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.
According to Comte-Sponville morality is not absolute but is learned and so is described as `first an artifice then an artefact'. Morality is only necessary where love fails. Love may generate generosity but generosity does not per se generate love. One can decide to be generous but cannot decide to love so in this sense generosity, being voluntary, is the greater virtue. Of generosity Comte-Sponville says `its most beautiful name is its secret, an open secret that everyone knows : accompanied by gentleness, it is called kindness'. Generosity gives others more good than they deserve, whilst its corollary mercy delivers less punishment than is deserved. Love is tripartite. Eros is lack generating desire for self fulfilment as in the fable of Aristophanes where Zeus cuts the whole person into two parts who must then regain union. Philia is mutual joy. Agape is selfless love of another. These love components are distinct but symbiotic - agape allows the love of enemies enjoined by Christ but none of agape, philia or eros would lead to marriage between enemies. Selfless love is virtuous but has to start with self love and indeed ultimately satisfies self love in the recipient beloved other.
The book is a discourse on virtue and as such is highly appealing. It fills a hole in the material consumerist atheist zeitgeist which accounts for its immense popularity. Reading it provokes thought and consideration about virtue. Contemporary western culture would be revolutionised for the better from widespread reading of this advert for virtue in place of its regard for the clamouring adverts for consumerism. Since it presents the virtues selectively and per se, the book lacks a philosophy or a theology. But this is also its advantage in that no overall scheme is being argued - just virtue, intrinsic virtue, which stands as a bottom up disaggregate philosophy itself. In some ways the book falls between two stools by being somewhat long winded with frequent circuitous quasi academic references whilst failing to satisfy the academic requirement for impenetrable syntax.
Its curious nature however is that Comte-Sponville celebrates these virtues which partially describe how we could live well and then declares himself a determinist. So here are beautific virtues beautifically argued for, but it appears they are outside our grasp since we are determined rather than cognitive beings. Comte-Sponville does not address this paradox. Presumably we therefore either have to apply our cognitive powers to choose the way of these virtues in our lives or else hope that reading Comte-Sponville is a determinist mechanism to them flourishing in our lives.
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.
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.
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.