Werner Ulrich's Home Page:  Picture of the Month

 Now "Ulrich's Bimonthly"












September 2004

   Picture of the month











Bridges: physical, emotional, cultural, philosophical  I like bridges. They are a marvelous architectural symbol, aren't they? They connect people physically, emotionally, culturally, even philosophically. With this month's page, I begin a small series of "pages of the month" that will occasionally, in no particular order, reflect on different kinds of bridges that shape our lives. I'll begin this month with the most fundamental kind of emotional bridges among people, politeness.


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Archetype of a bridge (physical): the "Roman bridge"  To me, the archetype of a bridge is the Roman stone bridge with one or several humps. One particularly beautiful example is provided by the double-humped stone bridge of Lavertezzo in Southern Switzerland, the "Ponte dei Salti" (bridge of the jumps). Although built in the 17th century, it is so typical a Roman stone bridge that the people of Lavertezzo simply refer to it as "the Roman bridge." For this reason, it is now known to tourists coming from far away as the Roman bridge of Lavertezzo, rather than under its true name.



Archetype of a bridge (emotional): politeness  Due to the strong symbolic quality of bridges, all languages of which I know use the term not only to refer to "a structure built over a river, railroad, highway, etc. to provide a way across for vehicles or pedestrians" but also in the figurative sense of "a thing that provides connection, contact, or transition" (both definitions are taken from Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1974). The second definition captures what I mean by "emotional bridges." Just as is the case with physical bridges, emotional bridges can take many forms. For example, they can take the forms of politeness, modesty, friendliness, sympathy, compassion, sincerity, tolerance, fairness and moral respect, gratitude, friendship, fidelity, humour, and love.

In the history of philosophy, major philosophers of their time were always attempting to elucidate the nature and importance of such emotional bridges for the pursuit of happiness. Traditionally, philosophers have treated them under the heading of "virtues." For instance, Aristotle taught the virtue of the happy medium between extremes; Seneca developed the concept of a philosophical "art of life"; and Kant demonstrated the importance of the moral idea for achieving happiness.  Contemporary philosophers are less prepared to write on the requirements for achieving a virtuous and happy life. In fact we no longer expect philosophers at all to give us answers to such questions; instead, people now turn to priests and psychologists of all sorts for getting answers. But there are exceptions. In this page, I'll use as my guide a contemporary French philosopher who has much to tell us about this topic.



A contemporary philosopher's voice  André Comte-Sponville (1955-) is a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne University of Paris. He has written a remarkably unconventional – and remarkably successful – book: Petit traité des grandes vertues (Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1995). An English translation has been published as  A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues : The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life  (Henry Holt and Co. / Metropolitan Books, New York 1971). The German version is Ermutigung zum unzeitgemässen Leben: Ein kleines Brevier der Tugenden und Werte (Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1996). Translations are available in many more languages. Comte-Sponville discusses eighteen basic virtues, ranging from politeness to love.



Before virtue: politeness – the origin of moral education  "Morality starts at the bottom – with politeness. But it has to start somewhere." (p. 10) Politeness, Comte-Sponville explains, is almost but not yet a virtue; for it is merely a form of showing respect and as such can go along with a total absence of respect for others. Yet we teach our children to be polite, for this is how they can develop the inner attitude of respecting others. "How could 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...." (p. 10) "Every parent knows this; it's called bringing up one's children." (p. 12)



After virtue: love – three kinds of emotional bridges  Love, at the other end of the scale, is the most complete of all virtues, yet it is no longer a virtue, for it transcends all moral and emotional obligation. There are, then, three levels of what (deviating from Comte-Sponville's terminology) I here call "emotional bridges": politeness, virtues, and love. Politeness fulfills itself in respectful behavior; virtue, in good intentions and moral action; and love, in unconditional affection and care. Acting politely gives a hint of morality but does not fulfill its intent: it means to act as if one were virtuous, it is a virtue of pure form. Similarly, acting morally gives a hint of love but does not fulfill its intent: it means to act as if one were moved by love, it takes the form of love but is not love. Love alone is free of any as if. Unlike all other virtues, it is never a mere form of acting. This is why we cannot oblige anyone to love us; why love goes beyond moral obligation. Love is thus both the ultimate source and the ultimate end of all emotional bridges. An insight that should not stop us from starting at the bottom – with politeness.




Technical data  Photograph taken on 25 August 1993 with a conventional small-picture camera, ISO 200 negative film, focal length 35 mm, shutter speed 1/125 second, aperture f/5.6. Scanned from a 10 x 15 cm color print; current resolution 767 x 506 pixel, compressed to 113 KB.


September, 2004

September 2004 - The Roman bridge of Lavertezzo, Val Verzasca, Ticino, Switzerland

 The bridge of Lavertezzo, Val Verzasca near Locarno, Switzerland

Politeness precedes morality. Morality 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. But how could this morality ever come into being if politeness were not there to begin with?

André Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues (1995)


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Last updated 16 Nov 2009 (layout and picture; first published 30 Aug 2004)


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