Bishop Onah's lecture at University of Nigeria Nsukka on Founder's Day 2017

“To Restore the Dignity of Man” – Why and How?
The Fifty-Seventh Founders’ Day Lecture
University of Nigeria Nsukka
Thursday, 5 October 2017


Godfrey Igwebuike Onah
(Catholic Bishop of Nsukka)

1. Introduction
A young, hungry, and angry lion came back to his den one evening after roaming the whole day with nothing to show for it and began to roar: «All these mean-mean guys wey dey call themselves lecturers, abi na professors? wey carry man dignity troway – soteeey… man dey look for am since… but no fit find am… Me I no know where dem hide am or where dem troway am. For me I don look for am for lecture hall-o, for library-o, for lab-o, everywhere… still, I no find am. Man dey suffer since to restore this dignity, wey no gree restore. Make una warn these mean-mean guys make dem kuku bring back person dignity, make man no suffer again. If not, when I kommot for here and any of dem waka cross my way…. Hm! Me, I go show them pepper!

We may be amused by what we may consider the misplaced aggression or even the ranting of this young man. Of course, we know better (or at least so we think). We know the history of and the background to the motto of our University. We know that the Founders of the University of Nigeria whom we fondly remember and respectfully celebrate in these days, especially the legendary Zik, had clear ideas and high ideals when the University was established; and that it was these ideas and ideals that inspired the motto. We know that Zik fought with all his intellectual strength to establish an indigenous University in Eastern Nigeria because of his firm conviction of the role a university would play in the emancipation of the African: «The aim of education in Africa,» Zik affirmed, «is to develop the youth of the Continent and prepare them for service to the people. The University should produce a generation that would be “reliable, useful, and intelligent in the rapidly changing life and circumstances of (the African) people.”»1

We equally know that it was against the background of the twin evils of slave trade and British imperialism that this University was established. We know that the initial push for the enactment of the University of Nigeria Law by the then Eastern Region on 18 May 1955 came from a recommendation by the Report on the Economic Rehabilitation of Eastern Nigeria published in the same year part of which reads: «In order that the foundation of the Nigerian leadership shall be securely laid, to the end that this country shall cease to imitate the excrescences of a civilization which is not rooted in African life, a full fledged university should be established in this Region without further delay. Such a higher institution of learning should not only be cultural, according to the classical concept of universities, but it should also be vocational in its objective and Nigerian in its content.»2

Many of us are familiar with the question which Zik himself both asked and answered thus: «What are the ideals of the University of Nigeria? The simplest answer is that they are centred on its motto: “To restore the dignity of man”. That is, a restitution of man’s inalienable birthright to social equality, economic security, political freedom and religious tolerance. These abstract notions form the basis of man’s fundamental rights without which there would be neither regard nor respect for human dignity.»3 And, of course, we know that that motto is part of the Alma Mater Pledge of the University of Nigeria Nsukka: To seek the Truth
To Teach the Truth
To Preserve the Truth and thereby
To Restore the Dignity of Man

Commenting on the Alma Mater Pledge, Prof. B. I. C. Ijomah wrote: «The education envisaged at the University must be such as would espouse the truth of self-realization. Self-realization in a colonial country where the African had lost his identity, where the African aped the whiteman in order to be accepted was at that time, the truth of the blackman. It was an hour of need. There was the imminent independence without a national consciousness, without a national culture, without in fact an identifiable African or Nigerian personality… The University of Nigeria was established to seek the truth about our cultural identity, to explore our environment and by studying our own past, expose to the outside world, the truth of our existence… The University had the mandate to prepare its products to ‘dare to be free’ mentally, physically, morally, spiritually, politically, economically and socially.»4

We know all that and much more. That is why we are amused at the apparent frustration of the young man whom we think may have missed the whole point about restoring the dignity of man. But is the issue really as simple as that? Is the meaning of the motto – “To restore the dignity of man” – as self-evident as it seems? For Nnamdi Azikiwe it means, as we have just seen, «a restitution of man’s inalienable birthright to social equality, economic security, political freedom and religious tolerance.» Why, one may ask, is man’s birthright to the listed issues inalienable? What is this Truth, the search of which is aimed at the restoration of human dignity? How exactly are we to understand the freedom that necessarily derives from our dignity as humans? Are we not taking too many things for granted already? In the first place, what exactly is meant by the dignity of man or human dignity? What is its ultimate source? Can it ever be lost? If yes, how? Can it ever be restored when lost? If yes, how? In the few pages that follow, we shall attempt to answer some of these questions.

2. The Dignity of the Human Person
            In the twentieth century there was a remarkable upsurge in the consciousness of the dignity of the human person as could be seen in the volume of literature devoted to the theme by scholars and institutions all over the world. This is not however to suggest that this consciousness was lacking in earlier periods of history. At least a tacit acknowledgement of the dignity of the person seems to form part of the axiological dimension in most human beings. Several ancient authors reflected this consciousness in what they wrote about man.5 During the period of the Italian Renaissance (14th and15th centuries), human dignity was so central a theme in the works of some authors as to constitute their titles.6 It was, however, with the so-called anthropological turn in the modern period, and especially through the input of the existentialist and personalist philosophers in the twentieth century, that the twin issues of human dignity and human freedom became of interest not just to some scholars, but to the ordinary members of the society as well. Furthermore, unlike what was the case in the earlier periods of history, dignity and freedom are, in contemporary mentality, perceived as belonging to the human person as such, to all human beings, and not just to some classes of human beings. The end of World War II, with the socio-political arrangement and organizations that emerged thereafter (especially the United Nations), as well as the beginning of the struggle for independence by many states that had been under colonial rule contributed considerably to the increase in the consciousness of the dignity of the human person among ordinary members of the society.

            Although human beings are largely aware of their dignity and even often try to assert it with force, not everybody can say exactly in what this dignity consists or from what it derives. To many, the meaning of the word “dignity” seems obvious. But let us consider the following uses of the word: “Ikechukwu carries himself with dignity.” “That job is below your dignity.” “We must acknowledge the dignity of work.” It can hardly be said that the word dignity is used in the three statements in exactly the same way. In the first (Ikechukwu carries himself with dignity), dignity means a certain nobility of manner or bearing which makes Ikechukwu worthy of respect. In the second statement (That job is below your dignity), dignity refers to a status. In the third (We must acknowledge the dignity of work), dignity means worth, value, excellence. These three uses are slightly different though closely related. All three senses are implied when the term dignity is applied to the human person. When we talk of the dignity of the human person we mean his singular worth, his excellence, his ontological value and status, that for which he deserves unconditional respect as person. By the dignity of the human person, therefore, we mean that absolute or unconditional inner worth or value of a human being thanks to which he or she should always be treated as an end in himself and never as a means to some other end (to use a famous expression of Immanuel Kant’s).7

Although Kant himself did not define dignity, there is a distinction he made which sheds some light on the meaning of the term:  «In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.»8 The human being has a dignity in the sense that he is above all price and one human being cannot be replaced by another. Each human being is unique and deserves respect from himself and from others. Elsewhere Kant writes: «Man as a person… is exalted above all price … he is not to be valued merely as a means to the ends of other people, or even to his own ends, but to be prized as an end in himself. This is to say, he possesses a dignity (an absolute inner worth) whereby he exacts the respect of all other rational beings in the world, can measure himself against each member of his species, and can esteem himself on a footing of equality with them.»9 A question immediately arises: How can the human being, as limited, fragile, and unstable as he is, possess an absolute, unconditional, inner worth or value? Sure, a limited subject cannot be the source of its absolute worth. What then is the source?

3. The Ultimate Source of Human Dignity
The “Preamble” of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins thus: «Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…» But one member of its drafting committee is quoted to have said: «We agree on these rights, but on condition that on one asks us why.»10 That the United Nations did not provide the philosophical grounds for this lapidary affirmation does not mean that there are none. It can be argued that the UN presumed that it was the business of theories of human nature to explain the source or sources of the inherent dignity and equal inalienable rights of all human beings. In fact, every theory of human nature stands or falls on the issue of the ultimate source of the dignity of the human person which also explains the equality of all humans. It is the acid test that distinguishes valid theories of human nature from spurious ones. It has been observed earlier that there was a remarkable rise in the consciousness of the dignity of the human person in the last century. However, many of the theories of human nature that have been advanced and defended in contemporary history of thought can hardly provide the basis for defending the unconditional inner worth and the equality of all human persons. One can group the many theories on human nature under two broad headings: the divine spark theories and the biological theories.

The divine spark theories are the oldest. They were found among the Ancient Egyptians, the Hindus, the Jews, the Igbo, the Akan of Ghana, the Ancient Greeks and the Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages, to mention only a few. According to the divine spark theories, human beings are limited beings that contain something of the divine which makes them transcend and able to dominate the rest of nature and to enter into conscious relationship with the divine. All the definitions of humans in terms of reason and dominion over nature, even within atheistic contexts, could be regarded as versions of the divine spark theory. However, one of the clearest formulations of such a theory of human nature is the doctrine of the image of God as found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. From the book of Genesis we learn that God created man in his image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27) and that man became a living being (néphesh hayya) thanks to the breath of life he received directly from God (Gen. 2:7). And the author of Psalm 8 marvels at the vastness and the immensity of the universe, with the stars arranged in perfect beauty by God the creator and wonders why this same God should bother about fragile and mortal man, who really amounts to nothing in the vast universe. The Psalmist thus suggests that the question: “What is man?” is brought into sharper focus when it is posed against the background of the structure of the entire universe. Within the context of the vastness and the immensity of the entire universe, the human being, from the point of view of quantitative matter, is reduced to minimal importance. Yet, God made man just a little lower than a god or the angels, crowned him with glory and honour, and put the rest of the created universe under his control (Ps 8:4-7).

The biological theories of human nature, on the other hand, seem to be more recent, but they have been given a forceful push forward by the theories of biological evolution, especially the Darwinian version, and have received more assent with the advance in the knowledge about genes. Seen from the biological point of view, humans are not little gods but rather more complex primates; human beings, according the biological theories of human nature, are not «a little lower than the angles», but a little higher than the monkeys. The biblical tradition teaches us that man was created by God, freely, out of love, and in his own image and likeness. The evolutionists, for their part, sustain that man was “created” by pure chance, out of necessity, and in the image and likeness of monkeys. Let it be said that the validity of these lines of thought does not ultimately depend on which of them makes human beings “feel good” about themselves, but rather on how much any of them is capable of rationally and coherently explaining all the aspects of human nature and human actions, including the ultimate meaning of human life.

It is my opinion that, whereas some of the biological theories (not necessarily the Darwinian version) provide very useful insight into the material dimension of the human being, they are unable to account for the unconditional inner worth of the human being, every human being. This is because there is no place for the absolute or the unconditional in these theories. Within the biological theories, the dignity of the human being would depend on many variables, not just biological but also social, political and environmental. In that case, human dignity would be liable to various forms of distortions and manipulations.

When, however, human dignity is tied directly to the Divine, as in the divine spark theories, its stability is guaranteed. Human dignity is better understood when viewed in the context of man’s relationship with God, the perfect and absolute Being. Different philosophical systems, African, Asian and Western, have for a very long period in history assigned a special position to the human being in the hierarchy of beings, because, next to pure spirits, he participates in the Divine Being more than any other finite being. For many within the philosophical tradition, therefore, the dignity of man is ultimately rooted in that dimension of his being – the spiritual dimension – which links him intimately with the Absolute, often considered the Divine Being. It does not matter what name this dimension is given within a particular philosophical tradition – whether it is the Ancient Egyptian ka, the Indian ātman, the nous of the ancient Greeks, the anima of the Latin Christian philosophers, the spirit and the interiority of the contemporary Western philosophers, the Akan ōkra or the Igbo mmuo or chi – the reference is usually to the same special dimension of the human being that has something of the Divine in it. For this reason, the religious idea that man bears within him the image of God has been appropriated by many philosophers and given philosophical interpretations.

There are differences in the interpretations given by different philosophers to the image of God in man. Nevertheless, for most Christian philosophers, it is because the human being is made in God’s image that he is able to know God and love him, know and love other human beings and exercise dominion over the rest of the created order. The image of God in man is the ultimate foundation of human dignity. All the other specifically human characteristics like intelligence, conscience, freedom, mastery over the universe and immortality are therefore seen as consequences or manifestations of the imago Dei in man. It makes humans capable of rising above the limits of the material universe in a total and continuous openness to God. Thus, the image of God (imago Dei) comes to be interpreted as the ability to know and love God (capax Dei).11
The image of God in man is also the source of the basic equality of all human beings. Since every human being is created in the image of God, and things equal to one thing are equal to one another, all human beings are equal. Although some people in theory or in practice deny the ontological equality of all human beings on the basis of gender, social status, race or other social constructs, such a position cannot be defended once one accepts that the human being is made in the image of God. For that would mean that God created some persons more in his image than others. If it is admitted that creation in the image of God is the same for all human beings, it then follows that there is something divine in every human being. We shall return to this later.

Unwilling to derive man’s dignity from his relationship with God, Kant mistakenly grounded it on morality and consequently on man’s autonomy as a moral legislator. In a bid to found man’s dignity on the human being himself, Kant argued that man is «free as regards all laws of nature, and obeys only those laws which he gives to himself…. Hence autonomy is the ground of the dignity of human nature.”12 This was to be the beginning of trouble for human dignity with very grave consequences in social and political life. Uprooted from its firm metaphysical foundation in the Divine Being and planted in the quicksand of human moral autonomy, the ground was prepared for later relativistic interpretations of human dignity which ultimately led to the theoretical justification of its outright denial in some human beings. The situation worsened with the triumph of Darwinism. In every epoch one finds thinkers (philosophers and theologians included) who failed to accord all human beings an unqualified dignity. But with the abandonment of the metaphysical foundation of human dignity it became easier for many thinkers to even deny the dignity of some human beings and, thus, provide justification for such inhuman practices as slavery, imperialism, colonialism, genocide, and racism.

Closely associated with the image of God in man as openness to God is the idea of man’s openness to his fellow human beings. The openness of man to the infinite and absolute being includes his openness to the finite beings surrounding him, which, precisely because they are finite, cannot be the final objects of this openness. Man’s openness involves a dynamism that is relational. Martin Buber acquired international fame for his description of the relation between two persons as essentially an I-Thou relation.13 Over and above the relational character of every being,14 relation to a Thou or another I is implied in the image of God in man, as expressed in the statement: «In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them» (Gen 1:27). However one may like to interpret this passage, it has to include an admission that «by his innermost nature man is a social being; and if he does not enter into relation with others he can neither live nor develop his gifts.»15 As Ignazio Sanna puts it: «Man, in fact, is and becomes the image and likeness of God not only through his own humanity, but also though the communion of persons that man and woman form from the very beginning; it is an image of God not in isolation, but in a two-fold sexuality and, more generally, in its social nature, in its orientation towards a “you”, in the establishment of an “us”.»16 Man’s social nature, therefore, derives first and foremost from his openness to the absolute. In its authentic form, it involves the communion between two or more persons who recognize the dignity and equality of each other. Severed from this metaphysical source of vital energy, human social life becomes mere aggregation of individuals without communion and may even degenerate into dominion and conflict.

4. Freedom and Responsibility
            One of the most fundamental expressions of human dignity is freedom. I am aware that freedom is one of the most problematic themes in modern thought. This is not the place to enter into the interminable philosophical debate about the existence or non-existence of human freedom, or about its exact nature. Let me simply state that all theoretical denials of human freedom end in logical absurdity. Human freedom is an ontological datum, a given that constitutes part of human nature itself. For the purposes of our conversation here I would like to add that true «freedom is an exceptional sign of the image of God in man.»17 Concerning the nature of freedom, I would like to single out just two principal ways in which freedom has been understood through the ages. The most common understanding of freedom is that which sees it as the absence of coercion or constraint (immunitas a coactione). An action is said to be free in this sense if it is not a result of constraint or compulsion of any kind, internal or external. When freedom is understood as freedom from constraint, it acquires a negative sense and a very restricted application. It is precisely because a human being can hardly exist without any form of constraint whatsoever that some authors have denied the existence of human freedom.

This negative form of freedom (freedom from) is nevertheless complemented by another understanding, namely, freedom as the capacity for choice. In this more positive sense of freedom, emphasis is no longer on constraint or coercion, which may or may not exist to a great or to a lesser degree, but on the capacity inherent in the human being to make a choice, irrespective of the existence of some constraints. Life situations usually present themselves in terms of possibilities and alternatives. But this depends on whether the human person is considered integrally or narrowly. A situation which may offer no physical, political or economic, alternative to a person, may well offer many psychological, moral and spiritual alternatives. Thus, for example, being physically constrained to do or not to do a thing does not necessarily mean being absolutely constrained. In this positive understanding, it is no longer merely freedom from but rather freedom for – freedom for a value, for a good, for an alternative. Seen in this way, the horizon is widened for the exercise of human freedom. Human life is always lived within certain conditions which place some constraints on the human being. Nevertheless, a human being is usually able to make a choice, at least in the position he takes when faced with certain conditions he cannot change. This is thanks to his interior dimension, the spiritual dimension, the image of God in him.18

An important aspect of human freedom is its relation to the truth. «You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free» (Jn 8:23). To be free in a way befitting his nature, man has to remain open to the truth, to seek the truth. For one reason, openness to the truth is ultimately openness to God, since every particular truth is but a pointer to the absolute Truth, God himself. The moral obligation to seek the truth should therefore be understood as the obligation to remain consciously open to God who is the Truth. Furthermore, freedom cannot be divorced from knowledge of oneself and of reality. Knowledge about oneself and about reality offers one the elements necessary to make one’s choice and informed choice. Ignorance is an obstacle to the freedom of choice in that one cannot chose what one does not know or what one does not know well enough. Choice has much to do with the perceived value of things. It is therefore important that the truth about the objects of choice be known. Freedom divorced from the truth degenerates into arbitrariness.

If a person shuts himself off from the truth, he deprives his conscience (the seat of moral judgement) of its source of life and it soon atrophies and dies. The task of constantly seeking the truth can be daunting in some fields and sometimes even discouraging. But thanks to his social nature, man does not have to search alone. He is helped by his fellow human beings who constantly share with him the positive results of their own search.19 Besides, earlier results are also preserved and handed down through various means. This applies to all types of truth. The Vatican Council II expressed this point very eloquently: «The search for truth … must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the human person and his social nature, namely, by free enquiry with the help of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue. It is by these means that men share with each other the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in such a way that they help one another in the search for truth.”20 The dignity of the human person, his freedom and his social nature – these are some of the anthropological factors that make education, whether formal or informal, one of the preferential routes to the full blossoming of human dignity.

An informed choice is a responsible choice. In opting for an alternative instead of another, I take a position with regard to those alternatives. It is as if both alternatives were soliciting I response for one or the other. My decision for one is this response and it makes me responsible for that option.21 There is no escaping from the moral implication of this choice: joy within me and (probably) praise from others if the choice is perceived as the right one; sorrow (or guilt) within me and (probably) blame from others if the choice is perceived as wrong. Thus, my freedom to choose makes me at the same time responsible for my choice. One cannot be removed from the other. Human freedom is responsible freedom. Like two sides of a coin, freedom cannot exist without the without. Understood in terms of responsibility, human freedom becomes both a gift and an assignment. This is clearly manifested in the commission God gave to humans to administer the rest of the created universe (Gen 1:28, 2:15; Ps 8:7-9). Having been created in God’s image and likeness, he is made responsible for God’s creation.

5. Can Human Dignity Be Lost?
«To restore the dignity of man.» If human dignity is the unconditional, absolute, inner worth or value of the human being, which derives from his nature as the image of God, can it ever be lost without the human being ceasing to be human? If yes, what would a human being who has lost his dignity become – a beast? And if it cannot be lost, why talk of its restoration?

It is common knowledge that a quality, power, capability or faculty of a living that is not properly used gets weakened and may even be lost. This has led to a prolonged debate among Christian thinkers on the effect of the misuse of freedom (sin) on the image of God in man. This debate, which started in the second and third centuries of Christianity (St. Irenaeus and Origen), reached its climax during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. While some think that the image was disfigured but not completely lost by the Fall (the sin of Adam and Eve), others maintain that human nature itself (and therefore the image of God in man) was totally corrupted by sin and was only restored by Jesus Christ. I think, however, that St. Augustine’s opinion on the issue, which was taken over with some further distinctions by Thomas Aquinas, still remains the most balanced. According to Augustine, the image of God in man still remains, although worn out and defaced by sin: «If it [the human soul] is made after the image of God …, then from the moment when that nature … began to be, whether this image be so worn out as to be almost none at all, or whether it be obscure and defaced, or bright and beautiful, certainly it always is … such defacing does not extend to the taking away its being an image.»22 I subscribe to the view that the capacity of man to know and love God remains as a natural aptitude, even when it is not fully actualized or when it is disfigured through misuse. This means then that every human being, the saint as well as the sinner, the rational thinker as well as the lunatic, is and remains an image of God.

Having said this, it ought to be added that the human being himself with all his qualities and gifts is a project, is dynamic. Not even the image of God in man is static. This means that just as the image of God in man can be disfigured without being completely lost, it can also be enhanced and developed until it becomes perfect.23

If we admit some development or progression in the image of God in man, it then follows that it can be more developed in some persons and less in others, or even that the same person can at one time be more in the image of God and at another time less so. To express it in the lines of the distinctions made by Thomas Aquinas, we would have to accept that the virtuous are more in the image of God than the rest who are not virtuous, and the blessed are most in the image of God. In this case, what guarantee do we still have for the unconditional character of the dignity of the human person that is ultimately founded on the image of God in him? In the first place, I think a distinction has to be made between being created in the image of God and living actually as an image of God.24 It seems that the question is not so much about the first, that is, being created in the image of God, as it is about the second, that is, living actually as an image of God. It ought to be remembered that the divine image impressed in man at creation is never completely lost and that the “minimum” which is always there is enough to guarantee the dignity of every human person, since it is common to all.

With regard to the progressive actualization of the image of God through virtuous or good life, it seems logical to think that the more a human being participates in the life of the Divine Being, the more the divine image in him shines forth and the nearer he is to perfection. Nevertheless, only God himself can evaluate the more and the less in this case, because the actualization of the knowledge and love of God in the life of an individual takes place at a level where no other human being has access, in the individual conscience. I had earlier indicated my preference for that view according to which the image of God in man is never completely lost. This would then mean that although the human being can, through his conscious openness to and collaboration with God, become progressively more assimilated to him and therefore become more his image (or a better and clearer image), the regressive movement never gets to a point where one is no longer an image of God. That “minimum” of imago Dei which remains even in the supposedly most perverse of human beings, is still enough to guarantee his dignity as image of God. Hence he still retains his capax Dei. This is the only ground on which we can meaningfully talk of conversion. If a human being could be so perverse as to completely lose the image of God in him, he would be totally incapable of knowing and loving God and therefore even incapable of responding to the gift of God’s grace. There would then be no difference between him and the other sub-human beings.

After what has been said so far concerning the image of God in man which is the ultimate foundation of human dignity we can now return to the question: Can human dignity be lost? My answer is: No; not completely. So long as man remains an image of God, he still has some dignity. Otherwise all the talk about the «inherent dignity» and the «equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family» would be empty and meaningless. Human rights cannot be said to be inalienable if the dignity from which they derive could be completely lost. Nevertheless, to the extent that the image of God in man can be disfigured or diminished, to that extent human dignity which derives therefrom can also be diminished. Whatever disfigures or diminishes the image of God in man, diminishes human dignity. And, sure, human dignity can be so diminished in a person or group of persons as to be thought to be completely lost. Furthermore, the verb to restore has at least two meanings. It may mean to bring back or re-establish what was removed; or to repair, refurbish or rehabilitate what was damaged or is worn out. In the first sense, human dignity cannot be restored, since it is never lost or taken away. In the second sense, however, human dignity can and ought always to be restored, since it is often damaged and hurt by human beings themselves.

Human action and inaction are capable of lowering or hurting human dignity in oneself and in others. Given that freedom is the foremost expression of the imago Dei and the misuse of freedom or sin disfigures it, it then follows that the misuse of human freedom or sin lowers human dignity. Whereas evil actions against a person are capable of hurting or lowering his dignity, it is a person’s own evil actions that have more direct negative effect on his dignity. In other words, what a person does or fails to do is more detrimental to his dignity than what others do to him. When it comes to the promotion and enhancement of human dignity therefore, the role of the individual subject, in collaboration with God, is primary. Nevertheless, given the social dimension of the human being, other persons and institutions also play vital roles in promoting the dignity recognizing that dignity and by providing an enabling environment for the progressive actualization of the image of God in him, especially through education.

6. University Education and the Promotion of Human Dignity
Education in general and university education in particular helps man actualize his full potentials as the image of God for it exposes him to the many dimensions of the truth – about God, about man and about the world. Such exposure enhances human freedom and thus promotes human dignity. «The greatest freedom you can give to a man is to educate him», Bishop Michael Eneja used to say. People often see the University as a place where young persons acquire more knowledge and better skills that will prepare them for specific tasks in the society of adults. And they are right. But according to the 19th-century English philosopher and man of letters, John Henry Newman, a University does much more than that. For him university training «aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, a force in urging them».25 The end product of University education is, according to Newman, a gentleman.

This noble view of the University and University education has its ancient roots in what many regard as the source of modern Universities, Plato’s Academy, founded around 386 BC in Athens as a place where young people, men and women, could be trained not only in geometry, astronomy, law and music, but, especially, in the art of liberal and critical thinking.26 When what was left of Plato’s Academy after the destruction of Athens in 88 BC was closed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in AD 529, anti-Christian historians of thought like Bertrand Russell did not see this as an isolated action of a tyrant (dictators are often afraid of Universities, as our military and ex-military rulers as well as their heirs here at home have also shown), but as the action of the Church which inaugurated the so-called “Dark Ages” in Europe. Such historians also fail to acknowledge that it was within the bosom of the Church that modern European Universities were born in the 12th century, under the pastoral and juridical guidance of Popes and Bishops. When Universities were founded in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, Padua, Naples, etc., there was no need to add the adjective “Catholic” to them because they were all under the authority of the Pope who granted the jus ubique docendi (the right to teach anywhere) to the teachers; and that was centuries before either Martin Luther or King Henry VIII was born. Such common terms in Universities like chair (or cathedra), master of arts (originally licentia docendi), chancellor, professor, were religious terms that were used in the Universities because of their juridical relationship with the Church. The guild of students (universitas scholarium) in Bologna and the guild of teachers and students (universitas magistrorum et scholarium) in Paris in the 12th century, from which the University took its name, were associations that sought to promote free collaboration between students, and between students and teachers, in the search for truth. Contrary to what many think, universitas had nothing to do with a presumed universality of the knowledge that a University offers (this would disappoint some Igbo people who call University “mahadum”), but rather with the association of people with common pursuits who wanted to protect their interests and safeguard themselves against external interference and distractions. Foremost on the minds of the members of the guilds was the unhindered pursuit of truth (veritas).

Modern universities therefore owe their origins to the desire within the Church to cultivate in a group of people the search for truth as a profession; truth about God, about man and bout the world. Our University should never relent in its pursuit of truth about the physical universe. Proper knowledge of the forces of nature and their impact on human life will help man fulfil his God-given role of mastery and proper administration of the universe. This will liberate man from debilitating fears of the forces of nature. Nigeria is one country where professors of the natural and human sciences turn to the dibias and babalawos for charms to control the forces of nature or to solve some riddles in their lives, rather than challenging their intellectual capacities for solutions to these problems. Debilitating sicknesses and abject poverty hurt the dignity of man. When the University seeks and finds solutions to these dehumanizing conditions, it helps in restoring human dignity to its splendour.

When the first guild of teachers and students (universitas magistrorum et scholarium) was formed in Paris, it was meant to guarantee unhindered pursuit of truth. Is it not a tragic irony that today in Nigeria the universitas sometimes positively hinders the pursuit of truth? Dictators and bad governments are about the worst enemies of the truth that the University seeks and teaches, and they will do everything to disrupt the normal activities of the University. Any time, therefore, that the University interrupts its normal programme in protest against the Government, the University, by that very act, makes itself an ally of its oppressor. Put simply, all strike actions that interrupt the normal search for and the teaching of truth in the University, hurt the University more than they hurt the Government. Bad governance harms human dignity. Those who have pledged to promote that dignity should resist the temptation of being hired as mercenaries by the enemy.

While examining the meaning of human dignity we saw that Kant held that since the human person has dignity and not a price, he should never be used merely as a means to another person’s end. To use a person as a means to an end is to deny his dignity and thus to dehumanize him. This is particularly important in the teacher-student relationship. Yes, a labourer deserves his wages. But the students are not simply the means of livelihood for the professors and lecturers. Otherwise, the teacher may earn a lot of money but still run the risk of experiencing the existential vacuum or inner emptiness which Viktor Frankl talks about when one has a means of living but no meaning to live for.27

The German language uses the same word for education and culture – Bildung. This is because education not only cultivates the human spirit (an educated person is a cultured person), it also produces culture. The University is therefore a cultural laboratory and workshop. It is where man constantly interrogates his culture by critically examining its values. In that way, culture is kept alive and healthy through the periodic excretion of toxic values or dis-values and a constant inflow of purified values. Many of the cultural practices to which we tenaciously cling today are outdated answers which our forefathers proposed to the problems of their times. Some of them are harmful to human dignity (ohu and osu caste systems in Igboland, for instance). Our forefathers would definitely be angry with us for continuing with some of their practices although our own times and challenges are different from theirs and, in many areas, we know better than they knew. It is part of the function of the University to wean contemporary Nigerians from their childish attachment to those cultural practices that tarnish the image of God in man and diminish his dignity. There ought to be a remarkable difference between the culture of a community of hunters and gathers and a community of a university town.

It seems so obvious that it may not be worth mentioning that if the students in the University are lesser gods and not higher apes, then where they are kept and trained should reflect their dignity and not resemble a zoo or a piggery! Besides, biologists among you will teach me that from the purely biological point of view, among all living beings, human beings contribute the least to the environment. Yet they consume the most. But thanks to their knowledge of truth about the world, humans can do a lot in beautifying the environment and can even influence the ecosystem in a positive way by improving on the interaction between the other organisms in their physical environment. The Management of the University of Nigeria Nsukka deserves some commendation for the efforts it is making in this regard.

7. Conclusion
Truth – this is the link between the University and human dignity.

To seek the Truth
[To embrace the Truth]
To Teach the Truth
To Preserve the Truth and thereby
To Restore the Dignity of Man
As simple as this Alma Mater Pledge of the University of Nigeria may appear, these four lines (to which I have added a fifth “To embrace the Truth”) in reality express a profound religious commitment and project. That the Truth is written always in capital in the Pledge should not be dismissed merely as a matter of style. In B. I. C. Ijomah’s commentary to which I referred in the introduction to this essay, he suggested that the truth meant in the Pledge was the truth of the self-realization of the Nigerian personality. Within the context of the Nigerian independence which coincided with the establishment of the University, one may say that Ijomah gave a correct interpretation of the intention of the Founding Fathers of the University. But an institution like a university is much more than its origins. Perhaps not even the Founding Fathers saw the need to link the dignity of man which was central to their project directly with its ultimate source – the Truth, God himself. But unless that is done, truth becomes relative and human dignity remains subject to individual whims and caprices.

Every truth about the self-realization of the Nigerian personality points beyond itself to that Truth which is the foundation of our being. To restore the dignity of man entails therefore leading man to know who he really is – the image of God – and helping him to make that image shine brightly for everyone to see. If education does not do this, if it does not lead the human being to the fullest realization of his potentials (ex-ducere), beginning with the potentials of self-knowledge and self-determination (freedom), then it becomes mere indoctrination. According to the teachings of Zarathustra in the ancient Persian religion, to cultivate the earth in order to make it bear fruit is to do a holy thing, to do something which associates one closely with the Divine. The same idea is expressed in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. If this is so, then he who cultivates the human spirit to make it bear fruit, to make it more the image of God which is was created to be, does even a more sacred thing. To educate is to participate in God’s work of creation of the human being. This is why the Prophet Daniel says that those who have educated others will shine like bright stars in eternity (Dan 12:3).

«To know himself, man has to know his God and to know his God man has to know himself. As image of God, man needs to know who this God is, whose image he is. And if he knows himself well enough, he would be able to recognize the dimension in him which points back to God.»28 The moral imperative on the Christian to share the knowledge of God which he obtained through the revelation of Jesus Christ is to be understood in this sense. It is not enough for man to know that he is the image of God (not just the senior brother of a chimp). It is equally important that he knows that he is the image of a God who is love, and that therefore he is called to love God and his neighbour. It is also important for him to know that his worth as person, his dignity, is not conferred on him by any human being or any human institution but by this God who loves him so much as to desire only his happiness in this world and in the next. All that other human beings and institutions can and should do is to recognize his dignity and help him in promoting it. Whether man knows this or not, it is true. But it makes a difference that he knows it.

I guess many in this audience are familiar with this story told by Anthony de Mello:

A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them.
All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
          Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings.
          The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked.
          “That’s the eagle, the king of birds,” said his neighbour. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.29

Man is created in the image of God who is love. Whether or not a man knows this, it is true. But it makes a difference that he knows it.

By the way, my last word is addressed to the angry lion (or maybe lioness) in my opening story: “Bros! Make nobody confuse you. Your dignity dey kamkpe and e dey with you, even sef say e no dey shine well well. Nobody fit carry am from you troway. Even teacher, abi na lecturer be him name, no fit do dat. If him try harass your dignity, na him own dignity him dey rub potti. You sef fit help teacher shine him dignity by showing him sey him betta pass “Professor John Bull.” Make you no lose hope sha. Your dignity na God give you. Nobody go fit take am away from you! Just shine your eyes fine-fine dey look for truth everywhere. Anytime you find one small truth, carry am put for the inside-inside pocket of your spirit, and your dignity go shine like gold!


  1. Nnamdi Azikiwe, “Foreword,” in Emmanuel Obodoechina, Chukwuemeka Ike and John Anenechukwu Umeh (eds.), University of Nigeria 1960-85: An Experiment in Higher Education, Nsukka, University of Nigeria Press, 1986, p. xiii.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., p. xiv (emphasis added).
  4. B. I. C. Ijomah, “The Origin and Philosophy of the University,” in Emmanuel Obodoechina, Chukwuemeka Ike and John Anenechukwu Umeh (eds.), Op. cit., p. 9 (emphasis added).
  5. For example, the author of the book of Genesis and the author of Psalm 8, as well as such ancient Greek philosophers as Anaxagoras, Plato, Aristotle, etc.
  6. For example, De dignitate et excellentia hominis by Gianozzo Manetti (1396-1459) and Oratio de hominis dignitate by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494).
  7. The second of Kant’s categorical imperatives states: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak., 429, in Id., Ethical Philosophy, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1983, p. 36.
                    «Dignity comes via Old French digneté from Latin dignitas, a derivative of dignus, ‘worthy’. Also from the same source… Latin dignare (source of English deign and its derivative disdain) and… dignificare (source of English dignify). Dignus itself came from an earlier… [word] decnus ‘suitable, fitting,’ a derivative of the verb decere, which produced English decent» (John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins, New York, Arcade Publishing, 1990, s.v. “Dignity.”)
  8. Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak., 434, in Ethical Philosophy, p. 40.
  9. Id., The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Ak., 435, in Ethical Philosophy: The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 97 (emphasis added).
  10. Quoted in Ignoazio Sanna, “The Dignity of Man: A Christian Perspective,” in Human Dignity: Acts of a Christian-Muslim Colloquium, organized jointly by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Vatican City and The Royal Academy for Islamic Civilization Research Al Albait Foundation, Aman, Jordan, 1997, p. 40.
  11. See especially Augustine, De Trinitate, XIV, 8, 11. Useful reflections on the image of God and man’s openness to God can be found in Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh 1985, pp. 43-79.
  12. I. Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 435f, in Ethical Philosophy, p. 41.
  13. Cf. Martin Buber, I and Thou, second edition, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh 1958.
  14. See W. Norris Clarke, Person and Being, Marquette University Press, Milwaukee 1998.
  15. Gaudium et Spes, 12.
  16. Ignoazio Sanna, “The Dignity of Man: A Christian Perspective,” pp. 47f.
  17. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (7 December 1965), 17.
  18. For this concept of freedom in spite of conditions I am dependent on the ideas of Viktor Frankl. It is a theme to which he returns often in many of his works. See especially: Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy, Vintage Books, New York 1955; Id., The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism, Simon and Schuster, New York 1978.
  19. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, 14 September 1998, 31.
  20. Dignitatis Humanae, 3.
  21. Cf. Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy, Simon and Schuster, New York 1985, p. 31.
  22. Augustine, De Trinitate, XIV, 4, 6; English translation taken from The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, First Series, Vol. III, p. 186. For the further distinctions by Thomas Aquinas see Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 93, especially art. 4.
  23. St. Thomas Aquinas indirectly alluded to the idea of a dynamic image of God in man when he admitted that the image of God in man is not perfect but imperfect (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 93, art. 1), and when he distinguished three ways in which the image of God exists in man: “the three-fold image, of creation, of re-creation and of likeness. The first is found in all men, the second only in the just, the third only in the blessed” (Ibid., art. 4. The English text is taken from Summa Theologica, Complete edition in five volumes, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Christian Classics, Westminster, MD 1981, pp. 471f.). The image of God as the natural aptitude to know and love God is found in all men. The virtue of actually or habitually knowing and loving God is found only in the just, but even this is still imperfect. The perfect knowledge and love of God, in which consists the perfect image of God is found only in those who have reached perfection in the beatific vision. The historical view of man and of reality which runs through almost all aspects of contemporary thought was not developed to any remarkable detail by Thomas and his contemporaries, for the focus of attention then was different. Nevertheless, by describing the image of God in man as a natural aptitude which through the help of grace could become a virtue and finally reach perfection in the next life, Thomas already made room for a dynamic vision of the imago Dei. Marsilio Ficino in the fifteenth century and his disciple Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, both important authors of the Italian Renaissance period, gave an unmistakably dynamic and eschatological interpretation to the image of God in man and saw the fullness of human dignity in the incarnation of Christ (See Charles E. Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, Vol. II, Constable, London 1970, pp. 734ff.). Herder, a product of the Romanticist tradition that defined the whole of reality in historical and evolutionary terms, had an idea of an image of God in man that develops, moving from a state of imperfection to perfection. Furthermore, he saw the image of God in man both as the point of departure and the point of arrival in this process of development (Johann Gottfried Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit, Fourier, Wiesbaden 19854, IX, 5, pp. 248f.).
  24. This important distinction was ignored by the Reformers for whom the image of God consisted in man’s actual relation to God and not just the condition (and capacity) for this relation (See W. Pannenberg, op. cit., pp 37-50).
  25. John Henry Newman, Idea of a University, 177.
  26. Plato’s Academy, more than a school, was rather a place where people could freely think together. Dissatisfied with politics as it was then practised in Athens by the oligarchs (the neoconservatives – who described democracy as acknowledged folly) and later by the democrats who overthrew them and also executed Socrates, Plato felt that politics could not be redeemed. He decided that the best thing to do was to start again by educating a new breed of political figures, the guardians of the republic. Plato founded his Academy, where intelligent young men (and a few women) were to learn better. Against the backdrop of the relativism of Protagoras, with his principle, “man is the measure of all things,” Plato felt the need to construct a firm, objective, metaphysical foundation for knowledge and moral conduct.
  27. Viktor E. Frankl, The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism, New Yourk, Simon and Schuster, 1985, p. 21; Id, The Doctor and the Soul, p. 120. See also Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, Logotherapy and the Philosophy of Man, Vatican City, Urbaniana University Press, 2000, p. 111.
  28. Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, Self-Transcendence and Human History in Wolfhart Pannenberg, Lanham, University Press of America, 1999, p. 201.
  29. Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, New York, Image Books, 1984, p. 96.

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