Les Miserables A Philosophical Examination

Les Miserables is one of the most definitive pieces of work in literature it not only serves as a historical reference of the era but also a socio-political commentary on revolutionary France. Its interesting to say the least and inspiring at most. The novel by Victor Hugo is not only a manifestation of the conditions of the time but also a philosophical benchmark as it inquires about the nature of what is good and what is bad.

Philosophy often goes hand in hand with the socio-economic situation of the times, upon examination of the status quo during the post-revolutionary era of France we come to see the different faces of morality. Sometimes corruption guised under the principles of law is allowed and the righteous is often persecuted (Pioneers of the French Revolution).

Jean Valjean, the iconic protagonist of the movie inspires because he is an imperfect hero. His imperfection creates the central theme of the novel, which is redemption. He tried to redeem himself from past sins and actions and the road to personal success and liberation from his past. He is a noble man. According to Kantian Ethics, there are three maxims, which defines what is true and good (Critique of Pure Reason).

First, that his actions are is the moral action in whatever situation it maybe instituted. That if any other person were in a similar situation, said course of action holds true. Valjean was a man of modest origin and was also a fugitive of the law. But his actions were truly moral in every way. When he helped Fantine from the clutches of Javert, is it not moral for anyone to do the same It is, she was only a victim of circumstances and society. She made a wrong decision when she had a child with a man who was not her husband. But is that mistake the defining point in her life Must she be hated for that one moment of her life No, she must not be reviled for it, as Valjean saw it. We make mistakes but this does not mean that those mistakes should define who we are as a person. Valjean was a kind man who saw the goodness in other people and through this optimism his actions were only righteous action.
Second, that a person must act in consideration of others that they are the ends rather than the means to attain an end. Jean Valjean acted in every way to lead a righteous life. He interacted with others with respect and treats them equally. No man is above any other man. His workers at the factory are justly compensated because they are viewed as partners and are essential to the operations. He treated them kindly not because they were workers but rather because they were human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. Even Javert who holds him in contempt of the very fabric of the law, is treated the same as he would treat his worker or his friend. Valjean sees people for who they are and not for what they have or whom they know.

Third, that by the actions of men they are creating a universal truth applicable in whatever situation or state they maybe. According to Kant, there is no moral truth that defines what is good but rather one must act as if he himself was weaving that truth. We must ask ourselves, when I do this will it be morally acceptable to the next person or to the next and so on and so forth. Morality is not defined by the tenets of our faith or of our state but rather that of our actions and their acceptability and applicability to other people wherever they may be in our world.

If for example, I were to do something favorable to another, I should ask myself that once I have accomplished the task, the action that I have done is acceptable and true universally. Valjean exemplifies Kantian ethics, his actions were often definitive of what is good and true wherever they may be done. Is it not universally true that helping another person is a good in itself. That by his actions he was able to weave a condition that even affected Javert, an evil man, to re-examine his perceptions and views on life. Valjean acted as if he himself was creating his own universal laws. He acted as if he was creating his universal laws, that through them he tried to make the world a better place. The law, his friends, society or other external influence did not determine these choices of action but rather by his inherent goodness.

Inspector Javert on the other hand is the polar opposite of the storys protagonist. He is a cold and ruthless man who persecutes others for breaking the law without considering the reasons why such infractions have been committed. He perceives the law as all encompassing and absolute without room for error or mercy. Monsieur Inspector is an interesting study for Philosophy and Psychology to say the least. Upon meeting Valjean, his disdain for the fugitive was fueled and his suspicion grew and he desired to expose him.

Even when he saw the kindness of the mayor and the transformation he has done to their community, he still persisted and was blinded by his desire to punish the man. If I were to further examine him, he would belong to the ethical egoistic school whose only desire is to satiate their self-interest and ego. If he truly was righteous then perhaps he should have let Valjean go because of the goodness of the man he had become. The universal truth is that Valjeans actions were far greater and had done more good than the inspectors long career.

His motivation was never really the law but rather to satiate his own desires, it was actually a campaign to implement the law as he perceives it. Even though Valjean was a fugitive, he deserves respect and the inspector did not extend this to him. It was actually sad that this desire consumed him and he did not see the truth in front of his eyes. The truth that the law has become a tool by the corrupt system to persecute the innocent and he failed to see this.

The third character that I would like to examine is Fantine. The author is quite clever to have written her in the story. I think she is a manifestation of a Marxist-egalitarian principle. The novel painted a society of inequality and lawlessness wherein innocent people like Fantine become victims of the unjustness of society (The Communist Manifesto). She was a sacrificial lamb torn between the clash of the masses. This was after all a pivotal moment in history, when for the first time, real change shifted in favor of the poor against the rich. Sadly, what happened was the chaos that ensued resulted in the victimization of the weakest and poorest members of society.

Fantine was the proletariat abused by the ruling class through the iron hand of the government. She was a victim of society that frowns upon the weak and the poor. The inequality is manifestly blatant in the novel. It is sad how they are not protected by very system that should be doing that job. Sadly, she dies due to the harsh realities of her life. It was only through the kindness of one man that she was able to experience a little comfort.

The novel is without question astounding and moving, contemplating on the themes of the film I realize that it also relates to Philosophy. Kantian Ethics, I believe best resonates with me personally. It is because if my belief that we are not bound either by government or the law or even religion but rather that inherent goodness within us. That we as human beings of a greater mental faculty than other animals must act in accordance with our humanity. We must choose to live our lives knowing that what we must try to accomplish is not the compliance with the norms of our day but to create our own personal truths that would in one way or another effect a greater good to other people and to the community at large (Critique of Pure Reason).

On a meta-ethical perspective, what we ask is the nature of morals What does it mean to be good or bad or neutral, but Kantian ethics is different. It transcends the common notions of morality but rather presents a new definition of it. Kant leaves it to us to determine the morality of our actions. Through this we may be able to weave our own realities and create a definitive universal truth.


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