The Definition of Dignity: Did Aristotle Have It Wrong?

6 May
This is a photo of Aristotle.

This is Aristotle. Looks like a nice guy.

I encountered a quote about dignity today:

Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them. -Aristotle

Good old Aristotle, I thought. Never leaves you hanging. Doesn’t it seem like there’s always an ancient Greek guy who’s got the perfect quote for whatever larger-than-life concept you’re pondering on a given day? Plato, Socrates, Aristotle. What would we do without them?

And what a great quote this one seemed. Dignity isn’t something you earn through external rewards, Aristotle declares. It’s something you bestow upon yourself. All it takes to have dignity is to acknowledge that you deserve “honors.” The quote’s especially relevant to the Dignity Movement if by “honors,” Aristotle is referring to that one basic honor that’s fundamental to all human beings: recognition by others.

Really, what else drives us more than recognition? As Charles Horton Cooley expounded 109 years ago, our self-identity is completely wrapped up our perception of how others see us.

As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it.

We are, as Cooley suggests, “looking-glass selves,” mutually dependent on recognition as we shape our own self-perceptions.

So if Aristotle’s right, and if my liberty in assuming that his “honors” might include — or even allude to — recognition is valid, then, to paraphrase, “Dignity consists not in possessing recognition from others, but in the consciousness that we deserve recognition from others.”

I disagree.

To say that someone has dignity when they’re conscious that they deserve “honors” from others is to suggest that dignity can be gained or lost. Dignity is not a variable. It is a constant.

Take the standard definition of dignity (pulled from Google Definitions just now): “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” I’ll jump in again to suggest that respect or honor is really nothing more than glorified recognition — recognition of a person’s wholeness, of their nuances, of their unique contributions to the world. Sure, we respect certain business tycoons, but we also respect the man singing in the metro station. Why? Because we can recognize both of them as people. Honor or respect, then, are just higher iterations of fundamental recognition.

So we can redefine dignity to “the state or quality of being worthy of recognition.” And here is my thesis: all people are worthy of recognition, because all people, by sheer result of their nuances, offer unique contributions to the world. Each of us is worthy of recognition as a whole person. And even if we don’t receive that recognition from others — nay, even if we don’t recognize that worthiness in our very own selves — we still have, inherently, dignity.

So, Aristotle, I’m sorry, but I must take issue with your musing on dignity (that, to be fair, you probably rattled off without a moment’s thought, never expecting it to be passed on from generation to generation, analyzed as a moral guidepost by a 23 year-old girl in the year 2011). Here’s my revised version:

Dignity consists not in possessing recognition nor in being conscious that we deserve it. Rather, dignity resides in each of us, quietly waiting to unleash its transformative power upon the world.

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2 Responses to “The Definition of Dignity: Did Aristotle Have It Wrong?”

  1. Tim stikkers March 18, 2016 at 10:53 am #

    Wrong. The correct quote from Aristotle follows: Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in deserving them. No individual consciousness is being mentioned in the real quote. Aristotle, suggests that if one deserves honors through evident action or behavior this is what makes up one’s dignity, not the materialistic possessions in the form of diplomas or certificats in modern times for example. Pretty nice guy after all. Smart, too.

  2. Peter February 20, 2017 at 10:49 am #

    where does Aristotle write this quotation about dignity?

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