A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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5/ What is contempt?

If love, as we have suggested, has not received as much attention from philosophers as it deserves, this is even more the case with contempt, a feeling for which there is little philosophical analysis.

Nevertheless, Hobbes defines contempt as follows: Those things which we neither desire nor hate, we are said to contemn 1.

He then gives a materialist explanation, as he likes to do, by relating it to vital movement: Contempt being nothing else but an immobility or contumacy of the heart in resisting the action of certain things; and proceeding from that the heart is already moved otherwise, by other more potent objects, or from want of experience of them 2.

Finally, he notes that contempt and hatred give rise to a different appreciation of objects on our part: Whatsoever is […] the object of his hate and aversion [is called] evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable 3.

I will modify the Hobbesian definition as follows: I will call contempt this feeling which is opposed to both love and hate, because love attributes a positive value to the object, hate a negative value, whereas contempt deprives the object of all value, whether positive or negative. Opposed in this way, we can see that each of these concepts is consistent and cannot be reduced to the other.

If we were to deny this, that is, if we were to maintain that saying to the beloved: "You have no value" or: "You have a negative value" is love, we would ask: what name then should be given to the relationship to the thing that says to him: "You have great value"? and what then is contempt? What does the despiser say to the despised?
We remember that desire can be reconciled with contempt for the thing desired; because it is simply a subjective feeling of pleasure; so love, which also contains this feeling of pleasure, must be distinguished from desire and contempt by something, and this something seemed to us to be the axiological judgement that attributes value to the beloved.

From this we can perhaps deduce that while desire can be reconciled with contempt for the desirable, and is even necessarily associated with it (since desire never affirms the value of the desirable), love for its part necessarily contains within itself the notion of respect - that of the beloved. By this we do not mean that there are two concepts, love and respect, which are necessarily linked, but that there is only one and the same concept: love, which contains within itself the meaning of what we thought should be given to another concept - that of respect: attributing great value to the beloved.

To love something is to respect it, but in the sense of an analytic identity, like "a dwarf is a small man": the second term is in fact just the first. We will therefore only speak of love, never of respect, on the understanding that by this we always mean something that includes the notion of respect that we wrongly thought it relevant to distinguish.

1. Leviathan, I, 6
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.