I have been thinking about Hannah Arendt’s conception of human dignity and searching for the roots of this conception in the work of Karl Jaspers. What seems clear in both Arendt and Jaspers, is that human dignity must be realized, and that it can be compromised or lost. In the first volume of his Philosophy, Jaspers wrote:
The more painfully we have felt what philosophy lacks in comparison with religion, the brighter will the realm of freedom look. The Godhead says nothing directly, but through this chance of freedom it appears to speak, to demand that its–for us–unfathomable will be done, that man use the independence it gave him, that he make his own decisions on his own responsibility and derive his human dignity from so doing (Jaspers, p. 303).
Jaspers indicates in this passage that human dignity is derived from the exercise of freedom, it is a consequent of realizing one’s Existenz, to decide about one’s being. Given that human dignity is “derived,” and what is derived flows, or issues from another source (Latin derivare ”to lead or draw off (a stream of water) from its source”), it cannot be understood to be a static or intrinsic essence of human nature. In fact, Jaspers’ conception of human dignity as issuing from possible Existenz suggests that its very existence is fragile. Human dignity does not arise necessarily, it must be realized through the exercise of freedom; but it is also the case that whatever does not occur necessarily has a contingent existence, which is to say that human dignity can also be lost. This indicates that human dignity is a fragile status.
Human dignity for Arendt is not grounded in a single cause (human nature, image of God, legal fiction) or a single faculty (reason, language), but is, to borrow from The Origins of Totalitarianism, a crystallization (a derivative) of the elements of the human condition: conditions such as, natality, worldliness, plurality, or activities, such as, labor, work, action, thinking, willing, judging. There is an inherent fragility in this conception of human dignity because if any of the elements (conditions or activities) are diminished or eradicated, human dignity is compromised. For example, Adolph Eichmann’s crime compromised human dignity because it sought to violate the human condition of plurality.
The conditions of natality, worldliness, and plurality cannot, therefore, guarantee human dignity, they can be violated, and thus, human dignity is a fragile status. Human dignity can, however, be guaranteed through of human beings working in concert with one another; that is, preserving and protecting the human condition through the activities of judging and acting in the world.
Arendt seems to advocate a “dynamic humanism,” in which we are both conditioned by external forces and factors, and we condition ourselves, a kind of double conditioning, but it seems to me that what grounds her variety of humanism is a Jasperian pereichontology, the Encompassing, that encompasses all horizons of being and that is existentially constituted in us through realizing our freedom (by judging and acting in concert with others). It could be argued that Arendt politicized Jaspers existentialism in her conception of human dignity by making the claim that we realize our freedom, and consequently our human dignity, in the activity of judging “without banisters.” Human dignity is therefore a fragile status that is existentially grounded and politically constituted and preserved.