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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 7. Renaissance, Reformation and the New World


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Renaissance, Reformation and the New World

City-states and kingdoms rarely possessed constitutions in the sense of a single document listing and defining a set of basic principles. They had, however, a body of laws and ordinances, together with a strong tradition instantiated in their founding institutions. This meant that lawyers could study what constituted these states in the light of the interests they sought to defend. As the body grew, so did the caste of lawyers, while political forces continuously redrafted the map of world. The meeting of constitutional law with the idea of human dignity happens during the Renaissance in Las Casas’ desire to have the human dignity of the American Indians respected. This political use is in turn prepared by the women’s advocacy for the dignity of the weak as well as Pico’s understanding of human dignity as independent of the practice of Christian rites, to which the Indians had no indigenous access. Erasmus’ insistence on the opposition between sin and human dignity both complicates and illuminates the issue: redemption is required for the restoration of human dignity since the human being had fallen into sin, according to this understanding, not only of Erasmus, but also of most of his contemporaries. Thus it was presumed that those who went to the new world went as missionaries, to aid in the restoration of human dignity. By the violence being reported at home, however, it came reluctantly to be believed...

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