Is woman just a mutilated male? Adam and Eve in the theology of Thomas Aquinas
By Harm Goris
Out of Paradise: Eve and Adam and Their Interpreters, eds. B. Becking and S. Hennecke (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011)
Introduction: Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274) is one of the best known thinkers in the Latin West and his thought has been particularly influential in the Catholic Church for a long time. With regard to his view on women, Aquinas has a very poor reputation. It is easy to collect a number of quotations from his work that portray Aquinas as an extreme sexist: Eve is only created for the sake of procreation, in which the woman is passive and the man active; Eve is a ‘mutilated male’, subordinated to Adam. Women are not as intelligent as men, and are therefore less fully the image of God etc.
One can leave it at that and depict Thomas Aquinas as an icon of medieval clerical misogyny. However, there have also been attempts to somehow exonerate him from the charge of sexism. Basically, two strategies have been developed to argue that Aquinas’s ideas about gender are not as bad as the quotations given above would suggest at first sight. One strategy is to counterbalance the challenged passages with other texts from Aquinas that are more gender egalitarian. The other is to blame the social, artistic, scientific and juridical beliefs of the 13th century and argue that Aquinas’ androcentrism is only a reflection of what was commonly held at that time. Both strategies are meant to lead to the same conclusion, viz. that the androcentric statements are ‘not essential’ to Thomistic thought. The first strategy is followed e.g. by Joseph Hartel, while the second is taken by Catherine Capelle. Most common is a combination of both lines of argument, which we find, among others, in Kari Børresen’s almost classical study Subordination et Équivalence and in the studies of Otto Hermann Pesch and Isnard Frank. On the one hand, they point at the growing influence of Aristotle’s philosophical and biological views on generation and gender in the 13th century and its negative impact on Aquinas’s ideas. On the other hand, they refer to Aquinas’s properly theological ideas about grace and the order of salvation, where there is equality of the sexes, in contrast with the order of nature.
These strategies are not absurd, but they remain limited and somewhat superficial. In this chapter I propose to deal directly with some of the contested passages and argue that their meaning is not always what it seems to be at first sight: their textual and theoretical context, developments in Aquinas’s thought and the historical background offer clues for alternative readings.