The phrase human dignity is as ubiquitous today in enlightened global discourse as human rights. Indeed, the two are intimately connected, the first being regarded as a subset of the second, as in, “the right to human dignity.” But dignity in this context is used abstractly and in a universal sense, rather than concretely and in a personal one. In postmodern understanding, dignity is inherent in every human being by virtue of his humanity and demands equal respect from other human beings. But dignity used in the abstract, postmodern, humanist sense, has nothing to do with the traditional meaning of the word. I am not even sure there is a word, in any language with which I am familiar, that conveys the new meaning.
My Langenscheidt’s Latin dictionary defines dignitas as “worthiness, merit; a) dignity, grandeur, splendour, dignified exterior, majesty, distinction, element; b) personal dignity, honour, esteem, authority; c) rank, high office.” Each of these definitions has something in common, and that is its obvious specific or personal application. Dignity, as we see here, is not a generic term; it applies to some distinguishing quality, to something earned, or to something peculiarly inherited. There is nothing universal about it. All human beings are alike in having been made in the image of God, but that is not the same thing as saying that they share equally in the divine dignity, any more than they share in the divine goodness. Certain images, moreover, are truer than others to the original, and these differences, too, are attributable to personal, not to universal, human qualities.
The concepts of natural law and natural rights, which descend from the Roman jurists, were revived in the Western world in the 18th century and became ubiquitous, nearly omnipotent, over the next two centuries, as the “dignity of man,” along with other abstractions like “liberty,” “equality,” and “fraternity,” proclaimed by French radicals in the revolutionary period became the established foundation of the developing modern democracies, in theory at least if not always in practice. In the 19th century there did appear to be, in Great Britain especially, a connection between the extension of suffrage and other political rights and the dignity of a citizen, as the demands of Western peoples for what Hegel called “recognition” were in some degree met by their rulers. But with the advent of mass democracy in the 20th century, a paradoxical development set in. The more democratic society became, the less dignified democratic man appeared. José Ortega y Gasset deplored this lack of dignity, without ever using the term itself, in his book The Revolt of the Masses, in which he defines the mass as
all that which sets no value on itself—good or ill—based on specific grounds, but which feels itself “just like everybody,” and nevertheless is not concerned about it; it is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else.
The mass man has no aspirations, makes no demands on himself, yet demands that all his demands should be met as he demands them. Clearly, such a creature as democratic mass man is incapable of dignity. In fact, he cannot be expected to understand the meaning of the word, though democratic theory and sentiment drape him with it as if it were a Roman toga, and universalist theory extends it to the entire human world.
Socialism, which is really another word for mass democracy, has no standards regarding behavior or aspiration. Socialism is much more than an economic and political system. Socialism is a way of viewing oneself in relation to the world, and to other people. Socialism has a face, just as monarchy does. The face of monarchy is the king’s face on a coin. The face of socialism is the mob in all its dreary conformity, vulgarity, sloppiness, and lack of dignity. Socialism is advanced democracy, and Sir Henry Sumner Maine described democracy as nothing other than monarchy inverted. Dignity is always established and maintained at the pinnacle of society, as a model for the classes below it, to imitate and maintain in the manner appropriate to their nature and status. (It is a kind of heresy to deny that members of the lower orders are less capable of dignity than dignitaries and blue bloods are.) But mass democracy, though not classless in terms of economic and political power, is socially classless in appearance and in manners—in part because the elite wishes to disguise the fact of its own power and exclusivity by supporting the illusion that elites have been done away with by democracy, in part because what is called the elite is really no more than a minority of mass men with mass aspirations that they have succeeded in realizing for themselves. So modern society is without dignity at the top, or in the middle, or at the bottom. It was said—I believe of Lord Asquith—that he lacked the aristocratic manner on entering a room. Today, that would be an observation meaningless to almost everybody, of whatever station in life. The modern world is a place without dignity, a world where the true thing, as distinct from arrogance and pretense, is highly suspect. Indeed, this highest and most noble, perhaps, of all human qualities, is despised in men.
A snob (and social impostor) in an English mystery novel of the interwar period declared that six centuries at the very least are required to produce a gentleman. That is an enormous exaggeration, yet it is only an exaggeration. Certainly a single generation is ordinarily insufficient to produce a man or woman of true dignity, though there is surely such a thing as natural, untutored dignity, rare as it is. Just here, T.S. Eliot’s criticism of meritocracy is relevant. Eliot argued that, in a meritocracy, members of the ruling elite—and of subelites—are continually rising and falling. This exaggerated upward and downward mobility is, of course, a process of economic rather than of social displacement, since, in a meritocracy, social position is determined by money, not by family, background, and breeding. Despite the complaints of egalitarians that the children of the modern rich enjoy an unearned advantage that ensures them a life of wealth and “privilege,” the really striking thing about postmodern society is the ease with which high position is forfeited, often within the space of a single generation, as happened so frequently among WASP families of the upper class in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s—very often by purposeful downward mobility, in which the self-made déclassé shucks a gentleman’s dignity together with a gentleman’s wardrobe, and a gentleman’s career. Either way, whether social displacement is effected by the natural instability of fiercely competitive elites or sought by traitorous elements among the old-line upper class, the result is the same, or nearly. Edmund Burke’s “unbought grace of life,” which cannot indeed be bought but can be transferred across the generations, is continually interrupted in transmission, and at last dies out altogether. Chief among these graces is personal dignity.
Dignity is imposed from the top down, but the top is not the president, or the king, or even the emperor. The top is the throne of God and, just below Him, God’s Church on earth. I am not concerned here with the quarrelsome issue as to which Church that actually is. Yet, being a Catholic, and because the liturgies of the Catholic Church and Her separated sister, the Anglican Church, are commonly supposed to display the greatest dignity and the greatest ceremony of all the Christian denominations, I have singled them out as examples of what it is I am talking about.
Speaking generally, the Catholic Church has the greater theological truth, the Anglican (nowadays) the greater sense of the dignity of theological truth. Not even Westminster Abbey can outshine St. Peter’s Basilica in liturgical splendor, but St. Peter’s is more the exception than the rule within the body of the Roman Church, while, within the Anglican Church, Westminster Abbey is the parishes’ admired model, whose style is imitated so far as it is affordable. The Anglicans have adapted to the modern democratic world by removing dignity from their theology (women priests, “gay marriage,” and the rest), while retaining it in their liturgy. The Romans have done the exact opposite. They have retained intact every iota of traditional Catholic theology while supplanting the Tridentine Mass with the Novus Ordo Mass after the Second Vatican Council. Following Vatican II, the liturgical reformers substituted a Babel of vernacular tongues for Latin, previously the universal language of the Church; banished private prayer and meditation during Mass in favor of noisy “participation” by the congregation; reemphasized the Sacrifice of the Mass as a communal “meal”; communalized the Creed by translating Credo as “We believe”; installed eucharistic ministers (almost invariably ill dressed) at Holy Communion; replaced the fine old hymns, so expressive of the entwined reciprocal dignity of God and man, with hootenanny songs performed on guitars; celebrated Clown Masses; allowed such practices as the celebration of birthdays by handing out chocolates before the recessional hymn; and acquiesced in the appalling—the almost heretically undignified—practice of applauding at Mass. (For a full appreciation of all that they did, I recommend The Heresy of Formlessness, by Martin Mossbach.) The result is an Anglican service that worships man in a dignified liturgy worthy of the dignity of God, and a Catholic one that worships God in a vulgar liturgy more appropriate to a celebration of the universal centrality of man.
As a number of authors have noted over the past couple of centuries, democratic fervor shares a nature with religious fervor. The ideology known as democratism is the chief engine behind the destruction of social dignity, and it has been responsible as well for the desacralization of modern religious practice, beginning with the Wesleyan revival, continuing through the 19th-century American camp meeting, and arriving at the orgiastic spectacles staged by the megachurches of our own time. If dignity is not to be found in religious celebration, then where else could it possibly be found? The modern answer seems to be the United Nations, where notions such as the Dignity of Man and Human Rights are loudly professed and defended, day in and day out. But what of the dignity of the dignitaries routinely on display in the assembly there? Nikita Krushchev pounded the dais with his shoe. President George W. Bush delivered yammering speeches on the religion of democracy that would have done discredit to a high-school debater. Qaddafi, the King of Kings, only the other day and speaking for 96 minutes, accused capitalists of having created the swine-flu virus, suggested that the United Nations be moved to Libya, and expressed the wish that Barack Obama might remain president forever and ever, amen.
Human dignity, as the phrase is used today, does not dignify human beings, nor does it really try to. Instead, it dignifies man’s wants and preferences by elevating them to the status of rights. In this way, men are said to hold dignity by virtue of demanding things, not of being something in themselves. Modern religion connives, knowingly or not, in this error by encouraging the belief that the dignity of God expresses itself in what He does for men, and the dignity of men in what they demand from other men—but, most of all, from God.