Concept of Dignity in the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas

The roots of new European understanding of dignity are usually connected to Renaissance and Modern age. However, this concept is widely used throughout medieval philosophical works. For instance, it is mentioned in Thomas Aquinas' works nearly 2500 times! Thomas Aquinas worked out the interpretation of “dignity” (as well as concepts connected to it: personality, freedom of choice etc.) that is largely similar to its Modern age interpretations (e.g. in Kant’s works) and at the same time contains elements that distinguish it from the modern version; however, this fact provides a possibility to juxtapose the perception of dignity in various epochs and use these elements to reframe and develop this concept (currently, many catholic thinkers discussing the phenomena connected to the issue of bioethics address Aquinas’ understanding of the concept, however, the potential of its usage isn’t at all limited by this area). When addressing the works of Thomas Aquinas, it is also important to understand, when and how this theological concept was born.   

Thomas Aquinas uses the word “dignity” in various meanings and various contexts, not only for describing ontological properties of a personality. However, these linguistic usages are also important as they affect the usage under research. Firstly, the word “dignity” is being used for translating “axioma”, a Greek word, which is etymologically linked to the concept of “axios” or “dignified.” In this sense dignity is a basic foundation, clear by itself, residing within the mind in an appropriate way and endowing all other provisions, based on it, with clarity and necessity. Secondly, this word pertains to the divine nature and is actively used during the trinity-related disputes, for instance during discussions of the issue, whether merits of the Father (including fatherhood) are similar to Son’s merits, as they are unified in their essence. The third version of its linguistic use can be regarded in relation to personality as it’s most likely the original usage of the word. Dignity is inherent of a person in its unity and uniqueness and serves as its foundation (we should also point out that in a modern sense of the word dignity originates from a person and not vice versa). Person’s dignity means that it can’t be used as a means but is a purpose on its own.

Various aspects of Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy are connected to the concept of human dignity: his understanding of what a person is as a creature endowed with reason and freedom of choice, capable of accomplishing ethically responsible actions based on being capable of synderesis as well as multiple other problems in the area of anthropology, gnoseology, ethics, and politics.