Law & “Les Misérables”
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Feb 25, 2013
Michael W. Hannon, “Blessed Are Les Misérables: For Theirs Is the True Philosophy of Law”
“Les Misérables is undoubtedly a story of grace and repentance, but it is also a story of law—one that many viewers critically misinterpret. Of course, given that the antagonist Javert’s role is to embody the law, one can understand why so many moviegoers imagine Les Mis’s takeaway message to be “grace good, law bad.”
But the film does not pit these two against each other. On the contrary, Les Mis honors the law and teaches its proper and necessary role for human flourishing. It recalls a classical legal philosophy, long lost to our current liberal establishment, a philosophy we would do well to rediscover.
There are three distinct attitudes toward law and authority endorsed by the tale’s characters; one it celebrates, and the other two it scorns as errors. Inspector Javert exemplifies the first mistake: tyrannical legalism. Javert scrupulously venerates the law of his detested French monarchy as man’ssummum bonum. He is what theologians would recognize as a Pelagian, thinking that human success depends solely on observance of the legal code.
Thus when Valjean eventually spares Javert’s life and turns himself over to him for his past crimes, this ex-convict demolishes the inspector’s inflexible and unforgiving categories by his act of repentance. With his worldview threatening to collapse, Javert chooses his principles over his life, clinging tightly to his legalism as he throws himself to his death to escape a world incompatible with this fallacious philosophy.
The second erroneous attitude toward law is embraced by Enjolras and his band of revolutionaries, who are likewise willing to die for their false principles. Laying down their own lives on the barricade to overthrow the longstanding kings served by Javert, these young men espouse a breed of antinomianism, a hatred for law that finds its natural end in anarchism. They proclaim a libertine freedom, which refuses to be constrained by any outside authority. The law symbolizes for them the oppression they have experienced at the hands of the ruling elite, and thus their political vision is predominantly negative—a casting off of kings and law, but with no cohesive program to replace this tyranny.
The film’s third philosophy of law, espoused by the bishop and Valjean post-conversion, is what ought to replace it. These protagonists witness to a great love for the law, despite their warranted opposition to legalism. Thus even while he acquits the policemen’s battered captive, the bishop commends the officers for their duty and sends them on their way with God’s blessing.
• • •
Libertinism undermines true human freedom. Indeed, the “liberty” of liberalism is ultimately no better than the “liberty” of the ex-convict’s yellow passport in Les Mis. As Victor Hugo put it, “Liberation is not deliverance. One gets free from the galleys, but not from the sentence.” Likewise, libertinism is not deliverance. One gets free from the king, but not from the tyranny. For such an abandonment of authority ordered to the common good ushers in the now all too familiar “dictatorship of relativism.” After all of Rousseau’s revolutionary recommendations have been enacted, still everywhere men are in chains, bound by the egoistic despots of their nihilistic voluntarism.
Legalism and antinomianism fatally pervert the truth about just authority, and both errors loom large as threats to our political wellbeing: the former as a propagandist terror and the latter as a destructive overreaction to it. Les Misérables instructs us in the Aristotelian golden mean between these two: We should neither worship nor despise the law, but navigating between this Scylla and Charybdis, between Javert and Enjolras, we should love and respect the law always. It will not be our salvation, but it will be instrumental in instructing and guiding us toward that goal. Let us delight in the law and follow the witness of Jean Valjean, of whom Hugo wrote, “It seemed as though he had for a soul the book of the natural law.”