Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Roman virtues: dignitas

Ominously for me, dignitas has been described as "a unique, intangible and culturally subjective social concept in the ancient Roman mindset" - which isn't going to make it easy for me, as a novice in this field, to describe.

However, from what I've read, the basic meaning seems to be "one's standing in the community". If my dignatis were great, then more weight would be put on my opinion - I would gain greater clout in society.

If this were all that dignitas consisted of, it wouldn't be that impressive a virtue. But the important issue here is how dignitas was gained. It could be gained by achievement (e.g. military victory), but also by the way a person embodied a range of virtues in the service of the state:

Dignitas and auctoritas were the end result of displaying the values of the ideal Roman and the service of the state in the forms of priesthoods, military positions, and magistracies. Dignitas was reputation for worth, honor and esteem. Thus, a Roman who displayed their gravitas, constantia [perseverence], fides [trustworthiness], pietas and other values becoming a Roman would possess dignitas among their peers. Similarly, through this path, a Roman could earn auctoritas (“prestige and respect”).

So your dignitas was not only a product of holding high office, but was also an estimation of your character as a Roman in successfully discharging your public duties.

Noble Romans did not want to suffer a blow or loss to their dignitas. That seems to have represented something like the loss of one's good name, or the loss of face, or the loss of honour. In that sense, self-worth was tied closely to dignitas.

So how then are we to assess the Roman virtue of dignitas? Seen from the world of today it has one great advantage. In today's world people try to make themselves superior in their social standing by adopting politically correct beliefs. Intellectuals are often the worst offenders here: they tend to believe that by following a liberal political orthodoxy that they stand above the crowd in their moral and social status.

But that is not only a cheap and easy way to chase distinction, it also tends to corrode society over time - it is an anti-public service (a public disservice).

In Roman times, there was at least some connection between social distinction and the cultivation of character - and that is the aspect of dignitas that we need most to restore.

16 comments:

  1. We have "dignitas" (social standing) today. It is simply gained and lost through different "virtues" than in Roman days. How do you gain dignitas today? Demonstrate your commitment to diversity, social justice, open borders, gay rights, environmental protection, universal health care, reproductive rights, personal autonomy, and so on. How do you lose dignitas? By acting like a prole - e.g., a racist, sexist, nationalist, islamophobic, fundamentalist Christian.

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  2. Anon,

    Yes, instead of being measured by loyal (and successful) service to your own tradition, through real aspects of character such as gravitas, pietas and constantia, today you get social standing by adopting a suicidal form of political correctness.

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  3. But they are loyally and successfully serving the Leftist tradition!

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  4. Great post. It fascinates me that, reading your blog, Australia is on the complete other side of the world from and in the opposite hemisphere to Rome, and yet the great empire is still the lamp light we of the former British colonies look to for guidance.

    As an American, existing an ocean away from the furthest Rome ever was in the west, it strikes me odd, too, that this empire, above all others, influences my thoughts about civilization.

    Keep up the great posts.

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  5. Good work here with this series on Roman virtues. It's good to see deeper into this culture which so influenced our heritage.

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  6. Since the liberal social order places autonomy as its highest good and denies the legitimacy of cultural superiority (at least, so long as that culture is European in origin), it is impossible to acquire dignitas if one is liberal. Dignitas is not mere social standing; it implies service to ideals liberals deny the legitimacy of. What a liberal acquires by conspicuous public display of virtue is not dignitas. Stalinist Russia similarly demanded conspicuous displays of fealty to the state, but nobody (except Marxist propagandists) claimed such displays were virtuous.

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  7. Really good article here, and a good site as well, I will be back. Not many places you can find talking about the relevence of Roman virtues in the modern world!

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  8. Off Topic,

    This is an analysis of "whiteness theory" from an English anti-Islamist site:

    http://theenglishdefenceleagueextra.blogspot.com/2011/07/leftist-and-muslim-soundbites-4.html

    Racism is a about race; not about who holds power. The addition of this is a Leftist invention - from top to bottom. No one except a Leftist need accept that racism has anything at all to do with who holds the power. You can only accept that if you are a automaton Leftist who accepts these directives from on high - or from the SWP Central Committee.

    Every syllable of that diktat can be challenged.

    Not all white people have political or social power, for a start. Millions upon millions of white people have not had real power. Isn’t that what you Leftists have been trying to tell the working class for ages - before Leftists gave up on them and started to patronise Muslims instead?

    Now you might answer by talking about relative power. Relative to ethnic minorities white people still have more power. But there’s still no reason to accept that only white people can be racist. There is still no reason to say that there is any connection between power and racism. If you have accepted a diktat from the top; there is no reason for any one else to do so.

    What you’ve said is just an empty statement - a soundbite. Without argumentation, why should anyone - accept a gullible middle-class student - accept it just as it stands?

    ‘In a racist society it is white people who hold the power.’

    You are arguing in circles. If you have already defined a society as ‘racist’, then white people holding the power is not to the issue. Unless it is racist because, and only because, white people hold the power. It simply sounds that you haven’t really thought about this diktat - you’ve simply accepted it - no questions asked.

    What about Asian and African countries in which brown and black people hold the power? Can’t they be racist? The Sudanese Islamic regime murdered millions of black Africans primarily because they weren’t Muslims but also because they weren’t Arabic. Weren’t they racists? By your pathetic SWP-esque definition, they couldn’t be racist. What about the millions of white people who have no power?

    The same applied to your distinction between racism and prejudice. Pure Leftism. Absolutely no one else would accept that, unless he’s a braindead student or another gullible fool.

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  9. Thanks for the positive feedback. As I hoped, I've learnt a lot myself researching this topic. Although I would not endorse every aspect of Roman life and philsophy, there are aspects of it that I find "remoralising".

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  10. it is impossible to acquire dignitas if one is liberal. Dignitas is not mere social standing; it implies service to ideals liberals deny the legitimacy of.

    As I said, liberals acquire dignitas through service to different ideals; diversity, social justice, open borders, gay rights, environmental protection, universal health care, reproductive rights, personal autonomy, etc. etc.

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  11. Yes but if the core of dignitas is upholding of virtues that support the society around you, and the virtues embraced by liberals are detrimental to that society then liberal Dignitas is at best a hollow shadow of the real thing.

    Of course a liberal, believing that the virtues they hold dear are actually positive to society as a whole [don't ask me how] would disagree.

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  12. Thomas Fleming has often pointed out that the ancient pagans were much better men than today's hedonistic self-regarding rabble. I am glad you are doing this, it's worth it, and thanks for writing about what you're learning.

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  13. Once Mark's done reviewing the virtues we'll probably find that they work as a cluster, that you cannot isolate one from all the others and have it work in standalone mode, and that it what we're trying to do here with dignitas.

    I bet one of the virtues is filial piety, or something like it. There simply is no such thing in our world anymore except among committed holdouts from liberalism, so other virtues would be degraded minus one of them.

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  14. Yes but if the core of dignitas is upholding of virtues that support the society around you, and the virtues embraced by liberals are detrimental to that society then liberal Dignitas is at best a hollow shadow of the real thing.

    Liberals DO think they're upholding virtues that support the society around them. Is their commitment to diversity, social justice, open borders, gay rights, environmental protection, universal health care, reproductive rights, personal autonomy, and so on, detrimental to society? They don't think so -- they ardently believe we can achieve an Earthly Utopia by pursuing these virtues.

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  15. I bet one of the virtues is filial piety

    Yes, that was part of the virtue of "pietas" and and embodying this virtue helped to sustain your "dignitas".

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  16. Dignitas was such an important part of a Roman nobleman's identity that civil wars were started just to protect it.

    I've got two famous examples, first was Lucius Cornelius Sulla's first march on Rome. In his mind he would rather march on Rome (the time ever) than suffer the loss of his dignitas if he, the newly elected senior Consul were to be stripped of command in an important foreign war (against Mithradates the Great).

    The second and even more famous example is that of Gaius Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Again rather than face losing his dignitas through prosecution for his actions during his time as consul, he would go to war to protect it.

    I'm not justifying what these great men did but illustrating the power of the idea of something like dignitas and how one sees themselves through the sum total of their position in the society, their achievements and what their legacy will be. Their diginitas is also held up by their names and whether they were seen to hold up to standards of their forebears.

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