Is it Either Valjean or Javert? Aristotelian Ethics and Les Miserables

By the magnificent Kathy Garner, of Econ period 4

Before I formally start this article, I would like to encourage you to read Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Miserables. Yes, I know it’s about 1400 pages, depending on the edition. Yes, I know there are multiple movie adaptations that you can watch and still get the gist of it. But you really should read the book to completely understand the points I’m about to make. Go on. Read it. I’ve got time.

…You just read the Sparknotes/watched the musical, didn’t you? Fine, as long as you didn’t watch the Liam Neeson movie, we’ll call everything good. I mean, I did quote the musical in this article’s title, I guess part of me knew no one would read the novel. I mean, I’m going to be drawing most of my examples from the novels plotline, not the supercondensed adaptation versions, but it’s not like I’m going to go off on an analysis of Hugo’s tangent about the Parisian sewer system. Because this is going to be about Aristotelian virtue. PUT DOWN THE TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS, PEOPLE; it’s going to be about Aristotelian virtue in Les Miserables. Let me finish my sentence before whining about me making you read an entire novel (which you didn’t actually read, so you have no right to whine about).

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines a virtue as a tendency to act in a certain way. Virtues are good if they help man reach his final end (happiness, or the contemplative life). Virtues are bad if they distract from this goal. For those of you who need examples to understand the theory, my virtue to stay up until 2AM in a hardcore rave situation is bad, because it largely takes away my tendency to reach a contemplative life. On the other hand, my virtue to get 8 hours of sleep is good, because it helps me get to the contemplative life I should be leading. Hey, I said I’d give examples, I never said they would be good ones.

But let’s take Ari to another level. More specifically, let’s introduce him to my buddy Victor Hugo. Victor gives us two characters in Les Miserables worth noting (well, he gives us a lot of characters in Les Miserables worth noting, but let’s focus on two for now): protagonist Jean Valjean, and technically-but-not-really antagonist Inspector Javert. We’ll get to all of those adjectives in front of Javert later, but a quick plot recap for those who didn’t read the novel all the way through: Valjean is imprisoned for 19 years, first for stealing a loaf of bread and later for trying to break out. Javert is assigned to the prison Valjean is being held captive in. After being shown mercy by a bishop, Valjean reforms his life, becoming owner of a factory and later mayor of the town the factory is in. Through a series of coincidences, Javert is assigned a police role in the town Valjean is mayor of, and believes he recognizes Valjean as a criminal who hasn’t been doing the whole “keeping up with conditions of parole” thing. Through a series of unbelievable coincidences (seriously. Javert does not relentlessly track Valjean as he does in the musical; this is why I wanted you to read the novel), Valjean is identified, escapes Javert, raises a child, runs into Javert again a couple of times without Javert recognizing him, runs into Javert with being recognized, spares Javert’s life, Javert cannot accept the theory that people can reform and commits suicide. That’s as basic as you need to know. With all that stated, it is easy to swallow that Valjean is generally considered the more virtuous of the two.

Except, if you want to go by the Aristotelian ethical theory, both Valjean and Javert are living virtuous lives.

Valjean is pretty obviously living a virtuous life. After a rocky start, he eventually does reach the Aristotle approved contemplative life through a combination of religious adherence and hard work. He raises a dead prostitute’s child comfortably, he cares for the poor in his community, rescues his adopted daughter’s boyfriend from certain death, all on money he has earned honestly. The amount of good deeds Valjean has done are probably enough to get him sainted in a future culture that doesn’t recognize Les Miserables is a fictional tale (You think I’m joking about this, but there are current saints with no evidence of having ever existed. Not to name names, but one of them protects our future…). Valjean is the ultimate proof that redemption is reachable to any man. Very few people argue that Valjean is not living a life in accordance with virtue, and he is clearly seen as the protagonist of the novel (after the section on Monsignor Bienvenu is finished, that is). Because Javert is trying to stop Valjean from living his virtuous life, he must be the bad guy, correct?

Not exactly. In fact, Javert and Valjean may even be equal in virtue.

How on Earth can Javert be equal to Valjean in virtue, you wonder? First, let’s define Javert’s final end. True, maybe Javert doesn’t meet the Aristotelian definition of living a contemplative life. Javert is a rebel that believes in his own final end; spreading justice throughout the streets of Paris. To meet this final end, he may have to throw the odd reformed criminal who has been breaking parole in prison. He may have to stop the occasional rebellion, he may have to stop the occasional armed robbery, he may have to do a lot of things to ensure that criminals receive their due justice. Book Javert goes where duty calls; he even files a police report before jumping in the Seine. There is dedicated to the spread of justice, and there is “let me finish this police report before offing myself” dedicated to the spread of justice. Because the actions he takes allow him to meet his final end, he can be considered to be living a virtuous life. Does it interfere with Valejan’s version of a virtuous life? Yes, and this technically makes him the antagonist of the novel. Remember when I referred to Javert as “technically-but-not-really [the] antagonist”? All Javert is trying to do is meet his final end of bringing justice to Paris. Through this, he reaches his version of a contemplative life, and his version of happiness. Technically, Valjean is a criminal. Therefore, in order for Javert to live his virtuous life, Valjean must be brought to justice. On this technicality, Javert is living a virtuous life.

This raises a slightly larger question, relevant to our own lives; can we live virtuous lives that conflict with other people’s virtuous lives? Yes and no; the answer depends on how one interprets their own personal contemplative life. No, in that many cultures actually share virtues. Yes, in that many cultures have virtues that conflict with other culture’s virtues. Take the Christian saying “Patience is a virtue”. Does the ability to accept trouble, delay, or suffering without getting angry our upset help us reach a final goal? Sometimes. But sometimes, it is the proactivity of a situation, going out there and getting what we want, that is a virtue. How can these conflicting ideas bring us closer to our final goal? Depending on the goal, it may be better to be patient or proactive. It may be best to be a combination; proactive enough to apply for a scholarship, patient enough to wait to see if you got it. Conflicting ideas can exist in the same universe without causing a destruction of it. Valjean and Javert can exist side by side without causing law and order to collapse on itself. There is no need to constrict Aristotelian virtues and ethics to fit only one narrow viewpoint of happiness in the contemplative life. For as long as society flourishes, does not man flourish?


2 thoughts on “Is it Either Valjean or Javert? Aristotelian Ethics and Les Miserables

  1. “First, let’s define Javert’s final end. True, maybe Javert doesn’t meet the Aristotelian definition of living a contemplative life. Javert is a rebel that believes in his own final end; spreading justice throughout the streets of Paris.” OK, but this is a rather crucial departure from Aristotle, because A’s main point is that since we are all human, we all share a common purpose/function/final end. Aristotle would tell you that Javert can’t come up with his own final end any more than a clock can turn itself from being something that tells time, because the end is given to him by nature (or, in the case of the clock, by the man who built it). Without making this crucial departure, it’s not nearly as easy to claim Javert is really fulfilling his end and being virtuous. Still, I find your argument very interesting and original.

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