Vox Clamantis: Human Dignity – Patristics

In the Patristic period, the Fathers combated a variety of heresies as the understanding of the faith was developing, some of which tried to deny the dignity of the human person or somehow diminish it. Yet the Fathers were adamant in their valuing of the human person, especially inspired by two particular articles of faith: first, that God created man in His image and thus has special love for men; and second, that Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, took on the form of man, thus elevating human nature to a level even superior to its initial, pre-fall condition.

One way the Fathers elucidate the dignity of the human person is by expressing the common nature of all humanity. For example, St. Athanasius, in talking about the Greek gods and particular arts that are ascribed to them, writes, “but men ought to ascribe [the arts] . . . not to the gods alone but to the common nature of mankind.1 Although not speaking explicitly about the dignity of the human person at this point, St. Athanasius shows that one of his foundational principles is the common nature of mankind, such that all men share a common history, in which these arts developed. Following from this principle, one must conclude that the dignity credited to one person because of his humanity must consequently be credited to all men. There can be no distinction between nations, creeds, status, or any other difference.

This principle from St. Athanasius does show the common nature of man, but does not necessarily demand that such a nature be considered dignified. Further on in the same work, he comments on certain capacities of man that lend more to this dignified nature. For example, he says that “men [have] a natural capacity for knowledge according to the definition laid down concerning them,2 referring to Aristotle, who said that “all men by nature desire to know”.3 This point once again shows the common nature of man since all men share this capacity. St. Athanasius takes this point further in describing what it is that men desire to know: “the soul has the capacity of beholding God.4 God is the greatest possible good, so the fact that all men have naturally within them the capacity to behold God uniquely in creation says much about their inborn dignity. Furthermore, in talking about the soul, he adds, “they may be able by [the soul] to behold the Word of the Father, after Whose likeness they were originally made”.5 Not only does man have within him naturally the capacity to behold God, but he has the capacity within him because he was created in the likeness of God, so that beholding God in some way allows man to participate in His Divinity.

St. Athanasius also talks about God’s love for man. He writes that God “desires all to exist, as objects of His loving-kindness”.6 Man, in his humanity, is the object of God’s love, not because of any particular quality of a particular human being, but simply in virtue of his humanity. Furthermore, “why did God make them at all, [if] He did not wish to be known by them?7 Not only does God love humanity, but He created mankind with the desire to love Him as well.

Another important Church Father to touch on the dignity of man was St. Augustine. One important example from St. Augustine that exemplifies his belief in the basic dignity of every human being comes from his Confessions. In the very first paragraph, he writes, addressing God, “yet man, this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee. Though movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee”.8 As with Athanasius, Augustine clearly believes in a common human nature, as given by God. Furthermore, that nature is directed toward the greatest possible good, God. Man has some inborn desire, some restlessness which can only be satisfied by God, and this is a desire which God Himself has planted in each individual man. Clearly, God intends every human being to yearn for Him and to search for Him, and He has created all men so that their final goal is to come to Him. This establishes equality among all individuals, and also decries devaluing any human being, whom God clearly loves so much and intends for Himself.

Furthermore, once again commenting on the nature of man, Augustine writes, “and so God saith to thee, ‘. . . I take away that which makes him evil, I preserve that which constitutes him a man’ ”.9 That which constitutes a man is that which is not evil, i.e. that which is good. Thus God created all human beings naturally good. Shortly later in the same work, he continues, “extend your love then, and limit it not to your wives and children”.10 Because each human person is intrinsically good, Augustine explains, our love should not be constrained only to those who are close to us, but to all mankind without limit.

One final example comes from Clement of Alexandria: “We, however, as soon as He conceived the thought, became His children.11 This statement is made indiscriminately of man: that all human beings are the children of God, although fallen into sin. To repudiate God’s children would be also to repudiate God Himself, Who intentionally created His children and even sacrificed His Son that they may return to His favor.

Countless examples can be found in which the Fathers indicate the dignity of the human person, through their shared nature, through being created as good and as the image of God, and through having God as their shared ultimate end. With all of these common, inestimably good aspects, the Church Fathers undoubtedly value each individual human life, so that they would decry the suffering of even one at the hand of any sort of injustice.

In the next post we will look at human dignity and human rights from the perspective of St. Thomas Aquinas.

(1) Athanasius Contra gentes 18. All citations come from the respective volumes of Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, ed. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Grand Rapids: T&T Clark, 1994, and from Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: T&T Clark, 1991.

(2) Athanasius, Contra gentes s. 18.
(3) The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 4:13.
(4) Athanasius, Contra gentes 33.
(5) Athanasius, Contra gentes 34.
(6) Athanasius Contra gentes 41.
(7) Athanasius De incarnatione verbi dei 11.
(8) Augustine Confessions 1.1.1.
(9)Augustine Sermons on New Testament Lessons XL.9.
(10) Augustine Sermons on New Testament Lessons XL.10.
(11) Clement of Alexandria The Instructor 2.