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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 8. Absolutism and Counterreformation


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Absolutism and Counterreformation

That dignity now becomes talked about in a politically realist manner as a means to affirm political power is a sign that its political relevance is making itself felt. This furthermore testifies to the affirmation of state power and the increasing importance of the political sphere. Aristotle and Cicero studied the political status of dignitaries but their insights could point in different directions in the new environment of the modern state. Was it the case that the Christian affirmation of human (i.e. universal) dignity now inspired enough confidence to make the idea that dignity is a prerogative of the nobility lack credibility? If this certainly plays a role, so does its shadow or twin: the atheist, secular insistence on the independence of politics from any foundation outside human invention, which, in contrast to the Christian ethics of humility, finds it easy to use political means to vindicate dignity. In the following texts from the Baroque era one senses a certain expectation that the middle classes were about to step forward to affirm their dignity, probably because the writers of these texts, and most writers of the period, themselves belonged to the middle class.

Hugo Grotius (1583–1645)

Grotius maintained, like Cicero, Aristotle and Aquinas, that right (ius) is the relationship between a rational being and that which is due to his dignity. That such a right could be renounced as slaves and subjects...

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