Vox Clamantis: Human Dignity – Aquinas

In the last few posts we have discussed the doctrine of the imago Dei – a doctrine based upon the book of Genesis.1 Yet what does it mean to be created in the image of God? St. Thomas Aquinas provides a helpful understanding of this in question ninety-three of the first part of his famous work, the Summa Theologiae.

To begin with, he distinguishes different types or levels of similarity (“image” being a type of similarity). The most basic, broadest similarity is that of “likeness” (i.e., “this is like that”); “image” is a subset of this likeness, and it is distinguished from general “likeness” because it implies an intentionality of making the image as a copy of the original. Thus, Aquinas states that you could have two eggs and say that they are “like” each other, but they are not images of one another because they were not made as copies of one another.

Additionally, for the likeness to be sufficient, an image must be of the same species as the original (e.g., a son is the image of his father; both of the same species), or at the very least there must be some specific accident in which they are similar (for instance, in shape, as the painting of a man shares his shape and is thus in his image, even though it is not of the same species).3 While man is not of the same species as God, yet there is a specific accident that he shares with God that brings him so close to God that he can be called his image: his capacity for rationality, to know and understand. There are other ways in which man “images” God, such as the fact that we proceed from one another just as God proceeds from God—but all these are secondary, and could also be said for irrational creatures (who are not said to be images of God). Without our primary imaging (our intellectual soul), the secondary types would not constitute images, but only likenesses.4

Then Aquinas makes a very interesting distinction: what are we capable of knowing that makes us like God? It is not just knowing in general, but our capacity to imitate God in understanding and loving Him! Our imaging of God consists not in rationality in the abstract, but in our capacity to know and love God. He then establishes (as elsewhere in the Summa) three categories of this knowing and loving God: all men have the capacity to know and love God by the nature of mind—this is the most basic level of imaging God, and we all possess it, meaning we all possess the imago Dei by nature. But there are two higher levels of imaging: the likeness given by grace (building upon the nature mentioned) in those who actually (not just potentially) know and love God imperfectly; and finally, the likeness of glory in those who know and love God perfectly (namely, those in heaven). So, all humanity images God by virtue of its capacity for knowing and loving Him. But the just image Him even more, and the blessed in heaven do so most perfectly (among humans), because they are most like Him in that they actually love and know Him (just as He actually, and not just potentially, knows and loves Himself).5

The fact that the imago Dei lies in the mind and not the body is helpful with some basic historical dilemmas surrounding the practicality of human dignity. For instance, our distinctions among peoples (for example, gender, race, skin color, etc.) are distinctions at the level of the body. Therefore, the imaging of God (and thus the human dignity) is the same among all these.

The Natural Law as a Foundation for Human Rights and Responsibilities

While searching for the term “human rights” in Aquinas is anachronistic, his system of thought established the foundation for much of our modern concept of human rights and responsibilities, especially through his understanding of natural law. To help see how his natural law theory is translated into human rights, I have considered the work of two Catholic Thomists who made significant contributions to this field: Francisco de Vitoria, OP, whose writings on the rights of the native peoples of the Americas had a major influence on the development of international law and human rights; and Jacques Maritain, who apart from his influences on philosophy and theology in the twentieth century, chaired the UN committee that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

De Vitoria marks a significant development in Aquinas’ understanding of human rights. A Dominican Friar trained at the Salamanca School in Spain, de Vitoria’s fundamental assertion was that the native peoples of the Americas are, in fact, fully human. They have a full capacity for knowledge and love of God, and are therefore equal in dignity to their conquerors. However, this also means that they have the same claim to certain rights based on their dignity, such as the right to their lives, or to possess property.7 Based upon these, de Vitoria asserts that rights and responsibilities are intrinsically tied to one another because human beings live in community: in order for my rights to be respected, the rest of the community has certain responsibilities towards me; conversely, I owe them a series of responsibilities so that their rights may be respected.8

Jacques Maritain’s basic approach is similar: he highlights that human dignity is the source of rights:

The human person possesses rights because of the very fact that it is a person […] If man is morally bound to the things which are necessary to the fulfillment of his destiny, obviously, then, he has the right to fulfill his destiny; and if he has the right to fulfill his destiny he has the right to the things necessary for this purpose.9

He also stresses the relationship between duties and rights as established by the natural law.10

Finally, Maritain also bases human rights on the natural law.11 Natural law, he states (echoing Aquinas), is human reason’s participation in the Eternal Law, which is simply God’s Wisdom or Reason that governs the universe. He stresses that it is not our rationality that creates the natural law (i.e. we do not come up with this law)—our reason helps us come to know this law that God authors.12 This foundation in the Eternal Law is the reason the natural law is binding, and ultimately provides a God-centered character to human rights that does away with the abuses that come from human-centered rights (which become absolute, as in the Kantian system where the basis of rights is human freedom, a freedom that must never be restricted).13 While our coming to know rights from the natural law is a gradual process, these rights (known or to be discovered) belong to all men by virtue of their human nature, and are always linked— via the natural law—towards the common good, which serves to moderate the private good.14

Clearly the thought of Thomas Aquinas laid the foundation for the modern conception of Human Rights. It is a foundation that the Church continued to build upon as these principles were further developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Next time we will look at some of these developments from the point of view of the Church’s magisterium.

(1) Cf. Genesis 1:27; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 108-114.
(2) 2 ST I, q. 93, a. 1, respondio. There are two other of similarity: similarity of equality, which is actually the perfection of being the image—only Christ meets this type of similarity with God. As humans we are not equal to God, yet we are still imperfect images of Him (cf. ST I, q. 93, a. 1, resp). There is also the similarity of trace, which is the sort that exists between an effect and its cause (Aquinas cites that ashes are the trace of a fire, and thus similar to it); it is only this sort of similarity that exists between the Creator and the irrational creatures (cf. ST I, q. 93, a. 6, resp).
(3) ST I, q. 93, a. 2, respondio
(4) ST I, q. 93, a. 3, respondio.
(5) ST I, q. 93, a. 4, respondio.
(6) STI,q.93,a.4,ad1;STI,q.93,a.6,ad2.
(7) Robert John Araujo, SJ, “Our Debt to de Vitoria: A Catholic Foundation of Human Rights,” Ave Maria Law Review 10, no. 2 (Spring 2012), http://www.avemarialaw.edu/lr/Content/articles/AMLR.v.10i2.Araujo.pdf, 325-326.
(8) Ibid., 315, 327-328.
(9) Ibid., 316.
(10) Jacques Maritain, Natural Law: Reflections on Theory & Practice, ed. William Sweet (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001, 58.
(11) Maritain, 53.
(12) Maritain, 42-43.
(13) Maritain, 57, 60.
(14) Maritain, 67.