Monday, January 31, 2011

Did Thomas Aquinas teach that women were just defective men created solely for reproduction?

A question came to me recently from some friends who were reading Women, Sex, and the Churcha collection of essays treating various Catholic teachings on sex and marriage as they relate to women.  In one of the essays, a woman categorized as a "dissident theologian" is quoted, wherein she asserts that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Universal Doctor of the Church, taught that women A) are merely "defective" and "misbegotten" men who B) God only created so that there would be someone to carry babies during their 9 months of gestation.  The question, of course, is just what St. Thomas taught on this subject?

The first step in considering this question is to locate the reference to which this theologian is referring.  This does not prove difficult, the passage in question being located right where one would expect it to be in the first part of Aquinas' monumental Summa Theologica in his treatise on man.  Specifically, the issue comes up in article 1 of question 92 of the first part.  Here, Aquinas is answering the question of whether or not woman should have been created in the beginning at the same time as man.  He responds that yes, she should have been.  Let us look at the particular texts in question.  

The first comes from the article's first objection and it's response:

Objection 1. It would seem that the woman should not have been made in the first production of things. For the Philosopher says (De Gener. ii, 3), that "the female is a misbegotten male." But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.  

Reply to Objection 1. As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature's intentionas directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.

We do see the "defective and misbegotten" text in question here.  It is first introduced as a quote from Aristotle to support the idea that woman should not have been created.  Aristotle, the objection asserts, declared that woman is simply a misbegotten man, and so she should not have been created in the first place, since nothing that is defective ought to have been created in the beginning, when all was perfect.  In brief, Aquinas' reply is that woman is only misbegotten in her individual nature but not in her universal nature, and so it would have been fine for her to have been created at the beginning by virtue of her universal nature.

However, the soundness of Aquinas' reply is not at issue here.  Rather, it is the question of woman being "misbegotten."  Specifically, we now see, it is the issue of her being misbegotten in her individual nature.  What exactly does this mean?  Fortunately, St. Thomas provides an explanation of why a woman is said to be misbegotten.  The male seed, he says, produces a perfect male likeness, and therefore he reasons that the production of a woman entails some kind of defect.  Aquinas then bases the rest of his response on this fact.  This is important because the "fact" is in error: the male seed does not produce a perfect male likeness.  It can produce either a male or a female, because sperm can contain either an X chromosome - leading to a female child - or a Y chromosome - leading to a male.  Of course we know this now, but in Aquinas' day (and Aristotle's, for that matter) this was not understood.  

It helps to try to look at things from the perspective of people of Aquinas' day.  They knew a little bit about the biology of reproduction, but not very much.  The microscope had not even been invented, and the theory of chromosomes was still nearly 700 years away.  What these people did know was that children developed in women after men deposited their "seed" during intercourse.  Women were thus understood as being responsible for giving a child it's body (as it grew and developed, taking what material it needed from her own) while the role of males was to give the initial seed.  What this seed was, exactly, nobody really knew.  The philosophers considered that it was the form of the child - the "plan" that directed how the material from the mother should be organized.  Whereas a blueprint indicates how girders, wood, and so forth are to be arranged to create the intended building, the man's seed would indicate how the the woman's biological material was to be arranged to form a child.

In any case, one element of their reasoning was a fairly fundamental principle which we follow even today: you can't give what you don't have.  To us, it means that a person who wants to teach must first learn, that a person who wants to bring peace to friends must first gain personal peace, and other similar platitudes along with more basic things like the simple fact that I can't give you $100 when I only have $50 in my pocket.  To the people of Aquinas' time, it made sense that a male could only give maleness.  Therefore, a father's seed could only give the "blueprint" to make another male.  Think about it.  It has been obvious even since the first human beings that we get our "form" from our parents: we look like them!  It's easy to see, then, how people could reason that when a father gives his seed he is giving that "blueprint" that made him.  

What all of this means for the "biology" behind Aquinas' reasoning is that men didn't have the capability of giving the form of a woman in their seed.  Therefore, a woman would have to come about by some defect in the form that a mother did receive.  Further helping us see just how strongly an erroneous understanding of biology influenced Aquinas, he goes on to list what were at the time considered some possible causes of this defect, even including a 'moist wind!'  The individual nature of a woman, he therefore says, is misbegotten.  In other words, in and of herself (individually), a woman is not the result of the perfect transmission of a father's seed.  

Now, we could simply end matters here recognizing that working with a more accurate concept of reproductive biology, Aquinas would have had an entirely different answer.  Were we do to so, however, we would miss something very important about Aquinas' point.  To see exactly what, we need to follow his reasoning through even from his faulty foundation, for next he goes on to address how woman, in her general human nature, is not misbegotten.  Nature, he points out, requires both men and women.  In other words, humanity by its very nature is made up of men and women.  There must be both, or there would be neither - for nobody would ever be conceived.  Now this is from a purely natural standpoint, even apart from considering God's role in things.  It is only at the very end that Aquinas brings God into things, pointing out that God directs nature and so God of course determined that humanity would consist of men and women.  In no uncertain terms, he says that God always intended that there be women.  

Further, we can see from other places in his writings that St. Thomas did not consider women to be of lower value, worth, or dignity than men.  For example, he teaches that the highest act a creature can perform is the intellective contemplation of God (in layman's terms, a way of defining Heaven) which women can of course also participate in.  In his reply to objection 1 in the 4th article of question 93, he rejects the idea that the image of God is not found in women and teaches that both men and women possess and intellectual nature, which he says is the image of God.  Other examples could be cited.  

It is important then to consider just how St. Thomas understands women to be defective or misbegotten men.  He does not mean it as we might use the terms to describe a defective CD player, for example.  Should I go to the store and purchase a CD player with as a broken motor, it would be defective in and of itself insofar as it would not work.  Understood in this way, a defective male would be an impotent man, or a man who had some other problem, but a male who, like the CD player, did not "work."  On the other hand, consider the chocolate chip cookie.  As the story goes, Ruth Wakefield was one day baking chocolate cookies only to discover she did not have the proper ingredients.  Substituting semi-sweet chocolate chips, she unexpectedly created what is today the most popular cookie of them all.  The chocolate cookie, while having a value and worth all its own, was a defective or "misbegotten" chocolate cookie.

The key point this analogy seeks to illustrate is that the "defect" of the woman is not a defect in the sense of a valuelessness, a badness, a brokenness, or even necessarily an inferiority.  Rather, it is a difference from what was originally intended (by the seed): a defect from the male seed's expected ultimate end.  Ironically, we can see a parallel in the way prenatal development really does function: it is generally accepted that everybody begins as a female until the Y chromosome starts to trigger the proper physiological changes to produce a male, and so in a similar sense to Aquinas' ancient one, all men are in a sense "misbegotten" women.  God, of course, intends that souls He intends to be women be women and those He intends to be men be men, and this is an even more important point.  Aquinas' conception of the defect here is purely a material, biological one (and, of course, one based on faulty biology in the first place).  However, he firmly insists (over and over in the course of other questions, in fact) that God's intent is that women be conceived.  In St. Thomas' eyes, then, God does something akin to altering nature itself so as to bring women about.

The second issue - whether or not Aquinas taught that women were made only for the purposes of bearing children - is an easier one to tackle.  The theologian is referring to the main portion of Aquinas answer in the question we have been considering.  He writes:

It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a "helper" to man; not, indeed, as a helpmate in otherworks, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation.

It is only necessary to note three brief points.  

First, Aquinas' primary meaning here is, again, natural and not supernatural.  Just as in discussing misbegotten and defectiveness he was thinking in terms of the natural order of things (that is, as regards how women come about according to nature rather than to God), here he is also speaking primarily about women's natural purpose.  He goes on to illustrate his point by considering the ways that plants and animals reproduce.  Some plants, he says, reproduce on their own without the need for others.  Plants, however, are not very high creatures and their sole purpose for existence is to make more plants, and so always have the entirety of their reproductive abilities contained within themselves.  Animals, however, have other purposes, and humans above all have that highest of purposes: contemplating God.  Given this, he says that man should be separated from reproduction so as that he only exists as a reproductive entity during certain times - namely, intercourse  In other words, it's important that human beings aren't in a constant state of reproduction (like some plants) so as to most befit creatures whose ultimate purpose is in the spiritual.  Given this,  mankind's reproductive function is split up amongst different people, and so, he says, nature demands that women exist to take on part of the reproductive function.  For this reason, when considering how woman is a helper for man, he ties it very particularly to reproduction. 

Second, in other places he explicitly states that women have purposes apart from reproduction.  For example, in the very next article he writes, "Thirdly, because, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. viii, 12), the human male and female are united, not only for generation, as with other animals, but also for the purpose of domestic life, in which each has his or her particular duty..."

Third, as has been pointed out already, St. Thomas teaches how God made humanity, in His image and likeness, as man and woman.  Women, he says, have the image of God in them just as do men, and they are able to practice that highest intellective contemplation of God just as are men.  This is a particularly important point, for it is discussed in his treatment of the end of man's origin.  In other words, he teaches these matters as part of a discussion about why God made man in the first place.  Thus, it is very clear that Aquinas considered women to have been created in the Image of God to receive His happiness just as were men.   

St. Thomas was not perfect - though he was close.  On some issues (perhaps most famously the Immaculate Conception) he came to erroneous conclusions because of limitations in the understanding of scientific issues in his day.  The case we have examined here is one such instance.  One ought always to turn to the official teaching of the Church when seeking certainty on a given matter, for it is that teaching which is Divinely guarded and protected from error by Lord.  However, when seeking to understand this teaching better, the reasons for this teaching, or its deeper working, St. Thomas is the first source to which to turn.  Not only did he write about virtually everything, but his is the official theology of the Church - the official "way of understanding" things, as set forth by the popes.  His Summa Theologica was even placed on the altar at the council of Trent alongside the Bible!  A valuable source indeed!


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Nice try, but lots of spin. I can read what he wrote and the meaning is clear.

Anonymous said...

It is clear as day what St Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle are trying to say. There is no need to make excuses for them. Their mindset is horribly flawed and ignorant. If we really believe in the truth, we must say it, and the truth is that what these men said is wrong. Their wrongs do not veil the good they have done, but their good works should not become an excuse for silly statements like these to be taught to anyone as correct.