THE LIBERAL philosophical tradition is at long last ripe for rediscovery, as Judith N. Shklar shows in her fascinating exposition of a clue planted by Montaigne: "Treachery, disloyalty, cruelty, tyranny . . . are our ordinary vices." A philosopher so well remembering the past is a joy to read.

Since humans do have recognizable "ordinary vices" down the ages -- and ordinary virtues, as well -- philosophers are slowly being driven back to character: the missing figure in so much of the contemporary philosophy of language and logic. As counterpoint to Alasdair McIntyre's recent book After Virtue, Professor Shklar's remembrance of character, private as well as public, is a little like the return of the human figure to so much contemporary painting.

In our generation such remembrance may flow from a growing sense of limits, from disaffection with vulgar Marxist images of inexorable social progress, from a recovery of human scale. In Shklar's case, there is also, and simply, the humanist's attention to the humble realities of daily human life. "Ordinary vices," Shklar begins, "are the sort of conduct we all expect, nothing spectacular or unusual." Except that, for so many generations, the visions which attracted most intellectuals were of worlds perfectible, within which vices were hardly expectable at all. We have had to get used to vices, our own most of all. She forces us to notice that "cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery, treachery, and misanthropy all share a special quality: they have both personal and public dimensions. We are cruel to children and to our political foes; hypocrisy is visible on every stage, at home and abroad; snobbery is domestic, but in a representative democracy it has serious ideological implications; and we betray our personal friends no less than our political allies . . . Because these vices flaw our characters so deeply, they are a common sight everywhere."

Montaigne, the hero of her book, was one of the great architects of the liberal society. Another, Montesquieu, broke new ground by admiring in a liberal society what most classical philosophers disdained: its commercial and mercantile part, whose studied attention to small gains and small losses and other practical preoccupations would serve to temper ancient fanaticisms and to moderate dangerous aristocratic and religious passions. Such liberals feared tyranny because they feared cruelty -- and because they feared fear. Shklar captures the liberal spirit nicely, in this passage and many others:

"Europe has always had a tradition of traditions, as our demographic and religious history makes amply clear. It is no use looking back to some imaginary classical or medieval utopia of moral and political unanimity, not to mention the horror of planning one for the future. Thinking about the vices has, indeed, the effect of showing precisely to what extent ours is a culture of many subcultures, of layer upon layer of ancient religious and class rituals, ethnic inheritances of sensibility and manners, and ideological residues whose original purpose has by now been utterly forgotten. With this in view, liberal democracy becomes more a recipe for survival than a project for the perfectibility of mankind."

Rightly she recognizes, and as rightly denies, the doctrine of many clerical and military leaders that liberalism achieves its public good through private vices. "Selfishness in all its possible forms is said to be its essence, purpose, and outcome . . . Nothing could be more remote from the truth. The very refusal to use public coercion to impose creedal unanimity and uniform standards of behavior demands an enormous degree of self-control." Shklar recognizes as few philosophers have that liberalism is a school of character, that liberalism has an ethical structure built upon quite specific (and difficult) virtues.

FOR GOOD reasons -- and articulating these is the most important theoretical contribution of the book -- Shklar treats cruelty first, then hypocrisy, then snobbery, then the ambiguities of betrayal, then misanthropy. Her last chapter, "Bad Characters for Good Liberals," both summarizes the preceding argument and raises its level of discussion to matters important to political philosophy. It is here that she is most ready to join Tocqueville and to write more exactly of the specific virtues -- and "ordinary vices" -- of American civilization. One feels a future book in the making. Her dissection of snobbery on university campuses and among intellectuals shows a novelist's eye for emotional detail. Her ironic defense of hypocrisy as essential to pluralism is a tour de force.

Profesor Shklar is not always kind either to religion or to theologians; she is a little tone-deaf about the relations of humans to God. Yet she brings to philosophy two intellectual moves intensely attractive to theologians at the present time: first, a study of virtues through a study of vices; second, the use of story as a method of analysis. She draws frequently upon dramatists, novelists and short anecdotes of her own in order to illuminate the landscape -- psychological rather than merely logical -- of human action.

The democratic socialist Michael Walzer says of this book (on the dust jacket) that it is "a moral psychology for liberals." Yet, in Professor Shklar's hands, "liberals" would include many in America today who call themselves "conservatives." The liberal character Professor Shklar describes is certainly not the character preferred in traditional societies led by clerical or military elites; nor is it the socialist character. It is the specific character nurtured by democratic politics, commercial and mercantile economies and pluralistic cultures. Inevitably, there are many debatable judgments in these pages. Nonetheless, hers is a book conservatives and liberals alike can celebrate. Compared with George Will in his Statecraft as Soulcraft, Professor Shklar, in classic liberal fashion, is far less trusting of the state, its sanctions, and its cruelties.