Monday, 23 March 2009

Thomas Aquinas: not a feminist

Question: should woman have been made as part of the original creation?

Point: 1. It would seem not. Aristotle says that woman is a less good version of a man, and the original creation can't have included anything defective, right? (Thanks, Aristotle). 2. Subjection and inferiority are a result of sin, and without sin, we'd all be equal. But women are clearly crappier than men because the 'active' is always superior to the 'passive.' 3. We should get rid of things that tempt us to sin, and women tempt men to sin.

On the other hand: The Bible tells us that God said 'it is not good for man to be alone.'

Reply: Man needed someone to help him (not as a friend, or a co-worker ha! Obviously if it was about having a friend or someone to help with practical stuff, God would have just made another man. Women? Friends? Partners? Don't make me laugh) with the work of procreation. 1. Women are defective as individuals, but that doesn't mean the whole species of humanity is defective. A healthy male seed will grow into a healthy male baby, and women are only born when the seed's not quite right, or when there's a damp south wind, or something like that (thanks, ancient biologists!). 2. There are two different sorts of subjection: the bad sort, where the ruler manages his subject selfishly - this is a result of sin - and the good sort, where the ruler manages his subject for their own good, and this would have existed even without sin because men are more rational than women, who need ruling over for their own good. 3. God couldn't just take away everything from creation that might lead him into sin, and women add value to creation as well as temptation.

It's tempting to make allowances for Thomas, because I really do love him, but having seen 2. deployed as an argument for why women shouldn't be allowed to be leaders, in a book by the wife of a prominent Christian leader (though mightn't her emotions be clouding her judgment? Let's hope a man checked it first...), and having just read an excellent book by Grace Jantzen about the way that our ideas about gender and power are at work in all sorts of surprising areas of Christian theology, I think this matters, quite a lot. I think it should change how we read Thomas as a whole, knowing that this is there underneath it, and I think that seeing how much his weird ideas about men and women are bound up with weird ideas about biology, and yet are still pretty close to some of the ways people talk about men and women now should make us think a bit more carefully about what it is we really mean when we talk about the difference between men and women.

Photo credit: 'Lawrence OP' on Flickr


rschmeec said...

The writer obviously is familiar enough with thomas' method of argumentation to mock it, but he does not provide us with information as to where in Aquinas we find these assertions. We cannot confirm the accuracy of his interpretations of St. Thomas. Also, he presents three positions as objections, without any indication that Aquinas begins his articles with objections to which he returns after the body of the argument, usually to refute them or to make an important distinction that robs them of their power.

Marika said...

I'm sorry. The question comes from the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae, and it's Article 1 of Question 92, on the making of woman. You can find the whole thing here. I've blogged here about the structure of the Summa and the way that each question goes, and there's an introduction to Aquinas here.

While you're right that Thomas refutes the objections, he doesn't tend to present spurious positions just for the sake of refuting them: he's much more likely to cite ideas and authorities that he basically agrees with, and demonstrate why they don't work as objections to the particular question at hand, so they're often quite revealing of things that Aquinas does actually believe.

rschmeec said...

You seem to be a serious reader of St. Thomas, and I am glad to make your acquaintance.

You might be interested in the use Voltaire made of Aquinas' objections, or so I recall, without being able to identify the source of the claim: namely, that Voltaire used the objections in order to get ammunition for his campaign against Christianity.

Thanks for setting me straight.

Roger Schmeeckle

Marika said...

Interesting, I wasn't aware of that, though it reminds me of the way Blake saw John Milton as being of the devil's party without realising it.

rschmeec said...

My favorite Blake story is his friend, all excited by Euclid's proof that the two angles of an isosceles triangle are equal, wanting to share his excitement. Blake replied: I do not need any proof; I can see that.

I paraphrased.

Marika said...

Ha, I like it.

Matt Wilson said...

really interesting
alhtough part of me wants you to name and shame the wife or leader
It gives some really good info as to the back ground of the hard core complementarian argument

Marika said...

Oh, see now I really want to tell you who it was, but can't decide if it's gossipy and vindictive or fair enough because it's an appalling position held by an influential person, and it's not like she's embarrassed about it, or presumably wouldn't have published that particular opinion. Judgment clouded by the fact that no book has ever made me so angry as the one that she wrote... What do you think? Should I tell you?

Andreja said...

" But women are clearly crappier than men because the 'active' is always superior to the 'passive.' "

However, elsewhere in the Summa, Thomas says that who is passive willingly, is actually not passive, but active:

"... a man suffers properly what he suffers against his will, since in so far as he is willing he is a principle in himself, and so, considered thus, he is active rather than passive."

(Summa, II-II, Q 59, A 3)


Andreja said...

Congratulations on great writing, by the way!