Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Ethics of Don Giovanni

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

Don Giovanni (Duncan Rock) and the Commendatore (Steven Humes)
Photo © T. Charles Erickson for BLO.
Don Giovanni premiered in 1787, eleven years after the start of the American Revolution and two years before the French Revolution. This was the twilight of the Enlightenment, an era that officially ended in the 1780s. Although many versions of Don Giovanni’s story were performed across Europe (in dramatic, operatic, and ballet forms), Mozart’s retelling of the story has held a particular attraction for a broad range of commentators, including the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Slavoj Žižek. The unrepentant figure of Giovanni as created by Mozart fit well within the era’s own ethical discourse: on the role and weight of individual choices, the questioning of Christian values, and the very existence of God himself.

In his 2011 article, “Divine Justice: The Hidden Story of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Jewish Opera,” David P. Goldman argues that Giovanni’s character as created by Tirso de Molina (1630, The Trickster of Seville), is an implicit critique of the limits of Christian morality that is based on the principles of love and conscience. Goldman writes:

The trouble, Tirso demonstrates, is that a society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none. Don Juan is a predator inside the Christian world with no natural enemies. Juan enjoys murdering the male relatives of his female victims almost as much he enjoys seducing the women. To the extent that we can speak of Juan’s descendants in today’s fiction, they are not so much lovers but serial killers.

De Molina’s world was full of sociopathic men in power, including Spain’s King Philip IV, who staged a coup against the legitimate heir to the Spanish throne. And thus, Goldman notes, by portraying one of such men without conscience, de Molina was trying to posit a legitimate moral and social question: how to recognize them and how to deal with them and, most of all, whether it is even possible to deal with them (outside of the supernatural forces of divine justice). Goldman’s point is well taken, and it has been a subject of inquiry by many modern philosophers. Is Giovanni’s life motto of satisfying his own needs and desires above all an exegesis on psychopathic mentality, or is it merely an Enlightenment-era glorification of the individual vis-à-vis the constraints of a narrow-minded and bigoted society? What is Giovanni’s ethical position, and can we even call him an ethical subject?

In his 19th-century treatise, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” found in his 1843 book Either/Or, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) argues that Mozart’s Giovanni represents sexuality and eroticism, which are the opposites of Christian morality. Giovanni also represents absolute immorality and the absolute triumph of desire. Kierkegaard writes: “In Don Giovanni, however, desire is absolutely qualified as desire. . . . In this stage, therefore, desire is absolutely genuine, victorious, triumphant, irresistible, and demonic” (84–85). However, the Don is also the center of the story. “Giovanni’s passion ‘resonates in and supports . . . Elvira’s wrath, Anna’s hate, Ottavio’s pomposity, Zerlina’s anxiety, Masetto’s indignation, Leporello’s confusion’” (Kierkegaard 119).

In his book, Love Declared, Denis de Rougemont also describes Giovanni as demonic:

When he strides on stage, glittering in silk and gold, yhe heroic seducer at his proudest, we are tempted to see in him only the natural fire of desire, a kind of vehement and somehow innocent animality. But Nature has never produced anything like this. We sense there is something demonic about him, almost a polemic of defiant wickedness. . . . In the intoxication of anarchy he thrives on, this grand seigneur never forgets his rank. His natural mood is scorn; nothing is further from his nature. Consider how he treats women: incapable of possessing them, he first violates them morally in order to subjugate the animal part of their being; and no sooner has he taken than he rejects them, as if he sought the fact of the crime rather than the gratifications of pleasure. A perpetual polemicist, he happens to be completely determined by the good and the just—against them. If the laws of morality did not exist, he would invent them in order to violate them. Which is what suggests to us the spiritual nature of his secret, so carefully masked by the pretext of his instinct. On the summits of the mind in revolt, we shall see Nietzsche renew this mortal challenge a hundred years later. (101–2)

For de Rougemont, Giovanni embodies “an absolute moral nihilism” (115). But Giovanni thrives not so much on desire but on transgression; he is driven not by the satisfaction derived from action but from the breaking of a taboo.

In 1903, the British playwright George Bernard Shaw published a satirical play, Man and Superman, an adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with some Mephistophelian themes borrowed from the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (based on Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus). Shaw’s four-act play opened at The Royal Court Theatre in London on May 23, 1905. The third act, called Don Juan in Hell, is often performed separately, and it consists of a philosophical discussion between Don Juan and the Devil, with Doña Ana and the Statue of Don Gonzalo, Ana’s father, watching. The debate revolves around “the advantages of Hell (art, beauty, love, pleasure) and Heaven (rational discourse and promulgation of the Life Force). The Devil, of course, defends those hedonistic amenities, whereas Juan, a true Shavian, wants none of them and heads for a thinker’s Heaven. Don Gonzalo, who had become the Statue, and Doña Ana, the Lady par excellence, make their own idiosyncratic contributions to the great debate” (Simon). “The earth,” Juan tells Ana (as the Devil listens), “is a nursery in which men and women play at being heroes and heroines, saints and sinners” in “a fool’s paradise.”

The title of Shaw’s play comes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of the “Übermensch” (“Superman”). In his 1883 book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche proposes the idea of the Übermensch as the ultimate goal for humanity. The Übermensch exists beyond Christian morality, and beyond good and evil. He devises his own moral code; however, he also owns up to all of his ethical choices and transgressions. He regrets none of them, living his life without fear, even if it were caught in the loop of “eternal recurrence.” That is, even if his life were to repeat over and over into eternity, the Superman would not alter any of his decisions. By owning up to his moral code and being willing to die for it, Giovanni can be thought of as Nietzsche’s prototypical Superman.

Like Shaw, modern thinkers have also been considering Giovanni through the prism of Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, most famously the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who argues that Giovanni’s refusal to repent is what actually makes him an ethical subject. At the end, Žižek (1989) argues,

[Giovanni] is confronted with the following choice: if he confesses his sins, he can still achieve salvation; if he persists, he will be damned for ever. From the viewpoint of the pleasure principle, the proper thing to do would be to renounce his past, but he does not, he persists in his Evil, although he knows that by persisting he will be damned for ever. Paradoxically, with his final choice of Evil, he acquires the status of an ethical hero—that is, of someone who is guided by fundamental principles “beyond the pleasure principle” and not just by the search for pleasure or material gain. (Sublime Object, 27)

If he seeks only pleasure and the avoidance of responsibility, the natural thing for Giovanni, so it seems, would be to repent (or at least pretend to) in order to avoid death and eternal damnation. Yet he disregards Leporello’s pleading, declaring that he’s not a coward (“Ho fermo il cor in petto, non ho timor, verrò!” / “My heart is firm in my chest, I have no fear, I will!”). Such an ending seems oxymoronic, as Žižek points out:

Don Giovanni persists in his libertine attitude at the very moment when he knows very well that what awaits him is only the gallows . . . That is to say, from the standpoint of pathological pleasures, the thing to do would be to accomplish the formal act of penitence: Don Giovanni knows that death is close, so that by atoning for his deeds he stands to lose nothing, only to gain (ie: to save himself from posthumous torments), . . . yet “on principle” he chooses to persist in his defiant stance of the libertine. How can one avoid experiencing Don Giovanni’s unyielding “No!” to the statue . . . as the model of an intransigent ethical attitude, notwithstanding its “evil” content? (Tarrying, 96)

The ultimate paradox of Don Giovanni thus might be: the man who pursues only pleasure sentences himself to death (beyond the pleasure principle), to justify his pursuit of pleasure. Repentance (or faux repentance) would seem to be more consistent with his life’s philosophy, yet it would also undermine this philosophy and thereby unravel his entire identity.

In his book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas, Nicholas Till makes a similar point:

With his desperate, defiant denial he becomes a triumphant yea-sayer, prepared to plead his values of individual freedom at the bar of heaven itself. In this moment, as the scene is written by Mozart, it is almost impossible not to identify with Don Giovanni and adopt him as some sort of existential rebel: a rebel whom Camus was to describe as, “A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation,” and who prefers “the risk of death to a denial of the rights that he defends.” (226)

This paradox of Don Giovanni’s final choice is what has captivated philosophers. On one hand, we can’t help but condemn the Don, as does the Commendatore; on the other, we also can’t help but appreciate his final stand and his bravado. In this final act of refusal, Giovanni transforms from a villain to a tragic hero whose fall is brought about by nothing but his own tragic flaws.


  • de Rougemont, Denis. Love Declared: Essays on the Myths of Love. New York: Pantheon, 1963.

  • Kierkegaard, Søren. “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic.” In Kierkegaard’s Writings, III, Part I: Either/Or, Part I, ed. and trans. with introd. and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

  • Till, Nicholas. Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas. New York: Norton, 1992.

  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

  • ———. Tarrying with the NegativeKant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

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