Wollstonecraft and the political value of contempt
European Journal of Political Theory
Copyright © 2015 by SAGE Publications
In her Vindication of the Rights of Men, Mary Wollstonecraft accused Edmund Burke of having contempt for his political opponents. Yet she herself expressed contempt for Burke and did so unapologetically. Readers have long regarded Wollstonecraft’s decision to match Burke’s contempt with one of her own as either a tactical blunder or evidence that she sought merely to ridicule Burke rather than argue with him. I offer an interpretation and defence of Wollstonecraft's rhetorical choices by situating the Vindication within eighteenth-century debates about the dangers of elite contempt and the best methods for stifling it. Rather than countering Burke’s contempt with more of the same, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication marks a distinction between two forms of contempt. The first expresses the false sense of superiority experienced by elites who owe their social elevation to arbitrary differences of wealth or family. As such, it represents both an abuse of privilege and an anxious recognition among elites that their claims to dignity may be unfounded. By contrast, the contempt Wollstonecraft directs at Burke represents a dignified withdrawal of esteem which signals that one’s opponent is unworthy of the dignity to which they lay claim. If Wollstonecraft appeared to treat Burke abusively it was because she came to consider this second form of contempt as an antidote to the abusive contempt of the privileged. I conclude by spelling out some implications of Wollstonecraft’s analysis of contempt for recent debates in political theory over the importance of dignity to democracy.
Published online: 23 July 2015