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A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life [Hardcover]

Andre Comte-Sponville
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

3 Jan 2002
In a thought-provoking book, the author examines what he argues are 24 crucial virtues, from politeness (not a virtue, but a condition for most of the virtues) to courage. Comte-Sponville writes philosophy in the traditional manner, as an examination of what it means to lead the good life.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd (3 Jan 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0434009687
  • ISBN-13: 978-0434009688
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.8 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 483,169 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

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

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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Frequently quoting Aristotle and Spinoza but also often referring to the writings of Vladimir Jankelevitch and the French philosopher Alain, Comte-Sponville creates a compelling thought world of ethical virtues.

Politeness, courage, sympathy and tolerance, whilst celebrated, are ambiguous and therefore insufficient virtues since they are `blind to value'. They can serve good or evil. Politeness can be a false facade and tolerance can be compromised but they are both foundational virtues since they give respect to others. Even fidelity is suspect unless the virtue one is faithful to is justified or the commitment one is faithful to is human, particular and historical. Fidelity is to values and cannot be to feelings or to specific relationships which can evolve into new unforeseen contexts and realities. Prudence makes us consider and be responsible for the consequences of our actions and not only their intentions. Crucially it guides us in how to implement the other virtues.

Temperance allows us to master our pleasures and not to be their slave. It is the art of enjoyment. Comte-Sponville quotes from Montaigne `excess is the pest of pleasure, and self restraint is not its scourge but its spice'. Courage is virtuous in mastering fear, especially fear of suffering. It is the readiness to take pain for what is right or what must be done. It is strength in despair against all hope. Humility is not a low view of self but a sufficiently non inflated view of self to admit `I may be wrong'. Simplicity is to be at peace with oneself and with one's context although discontent can be creative. Pity includes trace elements of contempt and adds to total human sadness and so is not virtuous.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wise, humane and thoughtful 25 Jan 2007
I read this book when it came out, and I've referred back to it a few times, teaching Ethics to junior doctors and also within a church context. I think it's a lovely book, the sort of thing that gives atheistic humanism a good name - but that's not to say it's fully successful in erasing 'god' or indeed 'christianity' from it's ethical system. The final extended chapter on love becomes increasingly fascinating as he attempts to wrest this virtue away from it's dependance on god and uses ever more essentially 'christian' language to do so. Which leads to a whole other sphere of debate!

I'm surprised to see that others have found this book superficial and skimming, I would have said it was much more in depth than Alain De Botton's Consolations of Philosophy - which is also lovely but decidedly less profound.

The chapter on Tolerance is a prophetic voice that we need to hear.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a dazzling personal display 23 April 2003
The book attempts to build an ethical timeline, how and why Virtues were defined as such, how individual philosophers have responded to these suggested Virtues and whether they are still seen as positive today.
In this he succeades, it is possible to browse an individual topic: generosity, humour, gentleness or to start at the beginning and allow the author to build his goal, that ultimately we may not agree on a Moral way of life but that individually we should be able to account for our actions and beliefs.
beautifully written and referenced, a delight.
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12 of 24 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Lovely idea, badly done 26 Feb 2002
By A Customer
There's nothing nicer than the idea behind this book. It promises to lay bare what makes a person nice/virtuous. This is something we spend lots of time doing anyway, gossiping about people, saying, 'Do you like him, do you like her? What's wrong with X or Y.' Here a philosopher promises to take us through the subject - and to explain to us why some qualities in people are nice. Unfortunately, the author, having had his great idea, seems to collapse in exhaustion, thinking it's almost not worth going ahead and writing anything decent. Perhaps he's right, as this book has been a huge seller in France, but here, people are rightly more suspicious. Every subject that the author treats, he skims and patronises his reader in the process. I read Alain de Botton's Consolations of Philosophy and find it infinitely superior as a guide to the good life.
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