Who says the writings of French academics are impenetrably abstruse? People who haven’t read French philosopher and Sorbonne professor André Comte-Sponville, that’s who. His new book, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, is any anti-deconstructionist’s cause to celebrate. And why? Because it’s something most American academic monographs aren’t anymore: a lucid, heartfelt, ethical treatise meant for the common man.
Now, you may wonder, why did I choose the word heartfelt? Because it relates directly to the difference between belief and faith, and this distinction is central to Sponville’s philosophy and his success as an ethicist.
Belief is cognitive, and gives rise to the kind of thinking that makes a moralist point an admonitory finger at the crowd and say, “You should do as I command, because it is right.” The moralist is a rigid-minded person who espouses systematized codes of conduct that he believes (and not always correctly) follow directly, logically, and unimpeachably from divine revelation.
Faith, by contrast, is emotional, a soft condition of the heart that cannot be reasoned into existence—which is why it is so often referred to as a blessing or a gift. Either you have it or you don’t. And getting it happens by absorption, not by rote. As such, faith, like love, gives rise to good deeds naturally. Under its influence, good behavior is not an act of will, but a result of higher instinct.
So, when this kind of earnest conviction is present in the mind—and, accordingly, the style—of a writer, as it is in the mind and style of Sponville, you, the reader, don’t feel the insufferable jab of the moralist’s aforementioned finger. You feel instead as if you’ve been submerged in a warm pool whose benefits are immediately apparent in the Aristotelian sense—i.e., this must be right because it feels right. To Aristotle, virtue and happiness were the same thing. Which, of course, makes abundantly clear the meaning of the Greek word for happiness—eudaemonia. “Eu” meaning good; “daemon” meaning spirit. Thus, a good spirit is happiness itself. The condition is automatic, not didactic.
So, in a miraculous way, is Sponville’s book. In the truest and best sense of that phrase so often used among hack writers, this book shows, it doesn’t tell. Sponville writes with passionate intensity and easy erudition. The combination is startlingly effective. He begins: “If virtue can be taught, as I believe it can be, it is not through books so much as by example.” The point is clear. Feel this book, don’t learn it. Experience it, don’t memorize it. And so Sponville accomplishes something remarkable here. His book exemplifies its thesis. A rare feat, to be sure.
Of course there is more to Sponville’s thesis, and it relates directly to the distinction between belief and faith. Sponville is not concerned simply with enumerating the virtues, but with showing how each specific virtue relates to all the other virtues, how they are all interrelated expressions of a single cardinal virtue. Thus, in Sponville’s schema,the virtues are not a list of dos and don’ts to be memorized, but a system whose significance and truth must be felt.
Sponville’s cardinal virtue is, as you might expect, love—or, as distinguished above, faith. What he means by this is quite simple. Virtue is love. So, for example, he explains that when we are in love, or when we love someone unconditionally, as a mother does her child, or a lover his beloved, we behave virtuously by instinct. Not always, of course, but generally speaking, we tend to treat people well when we love them. Then we are loyal, honest, humble, gentle, and a whole host of other admirable things that Sponville enumerates. In essence, every virtue is an expression of one’s faith in universal love.
Now this is all well and good when you love someone. But ethics becomes necessary because we do not and cannot love everyone. We need a constant tutorial in how to behave as if we loved. And this again is where the difference between faith and belief becomes crucial. For most ethicists the rules are the rules, and you follow them because they’re right—an approach that tends to lose the forest of overarching love for the trees of hard and fast provisos. This is belief. Faith, by contrast, works in the other direction. Love is the only rule, the meaning behind it all that makes it all make sense.
Imagine that. You can be an academic philosopher and make sense. What is scholarship coming to? Its senses, we hope.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 14, 2001