‘Tartuffe’, the most famous of Moliere’s plays, is a comedy about the pitfalls of religious hypocrisy. Tartuffe is an imposter who poses as a holy and pious man in order to manipulate people. Orgon, impressed by Tartuffe’s loud and melodramatic prayers in the church, has offered him his home, where Tartuffe soon sets about seducing Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Elmire’s brother, Cléante, sees right through Tartuffe, but when he tries to warn Orgon about him, Orgon points out all Tartuffe’s acts of devotion and calls Cléante an atheist. The following speech is Cléante’s response….
You are crazy, brother, that’s what I think – or are you trying to pull my leg with a tale like this? […]
You would have everyone as purblind as yourselves. If one sees things clearly one’s an atheist: whoever doesn’t bow the knee to pious flummery is lacking in faith and respect for sacred things. No, no! Your threats don’t frighten me. I know what I’m talking about and Heaven sees what’s in my heart. We are not all duped by humbugs. Devotion, like courage, may be counterfeit. Just as, when honour puts men to the test, the truly brave are not those who make the biggest noise, so the truly pious, whose example we should ever follow, are not those who make the greatest show. What! Would you make no distinction between hyposcrisy and true religion? Would you class both together, describe them in the same terms, respect the mask as you would the face itself, treat artifice and sincerity alike, confound appearance and reality, accept the shadow for the substance, base coin for true? Men, in the main, are strangely made. They can never strike the happy mean: the bounds of reason seem too narrow for them: they must needs overact whatever part they play and often ruin the noblest things because they will go to extremes and push them too far.[…] I’m no reverend doctor; I’ve no monopoly of knowledge. I merely claim to be able to discriminate between false and true.