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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 4. Patristic and Carolingian Sources


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Patristic and Carolingian Sources

As the early Christian writers criticised the Roman cult of honour, rank and dignity, they reminded the human being that God raised him to the dignity of being a child, priest, prophet and king in Jesus Christ. The Christian perception that human dignity depends on redemption in Christ had the effect of relativising dignity as the world bestows it, since God is the higher power. Augustine, with St Paul, recalled that the Lord Jesus chose the infirm of this world to confound the strong, and that he did this to reveal the radical newness of status contained in the kingdom of God. Leo the Great affirmed human dignity to be a gracious participation in divine nature, achieved by the Redeemer, whereas Lady Philosophy consoled Boethius to the effect that only the dignity that relies on virtue is real. In this manner, the pagan world marked by the pursuit of worldly power appeared as apparent and another world, in which human dignity manifested itself in justice and righteousness, shone through its cracks.

The use of dignitas by Augustine, Leo and Boethius testifies in every case to the transformation of the Roman Empire, and to its transposition into a hierarchical Church. Despite the criticism directed at using dignity to designate an office, it nevertheless often referred to the higher ranks of the priesthood. The dignity of virtue, insisted on by Aristotle and Cicero, morphed into the...

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