- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (August 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805045554
- ISBN-13: 978-0805045550
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 37 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #692,750 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
French right-wing "nouveau philosophe" Comte-Sponville, a professor at Paris's Sorbonne, had an international success with this not-so-small book, though it's unclear how many buyers have made it all the way through. Dividing the book into 18 virtue-based chapters "Politeness," "Fidelity," "Prudence," "Temperance," "Courage," "Mercy," "Gratitude," and so on Comte-Sponville quotes a multitude of philosophers from the ancient Greeks through Spinoza, Hobbes and Nietzsche to modern Frenchmen like Vladimir Jankelevitch. But doing so fails to make what is essentially a quirky, self-centered monologue into an all-ages dialogue: "Kant and Rousseau think gratitude a duty. I'm not convinced. Moreover, I don't really believe in duties." Such pronouncements presume a reputation and familiarity that does not carry over to these shores. The humorless writing on humor seems oddly pitched as well: "One mustn't exaggerate the importance of humor, however. A bastard can have a sense of humor, and a hero can lack one. But as we have seen, the same is true of most virtues, and as an argument against humor it proves nothing, except of course that humor itself proves nothing." This is Comte-Sponville's first book rendered in English, and despite the concise translation (by Catherine Temerson), it's not hard to see why. (Aug. 30) Forecast: While Holt must have How Proust Can Change Your Life-like ambitions for this title, Alain de Botton scored with readers because they warmed to his loopy self-obsessions. Unfortunately, fans of de Botton won't find much kinship with self-labeled "atheist and neo-cynic" Comte-Sponville, despite his considerable philosophical reputation, and sales, in Europe.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
*Starred Review* In an age of political correctness, individual virtue has shriveled into an anachronism for many commentators. Not for ComteSponville, a Sorbonne philosopher whose reflections on virtue bridge the gap between timely and timeless. Ascending from politeness (the slightest virtue, pertaining only to form and ceremony) to love (the ultimate virtue, binding society together, motivating all service and sacrifice), ComteSponville confronts his readers with the moral challenges essential to the enlargement of our character and the redemption of our humanity. The analysis of 18 virtues naturally focuses on foundational attributes such as justice and generosity, especially within the context of twenty-firstcentury expectations. Yet, again and again, the great moral philosophers of the past--Aristotle and Plato, Hume and Montaigne--speak up, shredding the smug complacency of modernity. And although he himself disavows any religious belief, ComteSponville opens the door to pious thinkers--from Saint Paul to Simone Weil--who see in mortal virtues a partial reflection of God's immortal goodness. His subject demands a sober seriousness, but ComteSponville still manages to avoid taking himself too seriously: humility makes it into his litany of virtues, as does humor. A laudable renewal of the ancient quest for ethical wisdom. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
The short of it is that this book will make you feel good about being good.
The long of it is:
I was doing a paper on `value ethics', and my experience was that in the world of professional philosophy, especially since 1903, with the publishing of G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica and his promulgation of the `naturalistic fallacy', the consideration of values and character had virtually disappeared. This general impression was confirmed when I looked at a few scholarly ethics texts from the 1960's and they confirmed in plain speaking, that the study of ethics had become an analysis of language, given the King Kong sized influence of the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Mighty Joe Young sized works of J. L. Austin, a direct descendent of the influence of G. E. Moore's style of philosophy.
But I kept following my nose and in a very recent ethics book by Terry Eagleton, Trouble With Strangers, he criticized both European psychologized ethics of Jacques Lacan and the 'high-toned' morality talk of law, right, duty, principle, and obligation traceable to Immanuel Kant. Eagleton also cited a relatively new collection of papers, Virtue Ethics, which headlined an important 1958 paper by Wittgenstein student, G.E.M. Anscombe on `Modern Moral Philosophy' which began a return to virtue ethics. The irony is that the flaw Anscombe pinpointed in moral philosophy is the absence of sound analysis in `philosophical psychology', a subject which always sounded odd to me, as the history of philosophy, especially from the ancient Greeks up to Descartes, was a spinning off of disciplines to children such as physics, mathematics, and psychology. But ethics, especially virtue ethics and the various flavors of Utilitarianism stand and fall by what they mean by mental states such as `pleasure' and `happiness'. So, in retrospect, I was not too surprised when I searched amazon.com for `virtues' and character, and came up with nothing but books on self-help, psychology, and `Christian values'. That last is no surprise, as the contemporary academic moral philosophy is all about rules and values for the group. It spends virtually no time on the moral perspective on the individual. But I did find one practical book on `moral values' which is a fitting complement to the new theoretical work on virtues. This is the book cited above, by a modern French professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne. According to the thumbnail biographical sketch, this book has been translated into 19 languages and has been a bestseller in France.
My very first reactions were that the book was not a superficially saccharine treatment of the subject and that it did offer serious reflections on the virtues which relied on thoughts from many great philosophers and essayists such as Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Epicurus, Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Montaigne, Friedrich Nietzsche, Pascal, Plato, Spinoza, and Simon Weil. And those are just the high points. When the title says `great virtues, I half expect to find the seven virtues of Catholic theology or `the seven heavenly virtues' which contrast the seven deadly sins. Instead, I find eighteen, with far more congruence with Aristotle than with the church fathers. These eighteen, in a somewhat intuitive order, are:
(Sorry, Amazon squeezes out all the tabs and extra spaces)
Politeness Fidelity Prudence Temperance
Courage Justice Generosity Compassion
Mercy Gratitude Humility Simplicity
Tolerance Purity Gentleness Good Faith
The insight of prudence may have been one of Aristotle's greatest contributions to moral philosophy. It is the property which tempers the slavish devotion to rules to something which accurately reflects common sense in life.
One irony of virtue ethics is that on the one hand, it is seen as a means to establish a moral theory independent of a belief in God, while it also seems to be a far better embodiment of the Christian ethics of the Gospels than the rules based thinking of Kant or the `greatest good for the greatest number' utilitarianism of Mill. These are both `Apollonian' styles of ethics. Without checking my Nietzsche texts, I suspect `virtue ethics' is a more balanced mix of the Apollonian with the Dionysian, grounded in intuition, emotion, slightly unstable, and with an appreciation of the chaotic.
The term "treatise" may imply a heavy, theoretical view of the virtues more suited for the famous philosophers. While the author incorporates centuries of ideas from the famous, and responds to them (e.g., Spinoza must appear 100 times), his style is much more informal and accessible, almost conversational at times. The philosophical survey is handy for readers not familiar with their ideas, but that was of secondary value compared to the personal.
Do not read this book if you expect virtues to be derived from or align with religion. Comte-Sponville, an atheist, instead identifies what he believes is moral and proper, independent of religion, although of course his conclusions often overlap with those of the religious. The personal touch includes the same tolerance seen in the author's "The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality", as he understands human weaknesses, including his own, and that religion can be a strong motive for virtuous behavior. His tolerance does not extend to evil, no matter how many other virtues the evil-doer exhibits. The Nazis serve repeatedly as counter-examples. A loyal and courageous killer is still a killer. Fidelity in the service of evil is no virtue.
I knew this was a book for me when the prologue included, "To think about the virtues is to take measure of the distance separating us from them. To think about their excellence is to think about our own inadequacies or wretchedness.... Thinking about the virtues will not make us virtuous, or, in any case, is not enough in itself to make us so. But there is one virtue it does develop, and that virtue is humility - intellectual humility in the face of the richness of the material and the tradition, and a properly moral humility as well, before the obvious fact that we are almost always deficient in nearly all the virtues and yet cannot resign ourselves to their absence or exonerate ourselves for their weakness, which is our own."
Thus we have a basis for a self-assessment of how we measure up. The author is no absolutist, recognizing gray areas in most virtues, as behavior falls in a continuum for each virtue, whether applied to others or to ourselves. I was surprised at the difficulty in contemplating how friends, family and co-workers did, even people I felt I knew fairly well. Is it the embodiment or certain virtues or their absence that forces our opinions of the people around us?
The sections are clear and well-written, with some exceptionally good, and the chapter on humility rather thin. The final virtue, love, occupies one fourth of the book. It's a long riff on the three types of love familiar to Catholics and others (eros, agape, philia), with a major theme being how the lack of love is what mandates virtuous behavior. The essay, while charming and serious, doesn't really fit, as it's not tightly focused on love as a virtue.
Still... an interesting interpretation that will give a different perspective.