When considering the dignity of man, or specifically, the dignity of the human person, it is important to understand that such a notion is not a first principle and that this dignity must arise from what it is to be a human person. If this is not done, then the phrase loses all meaning and relevancy, and becomes like an anchorless boat in the harbor, carried on the tide of human emotion and opinion now drifting towards the rocks of error, now towards the open ocean of meaninglessness. Rather, it is important to anchor this concept to a true principle and thereby give it both meaning and relevancy. I propose as that necessary first principle, the definition of a person as manifested by, first Boethius1 and then St. Thomas Aquinas2, namely, “an individual substance of a rational nature.”3 Taking this as my true principle I then propose that the source of the dignity of the human person arises not from our being an individual substance, but from our rational nature.

The very word, dignity, is itself somewhat ambiguous as to its meaning, and it must first be tied down in order to guide this consideration. In light of the thesis of this paper I do not mean to find some very determinate account of dignity, but rather something general that will fit its uses today. The word is derived from the Latin dignitatis, which is translated as worthiness. This is not far beyond what the word means today for it seems that when we speak of the dignity of some one or some thing, we intend to say that it is worthy of some respect and/or honor because of its character or quality. For example, we rebuke a man for having lost his dignity on account of doing something shameful, such as flinging himself at some woman after she has already poorly used him several times before. We say this because we see that he is not acting in a way worthy of a man, but is being compelled by some weakness within himself. The definition of dignity, then, as worthiness of some respect and/or honor, seems to be sufficient.

It is therefore true that dignity must arise from what is most noble in a thing, for we do not respect or honor something because of what is base in it, but because we see what is most excellent in it. For example, we do not give honor to war hero because he has appetites, but rather because he has shown an excellence in virtue, specifically in courage. The dignity of a human person therefore, must arise from what is most noble in the human person. That a man's rational nature is the most dignified part of his person is clear from the following argument: First, as manifested by Aristotle in De Anima, the rational nature of man arises from his intellect, which is immaterial. What is immaterial is more excellent than what is material because it is not parted, it therefore has no principle of corruption, and is therefore incorruptible. The intellect, therefore, is the most noble part of a man. But his intellect is that by which man is said to have a rational nature. His rational nature is therefore most worthy of respect and honor, and is therefore the source of his dignity.

That man's dignity does not arise from his individuality is clear first of all by considering that if this were true in man, then it seems that there is no reason it would not be true universally. Therefore, any individual substance would have dignity. Therefore a man and a stone would both have dignity, based on individuality, but this is manifestly absurd, for no one speaks of the dignity of a stone.

Even if it is objected that the individuality of man might more properly arise from a higher principle, such as God willing and loving the individual, this does not suffice as an account for man's dignity. For, according to natural reason we can understand God's willing and loving the individual in so far as God is the agent cause of being.4 Here again we see that there is no essential difference, with reference to being alone, between the man and the stone. If then, we bring in the idea that man is more of an individual than the stone on account of his rational nature, then it must be asked why would one take rationality together with individuality, if rationality is sufficient.

Further, if one holds that God loving and willing the individual man is not as agent cause of being, but rather as redeemer of this individual, then he departs from the realm of philosophy. For, man does not relate to God as redeemer according to the order of nature, but according to the order of grace and inasmuch as he is a child of God. This, then, misses the purpose of the inquiry and fails to give an account of man's dignity from his nature.5

Finally, it seems that the most common argument for the dignity of the human person arising from his individuality is as follows: each human person is one of a kind and therefore rare. Things that are rare are valuable, and have worth. Therefore, each person, on account of his individuality and rarity has dignity. This argument, however, fails to consider that just because something is rare does not mean that it is good. There was only one Hitler, and it seems to be good that there is only one and we would not consider it a loss to not have more. Rather, if something rare is to be valuable, it must also have something good and excellent that arises from its nature that makes that thing desirable. This is not to deny that rarity is a principle of value, but it must presume that the rare thing is good.

It is therefore clear that man's dignity arises from his rational nature and that individuality in no way causes his dignity.

1. De Persona et Duabus Naturis Contra Eutychen et Nestorium , 4
2. I, Q.29, a.1,2
3. It is not my intent to defend this principle here, but rather take it as my starting point. The two great minds above have sufficiently shown this definition to be true.
4. For, insofar as God wills something he brings it into act. To will any other being is to cause its being and since being and good are the same in re, it follows that being as being is lovable.
5. This is not to say that an argument from theological principles cannot be made. Only, it is not my purpose here to make such an argument.

Unwilling Martyrs?

The Church has long celebrated the Holy Innocents as martrys slain for the sake of Christ. The Collect of the Missa "Ex Ore Infantium" on their Feast Day is sufficient to show the Church's position in this regard:

O God, whose praise the martyred Innocents on this day confessed, not by speaking, but by dying: destroy in us all the evils of sin, that our life also may proclaim in deeds Thy faith which our tongues profess. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost . . .
But how can infants, who are too young to use their wills, be considered martyrs? For not everyone who dies violently is considered a martyr. Even if someone were to die at the hands of an enemy of Christ, it seems they would not be martyrs unless they WILLINGLY suffered death. For example, imagine a citizen of a predominantly Catholic country who is killed by terrorists. The terrorists may have killed him out of hatred for Christ and His Church, but they could be mistaken in their assumption that killing the man was an attack on the Church. The man could be a non-Christian or even an anti-Christian. Our imaginary victim would have died because of the Faith, but he would not be celebrated as a martyr because he did not suffer death willingly for the sake of Christ. Similarly, granting that the Holy Innocents suffered death because Herod hated Christ, they did not suffer their deaths willingly since they were not old enough to exercise reason. How, then, can they be martyrs?

The kind of thinking that gives rise to this objection is, at the root, Pelagian (or semi-Pelagian at best). Most martyrs do willingly suffer death, but this act of the will is not a natural movement - it proceeds from charity infused by God. If the martyrs' act of will is a gift of God, cannot God also give the reward of the act of will, namely the crown of martyrdom, to whomever He pleases?

Why, then, should we celebrate the Holy Innocents as martyrs but not our hypothetical anti-Christian slain for the Faith? Cannot God also give that man the grace of martyrdom? Surely God can, but it seems that God did not if the man had an IMPEDIMENT in his will against dying for such a cause. We can assume an anti-Christian would consciously resist dying for the sake of the Faith if he were sufficiently warned of imminent danger; the infants would have no such willful resistance.1 We should distinguish, then, between "unwilling," such as is the anti-Christian who chooses against dying for Christ, and "non-willing," such as are the babes who do not choose one way or the other.2

The case is similar with Baptism. A baby can receive the grace of Baptism without willing it. A grown man, however, must desire Baptism; for, if he does not desire it, since he has use of his will and is presented with the choice, he desires NOT to have it. Whether it be the salvific grace conferred at Baptism, or the glorious palm of martyrdom, he who denies that a baby can receive it denies the graciousness of God's gift. Hence Augustine says, addressing the Holy Innocents:
A man that does not believe that children are benefited by the baptism of Christ will doubt of your being crowned in suffering for Christ. You were not old enough to believe in Christ's future sufferings, but you had a body wherein you could endure suffering of Christ Who was to suffer.3
1. We can say that the anti-Christian has an impediment in his will even if he isn't reflecting on the decision at the time of his death, e.g. if he is attacked by surprise. For he has willfully formed an habitual inclination to choose against dying for Christ.
2. c.f. a similar distinction made by Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. III
3. De Diversis lxvi, as quoted by St. Thomas in II-II Q.124 a.1.

Newer Posts Older Posts Home