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Hume’s Passions: Despise and Benevolence

Hume explains the passions of hatred and benevolence in contraposition one with the other1.

A strong impression, when communicated, gives a double tendency of the passions; which is related to benevolence and love by a similarity of direction; however painful the first impression might have been. A weak impression, that is painful, is related to anger and hatred by the resemblance of sensations. Benevolence, therefore, arises from a great degree of misery, or any degree strongly sympathiz’d with: Hatred or contempt from a small degree, or one weakly sympathiz’d with; which is the principle I intended to prove and explain.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book II, part II, section IX

This principle, Hume explains it not only with the means of reason (there you go, rationalists), but also by leveraging experience:

Nor have we only our reason to trust to for this principle, but also experience. A certain degree of poverty produces contempt; but a degree beyond causes compassion and good-will. We may under-value a peasant or servant; but when the misery of a beggar appears very great, or is painted in very lively colours, we sympathize with him in his afflictions, and feel in our heart evident touches of pity and benevolence.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book II, part II, section IX

The argument

The argument is amusing because it starts with a cheluasm—not sure if it’s the proper counterpart to the Frenchchleuasme</—, which consists of a self-deprecation in order to increase one’s own appreciation. Hume is an empiricist, his philosophy is founded by experience. He pretends to prioritize the rational argument, which tenants of rationalism (who preach the philosophical superiority of reason) should agree to. Experience will then confirm the rational conclusion.

Pity

Hatred and benevolence can in part be explained through pity. Since the importance of something always depends on its relation to self, one will either feel benevolence if the feeling of pity is strong enough (strong connection to self) or despise if the feeling of pity is weak (weak connection with self).

Once again, a matter of threshold, which implies there would be some sort of turning point where the passions derived from pity are reversed. What is this threshold? Hume remains extremely silent on this point, contempt with opposites which confirm (or extend his system.


  1. Hume often expresses himself in dualities, assuming each feeling must have an exact opposite. This structural dualism is suspicious and subject to critiques. ↩︎