An energized discussion of essential virtues for everyday living, by a young French philosopher.
Comte-Sponville (Sorbonne), author of scholarly philosophy texts, targets a wider contemporary audience with this title, so far translated into 19 languages. His premise is elegant: a linked series of 18 essays on the virtues most consistently explored and advocated in world philosophy. Roughly speaking, he begins with virtues that are exterior and personal (politeness, fidelity, prudence, temperance), moves through necessary “social” virtues (courage, justice, generosity, compassion, mercy), to more ethereal, “Zen”-like qualities (gratitude, humility, simplicity, tolerance), and on to those that permit the previous virtues to enhance society (purity, gentleness, good faith, humor, and love). His exploration of each virtue is detailed and limber, reliant both on the work of his predecessor philosophers (Aristotle and Plato, Thomas Aquinas and Spinoza, Simone Weil) and on his own hypothetical situations to “test” such virtues. For example, he frequently considers the Third Reich as a society that burnished essential values in the context of perverting them, noting that a polite Nazi is arguably crueler than a brutish one. Comte-Sponville relishes challenging the paradoxes inherent in contemporary mores, as in his assertion that “universal tolerance would also be self-contradictory in practical terms and thus not just morally reprehensible but also politically doomed.” Elsewhere, he explores the fine distinctions that are obliterated by monolithic conceptions of virtue, William Bennett–style, as regarding “Purity,” which he demonstrates does not exclude the range of human sexuality, evident in Lucretius’ conception of pura voluptas, “pure pleasure.” Throughout, Comte-Sponville captures (and sometimes confounds) our attention with a wry, prickly tone, expanding the understanding of how philosophy addresses human traits, and forcing us to confront our social behavior relative to our highest (and lowest) impulses.
An effervescent primer of the morally examined life.