January 7, 2009

'Contemning the Shame'

I was reading Hobbes today, and came across a word I'm not sure I've ever seen before. At Leviathan 1.6 (p. 24 of the original edition), Hobbes writes:

Those things which we neither Desire, nor Hate, we are said to Contemne: 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.

The word I am talking about, 'contemne' (which was later spelled 'contemn' - I will use this spelling from now on), is evidently the verb form of 'contempt'. The Oxford English Dictionary does not have this word marked as obsolete, although its most recent citation is from 1876. (It's usage was a complementary infinitive - i.e. 'to contemn to do something' is marked as obsolete since about 1633.) Nevertheless, I'm sure that most English speakers today would assume it was a typo for 'condemn'. (The Oxford American Dictionary does have it marked as archaic.)

Now here is a further puzzle: I would use the word 'contempt' as roughly synonymous with hatred. Hobbes, however, says that we have contempt for that which we neither desire nor hate, but have an 'immobility' toward because we are 'already moved otherwise by more potent objects.' That is, we have contempt for something if we don't even bother to hate it. (Compare the somewhat common phrase, "I'm not going to dignify that with a response.") The OED treats the word 'contempt' in both ways: "the holding or treating as of little account, or as vile and worthless." Now, I would, as I have said, use the word 'contempt' only in the sense of 'the holding or treating ... as vile and worthless." I am aware of the meaning 'the holding or treating as of little account,' but would regard it as archaic.

A similar word is the verb 'to despise'. Indeed, the OED begins its definition of 'contempt' with the words, "The action of contemning or despising." I think of 'to despise' as also being a near synonym of 'to hate.' Again, I am aware of its once having been synonymous with Hobbes's usage of 'contemn,' but I would regard that as archaic.

This brings me to the title of this post. In the HCSB, Hebrews 12:2 reads, in part, "who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame." KJV, NKJV, and NASB all also use forms of the verb 'to despise.' NIV has 'scorn'. According to the OED, the only live meaning of scorn as a transitive verb is "To hold in disdain, to contemn, despise." So it means exactly the same thing. However, the word 'scorn' has an historical connection to mockery or ridicule in several of the definitions marked obsolete, and this is a connection that still comes to my mind when I see it, so I'm not sure these definitions are really obsolete (but maybe its just that I normally encounter this word in older writings).

Anyway, the Greek word in question is καταφρονήσας, a participle of καταφρονέω. This word has the etymological meaning 'to think down on,' which has similar force to the English idiom 'to look down on.' The first definition in BDAG begins by listing as glosses several of the English words and phrases we've already mentioned: "look down on, despise, scorn, treat with contempt." Later it explains that the word can mean "Think lightly, have wrong ideas ... of or about something." The second definition (which seems to me to be simply a more informative version of the first definition) reads "care nothing for, disregard, be unafraid of." In short, the meaning of καταφρονέω is essentially Hobbes's meaning of 'contemn:' to be utterly unmoved, either with desire or aversion, with respect to some object, perhaps because of the influence of matters of far greater importance.

This fits perfectly as an explanation of Hebrews 12:2 where the author's claim is that Christ, because of consideration of "the joy that lay before Him," was utterly unmoved by consideration of the shame associated with crucifixion.

Posted by Kenny at January 7, 2009 1:40 PM
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Comments

The phrase "in contempt of court" now makes a lot more sense.

Posted by: pferree at January 8, 2009 10:01 AM

yes, I thought of that too.

Posted by: Kenny at January 8, 2009 10:39 PM

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