The Loss of the Ennobling Principle

My eldest son is studying classics at the University of Virginia, so I was especially interested in Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent observations on how different is our modern use of the concept of human dignity from the ancient Roman use of dignitas.

Cicero uses the word extensively, as do Livy and Tacitus. It is an elevating quality which confers auctoritas upon someone due to their rank, social standing, and especially their family. “Preserving our good name” is much closer to the Roman concept of dignity than our deracinated appeals to “equality.”

MacIntyre’s excellent thesis is that we have turned the concept of dignity into something for which it was not built, and we’ve turned away from an objective account of justice which Cicero defined as “giving each his due.” The paradox is that we’ve lost both justice and dignity in the migration of meaning where dignity shifts from something socially established by familial and nobiliary bonds to something inviolably equal in all. We’ve managed to trade ancient ennobling principles for the thinnest gruel of “dignity” used to secure subjective rights in a tyrannical war of all against all.

The abuse of justice by the prosecution in the case against Kyle Rittenhouse is as good an example as one can find — whether one looks to the badgering prosecution that ends in a panic attack, or the trigger finger on that rifle aimed at jurors, we find the very gestures which reveal to us our problem: the standard which is seen has become not justice but the power to condemn.

The troubling reality that begins to dawn is that our trials, whether they happen in the law courts or the court of public opinion, now regularly lack the “presumption of innocence,” a bedrock concept in the classical legal tradition which depends on inferences to truths which are prior to law. We have arrived at an order which disorders, which does not and cannot “render to each his due,” which lacks a transcendent standard for both morality and religion, and which has thus, paradoxically, lost both dignitas and auctoritas. This is as clear a sign as any that the liberal order no longer has power — it’s spent, and it’s never coming back.

Yet we aren’t stuck just because our concepts of dignity and justice have been confused and muddled. The deeper question of why we are stuck — why we are “Advancing in Place” as Gladden Pappin puts it in the latest issue of First Things— is also bound up with the fact that the civic religion upon which our legal and political existence rests has utterly crumbled.

In his 1864 classic study, “The Ancient City,” Fustel de Coulanges argued that the ancient cities crumbled precisely to the extent that their legal and political existence had become unhinged or decoupled from the religion which gave their cultural and political existence unity and coherence. Coulanges found that the “absolute master” of the ancient social and political system was, simply put, religion, “both in public and private life” — and since it was the civic religion which provided the coherence of the whole, when that religion crumbled, when it lost power, so too would the social and political system. This is where we find ourselves today.

Classicists may quibble with this or that historical claim, but Coulanges’ fundamental thesis remains intact and has not been surpassed. His thesis about the ancient city is powerful for understanding why we are stuck at the tattered end of the liberal city, and why so many of us are searching for the thing which would make us coherent again.

I’ll reflect more on Coulanges in a future post, but for now it suffices to say that the social and political system of liberal orders has lost power because the religion which once animated it crumbled. The migration that made dignity do the work of justice is actually a downstream effect of the loss of the animating religion which was rooted in protest, and so was unstable from the start. We need an order which is realist, which holds an objective and moral understanding of the law, and so renders each his due, but we also need to recognize the ennobling and elevating principle which is continually present on the Church’s altar.