Time jumps forward, and the next act opens with Cléante telling Tartuffe that the whole town is talking about Orgon’s fight with Damis.
Even unseen townspeople within the play think that Orgon has acted foolishly—only he remains blind to it.
Cléante asserts that, no matter who is in the wrong, it would be Christian of Tartuffe to persuade Orgon to forgive his own son. Tartuffe, however, contends that if he does so, he will appear to be doing so out of guilt. Cléante responds skeptically, saying that Tartuffe is being vengeful; but Tartuffe fires back that he may forgive Damis, but this does not mean he must live with someone who wishes to slander him.
In this debate, Cléante represents reason and true faith, while Tartuffe represents hypocrisy and deceit. Although Cléante is a rational man, he uses his reason to follow the precepts of Christianity; Tartuffe, meanwhile, twists Christianity to suit his own purposes.
Cléante turns the conversation towards Orgon’s decision to give Tartuffe his entire estate, telling the hypocrite that he should not have accepted the offer. Tartuffe responds that he was reluctant to take the “gift,” but that he wishes to use the money for “Heaven’s glory and mankind’s benefit.”
Tartuffe continues to hide his greed behind a screen of piety here as he claims he accepted the gift of Orgon’s wealth because he could use it to help both people and god, but Cléante argues that a truly good man would not have accepted the gift and in doing so harmed Orgon’s family.
Not at all deceived by Tartuffe’s claim, Cléante reprimands him, saying that Damis should have been given the chance to use his wealth morally as opposed to having it taken from him. He goes on to say that it is, in fact, immoral for the rightful heir to be deprived of his property, and that if Tartuffe did not want to live with Damis, then he himself should have left Orgon’s house.
Cléante has a clear and rational theory of morality and order, which he articulates skillfully and clearly. This argument contrasts with the deceptive and manipulative arguments of Tartuffe who always just claims to be doing whatever he’s doing out of religious devotion.
Tartuffe makes an excuse, saying that he must go pray, and swiftly exits. A frustrated Cléante is left alone onstage.
Even the slippery Tartuffe cannot hope to stand against Cléante’s rational, forceful arguments. Yet he can still escape them by refusing to engage.