Alceste, a French aristocrat, argues with his friend Philinte about the proper way to treat those for whom one has little respect. Alceste insists on brutal—total honesty—criticizing Philinte's notion that such honesty might be rude or inappropriate. Philinte suggests that Alceste be more accepting of human flaw and not so critical of the behavior of others.
In his talk of honesty, Alceste reveals that he is presently embroiled in some sort of lawsuit. Philinte, attempting to find fault in Alceste's theories of human relationships, points out that Alceste seems to turn a blind eye to the faults of Célimène, the woman whom he is presently courting. Alceste counters, stating that he does recognize Célimène's faults and points them out upon noticing them.
Oronte, another of Célimène's courtiers, appeals to Alceste, praising Alceste's honorable qualities and suggesting that the two men become friends. Alceste is hesitant, stating that they should not make any sort of friendship agreement until they come to know each other better. Oronte then proposes that Alceste offer his critique of a poem Oronte has written. Though reluctant at first, Alceste ultimately agrees to hear the poem.
Alceste reacts with disgust as Oronte begins his recitation. Philinte, on the other hand, praises the sonnet. Out of earshot of Oronte, Alceste berates Philinte for flattering the poor writing. When Oronte finishes his recitation, Alceste suggests that he give up writing and stick to what he does best. Alceste presents an example of what he considers good poetry. Insulted, Oronte challenges Alceste to write something better that what Oronte has presented. Alceste turns down the challenge.
Philinte criticizes Alceste for the way he has treated Oronte. Alceste cuts Philinte off, demanding that he leave. Philinte refuses to leave, telling Alceste not to "be absurd."
At the opening of The Misanthrope, we immediately learn that the play will have at least some elements of farce. Molière's protagonist, Alceste, is comically extreme. He rants about the flaws and failures of humankind, allowing no exceptions. The playwright suggests that such behavior, however right or noble it might be, will not fit well in the world of the play. We learn that Alceste is embroiled in a lawsuit, suggesting that he even reaches the extreme of breaking the law. At first, Alceste is the caricature of the disgruntled old man, telling Philinte, "I find mankind so odious that I should hate to have it approve of me" (I.i). Molière later clouds this initial characterization as the play evolves. He begins The Misanthrope in much the same way he begins his other comedies, but later acts reveal an experiment with form and style.