Monday, April 9, 2012

Michael Rosen's "Dignity: Its History and Meaning"

Michael Rosen is Professor of Government at Harvard University.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Dignity: Its History and Meaning, and reported the following:
Dignity: Its History and Meaning is a short book – only 160 pages. By the time you get to page 99 [inset left, click to enlarge] the party is pretty much in full swing.

The middle chapter of the book (there are only three) is a look at the way dignity has been used in the law. I spend a lot of time looking at German law – with good reason. The Basic Law of the Federal Republic was set up after the war with dignity as its first principle. (Article 1 states: “Human dignity is inviolable. To respect it and protect it is the duty of all state power.”)

I’ve got several arguments on the table at that stage. One is that dignity played a hugely important role in Catholic thought, particularly in the nineteenth century. At that time it was part of a view of the world in which everything has dignity if it plays its proper role in a hierarchy (Pope Leo XIII talks about the dignity of wives’ obedience to their husbands, of subjects’ obedience to monarchs, and so on). By the end of the Second World War, the Church had changed direction, though, and was prepared to accept the association of dignity with equality. Catholicism was – is – still extremely influential, I’m arguing, but less visible because it’s less obviously opposed to secular ideas about rights. On page 99, I’m exploring the modern Catholic view in a fairly abstract, philosophical way.

The book was written with the idea of showing how deep and puzzling ethical issues are embedded in immediate and pressing questions of law and politics. I set myself the challenge of doing that in a way that would be understandable to readers who didn’t start with any particular interest or training in philosophy. So I have tried to tell the story without taking technical terminology for granted, and, where I had to introduce some, to do it as vividly and entertainingly as I could. So don’t start on page 99.

Excerpt electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from Dignity: Its History and Meaning by Michael Rosen, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University of Press, Copyright © 2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Learn more about Dignity: Its History and Meaning at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue