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European Sources of Human Dignity

A Commented Anthology

Mette Lebech

This anthology brings together texts of significance for the conceptualisation of human dignity as a constitutional principle in Europe from the earliest evidence until 1965. It divides into four parts, respectively presenting the ancient, the medieval, the early modern and the modern sources. As far as human dignity is a constitutional principle, its history follows closely that of the constitution of states. However, various traditions of human dignity, understanding it to rely on features unrelated to the state, combine in the background to reflect the substance of the idea. The introductions to texts, chapters and parts narrates this history in relation to the texts presented to reflect it. The aim is to provide for scholars and students of law, philosophy, political science and theology a collection of texts documenting the history of the concept of human dignity that is sufficiently comprehensive to contextualise the various understandings of it. A structured bibliography accompanies the work.

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Chapter 1. The Greek Vocabulary of Importance as Reflected in Aristotle


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The Greek Vocabulary of Importance as Reflected in Aristotle

The Latin translators of Aristotle translated both ἀξίωμα and ἀξία by dignitas. Dignity, accordingly, has drawn upon the meanings expressed in both of these terms: it is a non-demonstrable startingpoint or principle, and it is desert or merit, that is, what gives rights, the proper attitude towards which is respect. The source of both duty and rights, dignity is associated with moral weight or importance, and in Rome dignitas also meant office, that is, both duty and status, which gave both tasks and entitlements. This spectrum of meaning is the reason why we talk about dignity, and in particular human dignity, as a basic value and a principle.

For Aristotle, as for any Greek, the value possessed by human individuals was variable according to standards socially constructed by any society, even if an ideal of ἰσονομία seemed to most a necessary requirement for the proper functioning of society. The Greeks were aware that in an oligarchy riches would count, in democracy status as a free man, high birth or virtue in an aristocracy, and sheer power under a tyrannical rule. Aristotle, for one, being a foreigner in Athens, was sensitive to the relativity of respect for human status as well as to the fundamental importance rationality bestows on the human being as such. He regarded rationality, and in particular intuition (νοῦς), in which first principles are grasped, as what sets human beings apart....

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