Is Moral Rigor an Adequate Substitute for Cunning?

Julien Sorel, the hero of The Red and the Black, is a character who, rather than containing multitudes, is defined by sharp paradoxes. He sets out to win glory for himself, and is prepared to act with ruthlessness and severity in achieving this end. The son of a carpenter from the province of Doubs in the Franche-Comté, he is the outsider who realizes that he must learn to be a hypocrite, to learn and manipulate the signs of a strange world, in order to succeed in the authoritarian and materialistic society of Restoration France. Although ambition is his most outstanding quality, and his first impulse is to be calculating in almost every situation, nevertheless his relentless drive is accompanied by strong passions. Julien’s passion for the aristocratic Madame de Rênal begins out of resentment toward her social class, but turns into a genuine admiration for her character, the loftiness of her spirit, and the sincerity of her devotion. When Julien enters the seminary, he immediately makes several mistakes which reveal his hypocrisy and sense of guile to be far less developed than he suspected. He chooses the devout Jansenist, Abbé Pirard, as his confessor, instead of the unscrupulous Castanède, who runs a kind of secret police within the institution. As Julien leaves the seminary for a position in Paris as the secretary to the Marquis de la Mole, he makes a promise to himself that, in the event of another revolution, he will return to ensure the safety of the children of Madame de Rênal.

The ambitious part of Julien’s character is moderated and at times held in check by his distaste for the small-minded and petty. He wonders whether he has the stomach to advance up the ranks of the Church, when most of his fellow students desire a career as a priest because it means regular hot meals and warm clothes in the winter. They are not concerned with theological questions or with living a pious life – the only thing that excites them as much as sausages served on feast days is the hierarchical organization of the church. Lost among the small-minded or the wholly corrupt, who, like Father Castanède, are capable of any crime or deception, Julien wonders: “the human will is mighty, but is it strong enough to conquer a world filled with distasteful brutes?” As La Rochefoucauld said, treachery is the offspring of incapacity. It does not come naturally to Julien to betray others, and in spite of his ambition, he cannot help but blanch at the deviousness and vengefulness of Castanède.

But after spending some difficult months contending daily with the animosity of his fellow students, Julien is reduced to tears by Abbé Pirard, head of the seminary, who speaks to him with a fatherly love and concern that Julien has never known. Pirard, who has fought a lonely battle against the corruption of the church by the Jesuits, tells him that it is his duty to be just, and bear neither love nor hatred toward anyone. Yet he senses that Julien has a spark within him that should not be ignored, continuing:

“Your career will be a painful one. I divine something in you which offends the vulgar. Jealousy and calumny will pursue you. In whatever place Providence places you, your colleagues will never be able to see you without hating you; and if they pretend to love you, it will be to betray you more certainly. There’s only one remedy for this: have recourse solely to God, who has given you this propensity to be hated as a correction to your presumption; be sure that your conduct is pure; it is the only safeguard I can see for you. If you stick to the truth with unconquerable rigour, sooner or later you will confound your enemies.”

Julien had earlier gone off to the woods to cry after another priest had divined his true character, and resolved to deceive first of all those who would bear him affection. But this time he embraces the aged Pirard. This conversation marks in my view a fork in Julien’s destiny. If he had followed Pirard’s advice, he would have led a very different life than the one which leads him to the guillotine. But the novel would perhaps then not be an account of the true love between him and Madame de Rênal. What I also find noteworthy in this passage is Stendhal’s admiration for men of faith like Abbé Pirard, those members of the church who did not see it as a vehicle for their earthly ambitions or for shoring up a broken political order. Stendhal might have been an atheist, yet he seems to hold in the highest esteem those characters who are devoutly religious. I think that he means for us to understand that Abbé Pirard speaks here truly, that moral rigor and purity of conduct are the equivalent of worldly sophistication and cunning. Such a claim becomes somewhat more understandable when we realize that Julien is young and handsome, and so has advantages in putting his cunning to work, whereas Pirard is described as physically ugly, with pockmarked face that has a deathly pallor as well. As an ugly man, it would have been easy for Pirard to choose the path of virtue. Yet, moral rigor produces the sense of detachment that people often impute to the clever and the uncannily observant. Pirard himself is a man who has lived for decades in the company of those who eagerly seek his undoing. In his case, charity is not only a good in and of itself, but it also serves as an instrument of knowledge – could one then take as a corollary that one’s charity is true if it is productive of knowledge of the other? Love does not mean that one should be blind to the faults of oneself and of others, but rather to see where these faults fit together in the whole person, in other words, to see how his or her vices are the neighbors of his or her virtues.


One response

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