La générosité est la vertu du don, disais-je. Don d'argent (par quoi elle touche a la libéralité), don de soi (par quoi elle touche a la magnanimité, voire au sacrifice). Mais on ne peut donner que ce qu'on possédé, et a condition seulement de n'en être pas possédé. La générosité est en cela indissociable d'une forme de liberté ou de maitrise de coi, qui sera, chez Descartes, l'essentiel de son contenu. De quoi s'agit-il? D'une passion et, tout a la fois, d'une vertu ...Comte-Sponville's project, as far as I can tell, is to produce a new version of the Nicomachean Ethics, to give us good atheistic reasons to be virtuous. He is obviously well-read and cultivated; the book bristles with quotations from Nietzsche, Spinoza, Bergson, who are enlisted in the service of his definitions. These are rather complex. For Comte-Sponville, each grand vertu seems to have two aspects: its grandeur as such (admirable aesthetically or morally) and its ability to elevate, free, or strengthen the virtuous individual.
La générosité nous élève vers les autres, pourrait-on dire, et vers nous-mêmes en tant que libérés de notre petit-moi. Celui qui ne serait pas du tout généreux, la langue nous qu'il serait bas, lâche, mesquin, vil, avare, cupide, égoïste, sordide... Et nous le sommes tous, mais toutefois pas toujours ni complètement : la générosité est ce qui nous en sépare ou, parfois, nous en libère.
- Andre Comte-Sponville, Petit traité des grands vertus
Can this project succeed? Can a virtue be a means to individual self-transcendence as well as a conventionally-
understood moral quality? I think not. The paradigmatic case for me is his analysis of generosity, "the virtue of the gift." For Comte-Sponville, generosity seems to be more interesting for what it is not: it's not justice, it's not love, it's not solidarity. The involvement of self-interest--as in the case of a parent's care for a child--makes a virtue no longer partake of generosity. But virtue as a force for individual self-overcoming is defined for Comte-Sponville by its ability to ignore and reject considerations of self-interest entirely. To me, that
is inseparable from a Nietzschean idea of nobility--a plenitude of power that overflows all economistic calculations and expresses itself as a Beau Brummell-style generosity.
That means that generosity cannot limit itself to a disinterested sphere of pure and disengaged generous actions; that kind of compartmentalizing is a sign of the slave morality. For true generosity, as an elemental creature perhaps even of the "petit-moi," remains generous even when it is putatively interesLted. Beau Brummell can accept a gift because he does not scheme at looking selfless, and his noble overflowing spirit expresses itself just as generously in his care for those close to him as for those far away. In other words, Comte-Sponville's obsessive attempt at carving out a fenced-off part of life for being generous is in itself an indication of a lack of generosity.
Likewise with many of his other virtues--if temperance frees you to drink without becoming a slave to drink, that liberation must entail the freedom to become a slave; if it is intellectually courageous to defend the truth at all costs, it is surely more courageous to defend the false. The grand self-overcoming virtuous human being that Comte-Sponville offers us cannot be bound by his petty categories and narrow-minded restrictions; the peak of her virtue is putting all the virtues to a fatal questioning.
Hence Comte-Sponville cannot fail to be disappointing. Sartre once wrote:
[We]e remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.Can we liberate, or realize, ourselves, if we are not our own legislators but only legal commentators? The virtues contain within them the possibility of their transvaluation. That is their value. To defend them on any other basis is to turn back upon the human, to take the laws of man for the commandments of some anonymous god.