A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life

André Comte-Sponville




Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book

In this graceful, incisive book, writer-philosopher André Comte-Sponville reexamines the classical human virtues to help us understand "what we should do, who we should be, and how we should live." In the process, he gives us an entirely new perspective on the value, the relevance, and even the charm of the Western ethical tradition.

Drawing on thinkers from Aristotle to Simone Weil, by way of Aquinas, Kant, Rilke, Nietzsche, Spinoza, and Rawls, among others, Comte-Sponville elaborates on the qualities that constitute the essence and excellence of humankind. Starting with politeness—almost a virtue—and ending with love—which transcends all morality—A Small Treatise takes us on a tour of the eighteen essential virtues: fidelity, prudence, temperance, courage, justice, generosity, compassion, mercy, gratitude, humility, simplicity, tolerance, purity, gentleness, good faith, and even, surprisingly, humor. Sophisticated and lucid, full of wit and vivacity, this modestly titled, yet immensely important work provides an indispensable guide to finding what is right and good in everyday life.


Praise for A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues

"One could hardly ask for a better book . . . than this masterpiece of nuanced wisdom . . . You'll find enough here to fill every day of your life."—Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Direct and clear . . . This is no ordinary work of philosophy."—Anthony Gottlieb, The New York Times Book Review

"Anyone who's eager to contemplate man's capacity for excellence, even someone who knows zip about philosophy, will find in Mr. Comte-Sponville a charming, sophisticated and lucid guide to the way we ought to be."—Adam Begley, The New York Observer

"A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues is the first virtue book written for the people all previous virtue books have railed against."—Christopher Caldwell, The Wall Street Journal

"The book is a magnificent achievement, a volume full of understanding and imagination from which no reader can fail to profit. It is not at all a work of haute vulgarisation, but a systematic theory of the virtues that can stand comparison with the central books of the Nicomachean Ethics . . . what distinguishes Comte-Sponville from other figures in this movement, and what makes his book unique in any language is that he is not content to simply talk about virtue in general and to issue calls for philosophical reform. He plunges into the analysis of the particular virtues themselves, spelling out the specific forms of concern and perception that they embody . . . His chapters are the richer for the different perspectives that they weave together in their portraits of the various virtues. A notable feature of the book is the homage that it continually pays to the philosophical tradition . . . [A] brilliant discussion . . . André Comte-Sponville's splendid renewal of this tradition is bound to sharpen our moral sensibility."—Charles Larmore, The New Republic

"A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues is any anti-6deconstructionist's cause to celebrate—a lucid, heartfelt, ethical treatise meant for the common man . . . Comte-Sponville writes with passionate intensity and easy erudition. Feel this book, don't learn it. Experience it, don't memorize it."—Norah Vincent, The Village Voice

"The strength of this work lies in the exclusion of any mawkish moralizing and in showing us how being virtuous is the best way to affirm our humanity. We follow the author step by step, learning with him how to cultivate the higher inclinations of the heart and the mind to become, at last, the masters and judges of our selves."—Pascal Bruckner, Le Nouvel Observateur

"Here at last is the real thing, an excellent book of philosophy on the eternal questions of ethics, at once limpid, impassioned, and beautiful."—Luc Ferry, Le Point

"In an age of political correctness, individual virtue has shriveled into an anachronism for many commentators. Not for Comte-Sponville, a twenty-first century philosopher whose reflections on virtue bridge the gap between timely and timeless. Ascending from politeness (the slightest virtue, pertaining only to form and ceremony) to love (the ultimate virtue, binding society together, motivating all service and sacrifice), Comte-Sponville confronts his readers with the moral challenges essential to the enlargement of our character and the redemption of our humanity. The analysis of 18 virtues naturally focuses on foundational attributes such as justice and generosity, especially within the context of twenty-first century expectations. Yet, again and again, the great moral philosophers of the past—Aristotle and Plato, Hume and Montaigne—speak up, shredding the smug complacency of modernity. And although he himself disavows any religious belief, Comte-Sponville opens the door to pious thinkers—from Saint Paul to Simone Weil—who see in mortal virtues a partial reflection of God's immortal goodness. His subject demands a sober seriousness, but Comte-Sponville still manages to avoid taking himself too seriously: humility makes it into his litany of virtues, as does humor. A laudable renewal of the ancient quest for ethical wisdom."—Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)

"If Comte-Sponville is the most widely read philosopher today, it is because his readers find in his writings the tools they need to think more fully and reasonably about their own lives. Comte-Sponville's way of approaching well-known themes is almost scandalously original; this book is a quest for wisdom."—Tzvetan Todorov, author of Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps

"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, 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."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



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André Comte-Sponville is a professor at the Sorbonne and the author of five highly acclaimed books on classical philosophy. A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues was a bestseller in France and has been translated into nineteen languages.
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  • André Comte-Sponville

  • André Comte-Sponville is one of the most important and popular of the new wave of young French philosophers. Now in his early forties, he teaches at the Sorbonne and is the author of five highly acclaimed scholarly books of classical philosophy. A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues spent fourteen months on the French bestseller list and is being translated into nineteen languages. He lives in Paris.