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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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Part I Ancient Sources


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Ancient Sources

Three ancient civilisations lie at the origin of what we today call Europe: the Greek, the Roman and the Jewish. They all shared an understanding of the human being as an exceptional being with a naturally privileged position in the cosmos in relation to the animals. The Greeks and the Romans explained this position by intellect (νοῦς/ratio), the Jews furthermore by the creation of the human being in the image of God.

If social organisation, science or religion needed justification or regulation, reference was made to this place at the summet of the natural order. Rational nature accounted for the dignity of the human being but slavery was also ‘natural’. Nature’s resources and regenerative powers seems here to break against its intelligibility assigning a social order of its own devising; at the outset, human nature was understood not only as privileged and admirable, but also as exposed to irrationality and to some extent corrupt.

Aristotle was a keen explorer of nature’s intelligibility. Human nature was to him both biological and political, due to the faculty of reason, which he understood to mark human affairs essentially. When Aristotle’s texts were translated into Latin during the Middle Ages, dignitas translated both axia and axioma, value and principle, features of reason and politics alike. Both of these meanings therefore came to contribute to the meaning of dignity, identifying what is important for the functioning of the city...

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