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French Buy Virtue With A Vengeance

Ideas for Sale

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 1998



PARIS

Not long ago, construction-site supervisor Antonio Sanna used to spend his weekends playing soccer. So what drew him one recent sunny Sunday morning to a crowded cafe on the Place de la Bastille?

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Philosophy. More exactly, the chance to join in one of the weekly philosophical debates that pack standing-room-only crowds into the Cafe des Phares and two- dozen similar establishments around the French capital.

Across town, on the top floor of the French headquarters of Coopers and Lybrand, the international accounting firm, an unusual bird sits in his aerie. Bernard Deforge, a specialist in ancient Greek mythology, is "philosopher in residence" at the company, offering wisdom and perspective to harried executives.

On TV shows, on the best-seller lists, on the street, and in the boardrooms, the French passion for ideas and debate is reasserting itself and confounding the social critics who feared that France had plunged itself into Post-Modern global materialism.

"This is undoubtedly an unprecedented phenomenon on this scale," says Andr Comte-Sponville, a philosopher whose book "A Small Treatise on Great Virtues" has sold more than 220,000 copies. "There is a growing demand for philosophy, and a rising interest in morality."

Moral philosophy is not always the focus at the Cafe des Phares, where the subjects for debate are proposed and chosen by the audience. On a recent Sunday, suggestions ranged from old chestnuts such as "Is God dead?" and "Is altruism an alibi?" to the topic that attracted the most interest - "Declarations of love."

Encouraged and loosely guided by a chairman perched on a small cafe table, patrons passed a microphone among themselves and let loose - some showing signs of philosophical rigor in their comments, others telling personal stories, or simply showing off.

Mr. Sanna didn't speak that morning, but he found the debate engaging. "I'm the sort of guy who asks himself all sorts of questions," he says. "I don't come here for answers, but it's interesting to hear people's ideas. It's changed me, opened me up."

That is the spirit behind widely watched TV shows such as "A Grain of Philosophy," in which a panel of thinkers gets serious about topics likely to have wide popular appeal.

Last month, for example, a program address the question of food, using philosopher-anthropologist Claude Lvi-Strauss's thoughts about the symbolism of the cooked and the raw as a starting point.

The tradition of popularizing serious discussion is an old one in France. After all, 17th-century philosopher Ren Descartes wrote in French rather than Latin so that even women, who rarely had the benefit of a classical education, would understand him. Philosophers here have long had an influence on public affairs that colleagues abroad could only envy.

The philosophy of the deal

But it is only recently that companies have begun to turn to philosophy, so much so that it has become a business for a small group of professors. The group has set up a company, Philocit, offering philosophical insights into commercial affairs for corporate clients.

Dealing with subjects ranging from business ethics to the place of technology, Philocit can even provide philosophical consultations by telephone to subscribers willing to pay $2,600 a year for the service.

At Coopers and Lybrand, Mr. Deforge offers the company leadership, long-term guidance, and historical context more than abstract theorizing.

"The company understands the need to bear in mind not just immediate efficiency, but also longer-term questions such as the general environment" in which it does business, says Deforge. "It is absolutely logical that in a dynamic organization we should be concerned with the ways in which society is evolving."

It was Deforge who invited Mr. Comte-Sponville to speak to Coopers and Lybrand's top managers at the annual convention last year, as they pondered the implications of globalization. The issue is a bogeyman for the French, who mainly see it as an Anglo-Saxon plot to take over the world.

Comte-Sponville, who adapted his thoughts on man and the universe to address the accountants' concerns, "opened their eyes to the fact that they would not necessarily be minced up by globalization," says Deforge. "Fear panics people, and in organizations that leads to paralysis."

Looking for answers

Comte-Sponville normally addresses himself to a broader audience, and the astonishing sales of his book - a collection of discourses on subjects including politeness, justice, compassion, purity, and generosity - point to the public appetite for moral philosophy.

He explains the interest by "the lack of ready-made answers" in a country where the Roman Catholic church has lost much of its influence, where once-popular ideologies such as Marxism have fallen into disrepute, and where an earlier faith in the social sciences has eroded.

"People need values, and my book meets the needs of lots of parents who don't believe in God, and who don't know how to talk to their children about morality," Comte-Sponville says. "What we are witnessing is not the return of philosophy but a return to philosophy.

"I am skeptical about philosophy's power to change society, but it can change individual lives, and that's what counts for me."