Virtue Without Finger-Wagging, From a High-Flying Frenchman

A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues , by André Comte-Sponville. Metropolitan Books, 352 pages, $27.50.

Ever had to fight the urge to pick up William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues ? Have you considered, even for a microsecond, buying his new book, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family ? Or put it this way: Do you ever yearn for moral guidance, and yet gag at the idea of getting it from a hero of the right-wing God squad? If so, then André Comte-Sponville may be the man for you. First of all, he’s French, and in France, where the political center is– gasp –socialist, it’s no surprise to find that the author of a book called A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues is at least as liberal as, say, Al Gore. More shocking still, Mr. Comte-Sponville dares to admit that he doesn’t believe in God, and he refuses to sugarcoat this assertion by avowing faith in some hazy “higher power.” The 18 virtues he examines are resolutely, refreshingly secular: no sermons here, no piety–and no political posturing.

A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues was a best-seller in France five years ago, and it’s being translated into 19 languages. But the fact that it’s a popular success doesn’t mean that it’s watered-down or dosed with heartfelt 12-step advice; it’s not a how-to book. Mr. Comte-Sponville–whose name alone would give the look of gravitas to any treatise, great or small–is a well-respected professional philosopher. Without a hint of condescension, he aims his book at the lay reader–and hits the bull’s-eye. Anyone who’s eager to contemplate man’s capacity for excellence, even someone who knows zip about moral philosophy, will find in Mr. Comte-Sponville a charming, sophisticated and lucid guide to the way we ought to be.

“To think about the virtues,” he writes, “is to take measure of the distance separating us from them.” And yet, he announces, “I don’t believe any more than Spinoza did in the utility of denouncing vice, evil, and sin.” He believes that virtue is taught by example, not by pulpit-pounding or the publication of earnest exhortations. He suggests, however, that thinking about morality, wanting to learn about it, may have a beneficial effect: “Is there any virtue that isn’t initially, if only in some small way, a desire for virtue?”

Sounds promising. But the road to virtue isn’t easy, and André Comte-Sponville does have shortcomings. The very Frenchness that makes A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues just right for a certain segment of the American audience (those of us who want to do the right thing without the help of God or the Grand Old Party) turns out to be part of the problem. Like many of his compatriots (and many of his professional colleagues), Mr. Comte-Sponville is addicted to abstraction. Though he claims that his book “is entirely about practical morals,” his examples of virtue in action are few and far between. Compared with most philosophical speculation, this treatise is downright earthy; but compared with the grit of daily life, or the thick weave of the best novels ( Middlemarch is another kind of treatise on the great virtues), it’s remote and academic. In short, sometimes his virtues lose their human flavor. Be prepared to float unanchored through extended passages of speculation about the competing definitions of a slippery abstract noun. In the middle of one typically lofty argument, as he’s parsing the difference between “compassion” and “pity,” Mr. Comte-Sponville pauses to ask a rhetorical question: “But after all, what does usage matter, as long as we agree on the definitions?” Actually, it’s precisely the usage we’re interested in; we Americans like knowledge we can put to work.

This treatise begins with politeness and ends with love–which is how the author believes we ought to develop. “Politeness,” he writes, “is a small thing that paves the way for great things.” As children, we’re taught how to behave; the outward forms of virtue are imposed by parental fiat. When we begin to understand the meaning of what we’ve learned by rote, we’re on our way to acquiring a moral sense. Mr. Comte-Sponville sums it up neatly: “Not being virtuous, we make a pretense of virtue; this is called politeness. Not knowing how to love, we act as though we did; this is called morality.” He likes to repeat what he calls “morality’s maxim: Act as though you loved .” The virtues, he believes, are “feeble approximations of love” and, according to his theory, acting the part may make you ready for the real thing.

If you’re very lucky, very wise or just plain saintly, you experience a love that supersedes virtue and makes it redundant. And what is love? Playing referee to the followers of Socrates, Aristophanes and Spinoza (and borrowing liberally from Simone Weil), Mr. Comte-Sponville splits the topic into three overlapping categories: eros (passionate love), philia (friendship and family love) and agape (charity or universal love). In an appealing–and atypical–passage, he humanizes these abstractions: “There is a kind of love that is like hunger, and another that resonates with laughter. Charity is more like a smile.” To the extent that it involves at least an element of agape , any love we feel weakens the tyranny of the self–which makes it easier for virtue to step forward.

Mr. Comte-Sponville is very good at showing that “All the virtues are interdependent.” Pack courage and prudence and good faith in your bag, for example, when journeying toward justice or generosity or tolerance or fidelity. If simplicity is your destination, you’ll want to bring along humility. Compassion and gentleness ease the way to mercy.

But the obstacle to moral excellence isn’t, for most of us, that we’ve got the wrong mix of virtues. Rather, it’s plain old vice–and maybe a trace of evil. Oddly enough, Mr. Comte-Sponville fails to make the opposite of virtue seem at all scary or repugnant. His bogeyman is always a Nazi or a “bastard” (the inevitable and sadly inadequate translation of salaud ). “A Nazi who acts in good faith is still a Nazi: who cares if he is sincere? An authentic bastard is still a bastard: what’s his authenticity to us?” Ever since Milton’s Satan, it’s been clear that vivid wickedness hooks the reader. Mr. Comte-Sponville needs to give his Nazi a thin-lipped smirk or creaky leather boots; otherwise, his villain is just a scarecrow.

Another complaint: In his chapter on humor, Mr. Comte-Sponville launches into a weirdly violent denunciation of irony–it’s “bad laughter, sarcastic and destructive, mocking and wounding … the laughter of hatred and conflict, a laughter that can kill”–without ever defining the term (a most atypical lapse). And when he tries to describe humor (as “a form of joyful disillusionment” or as “an unstable, equivocal, or contradictory golden mean that reveals the frivolous side to all seriousness as well as the serious side to all frivolity”), he makes it sound a lot like … irony.

To make his case for humor as a virtue (or even as a “subsidiary virtue”), Mr. Comte-Sponville resorts to quoting Woody Allen (“Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends”). Okay, the French may love him more than we do–but Woody Allen is ours . And as Louis Menand recently reminded us in The Metaphysical Club , his brilliant history of pragmatism, we have a homegrown philosophical tradition, too. It’s a tribute to the pleasures and the rich possibilities of A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues to say that we need to find our very own André Comte-Sponville–an all-American thinker who can write about virtue in a practical way, without preaching or peddling propaganda.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.