After the creation of Adam, it is natural for Aquinas to turn his attention to the creation of Eve. At the most fundamental level, this question is about the role of sexual differentiation in the creation of human beings; why are there two sexes? Aquinas, of course, was writing before thought had been given to the competitive advantage offered by sexual reproduction. He frames his answers in the context of his hierarchical understanding of creation in which every part of nature has its place. Thus considered, he is seeking to understand woman’s role in creation, especially in relation to man.
The Thread of the Argument
A1: According to the Genesis creation account, God creates a man (Adam) and then He creates a woman (Eve). Aquinas asks the rather curious question: was the creation of this woman fitting? What he is trying to get at in asking this is an understanding of women’s role or place in that creation; we have to remember that for Aquinas everything has its place and nothing in nature is in vain. Against the objections posed, Aquinas is firm: scripture tells us that it is “not good for man to be alone”; in fulfilling the destiny of humanity, there is an essential sexual complementarity. For Aquinas this is most expressed in the role of woman in generation; a term that should not be limited in meaning to the idea of simply producing children, but in everything to do with nurturing the well-being and continuity of the species.
After a quick scan through the hierarchy of sexual differentiation amongst living things, Aquinas concludes that the sexual differentiation of humans is ordered to an appropriate differentiation of the tasks that facilitate their highest task, which is intellectual contemplation.
The first objection raises the biological idea of Aristotle that females are “males gone wrong”; if they are such, they would have had no place in God’s perfect creation. Briefly, the idea here is that in generation the active male principle (contained in the semen) is implanted in the passive female principle and would naturally become a male child if some power does not intervene to divert this development from its course to produce a female child. Aquinas’s answer is ingenious: he says that what happens in a particular nature (that in the powers and forces that bring about the development of the child, in this case the male semen) is irrelevant. What matters is that the creation of a female child is ordered to the intention of nature. In other words, what matters is what God intends for nature as a whole. How he brings it about is His business.
The second objection is based on the observation of the subjection of women to the power of men. In his answer, Aquinas differentiates between two types of subjection. The first type is servile subjection, in which the one subjecting makes use of the one subjected for the former’s own purposes. The second is civil or economic subjection in which the subjection is for the good of those subjected. The first type of subjection did not exist before the fall, and should not be seen as just; the second did, and reflects the hierarchy of creation ordered to the common good. Aquinas argues that man is more naturally endowed with the power of rational discernment and therefore is ordered more fittingly to the position of power.
The third objection is that woman provides an occasion of sin for a man and therefore it would have been unfitting for God to put such a distraction in Adam’s way in the Garden of Eden. Aquinas’s reply raises a smile: if God had removed all things from the world that man had managed to turn into occasions of sin, there really wouldn’t be much left!
A2: The second question of fittingness is to try and understand why Eve is described by scripture as being made from Adam. This didn’t happen in the creation of other animals and doesn’t happen in the natural generation of any animal; why didn’t God create woman in the same way that He created man?
Aquinas gives four reasons. In the first place, having the entire human race originate from one adds to the dignity of that one. Second, the mutual realization that Eve came from Adam would bind them together more strongly. Third, the subjection of Eve to Adam is mirrored in this relationship of origin. Fourth, such an origin provides a figure for the Church taking her origin from Christ.
A3: It was fitting for Eve to be created of Adam; but why from a rib? There doesn’t seem any natural way in which a rib can be made into a woman, wouldn’t it detract from Adam’s perfection and wouldn’t it hurt?
Aquinas identifies two reasons for why this formation was fitting. In the first place, taking a part from Adam’s body signified the intimately close union between man and women. Choosing a part, such as a rib, from the middle of the body symbolizes that neither would the woman dominate over the man nor would the man subject the women to servile subjection.
The rib was made into a woman by a miraculous addition to the matter of the rib, not through some natural process. Losing a rib did not detract from Adam’s perfection because that rib contributed to Adam’s perfection as the source of the species rather than as an individual.
A4: Eve was made from the rib of Adam, but does this imply that Eve’s creation was not directly performed by God but mediated through some other powers? Aquinas argues that the only method of natural generation of a human being is though generation from the matter involved in the male or female seed. Therefore to bring about Eve’s creation from a different form of matter involves direct divine intervention.
- Irrespective of the process by which woman is generated her position is ordered towards the fulfilment of nature and is therefore of equal dignity to that of man.
- Man and women are sexually differentiated in order to share out the necessary tasks that facilitate intellectual contemplation.
- Eve was created from the rib of Adam by direct divine intervention.
- Aquinas’s views on women are sometimes misunderstood, in particular misreading his answer to the first objection of the first article as supporting the view that women are formed inadvertently. Aquinas is not concerned at all with the physical biology of reproduction, but with the metaphysical place of woman in creation: the former is irrelevant, the latter is what matters.
- This is a question in which close attention to the Latin text is useful. In particular, one must pay careful attention to where the words homo and vir are used: vir means a male person, homo can mean a male person but is often used to simply denote a person of either sex. Indeed, homo and its derivatives can be used to denote humanity in general. So in Genesis 2:18 where we are told that it is “not good that man for man to be alone”, the Latin word used derives from homo, suggesting that we are being told that it is not simply the particular human being Adam that needs a partner, but that companionship is fundamental to humanity. Similarly, in the first article, we are told that humans are ordered towards intellectual contemplation.
- In answering the second objection to the first article Aquinas claims that woman is naturally civilly subject to man because the discernment of reason naturally abounds more in man. The underlying idea being that, before the fall, the rational hierarchical governance of humanity is the form of governance that will promote the common good most effectively; and therefore the more rational should be in charge. Unfortunately Aquinas leaves his answer at this level of generality but with the little coda recognizing that there are differences between individuals (even before the fall). He does not address how the relationship of subjection might be modified between an individual man and an individual woman by the variation of powers of rationality between individuals. After all, Aquinas would have been well aware of the effective rule of some queens!
- Aquinas describes the notion of civil subjection tersely. One must be careful reading him not to impose modern notions of subjection on his implicit scheme.