Les Misérables has become one of the year’s best-decorated films, taking home three Oscars last night, including Best Supporting Actress, and having been dubbed Best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes as well.
Adapted from London’s 1985 West End musical, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 French novel, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean, who, after two decades’ imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, is delivered from darkness by the charity of a saintly small-town bishop. Thereafter, he breaks his parole and starts a new life as a businessman and mayor. Upon learning he has wronged a desperate woman in his employment by his sin of omission, Valjean vows to raise this dying mother’s illegitimate child. From that day forward, he and the girl, Cosette, travel together, relentlessly pursued by Javert, an unbending officer of the law. Their game of cat and mouse eventually introduces them to the French Revolutionaries of the 1832 June Rebellion, one of whom ends up falling in love with Cosette and taking her for his wife.
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’s summum 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.
Similarly, Valjean refuses to prosecute Javert after the latter confesses his crime of false accusation, instead crediting the inspector for doing his job obediently and returning him to his post. And when all masks are off and Valjean has the chance to kill Javert and escape him for good, instead he releases him and dispels any misunderstanding about his longstanding sentiments: “There’s nothing that I blame you for. You’ve done your duty, nothing more.”
“The man of mercy comes again and talks of justice,” laments the conflicted Javert after Valjean spares his life. Such justice-talk drives him to his suicide, for there can be no room for mercy within the heresy of legalism. But mercy finds itself at home in Valjean’s classical attitude toward law. After all, if man is not made for the law but the law for man, then its letter must be subordinated to its end, and the end of the law is human flourishing. Ergo Aristotle: “As man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice.” And it is because the law has so noble a purpose—perfecting man—that the antinomian hatred of Enjolras and the revolutionaries is also so mistaken.
The legal philosophies of Les Misérables have much to teach us at present, situated as we are in dire political straits. For although it is true that we see few Javerts in our public discourse, still we see many Enjolrases, many who fear the law and hate political authority. Indeed, it is in large part due to the Javerts of our past that this anti-authoritarian spirit is so prominent today. We have historically witnessed such abhorrent abuses of power that we have lost our faith in law. Thus we tend to view the state as something of a necessary evil at best, and repeat Lord Acton’s mantra about power’s tendency to corrupt ad nauseam.
Our antinomianism finds its roots in the so-called “Enlightenment,” in thinkers like Rousseau who said that the law destroys moral duties, or Hume who thought that political society is merely the product of fear and force, or Kant who believed that action impelled by law is “heteronomous” and therefore morally indifferent at best, or Hobbes who taught that law is the enemy of human liberty, even when necessary for human security in the great “war of all against all.” While none of these philosophers advocated anarchy or lawlessness, still none could be said to approach the law with anything like the reverence of Valjean, or the delight of Aristotle. In their various ways, these thinkers accepted the need for law only reluctantly, envisioning law as essentially opposed to virtue and freedom, even if accidentally necessary to prevent more serious mischiefs.
Our present-day libertarianism takes these antinomian sentiments to their extreme and declares political authority to be basically evil. Liberalism mitigates this a bit, but only by adding that such authority is a necessary evil. In neither case do we exhaustively exorcise these anti-authoritarian errors.
And unfortunately, although they lived and perhaps ordered better than their principles gave them reason to, our own founding generation was colored by this same confusion about authority. Thus John Adams’s warning that “the only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty,” and his contention that “all projects of government, formed upon a supposition of continual vigilance, sagacity, and virtue, firmness of the people, when possessed of the exercise of supreme power, are cheats and delusions.” Thus also James Madison’s belief that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and Patrick Henry’s claim that “the Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, [but] an instrument for the people to restrain the government, lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” And thus Thomas Jefferson’s wish that the American Revolution “be to the world . . . the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves.” In the case of France at least, the late president got his wish, and hence the bloody revolutionaries of Les Misérables.
Both the Americans and the French had understandable reasons for distrusting political authority, their monarchs having lorded the power of the law over them in apparently unjust and oppressive ways. We hear echoes of Hobbes in their reactions, of his contention that “it is not wisdom but Authority that makes a law.” In light of these political abuses, one can perhaps forgive the revolutionaries’ reluctant attitudes toward law, their treating it as a tolerable burden rather than as an essential and sacrosanct moral directive. And yet, abusus non tollit usum: The abuse of a thing does not exclude its proper use. While there is no question that the law can be exploited for evil ends, still, as Jean Valjean reminds us, law in itself is good—even lovable, if the Psalmist is to be believed. We need to reclaim and rekindle such a positive vision of law if we are to realize happiness in our own society.
We face many obstacles to positively reorienting our posture toward the law: our naïve egalitarianism, our skeptical “legal realism,” our subjectivist emotivism. But no obstacle is more serious than our collective misunderstanding of liberty, à la Hobbes, which leads us to see the law as a threat to our prized autonomy. As the new centerpiece of the New York skyline “Freedom Tower” gets closer and closer to completion, we would do well to reevaluate our understanding of the virtue from which this skyscraper takes its name. Of course, there is a brand of freedom that is good and worth celebrating: freedom from injustice, freedom to do good, and so on. This liberty the law indeed ought to protect and promote.
But too often the freedom championed today is the freedom of the antinomian revolutionaries, a blanket “freedom from” with no concern for the ends to which it will be directed. The problem with this libertine conception of freedom is that it treats all men as radically individual, as bearers of “rights” over and against the societies to which we belong. But man is social by his very nature—the “political animal,” as Aristotle would have it, hence Aquinas’s teaching that “men in the state of innocence would have lived in society.” So this freedom of radical autonomy proves to be radically inhumane.
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.”
Michael W. Hannon is a first-year law student at NYU and a graduate of Columbia, where he triple-majored in Philosophy, Religion, and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He is a contributing editor at Ethika Politika, and he has previously reviewed Les Misérables here.