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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 10. The French Revolution


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The French Revolution

The period of the French Revolution is dominated by Kant with his explicit reference to human dignity as the key stone of ethics and law, but Mary Wollstonecraft, who travelled to experience the revolution first hand, is equally important for her vindications of the rights of man and of woman. Wollstonecraft’s last vindication gives voice to the same concern in relation to the French Revolution as Olympe de Gouges did: when women were deprived of their privileges as nobles, their dignity as citizens or human beings was not automatically recognised. Yet, the violent transformations seemed part of an ineluctable process to which both Herder and Humboldt point as they accord to the human being and its humanisation in the light of human dignity a key place in history as its telos. As Heydenreich reads Zollikofer in the light of Kant, does he attempt to provide a Deist justification to replace Zollikofer’s Christian one, in order to be in line with the spirit of the Revolution? Maybe. It was definitely in order to appeal to a masonic audience. Hannah More is unimpressed by most of these initiatives. She warns against the talk about human dignity being a mere token of fashionable Ersatz-Christianity.

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803)

Zollikofer was not the only one to concur with Kant’s insistence on according to human dignity a key role in ethics. Herder, who studied with Kant in...

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