Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Dignity, Schmignity


Over at Disputations, there is a lot of discussion of what the proper meaning and source of human dignity is. It just so happens that I've been researching Aquinas' view of that. Here is an excerpt from a recent paper where I talk about dignity in Aquinas. I hope to write more on this subject in the future, as I think there are fruitful thoughts to be gained. Tolle, lege:

. . . St. Thomas Aquinas grounds the dignity of a human being in the end or telos of a human being. In the Summa Contra Gentiles, book 4, chapter 54, Aquinas address the question of whether it was suitable for God to become man. Humans are little more than beasts, and God is God; how can these two opposites be reconciled? In section 2, Aquinas says that the incarnation was needed and was suitable since it showed humans the possibility of reaching eternal beatitude. This was necessary because humans were ignorant about their end: ``But man was able to be misled into this clinging as to an end to things less than God in existence by his ignorance of the worthiness of his nature.''29 If you think that your nature is mere dirt, you may think that it doesn't matter what you do with yourself. The value of anything comes from its end, from the goal for which it is destined. One lets the children play with the garden spade because its purpose is merely to dig up roots. One doesn't let the children play with the fine china, since the china is for the sake of special occasions. If this is true, then ``nothing stands higher in order of end than man except God alone, in whom alone man's perfect beatitude is to be found.''30 Even angels do not have greater dignity than humans, since both have the same end, union with God.


Such dignity according to the end of man is the reason why we should treat others well, as we can see in Aquinas' discussion of the duty one has of showing charity to sinners. Aquinas says that even though a man may have sinned, ``it is our duty to hate, in the sinner, his being a sinner, and to love in him, his being a man capable of bliss; and this is to love him truly, out of charity, for God's sake.''31 It is the possibility that a sinner may achieve eternal beatitude that requires us to respect him.32 Indeed, love of God, who is our final end, requires us to love our neighbor: ``the aspect under which our neighbor is to be loved, is God, since what we ought to love in our neighbor is that he may be in God.''33 Our end is union with God, and that union is corporate, including all others who will be in union with us. The love of God requires love of neighbor, since the neighbor is loved by God, and we must love what God loves. Further, our final goal will be better if our neighbors achieve it with us.

29St. Thomas Aquinas, Salvation, vol. IV of Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. Charles J. O'Neil (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), IV.54.3.
30Ibid.
31St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Encyclop?dia Britannica, Inc., 1952), II-II 25:6c.
32It is worth noting that Aquinas appears to contradict himself in his defense of capital punishment in II-II 64:2, ra2, saying that the murderer loses his dignity and becomes like the beasts. For more on this issue, see John Finnis, Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 279-84.
33Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II 25:1c.

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