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Human dignity: The uniquely defining characteristic of the West

Over the course of four years studying high school history, my students encounter the full vista of human history and the richness of the Western tradition. After learning about ancient cultures, they invariably point to one attribute that sets Western civilization apart from any other: the unique value the West places upon human dignity.

I teach in a secular classical school, where we uphold transcendence and human dignity as educational principles, but without the doctrinal apparatus of theology to support our claims. Instead of the direct claims of theology, we follow the winding paths of wisdom derived from the humanities. Grounded in the Western tradition, we study literature, history, and philosophy, with an eye towards building a sound anthropology. By the time they leave Thales Academy, students should hold firm convictions about the value of the human person and live in light of those convictions. The study of history is complex, allowing students to see the different ways humans have lived, believed, and thought, and weigh which patterns lead to flourishing.

In ninth and tenth grades, students study the ancient and classical world. They track the development of different polytheistic practices (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek), the practices of human sacrifice (Hittite, Phoenician), and the low view of humanity in the ancient Near East. In most mythologies, humanity is created either as a slave race to enable divine leisure, or as a by-product of a war between gods; in the Babylonian Enuma Elish mankind is a slave race enabling divine laziness.

Studying the Hebrews as the first monotheistic people establishes a contrast. The Hebrew self-conception begins with Adam and Eve made in the divine image, and even though they fall from a state of perfect grace, that divine dignity remains, eventually flowering into a law code Jesus of Nazareth summarized as requiring men to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” and to “love your neighbour as yourself.” For the Hebrews, humans are not sacrificial victims, slaves, or accidental players in a cosmic tragedy. Instead, in this conception, man is, according to Richard Weaver, “the center of a divine drama.” The Hebrews left no towering monoliths or ziggurats, but their development of a high view of human dignity made a lasting contribution to the Western tradition.

Later studies in Greek thought reveal another vital dialectic that contributed to human freedom. Hesiod’s poetry shows humanity as puny creatures in the Greek cosmos, echoing Homer’s portrayal of the Trojan War as a game for the entertainment of bored gods and goddesses. With the flowering of Greek philosophy in classical Athens came the teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (alongside their contemporaries), who asserted that man, the “rational animal,” is capable of comprehending the world around him. This rational impulse allowed true sciences to develop through the centuries (although it gave rise to theories like Thales of Miletus’ conviction that all things are composed of water).

If we cut off the roots that nourish our concept of freedom, the tree of liberty will collapse.

Having moved through historical, literary, and philosophical studies in antiquity and the classical era, students recognize the value Christianity bestows on the human person. Within the context of a Roman pursuit of universal justice and law, they study the birth of Christianity. Suddenly, the pieces fit together: this image-bearing yet fallen creature capable of rational thought contains such worth in the eyes his Creator that Christ came to redeem mankind from the rule of sin and death. This perspective makes sense of C.S. Lewis’ claim in The Weight of Glory when he writes:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are in some degree helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

The study of medieval history becomes, in this perspective, not just the study of dates, names, movements, and events but also the applied study of different anthropologies. Patrick of Ireland illustrates the contrast between a pagan anthropology propagated by druids and the high view of humanity consecrated by Christianity. Later, in the aftermath of the First Crusade, one Muslim contemporary remarked, “The Muslim community bewails the injustice of a landlord of its own faith, and applauds the conduct of its opponent and enemy, the Frankish landlord, and is accustomed to justice from him.” Grounded in a Christian anthropology, the Frankish government between the First and Second Crusades instituted more just practices than their Muslim counterparts.

By the last three semesters of high school, Thales Academy students study the historical, literary, and philosophical developments of the modern world. The development of political and economic freedoms emerge from the seeds planted by different elements studied in previous years: the unique perspective of human dignity from the Judeo-Christian perspective and the Greek emphasis on human rationality coalesce in the development of a secular state attempting to secure freedoms for all citizens. As Roger Scruton points out in How to be a Conservative, the development of a secular state respecting citizens to such a degree that it rejects mandating religious practice is a relatively recent phenomenon. In this context, the American founding occurred with its emphasis on a federal system of government preferring local leadership to solve local problems; this new federal government intentionally did not form an established church. Instead, the American economic, political, and social frameworks grew within a common anthropology that respects the human person and his ability to make rational choices.

The West has long celebrated freedom, but that freedom did not develop in a vacuum. The ability of human beings from around the world to act freely in economic, religious, social, and political spheres grows out of key convictions that contribute to the rich tapestry of the Western tradition. It is not enough to celebrate freedoms without understanding how they developed. If we cut off the roots that nourish our concept of freedom, the tree of liberty will collapse under the rot of licentiousness. Cultivating an historical consciousness and a sense of gratitude to those men and women of the past reminds us that we are the heirs of many blessings. It is our responsibility to know our inheritance, act as good stewards of it, and pass it on to the next generation.

Thales Academy preaches no dogma, and does not claim the certainty of doctrine. What students find, however, when they contemplate the Western tradition, is that a high view of the human person consistent with the Judeo-Christian anthropology undergirds a free society of rational human beings seeking happiness through their choices. That is the unique and definitive view that has allowed the West to experience unparalleled human flourishing. The discovery of this truth, whether by students or adults, assures that this history may continue.

(Photo credit: Rabe! This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 4.0.)


Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral ApologeticsThe Imaginative ConservativeThink Christian, and The Federalist. His passion is studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.