In this graceful, incisive book, writer-philosopher André Comte-Sponville reexamines the classical 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, relevance, and 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, lucid, and full of wit, this modestly titled yet immensely important work provides an indispensable guide to finding what is right and good in everyday life.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues
1POLITENESSPoliteness is the first virtue, and the origin perhaps of all the others. It is also the poorest, the most superficial, and the most debatable of the virtues, and possibly something other than a virtue as well. In any case, as virtues go it’s a small one, an easy virtue, one might say, as used to be said in reference to certain women. Politeness doesn’t care about morality, and vice versa. If a Nazi is polite, does that change anything about Nazism or the horrors of Nazism? No. It changes nothing, and this nothing is the very hallmark of politeness. A virtue of pure form, of etiquette and ceremony! A show of virtue, its appearance and nothing more.
Politeness is certainly a value, but it is an ambiguous one, insufficient in itself. It can clothe both the best and the worst, which makes it suspect. Such attention to form must be hiding something, but what? Politeness is artifice and we tend to be wary of artifice; it is an adornment and we tend to be wary of adornments. Diderot speaks somewhere of the “insulting politeness” of those on high; one might also mention the obsequious or servile politeness of those below. Unadorned contempt and crass obedience seem preferable.But that’s not the worst of it. A polite bastard is no less vile than any other bastard and in fact may be more vile. Is it because he is also a hypocrite ? Probably not: politeness makes no moral claims for itself. A polite bastard, moreover, could just as easily be cynical without being any less polite or any less wicked for it. So what is it about him that shocks us? It’s the contrast, undoubtedly, but not the contrast between an appearance of virtue and virtue’s absence (which would be hypocrisy): our hypothetical bastard really is polite—besides, there’s no difference between seeming to be polite and actually being so. The contrast is rather between the appearance of one virtue (in the case of politeness, appearance is reality: what you see is all there is) and the absence of all others; or, better yet, between the appearance of virtue and the presence of vice—in this case meanness, arguably the only true vice. Yet, taken in isolation, the contrast is more aesthetic than moral, which would explain why we respond to polite villainy with surprise rather than horror, astonishment rather than disapproval. There is, of course, an ethical dimension to the contrast: politeness makes the wicked person even more hateful because it implies a good upbringing, in the absence of which the wickedness might have been somehow excusable. The polite bastard is no wild animal, quite the opposite, and wild animals we generally do not resent; he is anything but unsocialized, and those who are we tend to find excuses for. He is the very antithesis of the crude, coarse, ignorant brute, who may frighten us, to be sure, but whose native and shortsighted violence can at least be explained by his lack of education. The polite bastard is not an animal, or a savage, or a brute. On the contrary, he is civilized, educated, well bred; there is no excuse for him, you could say. With the boor, who can tell whether he’s ill-intentioned or simply ill-mannered? Genteel torturers, however, never leave us in doubt. Just as blood is more visible on white gloves, so horror is more apparent when it is also civilized. Nazis, at least some of them, are said to have excelled in this role. And, indeed, part of the ignominy we associate with the Nazis has to do precisely with this mixture of barbarism and civilization, of violence and courtesy; with this cruelty that was sometimes polite, sometimes bestial, but always cruel, and more blameworthy perhaps for its politeness, more inhuman for its human forms, more barbaric for its gestures of civility.I have digressed, perhaps, but not so much by accident as out of vigilance: the important thing about politeness is, first of all, not to be taken in by it. Politeness is not virtue and cannot take the place of virtue.In that case, why call it the first of the virtues, the origin of all the others? The contradiction is not as great as it may appear to be. The origin of the virtues cannot be a virtue (for if it were, it would itself require an origin, but then it could not be the origin it requires); it may be of the very essence of the virtues that the first one is not virtuous.But why is politeness the first? The priority I have in mind is not cardinal but temporal: politeness comes before the other virtues in the sense that it serves as a foundation for the moral development of the individual. A newborn baby doesn’t have and can’t have moral standards. Nor does an infant or, for quite some time, a small child. What the small child does discover, however, and discovers quite early on, is prohibition. “Don’t do that: it’s nasty; it’s bad; it’s not nice; it’s naughty ...” Or else, “It’s dangerous.” Very soon he comes to learn the difference between what’s simply bad (a misdeed) and what is also bad for him (a danger), between the hateful and the harmful. A misdeed is a strictly human evil, an evil that does no harm (at least not to the person who commits it), an evil without immediate or intrinsic danger. But then why is it prohibited, why must it not be done? Because. Because that’s the way it is; because it’s nasty, it’s not nice, it’s naughty, and so forth. For children, fact precedes right; or rather, right and wrong are simply facts themselves, like any others. Some things are allowed, some are forbidden; some things are done, some are not done. Good or bad? The rule suffices; it precedes judgment and is the basis for it. But then does the rule have no foundation other than convention, no justification other than usage and the respect for usage? Yes, it is a de facto rule, a rule of pure form, a rule of politeness! Don’t say bad words; don’t interrupt people; don’t shove; don’t steal; don’t lie. To the child, all these prohibitions appear identical (“It’s not nice”). The distinction between the ethical and the aesthetic will come only later, and gradually. Politeness thus precedes morality, or rather, morality at first is nothing more than politeness: a compliance with usage and its established rules, with the normative play of appearances—a compliance with the world and the ways of the world.Now, a principle of Kantian ethics is that one cannot deduce what one should do from what is done. Yet the child in his early years is obliged to do just that, and it is only in this way that he becomes human. Kant himself concedes as much. “Man can only become man by education,” he writes. “He is merely what education makes him,” and the process begins with discipline, which “changes animal nature into human nature.”1 What better way to say it? Custom precedes value; obedience, respect; and imitation, duty. Hence politeness (“one doesn’t do that”) precedes morality (“one shouldn’t do that”); morality only comes into being little by little, as an internalized politeness that has freed itself from considerations of appearance and interest and focuses entirely on intentions (which politeness doesn’t concern itself with). But how could this morality ever come into being if politeness were not there to begin with? Good manners precede and prepare the way for good deeds. Morality is like a politeness of the soul, an etiquette of the inner life, a code of duties, a ceremonial of the essential. Conversely, politeness can be likened to a morality of the body, an ethics of comportment, a code for life in society, a ceremonial of the inessential. “Paper money,” Kant says, but it’s better than nothing and it would be as crazy to do away with it as to mistake it for real gold.2 “Small change,” he also says, merely the appearance of virtue, yet that which renders it “comely.”3 And what child would ever become virtuous without this appearance and comeliness?So morality starts at the bottom—with politeness. But it has to start somewhere. There are no natural virtues; hence we must become virtuous. How? “For the things we have to learn before we can do them,” Aristotle explains, “we learn by doing them.”4 Yet how can we do them if we haven’t learned them? There are two ways out of this circular causality: apriority is one way, politeness is the other. But apriority is beyond our reach; politeness is not. “We become just,” Aristotle continues, “by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”5 But can we act justly without being just? Temperately without being temperate? Bravely without being brave? And if we cannot, then how do we become just, temperate, brave? Through habit, Aristotle seems to say, but that answer is obviously inadequate: a habit presupposes the prior existence of what we would be making a habit of and therefore cannot account for it. Kant provides a more helpful answer. For him, these first semblances of virtue can be explained in terms of discipline, in other words, as a product of external constraint: what the child cannot do on his own because he has no instinct for it “others have to do ... for him,” and in this way “one generation educates the next.”6 No doubt. And in the family, what is this discipline if not, first of all, a respect for usages and good manners? A discipline that is more normative than restrictive, it wants not order so much as a certain amiable sociability—not police discipline but polite discipline. It is by mimicking the ways of virtue, that is, through politeness, that we stand a chance of becoming virtuous. “P...
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