Dignity: A history


The concept of dignity typically brings to mind an idea of moral status that supposedly belongs to all humans equally, and which serves as the basis of human rights. But this moralized meaning of dignity is historically very young. Until the mid-nineteenth century, dignity suggested an idea about merit: it connoted elevated social rank, of the sort that marked nobility or ecclesiastic preferment. What explains this radical change in meaning? And before this change, did anything like the moralized concept of dignity exist, that is, before it was named by the term "dignity"? If so, exactly how old is the moralized concept of dignity? In this volume, leading scholars across a range of disciplines attempt to answer these questions by clarifying the presently murky history of "dignity," from classical Greek thought through the Middle Ages and Enlightenment to the present day. In the process, four platitudes about the history of human dignity are undermined: (1) the Roman notion of dignitas is not the ancient starting point of our modern moralized notion; (2) neither the medieval Christian doctrine of imago Dei nor the renaissance speech of Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, was a genuine locus classicus of dignity discussion; (3) Immanuel Kant is not the early modern proprietor of the concept; (4) the universalization of the concept of dignity in the postmodern world (ca. 1800-present) is not the result of its constitutional indoctrination by the "wise forefathers" of liberal states like America or France.

Publication Title

Dignity: A History