“How filthy, how abominable, how mischievous a thing sin is; on the other side, how great is the dignity of man.” Erasmus Desiderius, Manuel of the Christian Knight (1501)
One hears a good deal about human dignity these days. Yet, having recently spent a few days on beaches where thongs, paunches and tattoos were very much in evidence, I am finding the notion of human dignity hard to credit. That humans are vain is, I trust, apparent to the meanest intelligence. That we are egotistical has been taught by almost all prophets, philosophers and sages. But when it is said that we are endowed with natural dignity, and more especially when it is said that this natural dignity is ineradicable, my mind is flooded with doubts.
“Man is a very worm by birth,
Vile reptile, weak and vain!
A while he crawls upon the earth,
Then sinks to earth again.”
Jonathan Swift, “To Mr. John More” (c. 1710)
What we call a man’s dignity is the honor that customarily attaches to his social status (i.e. his rank, age, sex or office) and personal achievements. When a man insists on his right to this honor, we say that he is “standing upon his dignity”. When he stands upon his dignity, is nevertheless denied his due honors, and is angered by the slight, we say that the man is “indignant.” If he rejects some proposal as dishonorable and unworthy of a man such as himself, we say that the thing proposed was “beneath his dignity”—or, if we are in a Latin mood, “infra dig.” If a man is forced to endure circumstances that are beneath his dignity, and yet patiently holds himself tacitly aloof, we say that he bears those circumstances “with quiet dignity.”
What we see in all of this is the tendency of every man to seek to retain the privileges of his status, to resist degradation, and thereby to “preserve his dignity.” In most instances, this means that he seeks to preserve the privileges of his status in society, but in the case of human dignity, it means that he seeks to preserve the privileges of his status in the cosmos.
Preservation of human dignity means resistance to the cosmic degradation of acting or being treated “like an animal.” There is, of course, the contrary view that,
“ . . . now and then,
Beasts may degenerate into men.”
Jonathan Swift, “The Beast’s Confession” (1732)
But men as a rule resist degradation to the status of a “featherless biped” or “naked ape.”
Now it must be at once admitted modern thought has been intent on just this sort of cosmic degradation of mankind as a whole. It teaches us that humans are not only like animals, but are nothing but animals. We were not made in the likeness of God, do not occupy the center of the universe, have no meaning or purpose, and are not, for the most part, nearly so rational or autonomous as some fondly suppose. We have, to be sure, a singular sagacity among the animals, but our cunning has no more intrinsic dignity than the survival strategies of carapace or claw.
If this cosmic degradation makes you indignant, you are an anthropocentric fundamentalist who hates science. The social status of an anthropocentric fundamentalist who hates science is very low, so I suggest that you bear this ordeal with quiet dignity.
Cosmic degradation of mankind as a whole is central to modern thought, but the equalitarian principle of modern though also demands equal dignity for all. We might say that modernity removes human dignity with one hand, and then returns it (greatly diminished) with the other. And when it returns this whittled stub of human dignity, it does so in strictly equal shares. It assures us that every man and woman on the planet is, as it were, equidistant from the beasts (this distance being, alas, very small).
In traditional Christian thought, the dignity of man is said to be infinite. This does not mean that man enjoys a very large quantitative superiority over the animals, but that his gift is absolute, unique, and incommensurable with the gifts of the animals. Man’s unique dignity lays in the fact that he is gifted with the ability to know and serve God, and by so doing to at last enjoy the beatific vision. Whatever else might be said for cats and dogs, this life and destiny is open to man alone.
To “work out his salvation with fear and trembling” is, in other words, man’s special dignity (Philippians 2:12).
In this striving, man is, however, grievously hampered by sin, both original and personal. This disablity is what the old theologians called depravity. As it says in an old catechism,
“Sin darkens the mind, pollutes the heart, weakens the will, and separates the soul from God.”
Or as another author puts it,
“Now he hath indeed the light of Reason, but so dim and dusky, that we may well say he looks through horn, not through crystal. He that was an eagle is now an owl to this sun . . . . He is therefore now become like the beast that perisheth, not in frailty only, but in ignorance . . .” Joseph Hall, Contemplations Upon the History of the New Testament (1661)
As you can see, the “fall from innocence” (whether original or personal) is the traditional Christian theory of catastrophic cosmic degradation, and this means that, for traditional Christians, human dignity is very complicated. By the Fall, Adam lost much of man’s dignity, and then you and I squander most of our slender patrimony in the degradations of personal sin.
“Ponder wisely and take sure advisement and deliberation whether it should be wisely done or no, for an apparent momentary and poisoned little short pleasure of sin, to fall from so great dignity in to so vile and wretched estate, from whence thou cannot ride and deliver thy self by thy own power and help.” Erasmus Desiderius, Manuel of the Christian Knight (1501)
We have fallen from dignity into a “vile and wretched estate,” and this is why it is with “fear and trembling” that we seek to recover what we have lost.
Modern Christian thought is mostly modern thought with candles. In the case of human dignity, it accepts the cosmic degradation of men to cyphers and hollow men that float on the surface of deeper social forces. This is why its men are not so much sinners who have fallen as they are victims who have been pushed. Rather than working out their salvation with fear and trembling, these hollow men (Lewis called them “men without chests”) work out their salvation with pique and grumbling. And they grumble because they believe that their dignity is something of which they have been robbed, rather than something they have, but their own volition, thrown away.
To a traditional Christian, this sniveling Christianity is beneath a man’s dignity. Yes, we are presently in a “vile and wretched estate,” but we brought ourselves to this place. We are men, which means the cause of our being here is ourselves. I have sinned, to be sure, but I will not seek to shirk the sin by degrading the I to a cypher. I will not try to slip into heaven as a hollow man.
“I myself am the starting point of numberless activities, an actively-operating and self-determining cause from which real effects proceed. I am a substance, a being possessed of an existence proper to itself: it is out of the question that I should permit this self to be reduced to an accident, a medium for the exhibition of alien activity, a mere phenomenon.” (Tilmann Pesch, The Christian Philosophy of Life ).