The difference between dignity and liberty. A book by Giovanni Turco straddling philosophy and rights.

According to classical and Christian philosophy, and particularly so in the mainstream of Aristotle and Thomas, liberty does not belong to the essence of man. In other words, man is not man insofar as free, even if each man is free. Liberty is a property that derives from essence, and in particular from the specific difference of rationality. Man is man insofar as rational, and hence enjoys the property of liberty. In the judgment “man is rational”, the bond between subject and predicate is essential and universal. In the judgment “man is free”, the relationship between subject and predicate is universal but not essential.

This is a very important distinction, because if liberty is a property stemming from essence, it is also regulated by essence which represents both its norm and its finality. It is a liberty ontologically motivated and regulated with a view to an end, an aim. Therefore, it is not the absolute liberty argued by modern thinkers. It is the extension of essence, of the nature of man, to the practical-existential realm. This is why it may be said that the distinction between essence and liberty is based on the distinction between essence and existence.

This question is tackled by Prof. Giovanni Turco in order to consider whether the dignity of man is such by virtue of his essence, or by virtue of his liberty. On the basis of what is said above, the dignity of man belongs to his essence and not to his liberty. Nonetheless, if liberty is considered not a property, but an expression of essence itself, and if man is considered free by virtue of essence, dignity pertains to him by virtue of liberty itself. This is the key passage that the author explores in detail: the passage from having liberty to being liberty.

If man is liberty, his essence is no longer understood in the sense of his selfsame nature, but will be what  his liberty permits him to be. Man will be what he wants to be, without any natural constraints in ontological terms. Moreover, his dignity will consist precisely in this opposing of self to any preceding and given nature so he can thereby create self as he so wishes. Man is all the more a titular of dignity the more he refuses in an anarchical and libertarian way to have a beinghood to be respected with a view to an ultimate finality. In order to be able to construct himself in complete liberty – Mr. Turco remarks quite poignantly – man must not be anything, man must not be: in order to be, he must not be, and here the contradiction reaches its utmost haven.

Thus are we also able to comprehend the juridical aspect of the question. If dignity resides in liberty and not essence, desires become rights worthy of legal protection and political implementation. In fact, if liberty is such by way of origin and in its own right, without being property stemming from rationality, it amounts to mere voluntarism, this being desire without any need for justification. Liberty justifies itself by itself and for itself, and hence is not justified. Voluntarism then leads to ‘praxisism’ insofar as the results achieved in praxis will be the grounds for passing judgment on the free choices of a person’s will. Thereby does the nihilistic shift come to the end of its itinerary.

Two in number are the book’s core chapters. The author dedicates the first one to a review of the main sentences handed down by the Constitutional Court of Italy from the 1950s to our present day and age in order to illustrate the progressive shit from a conception of dignity preceding liberty and superior to it, to a conception coinciding with liberty. This explains how the so-called “new rights” are being systematically confirmed by said Court. The second and truly laudable chapter  is an examination of the Oratio de hominis dignitate by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in which our author sees the initial architecture of this new and modern conception of liberty separated from essence. Mr. Turco’s analysis is both convincing and meticulous, also in flagging a decisive (in our opinion) Gnostic feature of the entire issue, an aspect already clearly present in the Mirandola’s Oratio  and, we can assert, in humanism, the Renaissance, and the modern age.  Evident in the positing of existence over essence and in making dignity coincide with liberty is the Gnostic project of the self-divinization of man, the creator of self and end unto self.

Stefano Fontana


[Giovanni Turco, Dignità e diritti. Un bivio filosofico-giuridico, Giappichelli, Torino 2017].