Picking up on the post-September 11, 2001, zeitgeist, André Comte-Sponville's international bestseller A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues
, originally published in 1995, provides a timely consideration of the eternal dilemmas of what we should be and how we should live.
Along with the four classical cardinal virtues--justice, courage, prudence and temperance--and one of the Christian three--charity, as an ingredient of love--Comte-Sponville, a professor at the Sorbonne, adds 13 of his own to produce an armoury of resolutions for the less-than-perfect among us.
Within his virtuous periodic table it is often in combination that his choices prove most dynamic: he contends that generosity enjoined with mercy becomes leniency; with gentleness it produces kindness. Prudence becomes a precondition to virtue, while compassion is the most universal virtue, denoting what we recognise as humanity. Gratitude becomes the endgame of mourning or loss, while humour, perhaps a surprising inclusion, exists as the positive, joyous sibling of the negatively-ioned irony.
Drawing on Woody Allen and Freud for his exploration of humour, he himself invests his brisk, unstuffy theorising with a drollness uncharacteristic of his discipline (Nietzsche is hand-bagged as "right about everything and wrong about everything"). He integrates the thoughts of the likes of Pascal, Kant, Spinoza, Jankélévitch and Montaigne, to whose intimate style he most aspires, into his own sprucely thesis.
More than mere intellectual massage, A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues consistently draws its examples and moral conundrums from the Second World War, placing abstract philosophical discourse within an empirical framework of reference. In addition, his discussions of courage, despair, tolerance and mercy convey an urgent sense of the present in which our contemporary table-talk still engages with the most formative moral writers. It concludes with a magnificently persuasive and lengthy celebration of perhaps the greatest catch-all virtue known to us: love. As with Alain de Botton's Consolations of Philosophy and Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, Comte-Sponville's book is flatteringly inclusive, deeply enjoyable and makes a desirable virtue out of being philosophical. --David Vincent
'...an excellent book of philosophy on the eternal questions of ethics, at once limpid, impassioned and beautiful.' -- Le Point
'Comte Sponville's way of approaching well known themes is almost scandalously original, this book is a quest for wisdom.' -- Tzvetan Todorov