Non-African Concepts Of Dignity

Whereas in African Tradition each human being made in the image of God and therefore is the possessor of Dignity and Divinity which calls for automatic Respect, outside Africa concepts of Dignity were different. Since the Chinese lived closer to Nature than Westerners, a major expression of their dignity was the carrying of peace through troubled times. In other parts of the Eastern world, “Dignity” was spoken of as including the determination to provide for the true well-being of the brother/sister, neighbor, and enemy.  This became the core concept of the Offensive Non-Violence methods of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Among Europeans the focus has been more on how dignity appears rather that what it is and, for them, “Dignity” is an appraisal based upon achievement. This came about by the ancient Greeks who studied in Africa moving African’s God-made concepts inside the word “Dignity” to that of a man-made orientation. When the Greeks taught the Romans their manmade concepts, the Latin term for dignity (dignus) meant worthy (but not in a spiritual sense) while in Greek (doxa) it meant glory. To the Ancient Greeks, dignity denoted an opinion, estimation, or repute (i.e. reputation and particularly a good one). Hence, European Dignity of ancient times was viewed as the quality of nobility, worthiness, honor, distinction, or excellence.

But the sense of Dignity became more complicated in Biblical times.  Connotation terms for Dignity at a Sublime level included magnificence, excellence, and a manifestation of glory—hence, being of angelic powers (2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 8). Still, these remained in an earth world—and not spiritual—realm. In the New Testament, the astrological sense of “acceptable” along with the sense of something fitting and respectable, dignified, dignify, dignity, and dignities were combined. The connotations springing out of this combination were always about good opinions, praise, honor, glory, and an appearance commanding respect.

Still during Biblical times Dignities were considered persons holding a high position worthy of honor (see discussion on European “Respect”), distinction, or merit.  Later, Dignities declared to have dignity were called “the glorious ones,” the “angelic majesties,” the “celestial beings”—as in referring to “elders” and “princes.” Part of this was about possessing grandeur of mien (a grand demeanor). The way this came about was through ideas contained in the word Dainty, a doublet of Dignity. A Doublet is a pair of words from the same original root but which have evolved through different routes of transmission and thereby acquire significant differences in meaning.

Dainty means that which is about delicate beauty—fresh and pretty. Its miniature elegance implied to the Western mind that dignity is finely and skillfully made. Incidentally, the overlap of dignity and dainty became core concepts in Etiquette (i.e. the observance of the rules governing proper conduct within a given society).

Nevertheless, in 13th century Europe “Dignity” embraced the senses of proper, fitting, decent,and “worthy” (referring to ‘distinction’ and ‘credit’ and not things of a spiritual nature). Then this expanded to include to a state of being that arises from obedience to what one regards as elevated, noble, or in full accordance with ones rank, status, or position.

Note carefully that whereas Ancient Africans believed the moral and esteemed relationship between one person and another ought to be that of the acknowledgement of God bestowed Dignity representing the sacredness attendant with one being a child of God and the possessor of a divine presence and thereby being deserving of respect, in the Western world the core idea contained in “dignity” became an appraised achievement in height based upon the degree to which one was honored. In other words, the criterion for “dignity” was and remains determined by the judgment made by self-declared authorities as to whether one appears to be worthy (in a man-made assessment) and honorable and, if so, to what degree.