The Notion of Dignity in European Culture

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    • Presentation speakers
      • Louis Chenard, Independent Researcher, Ontario, Canada


    This paper argues that personal dignity, or a dignified moral orientation, results from a constancy of intellectual efforts aimed at a positive expression of individuality in a given community. It makes the point that dignity is a feature of the moral character that attaches to the individual who strives to make an honest use of talents to live a respect filled existence. Historically, Roman philosophers first advocated this view. For example, speaking of Peregrinus, Aulus Gellius describes him in this way: Peregrinus ‘a man of dignity and fortitude‘. He used to say that a wise man would not commit a sin, even if he knew that neither gods nor men would know it; for he thought that one ought to refrain from sin, not through fear of punishment or disgrace, but from love of justice and honesty and from a sense of duty. Fulfilling one’s sense of duty is possible when one recognizes a debt to a group or a community that fosters freedom and where one’s sense of self can be shared positively. The word community implies this by definition: ‘a sharing of one’s talents, a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals: the sense of community that organized religion can provide.’ (Internet Dictionary) The notion of dignity advanced in this paper is to be understood as a moral disposition in the sense that Cicero intends in his De Oratore when he writes: ‘It is customarily recognized as a great distinction to have borne adversity wisely, not to have been crushed by misfortune, and not to have lost dignity in a difficult situation.’(p. 169) The concept’s content thus implies a worldview that is neither negative nor positive. To this point, Peter Lawler writes: ‘The word “dignity” is not particularly Christian. It has no special significance in the Scriptures and not much history as a theological concept. Aristotle’s magnanimous man possesses dignified self-confidence. Aristotle also writes that nobility ‘what we would now likely call dignity’ shines forth in even the most unfortunate circumstances. My nobility or dignity is more my own than is my happiness, which depends on forces beyond my control. [5] Lawler adds: Dignity is a worthiness or virtue that must be earned, and the dignified man is someone exceptional who attains distinction by his inner strength of character. Dignitas is a self-contained serenity, a kind of solid immobility that cannot be affected by worldly fortunes. For the Stoics, and especially for Cicero, dignity is democratic in the sense that it does not depend on social status; it is within reach of everyone from the slave (Epictetus) to the emperor (Marcus Aurelius). Dignity refers to the rational life possible for us all, but it is really characteristic only of the rare human being who is genuinely devoted to living according to reason. Yet the concept of ‘person’ or rational person seems to elude all standard categories. Following Leslie Armour, we can agree that: ‘to know is to become what you know’. (P. 198 The Faces of Reason. Trott, Armour) Defining personal dignity as a concept presents difficulties, especially when one is forced to contrast concepts of scientific knowledge with moral definitions such as those produced in the contemporary sociology of knowledge. Indeed, many fields of social science subsume the idea of person in biological, chemical, political, economical or ethical concepts. This results in skewed definitions, determined by specific interests that tend to confute the sense that people are moral beings naturally.This waywardness about personal identity creates a feeling of absurdity that is not lost on exemplars of human dignity such as Stephen Hawking, who pertinently asks: ‘Why are we here?’