May 15, 2018


What Is Human Dignity? :We display our dignity by imposing our will on nature to create a world where we can live as dignified beings--or not as miserably self-conscious and utterly precarious accidents... (Peter Augustine Lawler, Imaginative Conservative)

As we remember our friend Peter Augustine Lawler (1951-2017), we are proud to publish this selection from his insightful book Modern and American Dignity (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010). [...]

It was with such Greek reflections in mind that the Roman word dignitas took on a basically aristocratic connotation. Dignity is a worthiness or virtue that must be earned, and the dignified man is someone exceptional who attains distinction by his inner strength of character. Dignitas is a self-contained serenity, a kind of solid immobility that cannot be affected by worldly fortunes. For the Stoics, and especially for Cicero, dignity is democratic in the sense that it does not depend on social status; it is within reach of everyone from the slave (Epictetus) to the emperor (Marcus Aurelius). Dignity refers to the rational life possible for us all, but it is really characteristic only of the rare human being who is genuinely devoted to living according to reason.

Dignity, the contemporary Stoic novelist Tom Wolfe shows in A Man in Full, can shine through even in the life of a maximum-security prisoner who seems to have been deprived of every human good. Mr. Wolfe's novel shows both that the Stoic way of thinking is almost completely alien to American life today and that it still has powerful explanatory power. He shows us that our sociobiologists and neuroscientists have something to learn from what we might call Stoic science. The Council's book would have been more comprehensive had a genuine Stoic contributed a chapter, but no critic has yet registered that complaint. The early modern philosophers--following, in a certain way, St. Augustine's Christian critique of Stoic vanity--denied that human beings could ever achieve a rational, inward insulation from the effects of fortune. They contended instead that it is undignified to allow oneself be a plaything of fortune--of forces and people beyond your control.

There is nothing genuinely dignified in Stoic self-deception about our real bodily dependence. Human beings are stuck with being concerned, most of all, with keeping their fragile bodies alive. So there is something dignified in facing up to that truth and doing something about it--acting with freedom and intelligence to make yourself more secure. In Hobbes's view, your own life is infinitely valuable and irreplaceable to you, but it cannot seem that way to anyone else. Therefore, Hobbes reasons, your dignity is nothing more than your "public worth." And that is nothing more than the price your powers can bring: Your dignity is your productivity.

Others recognize your worth only insofar as they can use--and are willing to pay for--what you can do. We have every right to work to become as dignified as we can be, but we do not have an equal right to dignity. Hobbes is for equal rights, but equal dignity is impossible.

There is a lot to be said for ranking people--determining their excellence or importance--according to their productivity. Vain illusions which generate the idleness that comes with inward serenity are dispelled. There is, we learn, no invisible realm of freedom, no impregnable Stoic fortress, into which we can securely retreat. It is undeniable progress to stop ranking people according to their social class, gender, race, religion, and so forth. Productivity is the most visible and surest foundation for a meritocracy--which is why Americans today are having more trouble than ever finding a higher standard than productivity to determine their dignity. Even with the economic downturn, Americans are wealthier and freer than ever, but their dignity seems to depend more than ever on being useful and pleasing to others. They increasingly lack the inward self-confidence that comes with having a personal standard higher than "success." We might want to say that Americans are both more and less free than ever--and in a way that would earn a Stoic's cold contempt.

This is the source of the fear of technology and the end of labor.  For millennia we have tried to convince people that dignity is intrinsic in work.  The inanity of the idea is obvious when we pause for a moment to consider slaves, serfs and the like.  Or, for the Abrahamist, if we just consider that labor was a punishment from God.

Of course, as technology began displacing jobs, we of the white collar world tried consoling ourselves that creative classes would be exempted, because uniquely irreplaceable, that only the "average" would be affected.  Our brain work must, surely, have a value and dignity that mere manual labor does not.  But now the machines are coming for us too and that boast turns out to be hollow.

We are thrust back upon the most terrifying of all thoughts for mortal man : our worth lies not in any economic transaction but in what type of people we are, in how we behave, particularly towards others.  

Meanwhile, it is hardly coincidental that the dignity of labor mummery was so well-suited to an individualistic capitalist economy while relocating dignity to our moral being is better-suited to a Third Way economy.

Posted by at May 15, 2018 8:21 PM