Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 475-477
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A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life, by André Comte-Sponville, trans. Catherine Temerson; x & 352 pp. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.
Of two minds, I mirror the two sorts of audience this book's twenty-four translations have sought: "students" and "readers" (p. 5), those for whom the scholarly content and apparatus may be of interest and those hopefully many more who wish to become better, to become virtuous. Although "students" will not find sustained engagement with this book rewarding, its bright virtues will raise "readerly" smiles among them.
Reasons for Small's great popularity since its 1995 PUF release derive not from essaying eighteen virtues in its eighteen chapters. Its allure is its dance with love's piquant absences, a dance with virtues as "feeble approximations of love" (p. 98). Indeed, chapter 1 teaches that politeness "is not a virtue but a simulacrum that imitates virtue (in adults) and paves the way for it (in children)" (p. 13). And since love, "the alpha and omega of all virtue" (p. 226), is not itself clearly a virtue, then perhaps at most fifteen virtues are treated. For as all readers will pleasurably discover, purity (chapter 14) is really refractions of love's qualities.
The virtues are multiply interconnected, not unified as Socrates thought. This idea finds graceful expression, among other places, at the conclusion of "Generosity" (chapter 7). "Combined with courage, it turns out to be heroism. Joined by justice, it becomes equity. Coupled with compassion, it becomes benevolence. In league with mercy, it becomes leniency" (p. 102). And chap-ter 9's mercy? "Because hatred is a sadness, mercy (like the process of mourning, which it resembles and might even require, since to forgive is to bid farewell to our hatred) is on the side of joy. When it is not yet joyous, it is forgiveness; when it already is, it is love" (p. 131). Simone Weil's meditations on God's absence, or "withdrawal," occasion insights into authentic parental love. [End Page 475] God does not fill the world since "were he to do so, there would be only God and no world"; similarly, "more often than one might think, parents withdraw, step back, cede their space to their children, and refrain from exercising all the power at their disposal. Why? Because they love them" (p. 274).
Unfortunately, love's flowers, potted in this garden of Adonis (Phaedrus 276b), must contend with "student" scrutiny from without and a suffocating lack of concision from within. This "student's" efforts failed to disentangle ambivalences about the loving ego in the long, concluding love chapter. Organized into three sections—eros, philia, agape—the first has no patience for subtleties of the Symposium's eros. "Have I begged the question? . . . So be it," since Plato confuses "love—in all its forms—with [ego's] want" (p. 243). Philia "is a different way of [ego's] possessing, of enjoying" (p. 277). Finally, agape, universal and disinterested love, is simply one's genuine conatus, one's true power of existing (pp. 270f). So ego loves three ways—desire, possession, power—but each is about ego. Eros "usually" (p. 262) intermixes with philia: "we are forever hesitating, oscillating, fluctuating between the two affects [desire and joy] and the two truths (Plato's and Spinoza's), between want and capacity, hope and gratitude, passion and action, religion and wisdom, between the love that desires only what it does not have and wants to possess (ero \ s), and the love [philia] that, since it desires only what is, has everything it desires and finds pleasure and joy in it" (p. 253). Nevertheless, philia without excess Platonic eros is about and for ego, not alter. For the friend per se gives ego joy: ego's joy is the definiens of philia (pp. 249ff). Disconcertingly, there are a few contrary formulations of philia as loving "the other for the other's benefit" (p. 262). If "metaphysics is the...