Saturday, 15 February 2014

Question 98 – Concerning the Conservation of the Species

Why this Question Matters

Aquinas has been concerned with aspects of Adam and Eve’s being as individuals in the state of innocence before the fall. Now he turns to questions about the human species. Had the fall been delayed so that in the state of innocence Adam and Eve had children, and perhaps those children themselves produced progeny there are a number of questions we can ask about these children. In this question Aquinas will turn his attention to how children would have come about in the first place. In subsequent questions Aquinas will ask about their physical state (Ia.q99), their state of original justice (Ia.q100) and their intellectual state (Ia.q101).

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Would human beings have generated other human beings (for example, by procreation) in the initial state of innocence? At first sight one might have thought not, as this prelapsarian paradise appears to be a state of perfection that doesn’t require any form of growth. As the first human beings would have been immortal in this state, there would have been no need for generation in order to conserve the species. Moreover, when we look at the world as it is, we see that generation and corruption seem to go together; as there was no corruption in the initial state of innocence, neither would there have been generation. Against this, of course, God enjoined the first human beings to “go forth and multiply”; a process that would seem to necessitate generation of some sort.

In his answer Aquinas observes that human beings are a sort of mixture; corruptible as far as we are bodily, incorruptible as far as we are spiritual. Also, when we consider the ends of nature we see that incorruptible creatures belong to the intention of nature individually; whereas corruptible creatures belong to the intention of nature not individually but for the sake of the species to which they belong. So when we consider human beings as bodily animals, we have to recognize that generation is part of our nature; something that does not substantially change with the fall. As spiritual creatures, on the other hand, we are ordered individually and per se towards our ends in the beatific vision.

A2: Would the generation of new individuals in the state of innocence have been by sexual intercourse? Aquinas’s immediate answer to this follows the pattern of the answer he gave in the previous article. Human beings were created with sexual diversity; we can simply observe that sexual diversity by its nature is ordered towards procreation of the species. As the fall did not alter human nature, we can infer that generation would have been by means of sexual intercourse in the state of innocence had it occurred.

Aquinas doesn’t leave it there though, and what he continues on to argue has important implications for a much misunderstood area of Christian doctrine. One of the consequences of the fall is that, in our post-lapsarian state, the natural goodness of sexuality is deformed by an attendant concupiscence, which is a sort of disordered and extreme desire for sensuality. Expanding on this theme in the answer to the third objection, Aquinas even argues that the disordered desire of concupiscence may actually subtract from the pleasure naturally associated with sexual intercourse. In the state of innocence humans were graced with the gift of integrity, ordering all the lower powers under the power of reason; sexual intercourse in such a state would have been more sensual than it is to us. In our present state our lower powers are not under the control of reason; their self-indulgence subtracts from what could be experienced or achieved were everything ordered to the same end under the power of reason. The analogy that Aquinas gives is of one who is temperate in the consumption of food compared to the glutton. The former may gain more sensual pleasure from the moderate consumption of food than the latter does from his intemperate consumption.

Finally Aquinas points out that the state of sexual continence is a state that turns away from concupiscence, from this disordered desire, rather than a state that turns away from sexuality per se. It is in this regard that sexual continence is so praised by the Church. A natural consequence of this is that in the initial state of innocence such a state of sexual continence would not have been praiseworthy as there was no concupiscence from which to turn; fecundity would have existed without disordered desire.

Handy Concepts

  • Generation is natural, as bodily creatures, to the human species. Therefore there would have been generation in the Garden of Eden had the fall not intervened.
  • Human beings were created with sexual diversity ordered towards procreation; the generation of new individuals in the state of innocence would have been by means of sexual intercourse.
  • Concupiscence may be seen in contrast to the rectitude of the original human beings. It is a state of extreme sensual disorder. We recall from Ia.q81.a2 that the concupiscible power is the power of the sensitive appetite that is ordered to seeking out what is attractive to the senses and fleeing from what is harmful. Concupiscence is a disorder of the concupiscible power.
  • Christian teaching on sexual continence is based on a turning away from concupiscence rather than on a turning away from sexuality.


  • In the first article Aquinas observes that the point of individual corruptible creatures, that is the intention that nature has for them, is ordered towards the conservation of the species to which the individual belongs. This concord well with modern ideas of the survival of the gene.
  • The answer to the fourth objection to the second article quotes St. Augustine to the effect that sexual intercourse in the state of innocence would have led to no corruption of virginal integrity. Presumably this is argued for as being a type of the virgin birth of Jesus from Mary. What happened to Mary, in being the second Eve, directs our attention to what would have happened to Eve in childbirth in the state of innocence.
  • Throughout this section Aquinas observes that the sources of revelation don’t tell us an awful lot about the hypothetical situation of children born before the fall. In the absence of such information, Aquinas’s method is to turn to an understanding of human nature. Human nature was not changed, although it may have been obscured, at the fall and therefore things true about our nature after the fall were true of our nature before the fall.

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