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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 2. The Roman Integration of Status and State Observed in Cicero


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The Roman Integration of Status and State Observed in Cicero

In Cicero, the concept of dignity is quite clearly thought out as a moral, legal and political fact, due to temperance, physical appearance and social organisation, and entitling the bearer to respect and honour. This is in many ways identical to Aristotle, also for the political context, in which dignitas was commonly used to designate an office. However human dignity is slightly more clearly conceptualised in Cicero than it is in Aristotle: it is the quality in humans commanding respect and honour. However, Cicero only once uses the phrase human dignity (6, De Off. 106) and in that context, the legal consequences of the term dignitas are not evoked, but only mastery over the passions. Even so, the idea that human nature (in virtue of which all humans are equal and in search of each other’s company) should found the laws of the state is somehow, perhaps remotely, regulative for Cicero’s ideal of a Republic. What is certain is that it constitutes a good argument, universally understood and therefore carrying a lot of political weight. Cicero the orator knows instinctively to distinguish between advantageous aspects of human dignity and disadvantageous ones, because he instinctively knows where it is good (and where it is possible) to steer the state.

Cicero’s cosmopolitan experience, gained from contemplating the possibility of extending Roman Law to the ends of the known world, forced...

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