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Last Update: 2018-07-10   Source: Research Headlines
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Tracing human freedom and dignity's historical turn

An EU-funded network tracks the origins of human values by investigating the history of human freedom and dignity in Western civilisation. The project has traced it back to a tussle between ancient philosophers, yet its ramifications are still felt today in the battle for democracy and human rights.


© LIUBOV #185830894, source:, 2018

The EU-funded HHFDWC project is tracing the historical roots of humans as “dignified and free beings”, how these traditions developed chronologically and geographically, and the implications for modern Western thinking, societies, governance systems and the pillars of democracy.

The research centres on the theological ideas put forward by Origen of Alexandria in the 3rd century AD. He has been described as the most important theologian and biblical scholar of the early Greek church, arguing, among other things, for human freedom, dignity and the capacity to ‘master sin’.

His views often clashed with those of fellow theologian Augustine of Hippo, whose emphasis on predetermined fate, no free will and human servitude under the broader doctrine of ‘original sin’ strongly impacted thinking at the time.

Origen was officially condemned in the 6th century, while Augustine went on to be seen as a great ‘church father’. Yet Origen’s views and arguments continued to inspire philosophers and theologians right up to the modern period, despite the struggles against them.

“Thus, the idea about human freedom and dignity is fundamental to the concept of human rights. These ideas and those of individual autonomy are also fundamental for the welfare-state model on which most European countries build their societies,” the project notes. 

These fundamental freedoms and rights, so valued in Western society and enshrined in EU treaties, are protected and defended by law and civil action. But, as the HHFDWC team points out: “This view on human beings is so fundamental for Westerners that they are willing to spread it by almost any means, even by means that may in themselves be contrary to this view on humans, e.g. war and power.”

The project is a collaboration between six universities and nine partner organisations, with emphasis on training young and/or early-stage researchers in the field, with support from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks.

The 15participating PhD students receive guidance and training above their PhD courses through secondments, seminars, conferences and mentoring activities. Information exchange is a priority and partners are promoting the use of media including film, presentations and audio recordings, offering research fellows the opportunity to develop their skills.

The project has also created a database as a repository of bibliographic information on sources by Origen as well as other references to human freedom, autonomy and dignity, from antiquity to modern times. Their relevance grows as these pillars face increased pressure from political, national, environmental, religious and economic forces.

In 2017, several HHFDWC fellows were invited to Boston by the American Academy of Religion to host seminars dedicated to Origen and the roots of human freedom and dignity in the West. Recordings of these exchanges are now available. An event in February 2018 at Aarhus University discussed Origen’s theology and philosophy in lectures from senior researchers and short presentations by PhD fellows and postdocs working in the field.


Project details

  • Project acronym: HHFDWC
  • Participants: Denmark (Coordinator), UK, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic
  • Project N°: 676258
  • Total costs: € 3 651 149
  • EU contribution: € 3 651 149
  • Duration: January 2016 to December 2019

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