Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Moliere)
These incompatibilities suggest that we should learn to live by compromising with our idiosyncrasies and being flexible towards other individuals and the society.
Among others, two fundamental contrasts strike the audience of this play: the contrast between Alceste and Celimene, and the contrast between Alceste and Philinte. Indeed, critics have been sensitive to the psychological, philosophical, and theatrical value of these polarities. Philinte, in fact, has been viewed almost exclusively as a foil to Alceste. Most critics have taken sides with one of the pairs. Some critics would claim that Philinte is incapable of friendship and that his philosophical detachment cuts him off from human contact as effectively as Alceste's misanthropy. For the most part, however, spectators have been less severe. We simply tend to take the relationship between the pair for granted. A proper acknowledgment of the relationship between Philinte and Alceste is crucial to our understanding of The Misanthrope. From start to finish of the play, Philinte does his best for Alceste. And Alceste cannot do without Philinte. The relationship between Philinte and Alceste is also brought into sharp focus in a statement if we remember that Alceste is, after all, involved in two relationships, not only Eros (sexual attachment) but also philia (just love). The contrast between love and friendship is a common theme in 17th century literature. This distinction is implicit in The Misanthrope and constitutes a third contrast useful to our understanding of the play. The relation between Philinte and Alceste is in ironic opposition to the relation between Alceste and Celimene.
Alceste's love for Celimene is only egocentric, irrational, demanding and these are the forces that push Alceste towards Celimene, and they are destructive. Erotic love leads Alceste to betray his truest self. Even if it were fulfilled, this love would not lead Alceste to authentic contact with others, but only to a kind of idolatrous solitude with a woman. Alceste would not be saved from his misanthropy by his love for Celimene, and it is clear that the couple would be miserable together. This comic perspective of Moliere's play should not blind us to the fact that the erotic love, in the case of his hero, is presented as an essentially negative force.
The relationship with Philinte, on the other hand, offers Alceste the possibility for a truly redemptive contact with other human beings. The friendship of this second couple is characterized by many of the qualities Alceste demands in human relations, most notably sincerity and authenticity. Philinte abandons those civilities he claims are necessary for dealing with other people. He is never as indifferent as one might doubt he is. He interferes constantly and bluntly to criticize in Alceste those faults he sees harmful to his friend. He is against Alceste's attraction towards the physical charm of Celimene. Furthermore Alceste's friendship with Philinte opens the way to friendship with others, whereas Alceste's love for Celimene merely drives him further into isolation as he seeks to retreat with her behind the wall of his misanthropy. His relationship with Philinte, on the contrary, moves him towards other people, not away from them. Philinte tries constantly to help his friend keep his place in the society that represents the sole opportunity for contact with fellow humans. His offer to sacrifice his own love for Eliante is his attempt is almost incredible generosity. We should understand that if Alceste is an impractical idealist Philinte is a practical one. Philinte wants to bring his friend to human contact by making a match between him and the sociable and civil Eliante, instead of the corrupt Celimene.
In theory, Alceste himself is well aware of the distinction between erotic love and friendship. He sees his feelings for Celimene as irrational. Friendship on the other hand is a freely chosen relationship between equals, he tells Oronte. In fact, however, he is unable to recognize the difference. He brings to his own friendship with Philinte the same jealousy and desire for exclusiveness that mark his relationship with Celimene; and he is, saddest of all, unable to appreciate the special quality of the love that Philinte offers him. It is fruitful to examine the denouement of The Misanthrope with these thoughts in mind. Alceste fails to capture and possess the one he loves, despite the help of his friend. He prepares to reject reality - the world of social intercourse - to flee to the private desert of his dreams. This is a serious retreat, which is actually foreshadowed right from the beginning of the play. When all others make an exodus, the initiative remains with Philinte. He rushes to the rescue of the disappointed lover, continuing the same affectionate pursuit of his friend with which he opened the play, and this at a moment when the fulfillment of his own desires with Eliante might well have led him into the more closed and exclusive world of Eros. The love he shares with Eliante takes its place, however, within the generous framework of their mutual friendship for Alceste: the two would help Alceste to be social.