The scene opens in a seventeenth-century drawing room in Paris. Alceste is reprimanding his friend Philinte for constantly betraying his integrity by conforming to the hypocritical uses and customs of polite society. An extended debate occurs between Alceste and Philinte. They argue about how genuinely and honestly a man can conduct his affairs in society. Alceste believes that a man must at all costs be honest with himself and with all of his acquaintances. Alceste also maintains that no self-respecting man can accept a compliment as genuine when he is perfectly aware that all compliments are paid equally without distinction as to merit. He insists that quality be considered before people praise their fellows and that honesty dictate all judgments. Philinte argues that compliments are merely tactful maneuvers to ease the strain of getting along with people. One cannot speak his mind openly in all situations and must yield at times to the general customs prevailing in society.
Philinte asks Alceste to stop criticizing mankind and turn his attention to his impending lawsuit. He recommends that Alceste pay a visit to the judge or send someone who will solicit the judge's favor for him. Alceste adamantly refuses to stoop to such devices and insists that his suit must be tried purely on the basis of justice.
Philinte then asks Alceste if he perceives those values which he so highly esteems in the woman he loves. Philinte goes on to say that this lady, Célimène, is just as much a coquette and as much affected by the manners of the age as anyone whom Alceste criticizes. Alceste admits that he sees her faults, but he is still bewitched by her.
Note the division of the scenes. It was a tradition in the French neoclassic stage for a scene to end when a new character appeared onstage or when a character left the stage. Sometimes when the entrance or exit occurs within the length of a few short exchanges of dialogue, this practice seems highly artificial; however, in the actual production of the play, none of these scene divisions interfered with the continuity of the action, since the curtain was never lowered except at the end of an act.
Early in the first scene Molière establishes certain dramatic tensions which will continue throughout the play: Alceste and the contrasting Philinte appear together onstage. We can clearly see from the start that Alceste is an intemperate person, as he immediately complains about people betraying their integrity. There is a heavy tone to most of the raving Alceste does, whereas Philinte seems much more reasonably contained, allowing his friend to spurt forth his rage before saying much. Alceste's language is characterized by harsh and bitter castigation of his fellow man: "shameful," and "disgraceful." He says "what a base degrading infamous thing it is to stoop to betraying one's integrity like that." Alceste exclaims that he would hang himself if ever he stooped to such a point, but Philinte answers that he will spare his own neck for a time while he attempts to correct Alceste's views.
In this first exchange between these two characters, Molière sets up the dialectic which will dominate the entire play. We see that Alceste and Philinte are friends in spite of the language that Alceste uses. We get the impression that Philinte is tolerating his friend's idiosyncrasies, while not entirely contradicting them.
A duality in our opinion toward Alceste crops up this early in the play. Although we feel that he is a bit radical in his opinions, we cannot completely reject all of his statements: "I expect you to be sincere and honorable and never utter a single word you don't mean."
In any comedy, a norm of opinion is often established, against which we can see various comic deviations. It is interesting to note that Molière does not set up a definite norm in the beginning of this play, but instead, offers a picture ambiguous enough to give the audience reason to sympathize with both Philinte and Alceste. As noted above, we do agree with Alceste's ideas about sincerity and honesty, but then we must also agree with Philinte when he complains "This philosophic rage is a bit overdone." Perhaps Alceste's idealism, admirable as it may first seem, overextends itself when he reaches the point of loathing mankind because of it. Philinte astutely remarks that Alceste has deviated from the norm: "It's wrong to be too high principled." One of the moral problems with which Molière is dealing, and with which the reader must come to terms, is just this: can one ever really be "too high principled?" A different statement of the same problem as it appears in the play is just how far can man be tolerant with a corrupt, false, and artificial society. In Molière's terms, how much "can we yield to the times."
Molière's own position is difficult to determine in this first scene. Certainly he would not agree with Alceste, who wants to flee from all of mankind, but just how much would he accept Philinte's view that we must be "a bit merciful to human nature" and not "judge it with the utmost rigor." In the final analysis, Molière is criticizing both the society which breeds such behavior, but at the same time, he is disdainful of a man like Alceste who takes such strident measures against the society.
In connection with the lawsuit with which Alceste is involved, Philinte asks Alceste what he will bring to court in his behalf. Alceste answers that he will bring reason, justice, and the rightness of his cause. Philinte wants Alceste to call on the judges and pay his respects to them, but Alceste refuses because he feels that the case should be judged entirely by its merits. In terms of the French society of the times, Philinte is, of course, correct. Alceste refuses to pay court to the judge because he sees such an action as a bribe. But in fact, the judge might be perfectly honest and just, and the act of calling on the judge was a custom of courtesy. Refusal to do so would probably be interpreted as an act of rudeness in the same way as a prisoner's refusal to stand up in an American law court when the judge enters would be considered disrespectful.
Alceste, who would appear to be setting himself up as the perfect rational being, is in actuality thoroughly irrational in matters of love. He has fallen in love with the most famous flirt and tease of the town, and he even admits that he cannot justify his emotions as anything except irrational. In the final section of this scene, we learn that two other characters, Eliante and Arsinoé are also in love with Alceste but that he refuses to acknowledge their affections, since he is so completely in love with Célimène. These facts will have a bearing on the development of the plot.