any underlying morality, whether man can coexist with all other men in harmony or if they are doomed to be irreparable divided remains unanswered.


The final two topics of significance are the ideas of good and evil, as well as that if freedom and liberty.  Simplified, a code or laws always suppresses certain people in some ways.  Since an isolated individual’s mind feels the need to choose for itself, there seems to be an underlying need in humanity for independence.  However, humanity has discovered that through structuring individuals in society, it can achieve “greater” things.  Sometimes one ponders whether advancing represents an evil-driven path that humans create.  Les Miserables creates a setting of tumultuous disagreements between different views on good and evil, leaving the audience to decide whose side to lean toward.  Pertaining to freedom, it shows how the fight for freedom creates an intrusion on structured society, but it also shows how this basic human need, if not met, brings forth an ugly side in humanity,


Les Miserbales combines elements of an internally unstable society and uses them to illustrate different concepts in humanity the philosophically rich air that connects to the actions and perceptions of the characters bridge form that era to the contemporary world.  The common struggles are apparent, as are their origins.  Morals and ethics continue to both unity and divide, and on occasion lead to hatred and violence.  Likewise, how government and laws shape society, leading not just to advancement but also to upheaval, is profound.



[1] ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Originally from Switzerland, Steve graduated from Phoenix High School (Phoenix, Oregon USA) in 2003.  He studied environmental science and biology at Southern Oregon University before pursuing graduate studies at Pacific University in Montana.