One of the things that suggest that man’s control over nature is rightfully his may be his very accomplishments in understanding and making use of it. If nature is to belong to someone, it may as well be man, because he knows what to do with it better than and enjoys the fruits of his labor more than any other creature.
This aspect of human dignity can be established naturalistically. For example, as Sophocles writes in Antigone,
Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year.
And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts, and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils, he leads captive, man excellent in wit. And he masters by his arts the beast whose lair is in the wilds, who roams the hills; he tames the horse of shaggy mane, he puts the yoke upon its neck, he tames the tireless mountain bull.
And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when ’tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come: only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes.
Or as Pascal argues,
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing of this.
All our dignity then, consists in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.
Or, again, as Peter Kreeft relates about Kant,
Kant was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of man’s place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant.” Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing, man is the astronomer.”
Other sources of dignity include man’s ability to apprehend and follow the moral law and his eternal destiny. But the foregoing sense of human dignity can conceivably even be coupled with atheism. For truly it takes a tremendous amount of courage to believe in no God. It requires the bringing forth of an unyielding stoical attitude to resolve heroically to continue living in the anticipation of inevitable destruction and non-existence. One must commit oneself grimly and with iron willpower to the moral life, to wisdom, and to the exhausting earthly struggles despite the paralyzing realization that death renders all of one’s already seemingly petty endeavors and choices utterly pointless.
“It is true that I will die,” a proud atheist would say. “But for now I am alive; I am intelligent, creative, and passionate, and for as long as I am, the universe will heed and obey me. Let the common men have their religion if they wish. They would slit each other’s throats if they did not believe that their God would punish them. Let the pedantic philosophers squabble uselessly over that for which I have no need. I will not allow the tiresome speculations about the afterlife to affect my own actions. I do not know this God of which the Christians speak. But I am a man, and I have dignity, and I will fight the forces that seek my doom until the day when I can fight no more.
“And then,” my imaginary atheist would continue with this sort of patrician knowledge of self-worth, “I will be gone, but I will have lived and lived to the fullest and morally and done the things I wanted to do and known happiness, which is more than I can say for those of you who think that your religion absolves you from responsibility.”
One could admire this, in a way. Only the toughest-minded individuals could function so nobly in a truly Godless universe. The rest of us would crumble in horror at the cruelty of it all. Of course, not believing in the existence of God is as an error of both reason and faith, but the point stands: dignity can be predicated of human nature even unquickened by grace.
The conclusion is that that humans’ high rank relative to animals entails their rightful dominion over the world.