Thomas Aquinas on the Generation of Women

Thomas Aquinas on the Generation of Women

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Source: the Translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Copyright © 1947 Benzinger Brothers Inc. Electronic versions can be found for the Summa Theologica (New Advent edition) and Summa Contra Gentiles (Jacques Maritain Center edition). Italics in the text by John Wijngaards.

On how a woman is born to be a woman

Objection: It can be argued that woman should not have formed part of the world as it was initially created. For Aristotle says that a female is an occasioned male. But it would be wrong for something occasioned and [hence] deficient to be part of the initial creation. Therefore woman should not have been a part of that world.” (Thomas answers that the female is defective as a particular event; not as part of the general scheme of things). Summa Theologica, 1, qu. 92, art 1, ob. 1

Reply: “Vis-a-vis [seen as caused by] the natura particularis [i.e., the action of the male semen], a female is deficient and unintentionally caused. For the active power of the semen always seeks to produce a thing completely like itself, something male. So if a female is produced, this must be because the semen is weak or because the material [provided by the female parent] is unsuitable, or because of the action of some external factor such as the winds from the south which make the atmosphere humid. But vis-a-vis [seen as caused by] natura universalis [general Nature] the female is not accidentally caused but is intended by Nature for the work of generation. Now the intentions of Nature come from God, who is its author. This is why, when he created Nature, he made not only the male but also the female” Summa Theologica, 1, qu. 92, art 1, ad 1.

Note. Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle in attributing the conception of a woman to a defect of a particular seed. The male semen intends to produce a complete human being, a man, but at times it does not succeed and produces a woman. A woman is, therefore, a mas occasionatus, a failed male. Thomas stresses that this does not imply that women were not part of God's grand scheme of creation. However, a female is not perfect.

‘According to the medicine of his century, which, of course, Thomas did not correct, woman was an incomplete man, a half-baked male, whose unfinished characteristics come about through some weakness in the parents, some disposition in the human material or some extrinsic cause such as, for example, a strong south wind at the time of conception. Nevertheless Thomas thinks it is unjust to consider woman a cosmic accident; she was not an accident, this creature was made on purpose, deliberately planned by God.’ Walter Farrell, O.P., A Companion to the Summa, I ch. 12. Read also M. Nolan, ‘The Defective Male: What Aquinas Really Said’, New Blackfriars.

Aquinas speaking to his fellow monks

Strictly speaking, woman is a monster of nature

“If it were not for some [divine] power that wanted the feminine sex to exist, the birth of a woman would be just another accident, such as that of other monsters [= a dog with two heads, a calf with five legs, etc.]”

“Nisi ergo esset aliqua virtus quae intenderet femineum sexum, generation feminae esset omnino a casu, sicut et aliorum monstrorum”. De Veritate 5, 9, d. 9.

In procreation the man is active, the woman is passive

“As regards generation by coition, there are, in the present state of life, two things to be considered. One, which comes from nature, is the union of man and woman; for in every act of generation there is an active and a passive principle. Wherefore, since wherever there is distinction of sex, the active principle is male and the passive is female; the order of nature demands that for the purpose of generation there should be concurrence of male and female. The second thing to be observed is a certain deformity of excessive concupiscence, which in the state of innocence would not have existed, when the lower powers were entirely subject to reason.” Summa Theologica, I qu. 98, art 1.

The male seed has an active force from its male parent

“Now the more powerful an agent, the greater scope its action has: for instance, the hotter a body, the greater the distance to which its heat carries. Therefore bodies not endowed with life, which are the lowest in the order of nature, generate their like, not through some medium, but by themselves; thus fire by itself generates fire. But living bodies, as being more powerful, act so as to generate their like, both without and with a medium. Without a medium--in the work of nutrition, in which flesh generates flesh: with a medium--in the act of generation, because the semen of the animal or plant derives a certain active force from the soul of the generator, just as the instrument derives a certain motive power from the principal agent. And as it matters not whether we say that something is moved by the instrument or by the principal agent, so neither does it matter whether we say that the soul of the generated is caused by the soul of the generator, or by some seminal power derived therefrom.” Summa Theologica II, q. 18, art. 1.

The active force in the male seed also derives power from the heavenly bodies

“ This active force which is in the semen, and which is derived from the soul of the generator, is, as it were, a certain movement of this soul itself: nor is it the soul or a part of the soul, save virtually; thus the form of a bed is not in the saw or the axe, but a certain movement towards that form. Consequently there is no need for this active force to have an actual organ; but it is based on the (vital) spirit in the semen which is frothy, as is attested by its whiteness. In which spirit, moreover, there is a certain heat derived from the power of the heavenly bodies, by virtue of which the inferior bodies also act towards the production of the species as stated above (115, 3, ad 2). And since in this (vital) spirit the power of the soul is concurrent with the power of a heavenly body, it has been said that "man and the sun generate man".” Summa Theologica II, q. 18, art. 1, ad 3.

The male seed takes nourishment from the mother

“In perfect animals, generated by coition, the active force is in the semen of the male, as the Philosopher says (De Gener. Animal. ii, 3); but the foetal matter is provided by the female. . . . And after the sensitive soul, by the power of the active principle in the semen, has been produced in one of the principal parts of the thing generated, then it is that the sensitive soul of the offspring [=the foetus] begins to work towards the perfection of its own body, by nourishment and growth.” Summa Theologica II, q. 18, art. 1, ad 4.

In spite of their lower function, also the female sexual organs will remain at the Resurection

“We must not suppose, what some have thought, that female sex has no place in the bodies of the risen Saints. For since resurrection means the reparation of the defects of nature, nothing of what makes for the perfection of nature will be withdrawn from the bodies of the risen. Now among other organs that belong to the integrity of the human body are those which minister to generation as well in male as in female. These organs therefore will rise again in both . . . Neither is the weakness of the female sex inconsistent with the perfection of the resurrection. Such weakness is no departure from nature, but is intended by nature. This natural differentiation will argue the thoroughgoing perfection of nature, and commend the divine wisdom that arranges creation in diversity of ranks and orders.” Summa contra Gentiles, IV, qu. 88.

Documents on St. Thomas Aquinas
Women and procreation Inferiority of women Arguments Overview The priest as sign Women and holy orders If Thomas had known

 


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