Whose Dignity? How to Enjoy?— An Interpretation of a Concept Based on the Context of Ancient Roma
November 14,2022   By:CSHRS
Whose Dignity? How to Enjoy?
An Interpretation of a Concept Based on the Context of Ancient Roma
FENG Fei *& ZHANG Fengyang**
Abstract: Dignity and Human Rights are recognized as two principles that coordinate with each other. However, it is an invention of modern people to set dignity as the basis of human rights from a genealogical point of view. In the classical context, dignity was represented as a political value, honoring excellence in public service. As a reward and return for political services, dignity holders were entitled to be recognized by the state and treated with appropriate courtesy and respect. There are two ways to get dignity, “bestowed in advance” and “awarded afterwards”. The former was bestowed by a noble bloodline, while the latter was a reward for eminent military achievements or outstanding performance in normal state governance. In any case, dignity is defined in a differential pattern. It is quite different from the value of Equality for All in dignity, which is emphasized in modern society. In ancient Rome, as a tribute to moral excellence, dignity also required the taming and control of physical desire, so the value of dignity did not honor the natural rights of each human being, but rather the high rank and strong obligation of the excellent.
Keywords: dignity · human rights · rank · distinction · obligation
I. Introduction
In today’s political context, the intrinsic consistency between human dignity and human rights seems to be self-evident. In Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it is made clear from the outset that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
Some international conventions regarding the issue of human rights have not only expressed dignity and human rights as two principles that coordinate with each other but also set dignity as the foundation of human rights. For example, in the preface of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966, it was announced to the people of the world that the rights contained in the Covenant are “the inherent dignity of all members of the human family.” Based on such a strong expression, some Western scholars think that human dignity is a transcendental norm for human rights to gain a legitimate form.1
According to the view of Jeremy Waldron, a New Zealand professor of law and philosophy, the saying that Concept A constitutes the basis of Concept B contains multiple possible explanations, the most important two are: (1) In history and genealogy, B was produced from A; (2) In moral standards and legal effectiveness, A is the origin of B.2 Based on this, the relationship between dignity and human rights can be dismantled into two basic parts. The first part involves the normative analysis. It is undoubtedly a meaningful political philosophy research project to have a thorough reflection of all inhuman atrocities, especially those by the fascists, and to take human dignity as an underpinning value to reconstruct or rebuild the moral foundation of human dignity, although there are besetting difficulties in advancing this work. Another part touches upon historical surveys. If we go beyond the international human rights practice since WWII to carry out intellectual archaeological studies for long periods, then, could we say that the concept of modern human rights gradually involved from the classical concept of dignity? This is this paper’s issue of concern. To answer this issue, the analytical thought of referring to “the conceptual history” should be referred to.
According to the conceptual history studies of Reinhart Koselleck, a word needs to reach and get close to four metamorphic transformations for it to be defined as a “basic concept.” Among the “four metamorphic transformations,” the first one is “temporalization,” referring to the accretion from the discourse changes in tide and time, enabling it to represent the past experience and to open up an insightful perspective pointing a direction for the future. The second one is “democratization,” referring to its ever-increasing applicability which goes beyond the narrow elite circles to be accepted by the public from a broad sense. The third one is “politicization,” meaning that it is no longer confined to academic studies but integrated into the society-politics mobilization in scenarios such as revolutions and wars. The fourth is “ideologization,” referring to it being condensed into a highly abstract belief and for this very reason, can be used to express different or totally different political appeals.3 Considering dignity’s distinguished position in the present international human rights discourse, the notion that it is a “basic concept” that has reached the standards of the “four metamorphic transformations” will possibly cause no objection.
However, the issue is that some Western scholars have explicitly or implicitly maintained that honoring and guarding the concept of dignity as a lofty value of humanity is deep-rooted and time-honored in the West.4 Does such a viewpoint conform to the reality?
In Chinese, the term Zunyan (“dignity”) is a compound phrase consisting of Zun and Yan. However, in the Western context, it is a single word that cannot be further divided, being dignity in English, dignité in French, dignity in Italian, dignidad in Spanish, and würde in German. It is not hard to discover that except for the somehow different written form in German,5 the term “dignity” shares similar commonalities in various European languages. Such commonalities seem to reveal that at least from the perspective of etymology, the dignitas in Latin is the source of the concept of dignity in the West. Some scholars maintain that dignitas can also find an equivalent in Greek terminology,6 but this view has not been widely supported by the academic community. Viktor P?schl pointed out that there is no concept in Greek terms which is completely the same as the Latin word of dignitas, although it, in some aspects, contains elements of Greek thought and culture.7 Miriam T. Griffin emphasized that there is no complete equivalent for dignitas in Greek.8 Stefano Maso explicitly declared that dignità is “definitely a Roman concept.”9
However, differentiating the similarities and differences of the issue of dignity in ancient Greek or Roman culture is not this paper’s writing intention. By focusing on ancient Rome, especially ancient Rome of the republic period, this study aims to leverage the classic texts of Marcus Tullius Cicero and others and provide a classical structural reference for investigating the modern concept of dignity. This whole discussion can be condensed into such questions: Whose dignity? How to enjoy dignity?
This paper’s author holds that an investigation into the political history and the conceptual history can not only provide knowledge background for understanding the relationship between dignity and human rights but also make up for the inadequate normative analysis and assist us to go deeper in criticizing and reflecting on the constructing logics and practical blind spots of the Western discourse of human rights.
II. Paying a Tribute to the Excellent in “Public Service”
A representative idea in contemporary analytic philosophy is that “dignity” is a concept of “status” or “identity.” Legally speaking, it refers to the specific assembly10 of a person’s possession of rights, powers, and others based on the person’s environment. In tracing back history, it can be said with certainty that such a defining way is not of novelty at all. The question is that, in the classical context, the “status” and “identity” marked by “dignity” are not equally applicable to everyone. In terms of etymology, some scholars point out that the Latin word dignitas is associated with a different order, “referring to a high social status, or the honor and respect the status brings to its holders.”11 In ancient Rome, dignity was in the public field, with meaning solely for excellent politicians. As a result, the question of “Whose dignity” can produce the following responses:
First, dignity is built on the great political service, especially for the candidates for public posts. From a certain perspective, running for public posts is a form of contending for dignity. Candidates debate and compete for a variety of honos (“posts of honor”) set by the republic. Among them, the most excellent figures were thought to have summa dignitas (“supreme dignity”) while the novus homo (“new comers”), whose ancestors had not taken up senior public posts, would be thought to have a great level of dignity if they were to be elected as consuls with their own excellent abilities. As a result, dignity means excellentia (“excellency”). Cicero pointed out that “the most excellent and idealist state is the cum dignitate otium (‘tranquility in an abundance of dignity’). He who aspires to such a state is among ‘the most excellent,’ while those who have achieved this state are regarded as the noble.”12 However, in the public life of the Roman republic, compared with the pure election techniques, dignity is excluded from the corrupt behaviors in which public posts are seized by philandering, disguising, and bribing.13 In case of such a situation, the censors might deprive the dignity of those who did not live up to their reputation.
Second, as a political value, dignity occupies a high-ranking position on the “ladder of honor.” Cicero repeatedly mentions gradus dignitatis(“gradient dignity”)14. Those who assumed senior posts or those who exercised public authority, in any case, were thought to be persons of dignity. For example, a seat of the Roman Senate meant having dignity, while the post of the consul was also associated with consularis dignitatis (“a consul’s dignity”), among others.
Without assuming any senior official post, a person’s dignity in political life will be greatly reduced, even nothing to speak of.15 Generally speaking, a person’s seniority in terms of official posts correlates directly with dignitas. In other words, with a higher position on the “ladder of honor” came a greater level of dignity. According to the dialectical notion of Joseph Hellegouarc’h, dignitias enabled a person to be qualified for assuming a high-ranking official post, and in reverse order, the assuming and performing of a high-ranking official post would add to one’s dignitas.16
Third, as a reward for those who did the utmost to discharge responsibilities in the public service, dignitas is an aggregate of rights and duties. On one hand, from the perspective of rights, those with dignitas may properly ask for matched social status and special courtesy, otherwise, the dignitas will be to some extent humiliated and offended. In serious cases, it will even evolve into a justification for taking forceful revenge. For example, Caesar repeatedly claimed that the reason for his launching of a civil war was to “defend his reputation and dignitas.”17 In this sense, dignity is substantively associated with the privileges of the noble. It is an assembly of the power and majestic presence of the noble. In terms of subjective feelings, it is nothing beyond the scope of the “prestige” of the noble. From another perspective, in terms of obligations, dignity did not only mean being qualified to take but also being responsible to “give,” which refers to assuming public responsibilities. Cicero pointed out that “We should work hard for our dignitati and relieve our republic of worries and problems, consider our responsibilities in every aspect of life instead of personal gain, and brave dangers, endure injuries, and face deaths for our country.”18 In this sense, dignity is rooted in public service, representing a virtuous willingness to serve and contribute to the political community. To argue clearly, as the republic had given the special courtesy to those outstanding figures, then, in exchange, they should assume the responsibilities to defend the country and educate the people. With a higher official post come greater responsibilities.
The above three aspects have addressed the issue of “whose dignity.” In ancient Rome, dignity paid tribute to the excellent ones in public service, elevated a freeman from the ordinary, and manifested a person’s noble identity, status, and honor. It was for this reason that it was diligently and tirelessly pursued by the people. On this basis, if we make a more detailed inquiry into the issue of “how to enjoy dignity,” we might roughly distinguish two basic ways, namely, “bestowed in advance” and “awarded afterwards.” The former depends on noble family genealogy, while the latter relies on eminent military exploits and excellent normal state governance.
According to a view generally shared by historians, the ancestors of the noble families in ancient Rome rendered meritorious services in the founding and expansion of the state. However, their descendants, simply with their family genealogies, could rise above ordinary people.
In Roman law and regulations, the way of dignity “bestowed in advance” was condensed into a clause that “dignitas can be inherited.” In terms of its argumentative logic, the reason for the noble families to come to the natural enjoyment of dignity seems to be originated from the bloodline and came in reality from the recollection of the greatly meritorious deeds of past days. Such an argument is so forceful that a descendant of a noble family, even if mentally deranged, still maintained the noble identity and status of the ancestors. According to Roman laws and regulations, the signitatem senatorim (“dignity of a Roman senator”) can be inherited by his legitimate adopted son. As a result, as summarized by P?schl, “it is undeniable that the noble family background directly bestowed dignitas to a Roman citizen.”19
In the social evaluation system of ancient Rome, except for the principle of “bestowed in advance” which honors the blood relationships and family genealogies, there is something positive, that is, the principle of “awarded afterwards” which emphasizes political achievements. This principle means that a person from a civilian family, relying on lofty virtues, exceptional abilities, and meritorious deeds for the republic, may enjoy dignity.20 First of all, the exceptional meritorious services were manifested in the heroic deeds in battle and the major military victories secured therefrom. “The first-time manifestation of youngsters in winning fame and honor is to render meritorious service in the battleground. It was the place where many of our ancestors display their remarkable ability or talent.”21 Although he was among the civilians, Cato Maior manifested his exceptional mettle in battle, rich combat experiences, and outstanding commanding capacities. He was therefore bestowed noble dignity and honor.22 Then, to perform remarkably in the normal state governance is also an important path for a citizen to access dignity. “In wartime or peacetime,” said Scipio, “the activities of the republic are carried out in summa cum gloria (‘supreme honor’).”23 As a result, noble dignity is not only enjoyed by those commanders-in-chief and generals, but also the magistrates with diligence and political achievements, such as a consul or a provincia’s governor. For a citizen who had neither illustrious military services nor exceptional administrative abilities, a commonplace way for him to acquire dignity was to practice eloquence, that is, to win public admiration through highly appealing speeches. All in all, in ancient Rome, pditische Leistung (“political achievements”) was substantially associated with the cursus honorum (“road of honor”)24. Generally speaking, with higher political achievements, a person may acquire a higher-ranking official position and a more eminent status in the ranks of dignitaries. As a result, “dignity” under the orientation of merits and achievements is not a constant, but changeable in size and rank. The ancient Romans’ damnatio memoriae (“damnation against memorization”) against traitors or other public enemies reveals that “dignity” can be attained and lost.
In comparison, human rights in the modern sense are discussed in terms of the people’s equal personality, regardless of a person’s gender, skin color, wealth, position, education, and personal attributes. However, “dignity” in the classical sense is quite the opposite. In ancient Rome, a person from a noble family genealogy enjoyed dignity while a slave would remain of the lowest social status. With two opposite sides, it is the blood relationship theory of looking up to the people of high status and down on the people of low status. The orientation of merits and achievements, which supports “dignity,” is a way of upward mobility for free civilians. However, the individual worth for a person to be a “human being” is meaningless here.25 The reason is that, in political life, getting “dignity” is based on rewards for merits and achievements; it is an essentially the elitist practice of treating people of various ranks differently, instead of offering equal treatment based on their common humanity. For Romans, the notion of “dignity” being neglected, offended, and humiliated meant nothing more than a noble person was not treated with courtesy, respect, and looked up to according to the person’s status. As a result, the corresponding remedy was not to resort to protecting human rights with universality but to making personal or collective revenge. 
III. Self-Evident Special Courtesy
The concept of ‘dignity” was part of the mainstream context in ancient Rome, being displayed in public speeches and political debates, It was not only used to reveal the noble family genealogy and the great political achievements, but also extended to the field of culture and literature where it refers to exceptional aesthetic interests and life tastes.26 It is highly in line with the value connotations of the word virtus (“virtue”) which implies excellence and exception. However, in the orthodox ethics of ancient Rome, dignity as defined in the differential pattern is essentially “morality of masters” instead of “morality of slaves.” In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, it showcases a “triumphant self-confirmation.”27
As a special scene in the public life of ancient Rome, the Roman senate held a spectacular triumphal ceremony to reward military leaders with exceptional achievements. In such a ceremony, the victorious Roman commander-in-chief rode a war chariot pulled by four white horses as the vast and majestic procession marched from the Campus Martius to the Temple of Jupiter. In the triumphant procession, there were not only citizen-soldiers returning in triumph but also war prisoners and the spoils of war.
The triumphant general wore a purple Toga, carried an eagle-headed staff, and showed a face smeared in red, imitating Jupiter known as the “utmost kind and great” god. With Caesar’s defeat of Pompey which was thought to save the republic from fracturing, his official mansion’s front gate was added with a triangular lintel symbolizing the Temple of the Sun God; his ivory seat was replaced with a gold-inlaid one, and his birthday became a public holiday. A divine statue was set up to commemorate Caesar, whose base was inscribed with the words “A Tribute to the Invincible God.”
For Romans, enjoying dignity means enjoying special courtesy. Such courtesy included clan emblems or titles to reveal the noble family genealogy, clothes and accessories revealing the noble status or a high-standard courtesy in a socialization scenario. In whichever way, it is self-evident to see that certain dignity corresponds to certain special courtesy; it is like a self-explaining axiom. As dignity in ancient Rome was embedded into a differential pattern, its visual manifestations play the social function of “differentiating the noble and the lowly” and “sustaining the relationship among the superiors and the inferiors.”
A typical example is how the Romans walked. “Running salves” were common themes in Roman drama. It is proper for freemen to walk through cities at proper paces. Those in the upper circles should take slow and unhurried steps. Cicero formulated a detailed code of conduct, including steps, sitting postures, eating manners, sleeping gestures, glances, facial expressions, limb movements, and others, all of which should avoid pretension, stiffness, and recklessness.28 In manners, one of high status should act in accordance with his dignity. One should not take hurried and overly quick steps, because it would lead to a pant and a changed face with distorted features and indicate a lack of steadfastness. Nor should one take indolently slow steps. Ideally, the noble should take steps that are neither too fast nor slow, because the conspicuous and exaggerated steps would not be in line with the noble person’s identity. It can be said that the walking gestures alone can reveal Roman’s social status.29
For showcasing dignity, specific clothes and accessories are essential. The Toga was a symbol of the Romans’ honor. A different set of clothes and accessories revealed a person’s social status. Virgil, a poet of the Augustan period, offered a tribute to Rome, saying that “The world is being dominated by these people dressed in toga.”30 Roman senators felt proud of wearing a toga because those without civil authority would not be qualified to wear such clothes. When a captive soldier was shamefully de-robed, the Roman poet Horace ridiculed him as “the one who deserted the toga,” the reason being that toga symbolized “the honor of the republic.” In the political-social life of ancient Rome, clothes and accessories were of special significance; even the deceased would wear formal clothes in line with its hierarchical identity.31 “The Roman senators with no right to vote” wore white togas without accessories. Only those senators who had or have the right to seats could wear purple-trimmed toga robe. All Roman senators wore tight crimson leather boots, but those with the right to seats could be furnished with the crescent belt buckle. As a result, Roman’s identity and status were revealed in the clothes and accessories.
In social interaction and public ceremonies, holders of dignity, for their different official posts and ranks, were entitled to different courtesy specifications. The quaestor or the tribune could not be accompanied by lictors. Nor could they wear purple-trimmed toga. A praetor could have six lictors while a consul could have 12. Among all the public posts in the republic, there was no one like the dictator who had been bestowed with such forceful power and authority. In terms of governance power, the dictator is the highest executive official, with 24 lictors increased from 12, equaling the king’s status in the Regnum Romanum. It reveals that persons with different positions in the “rank of dignity” were entitled to different levels of courtesy in political-social life. However, for Romans, such differences were a matter of course.
The dignity of ancient Rome was also reflected in the judicial field. For the same crime, the hones-tiores (“the people of high status”) faced lighter punishments than the humiliores (“the people of low status”). For example, after robbing a temple or committing arson, the people of high status were banished while the people of low status were sent to work in the mines. For another example, in inciting a rebellion, the people of high social status should be banished to a small island pro qualitate dignitatis (“according to the qualities of dignity”) while the people of low status would be sentenced to death, added with several heavier forms such as “thrown to beasts,” “nailed to death on a cross,” “burned to death,”32 among others. In some poisoning cases, the people of ordinary status would be sentenced to death, while those people of high status with dignity would be banished.
Generally speaking, the dignity of the offender and the punishment severity of the offender is directly proportionate. “Those who attack their superiors should be sentenced to death, with their daring crime becoming more serious for the superiors’ dignitate.”33 The Roman law of Lex Aquilia stipulates that “A people of lowly status who encroaches on the officials, Roman senators, parents, or benefactors should incur doubled punishments.34 A defendant of high status will be exempted from cruel tortures during the detention period.35 Roman emperor Diocletian said that the cruel tortures should not be inflicted on the “most outstanding” and “perfect” males and their offspring and two generations after them.36 A famous jurist in the Roman Empire period maintained that in legal practice, the dignitas of a criminal of high status should be protected from having his deserved glory harmed excessively.37 Documents show that the court hearing activities in Rome were based on the identity and status of the witnesses, instead of the debate stage. Most of the time, the dignitas et auctoritas(“dignity and authority”) of the witnesses could verify the credibility of the self-defense of the defendant.38 Besides, the “hierarchy of dignity” is also reflected in civil law. For example, the Roman law of Lex Aelia Sentia stipulates that “Roman senators should be prohibited to marry the liberated people or a woman with a parent being an actor.”39 On Marital Habits and Customs provides that the marriage between a Roman senator’s daughter, granddaughter, or great-granddaughter and a liberated people or an actor should be illegitimate.40
IV. Shifting to Moral Obligations
In his book Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Michael Rosen points out that Cicero went beyond his contemporary ancient Roman writers to walk from the political field to the moral field and explore “human dignity” in the general sense. He could be hailed as an intellectual precursor of the modern transformation of this traditional concept.41 However, Rosen’s comment skips overmany issues awaiting in-depth discussion. From the perspective of Cicero’s own experiences, his research shift was closely associated with his living environment in his final years. On one hand, the republic faced dangers lurking on every side and bordered on collapse; on the other side, he faced a sharply dropping political career and a severely beset private life. Such a living environment promoted Cicero to shift switch the focus of his thinking and incorporate the exploration of dignity into a philosophical framework revealing greater thinking and analysis.
A collation of relevant documents enables us to summarize Cicero’s shift from the political field to the moral field in three steps. In his reply to a friend, Cicero said, “If dignitas simply involves publicizing correct opinions on public affairs, my dignitas has naturally not yet been lost. However, if dignitas also refers to correct opinions being adopted and producing actual effects, then I have not even a shred of dignitas. As a result, I have to learn to ‘moderate’ to tolerate some political evilness and seek inner peace.42 The “moderate’ referred to by Cicero here means the “middle path” in moral philosophy. This marks the first step in his thinking shift. In Tusculanae disputationes, Cicero used the combination of honestum and dignitas. According to him, it is of lowly status and shame to groan in pain, scream, wail, collapse, and feel unease. As long as honestum and dignitas are existent and are used to control the self, the pain will promote the personality’s sublimation.43 In the next three steps, Cicero explicitly brings to the open the phylogenetic relationship between dignity and virtue. He pointed out that there was nothing more desirable than honestum and dignitatem. With these terms representing excellency, he aimed to elucidate the truth that honestum and dignitatem are either virtute itself or originated from virtute.44
In this way, a new concept of dignity presented itself in intellectual history; it is about pure moral value. The semantic shift of the concept of dignity from the political field to the moral field was mainly driven by Cicero. It is connected with his dismal final years and thorough philosophical reflections, instead of relying on pure rhetorical skills.
There has been criticism that Cicero was using the concept of dignity as an “opportunist strategy,” but such a comment is partial.45 The key issue is that, with Cicero’s efforts in his final years, there was a laxity in the locking mechanism between dignity and the public field which had played a long-term role in ancient Roman politics and culture. At present, dignity is no longer monopolized by outstanding politicians. Nor is it a reward for political merits and achievements. Instead, it is intrinsically associated with one’s moral qualities. In other words, a person is entitled to enjoy dignity for good and kind moral behaviors. The reason is that, essentially, dignity is a tribute to noble virtue.
In De Officiis, Cicero deducted a famous phrase, that is, dignitas humana (“human dignity”). According to this idea, the reason for a human to enjoy dignity is nothing but being a human. This is the earliest proof of the expression of “human dignity” in Latin. In the abstract form, such an expression is indefinitely close to the modern idea that dignity is innate for everyone. However, Habermas has insightfully pointed out that the explanation of “human dignity” as a special prestige of human beings over lower life forms in the universe is far from being the same as discarding the identity differences of social members and equally treating and respecting everyone.46 This insight is a significant guide for judging Cicero’s intellectual direction. In De Officiis(“On Obligations”), there is such a paragraph: Not a match for hominis praestantia (“human prestige”), physical pleasure should be despised and discarded. If someone is fond of pleasure, then he should strive to maintain the proper limits of such pleasure. If we observe intentionally and carefully natura excellentia et dignitas (“natural excellence and dignity”), we will understand how despicable it is to indulge in a dissolute, soft, and luxurious life, and how it is morally correct to keep a frugal, constrained, rigorous, and lucid life.47 This paragraph reveals that Cicero’s elucidation of “human dignity” is unfolded in a moral teleology framework. To borrow a saying of Authur Lovejoy, such a moral teleology has not yet leaped out of the classical worldview. According to this world view, all things, in accordance with their respective distances to their perfect model pattern, form a differential pattern known as the “link of existence.”48 After the shift into the moral field, Cicero did go beyond the discussion of dignity’s differential order in political life. However, his philosophical thinking about “human dignity” is essentially nothing more than an overall comparison of the entire human race and lower life forms, thus proving human beings’ nobility over other animals. The essential point in Cicero’s new notion is that from the human beings’ noble status in the universe appeared an obligation, that is, to strive to overcome the physical pleasure of lower life forms and seek self-perfection in morality through living a constrained and simplistic life. Instead of being something else, dignity is rightly a tribute to such a self-constrained, lucid, and moral life.
In De Natura Deorum, Cicero emphasized that the reason for human beings to go beyond animals and become the supreme species of nature is fundamentally the possession of rationality.49 Considering Kant’s argumentation on the value of human dignity is also based on rationality, Cicero’s farsightedness deserves full confirmation. However, as discussed above, it is improper to give too much of an opinion on Cicero’s intellectual ideas. According to Cicero, in the developmental course of life, governance due to rationality would encounter irrational resistance. As a result, to achieve full governance with rationality means to break such resistance and sublimate life to moral perfection. With three fables, including “The Master and the Slaves,” “The General and the Soldiers,” and “The Father and the Children,” Cicero elucidated the human morality sublimation mode.50 According to the first fable, a person with a slave-type personality features immature development, lacks basic self-control, and laments and wails in the face of life’s vicissitudes. In this situation, rationality should be like the master exercising rigorous supervision over the slave-type personality. According to the second fable, a person with a soldier-type personality is not rational enough to bring wisdom into play on its own. In this situation, being rational is like a general issuing orders to awaken the potential of the soldier-type personality. According to the third fable, a person with a child-like personality has been edified by family love and acquired the abilities of independent learning and self-control. In this situation, acting rationally should be like an impartial and affectionate father guiding the person with a child-like personality. Cicero maintained that when the power of rationality exercises free control of irrational tendencies, such a person will see utmost kindness in morality and fully achieve “human dignity.” 
However, it must be pointed out that such dignity leads to obligations instead of rights. According to Cicero’s theory of logic, dignitas humana (“human dignity”) does not support the right to demand personality dignity based on freedom and rationality by every individual in real life. On the contrary, in the teleology framework, the pursuit of utmost kindness, as a moral order, not only gives a call that one should act like this but also produces an urgency that one must act like this. In this sense, Cicero’s concept of “human dignity” has not yet been sufficient to constitute a basis for the normative right requirement and to set up a semantic bridge leading to the modern dignity concept featuring equality.
V. Conclusion
Dignity and Human Rights are recognized as two principles that coordinate with each other. However, from the genealogical point of view, there is no sufficient evidence regarding dignity as the basis of human rights. A review of the conceptual history reveals that in the ancient Roman context, dignity was represented as a political value, honoring excellence in public service. As a reward and return for political services, holders of dignity are entitled to be recognized by the state and treated with appropriate courtesy and respect.
There are two ways to get dignity, “bestowed in advance” and “awarded afterwards.” The former relies on noble blood, while the latter on eminent military achievements and outstanding performance in normal state governance. However, in whichever case, dignity was defined in a different pattern which distinguishes the people of high status and low status. This is completely different from the value emphasized by modern society, with Equality for All in Dignity.
As analyzed by Habermas, for the ancient concept of dignity to enter the modern human rights discourse, maintain human dignity, and provide normative support for protecting human rights, there should be two decisive steps, from the perspective of the conceptual history. Step I: Generalization before individualization. It is indeed important to highlight the ontological status of human beings in the universe and go beyond the socialized identity and status differences to extract a general concept of “human.” However, it is of the same or even greater importance to further confirm the irreplaceable value of an individual human life. Step II: Equalization before personalization. It is undoubtedly a progress to follow the principle of equality to lower the privileges and enable people of low status to be qualified for “dignity.” However, on this basis, we must treat the individuals from whichever social class, community, or social group as the personality with rationality capacities and free will. In other words, we should discard external differences of various forms and treat and safeguard dignity as the intrinsic value of every individual.51 In Western political and cultural history, these two steps involve complicated factors over a long course of time. Simply speaking, this process is an intellectual revolution as a political and social revolution.
(Translated by PAN Yingzhao)
* FENG Fei ( 冯飞 ), Doctoral candidate, School of Government, Nanjing University.
** ZHANG Fengyang ( 张凤阳 ), Professor, School of Government, Nanjing University.
1. Klaus Dicke, “The Founding Function of Human Dignity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” in David Kretzmer and Eckart Klein ed., The Concept of Dignity in Human Rights Discourse (Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 2002), 111-118.
2. Jeremy Waldron, “Is Dignity the Foundation of Human Rights?”, Zhang Zhuoming trans., Law and Modernization 2 (2019), 170.
3. Reinhart Koselleck, “Einleitung,” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, Reinhart Koselleck (Hrsg.), Bd. 1. A-D, Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart: 1972, XV-XIX.
4. Famous philosopher Habermas holds a similar view, although he proposes some limitation. See Jürgen Habermas, “The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights,” Metaphilosophy, vol. 41, no. 4 (2010): 464 -480.
5. A recent study of Henriette Barschel reveals that the German term würde originated from wird? in alemannisch. In a Latin-German dictionary compiled in the eighth century, the Latin term reverentia is translated into wird?, meaning Ehrerbietung (“respect with awe”). Besides, the monosyllabic letter ? in wird? is Preis or Wert. Although würde somehow reflects “value,” this concept, in ancient German, has conspicuous differences from the würde used by Kant, which refers to “the recognition of a value without a price or an equivalent.” As a result, “würde in modern German is not dignitas in Latin.” See Henriette Barschel, Digni-tas-Genese eines r?mischen Wertbegriffs: Eine begriffsgeschichtliche Untersuchung, Reichert, 2016, page 1-6.
6. For example, ?ξ?ωμα/axioma (“axiom”)and ?ξ?α/axia (something deserved or value) has a direct relationship with dignity. In Homer’s epics or Greek dramas, there are expressions related to the concept of dignity. The Greek term σεμνοτηζ (“semnotes”/“seriousness”) can be translated into dignity; There are other examples. See Mette Lebech, European Sources of Human Dignity: A Commented Anthology (New York: Peter Lang, 2019), 11; Patrice Rankine, “Dignity in Homer and Classical Greece.” in Dignity: a History, Remy Debes ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 20; Daniel P. Sulmasy “Human Dignity and Human Worth.” in Perspectives on Human Dignity: A Conversation, ed. (Jeff Malpas and Norelle Lickiss Netherlands: Dordrecht, 2007), 10.
7. Viktor Pöschl, Der Begriff der würde im antiken Rom und später, issue 3. Heidelberg, Winter, 1989, 11.
8. Miriam T. Griffin, “Dignity in Roman and Stoic Thought”, in Dignity: a History, Remy Debes ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 48.
9. Stefano Maso, “‘dignitatem tueri’ in Cicerone: dalla dimensione civile all' istanza filosofica”, Méthexis 22 (2009): 79.
10. Jeremy Waldron, “Is Dignity the Foundation of Human Rights?”, 177.
11. Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning, Shi Ke trans. (Beijing: Law Press, 2018), 10.
12. Cicero, Pro Sestio, 98.
13. Joseph Hellegouarc’h, Le vocabulaire latin des relations et des partis politiques sous la République, 399.
14. Cicero, De Officiis. III, 87.
15. Viktor Pöschl, Der Begriff der würde im antiken Rom und später, 12.
16. Joseph Hellegouarc’h, Le vocabulaire latin des relations et des partis politiques sous la République, 401.
17. Caesar, A Record of the Civil War, Ren Bingxiang and Wang Shijun trans. (Beijing: The Commercial Press, 1986), 12.
18. Cicero, Pro Sestio, 23.
19. Viktor Pöschl, “würde,” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, 637.
20. Viktor Pöschl, Der Begriff der würde im antiken Rom und später,11-2.
21. Cicero, De Officiis. I, 45.
22. Cicero, Pro Sestio, 12. in Speech on Behalf of Publius Sestius, 47.
23. Cicero, De Republica, I, 38.
24. Viktor Pöschl, Der Begriff der würde im antiken Rom und später, issue 3. Heidelberg, Winter, 1989. S. 12.
25. Gregory Vlastos, “Justice and Equality," in Equality: Selected Readings, Louis P. Pojman and Robert Westmoreland ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 125.
26. Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning, 10-11.
27. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Zhou Hong trans. (Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 1992), 21.
28. Cicero, De Officiis. I, 129.
29. Timothy M. O’Sullivan, Walking in Roman Culture (Beijing: Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 18.
30. Virgil: The Aeneid, Yang Zhouhan trans. (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 1999), 10.
31. Richard Harder, Eigenart der Griechen. Eine kulturphysiognomische Skizze (Freiburg: Yerlag Herder, 1949), 18.
32. Dig. 48. 19. 38. 2.
33. Dig. 49. 16. 6. 1.
34. Ius. 4.4.9.
35. Dig. 50.2.1.
36. Peter Garnsey, Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 142.
37. Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 7. 14. 3.
38. Ibid.
39. Dig. 23. 2. 44. 1.
40. Dig. 23. 2. 42.
41. Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning, 12-13.
42. Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares. IV. 14. 1.
43. Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes. II, 31.
44. Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes. II, 46.
45. Brian Copenhaver, “Dignity, Vile Bodies, and Nakedness: Giovanni Pico and Giannozzo Manetti”, in Dignity: A History, 143.
46. Jurgen Habermas, “The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights”, 473.
47. Cicero, De Officiis. I, 105 -106.
48. Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, Zhang Chuanyou and Gao Binghong trans., Deng Xiaomang and Zhang Chuanyou proofread (Beijing: The Commercial Press, 2015), 30.
49. Cicero, De Natura Deorum. II, 1 and 152.
50. Stefano Maso, “‘(dignitatem tueri’ in Cicerone: dalla dimensione civile all'istanza filosofica,” 96.
51. Jürgen Habermas, “The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights,” 474.
Chinese Dictionary:


For the latest news and analysis from our

reporters and editors:Staff Twitter List>>