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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 II Medieval Sources


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Medieval Sources

As the Western Roman Empire transformed, some of the structures of impirial administration were incorporated into the adopted religion and with them a legacy of codified law, surviving both as canon law and as a source of secular law. The ideal of dignity as self-control meriting office or responsibility formed part of that legacy. The peoples migrating from the East and the North gradually adopted Christianity, the by now official religion of Rome, as their leaders found in the mores of the meek religion an effective justification for their authority. Thus Christianity became synonymous with the customs of a settled, if not a civilised, life. The Church, supported by monasticism and the ideal of Christian marriage, contributed during the centuries lacking strong state power to the creation of a culture that was not dependent on the state but supportive of its emergence. Whereas the gentiles converted, the Jews in Europe kept their own understanding of being the chosen people, and to the extent that the European kingdoms came to rely on tribal and religious loyalty, this proved a recurring social and political problem.

In the patristic and Carolingian sources, we discern two tendencies. One is to criticise the Roman cult of honour, rank and dignity as merely human and therefore prone to typically human deceptions. The other is to claim for the human being the highest dignity since God has both marvellously created the human being...

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