The Defective Male: What Aquinas Really Said
by Michael Nolan
In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas discusses the biblical account of Creation and deals at length with the production of the body and soul of the First Man and the First Woman. The soul of each, being immaterial, was created by God.(1) But whereas the human body is normally produced by parents from the substance of their own bodies, God himself produced both the body of Adam(2) and the body of Eve.(3) He produced the body of Adam from earth, the body of Eve from the body of Adam.(4) The matter used may have been different, but Adam and Eve were equally Gods own handiwork and Eve was not a child of (and hence not a dependent of) Adam.(5)
He asks himself why God followed this (asexual) method of production and replies that it was to show that reproduction is a relatively peripheral activity in the life of the human being. The specific goal of human existence is to understand.6 He uses the word homo: the activities of mind are the central work of the human being qua human being, of woman therefore as of man.
In accordance with medieval practice, he states objections to his own position and seeks to refute them. Perhaps God should not have made woman at the beginning of the world? The suggestion by a theologian that God should not have done something he actually did is obviously academic. But Aquinas was an academic, and academics of all centuries find that the discussion of highly theoretical issues assists them to clarify their understanding of the real world.
One objection derives from Aristotle, whose biological writings deal extensively with reproduction and embryology.7 Aristotle believes that the entire substance of a child develops from highly complex material fashioned by the mother. The male semen contributes nothing to the substance of the offspring,8 but simply triggers the workings of this complex female element which, stage by stage, becomes a child.9
He wonders how it is that the outcome of the reproductive process is sometimes male and sometimes female. The natural outcome of the process, he thinks, is a male. As he sees it, the birth of a female is puzzling, for she is not a replica of her father, who supplies the active element in the reproductive process. This reminds him of other instances where the child is not a replica of its parentsinstances of what in modern teratology are termed congenital anomalies.° This leads him to a phrase that scholars find difficult to translate, a phrase that has acquired an understandable but unmerited fame, for it fails to catch the sophistication of his own views. It reads:
TO Y~e ~Il~U WOT- ~d ~ &~ile~voVI] ne~yle~C~
has been variously rendered. William of Moerbeke12 uses orbatus (deprived), Bekker says laesus (injured), and English scholars of the earlier years of this century have used deformed, imperfectly developed, underdeveloped, malformed, mutilated, and congenitally disabled.13 In current terminology, as has been seen, one would say congenitally anomalous. The phrase, it should be noted, includes ~c a word that limits or modifies an assertion14. It reads, therefore, Congenitally, the female is, as it were, an anomalous male. One must add that elsewhere Aristotle explicitly distinguishes between the binh of a girl and the birth of teratological offspring15 (as does Aquinassee below page 9. It is simply not correct to quote him as saying, sans phrase, that the female is a defective male. Nevertheless what Aristotle says provides a problem.
It should be noted that the problem is not one of Aquinass making and that it in no way arises from his general philosophy. Nor is it an issue raised generally by medieval theologians. It is not, for instance, found in the Commentarium in Sententias of Bonaventure or Duns Scotus, who were less impressed by Aristotle than was Aquinas. Albertus Magnus, a fervent Aristotelean, mentions the phrase en passant but makes nothing of il.16 It may well have been nothing more than an argument developed by scholars who wished to embarrass Aquinass Aristoteleanism. In any case Aquinas took it seriously enough to argue no fewer than five times17 that it is a purely biological statement and that it does not imply that woman is defective in any true sense. It is ironic that the reward for this is the allegation that he asserted it.
Aquinascorrectly, it could be arguedconcentrates on the process ruher than the outcome and expresses Aristotles views in the tag Femina est mas occasionatus.18 The verb occasionare is not found in classical Latin and was created by medieval scholars. They use it to distinguish between what is directly (or intentionally) caused and indirectly (or unintentionally) caused.19 For example, a wood fire indirectly (or unintentionally) caused.19 For example, a wood fire normally produces flames. But if the wood has stood in the rain, the damp will change the process of combustion and smoke rather than flames will result The normal outcome has been modified by the damp and the actual outcome is occasionatum.
What is occasioned may of course be good or bad. If one is burning the wood on a hearth to warm a house, the smoke is bad. If one is curing bacon, the smoke is just what is needed. But since what is unintentionally or accidentally caused is more often bad than good, occasioned does carry the suggestion of deficient, just as accident suggests tbat something has gone wrong, though there can be happy accidents.
So Femina est rnas occasionatus means that the male semen always intends to produce a male child, but that its intentions may be frustrated, perhaps by its own weakness, perhaps by extrinsic factors, and then a female child is produced. This suggests that the female is somehow deficient. Hence the phrase leads to an objection to the claim that God made woman at the foundation of the world. Aquinas formulates the objection as follows:
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.20
The claim that woman is deficient derives from the assertion that she is occasioned and this, we have seen, means that she is indirectly or unintentionally produced. Accordingly, Aquinas seeks to refute the claim by showing that woman is intentionally produced. With this in mind, he advances a number of arguments that, whatever we may think of them now, were plausible enough in his day and served his purpose of refuting the Aristotelean argument.
For one, he suggests that the sex of a child may be determined by psychological factors in the parents21 Now on this view the production of a daughter is directly caused or intended. But if she is directly caused she is not accidentally caused, and if she is not accidentally caused, there are no grounds for saying that she is deficient.
For another, he argues, the sex of the child may be caused by environmental factors.22 For example, the weather associated with the north wind might cause a male to be conceived, while the weather associated with the south wind might cause a female to be conceived. (This suggestion, derived - - Aristotle,23 causes much mockery.
Firm evidence has emerged that in some species factors such as temperature do affect sex determination.24)
Again it does not matter whether the explanation is in fact true or false. The point is that it shows once again how Aquinas seeks to prove that the conception of a female is not an accident, and once again seeks to remove the alleged grounds for saying a female is deficient.24
Aquinas has a third explanation. He suggests that the sex of children may be due to the influence of the stars. This was a common view among medievals. They did not of course see this as an astrological (in the modern sense) explanation. They thought that the stars affect our world physically, just as we accept that the sun, which is simply one star among many, affects our world physically. So he argues that the heavenly bodies may determine the sex of a child, and he does this precisely because he wants to distinguish between the female, which is intended by some cause, and freaks, which are wholly unintended.25
So for a third time the binh of a female is seen as caused rather than accidental, and for a third time the grounds for saying the female is dcficient have been removed.
But Aguinas cannot avoid confronting the Aristotelean claim directly. (To suggest that he should have ruled Aristotle out of court as offering an insult to woman is rather like suggesting that a modern theologian should rule Darwin out of court as offering an insult to the human race.). He lays the foundation for his reply by distinguishing between natura universalis and natura particularis. Natura universalis is the natural world in all its workings, more especially perhaps the world of living things. It is in fact what we mean by the word Nature. Natura particularis is the working of an individual animal, or plant, or body system or cell. The semen emitted by the male, or more exactly the action of this semen, is such a natura particularis.
He now argues as follows. The male semen (natura particularis) may not intend to produce a female child, but Natura (natura universalis) intends that female children should be produced. So the female may be accidentally caused vis-a-vis the male semen, but she is no accident so far as Nature is concerned. On the contrary, she is intended by Nature, and because she is intended rather than occasionatum there are no grounds for saying she is deficient. Moreover, since God is the author of Nature, she is intended by God. That is why, he concludes triumphantly, God made woman at the foundation of the world. The text reads:
Vis-a-vis (seen as caused by] thc natura particHiaris [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 [Nature1 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 26
So woman is not defective, whether she is seen as part of Nature or as part of Gods creation.
The point is expressed even more clearly in another passage, this time in the Summa Contra Gentiles:
A whole and a part may have different goals. The parts seeks its own good and works towards it as best it can, but the whole works towards the good of the whole. Thus a particular outcome may be defective so far as the part is concerned, but is not a defect so far as the whole is concerned. It is clear, for instance. that the generation of a female is nor intended by the part concerned, that is by the power of this semen. But it is intended by the whole, that is by the overall power that brings about reproduction.27
Some examples from modern biology may illustrate the point Aquinas is making. So far as we know, it is a matter of chance whether on any particular occasion the female ovum accepts a spermatozoon that will trigger the development of a male child, or one that will trigger the development of a female child. The individual act of intercourse, therefore, produces a male or female by accident. But this does lead us to say that Nature produces children accidentally, or that children are accidents. An accidental or random element at the micro level does not mean there is no order at the macro level. Modern science turns on that.
A further illustration comes from the world of insects. Bees are divided into three castes: drones, workers and egg-layers (anthropomorphically called queens). Workers and egg-layers begin their existence with the same genetic endowment Whether a particular egg develops to be a worker or egg-layer depends on how it is fed. The ovaries of the worker develop only partially, the ovaries of the egglayer develop fully. Bee society so arranges things that most eggs do
not develop into egg-layers. Nothing could be more disastrous for the community than that they should do so. Now looking at an individual worker, one might possibly say that it is an incompletely developed egg-layer. But this does not justify the assertion that it is defective. For, looking at the hive as a social organisation, one sees that it needs workers quite as much as it needs egg-layers. In the socio-biology of bees, workers are not defective egg-layers. In the socio-biology of humans, women are not defective males.
A word must be said about the most widely used English version of the Summa Theologiae28 which translates per respectum ad naturam particularem femina est aliquid deficiens. et occasionatum thus: As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten.
Someone not aware of the meaning of natura particularis might well take it that the individual nature referred to is the nature of woman and that it is this nature that is defective. But in fact the individual nature is the male sementhis is explicitly stated in the passage quoted above from the Summa Contra Centilesand woman can be said to be defective only in the highly technical sense that she is not what the male semen intended to produce. It may be doubted whether many women will find this defect singularly disturbing.
The translation of occasionatum as misbegotten is wholly wrong. Had Aquinas wished to use a pejorative word, he had William of Moerbekes translation orbatus (deprived) to hand. His decision to use occasionatum was deliberate.
Something must be said about the assertion in the same passage that woman is directed to the work of generation. This does not mean that she is directed solely or indeed principally to the work of generation. The context here is that of Nature, of the world of plants and animals (including human animals), and in this context it is natural to say that the female is directed to the work of generation, in which she plays the principal part. But we have already seen that for Aquinas the principal work of every human being, male and female, is to understand. In addition, following Aristotle," he explicitly states that it is not with husband and wife as it is with animals, where sexual congress is purely for the purpose of having offspring. A wife, he says, does not exist merely for the purpose of having children bul is meant to share life with her husband.
As we have seen, the Aristotelean problem comes up when Aquinas is discussing the creation of the world. It recurs when he discusses what would have happened if Adam had not sinned. Such discussion is not as idle as it may seem: it allows Aquinas to describe his Utopia. In such a world, he thinks, children would be conceived
through sexual intercourse, and as many girls would have been born as boys, so that in adult life everyone would have a partner. (In Utopia, he says, virginity would not be a virtue and all would marry.)29
As usual, he states objections to his own position. One such objection runs:
No females should be born in a perfect world, for, as Aristotle said, the female is an accidentally produced effect, something unintended by Nature. But in a perfect world, nothing unintended by Nature would be found. Hence no females would bc bom 31
He replies as follows:
A female is said to be accidentally produced because her production lies outside the intentions of a particular natural entity, but she does not lie outside rhe intentions of Nature as a whole.32"
The contention that in a perfect world only males would be born is thus refuted.
The matter comes up a third time when he is discussing the resurrection of the dead. He holds that everyone, male and female, will rise in their own body, and gives his reasons:
Just as individual people differ in stature, so they differ in sex, and this diversity makes for the completeness of the species. So as they will rise in diverse stature, they will also rise in diverse sex 33
As before, he states objections to his own position. One objection runs;
Anything that is occasioned and is produced beyond the intentions of Nature will not rise again, for in the resurrection all error will be removed. But the female sex is produced against the intentions of Nature, because the weakness of the formative power in the male semen is not able to fashion a male embryo, for, as Aristotle says, the female is an occasioned male. Consequently the female sex will not rise again.34
and he replies:
Although the production of a fermale is beyond the intention of the natura particularis [i.e., the male semen], it is intended by Nature [natura uniparsalis], which requires both sexes for the completeness of the species.35
There is therefore nothing imperfect in the female body and hence no reason why women should not rise in their own bodies.
It should now be clear that Aquinas does not say that woman is defective. But it must be added that the entire thrust of Aristoteleanism makes it implausible that he ever would have said such a thing, or, for that matter, that Aristotle said it in the crude sense in which it is often attributed to him. Aristotles biology is markedly teleological and he sees Nature as normally (though not always) bringing about what is best. His is a biology of fmal causes. (But it is not open to the criticism that in finding final causes it neglects efficient causes.36 Nothing could be more teleological than the growth of an embryo, yet Aristotle describes the process of development in almost Cartesian terms: A moves B and B moves C, and the whole process is like that of the automatic puppets the Greeks so successfully constructed.37)
What is crucial for Aquinas is Aristotles distinction, however, between events that happen for the better (to beltion)i.e., have a functionand those that simply happen (by necessity ex avagkes)38.Now Nature is adroit at using events that simply happen in order to serve her purpose, in order to achieve her end.39 An illustration of what he means may be taken from modern biology. In plants the process of photosynthesis produces molecules which store energy. That is a process that has a function in the life of the plant. But the process also produces oxygen for which the plant has no need and which it releases into the atmosphere. Now this oxygen has an essential function in the life of animals. So what is a mere happening when seen from the narrower view has a function when seen from the wider view. It is this distinction which, as has been seen, Aquinas continually employs.
It has already been noted above that both Aristotle and Aquinas distinguish between the birth of a female child and genuinely anomalous births. It may be for this reason that Aquinas keeps to the word occasionaturn. He cannot have done so because he misunderstood Aristotles Greek: he had available to him the translation of William of Moerbeke, and as has been seen William uses the word orbatus (deprived).40 Aquinas is, manifestly, unwilling to use the word of woman. And in a way he captures more accurately the essence of Aristotles position. It is the reproductive process that is defective, not the outcome of the process.
One can only be surprised that a single phrase has so readily been taken to express the kernel of Aristotles and Aquinass thinking. For of all the great philosophers, they believed most strongly that Nature acts
order founded to combat the teaching that the natural world in general and reproduction in particular are evils, creations of a malevolent God. That, he thought, was the worst possible heresy.42 Neither Aristotle or Aquinas was ever in the least likely to believe that half the human species is defective.
1Summa Theologiae, I qu. 90, ar. 2.
2 Summa Theologiae,I qu 92, u 2.
3 Summa Theologiae,I qu 92, ar 4.
4 Summa Theologiae,I qu 92, ar 2 ~ 3. In view of ~he spare nbjibe, il i5 iniercsting lo nole the significanac Aquinas sees in the faa thal God made ~he body of Eve from the body of Adam: Ihe man should have a primacy of honour. and he should dove his wife ~he more and cling lo her more cioscly because shc was of his own flesh. Eve was made from Adams side ralher Ihan his head or hs feet because woman should nol dominale man or bc his servant, but should live side by side wilh him in an alliance (socialis coniunclio).
5Summa Theologiae,I, qu 92, ar 2, ad 3.
6 Summa Theologiae,I qu 92, ar 2.
7 For an account of Arisiotles cmbryology sec J. Needham, A Hisiory of Embryology, 2nd ea., Cambridge, Univcrsity Prcss, 1959.
8 It is plain then Ihal Ihere is no necessity for any substance to pass from the male. Dc Gcncraiione Anirnaliwn, Bk 1, c 21, 729bl9. It may bc noled Ihat this feature of Arisiolles biology was availed of by Aquinas in his accaunl d the conception of Chlist. Cf. In Scnicntias, Bk 3, ds 3, qu 5, ar 1.
9 Aristotle does indeed talk of the male siemen as acive and the female as passive, bul only in thc sense in which an enzyme is acive and the prCCCss il facilitates is passive, The action od the male in sating Ihe females secredon in the uterus is similar lo that of rertnel upon milk. Dc Gcncralionc Animalimn, Blc 2, c 4, 739b22. C£ Job, 10, 10: Hast thou not poured me oul as milk and curdled me like checsc?.
10 Cf. M. V. Barrow, A Brief Hisiory of Tcratology to Ihc Early 20lh Ccnlury, Tcratdogy, 1971, 4: 119-13Q Pp.119-122 beve iniercsing comments on Arisiotle.
11 Dc Ccncrationc AnirnaliwA. Bk 2, c 3, 737a27.
12 Cf. Arisioicics Lalinus, XVII 2. Dc Gcncralionc Aninsaliu~n, Ediled by H. J. Drossaart. Dcsclec de Brouwer :Bruges-Paris, 1966. William translated this frarn the Grcek in or befotc 1260 and it would hvc been available to Aqutnas when hc wrme his Summa Thcologiac. Cf. Dc Gcncra~ionc Anunallwn, translated by A. L Peck. Cambodge, Mass: Harvard University Prcss, 1990, p xxi.
13 Cf. A. L Pcck, o.c., p. 174, note a.
14 Cf. LiddcD and Scotts Greek-English Laticon s v.
I5 Cf. Metaphysica, Bk Z, c 10, 1034a30: Nalural generation is like artificial praduction: tbe seed operates as do things that ~vork by an; il contains thc form po~ially, and tts r~xtrac is something ~rbich b" thc same name, in a r~nsc, as the offspang. Bot rally tn a sense, because we cannot expect aD instanecs to beve exaaly thc sune name, u ilt thc praductian of hYmaA being for a ~man is produced frotn a n~n. Unicss of course thc offspring is a freak~rbicb is why thc sire of a mule is not a mt~" Translatod by J. Warrington. London: Dent. 195&
16 Aahnalium, Bk 3, c 8.
1? /n Scnten~ias, Bk 2, ds 20, qu 2, u 1, ra 1; Ill Scntc~ias, Bk 4, ds 44, qu 1, ra 3c; Sw~na Thedogiac 1, qu 92, u 2, ra 1; Summa Theologiae,1, I qu 99, ar 2, ra 2; Dc Vcritatc, qu S, ar 5, ra 9.
18 Following the translatian of Michacl Scot from thc Arabic. Cf. Aristotcles. Dc 1~;4 Anunalihw XVI. Ed. A. Van Oppcnresy
19 Cf. Dc Malo, qu 3, ar 5: ~Causa alicunis pOtCSI aliquid dia duplicitcr: uno modo direac, alio modo indireae. Indireae quidem, sicut cum aliquad agens causat aliquam dispositionem ·d aliquem effeaDm, dicilur esse occasionalitcr a indirectc cause illius cffcaus; sicut si dicatur quod ille qui seccat ligna est cause cornoustianis ipsonmu"
20 Summa Theologiae, I qu 92, ar 1, ag 1.
21 Summa Theologiae, I, qu 99, ar 2, ra 2.
23 Cf. Dc Gcacrationc Animalimn. Bk 4, c 2,767al O.
24 Cf. .~1. W. J Ferguson and T. Joanen. ~Temperature-depcndem sex determination in Alligator mississippicnsis". Journal of Zodogy (London), 1983, 200, pp. 14~177.
25 Dc Vcritwc qu 5, ar 9, ra 9.
26Summa Theologiae, I qu 92, ar 1, n 1. The Latin reads: ~Dicendum quod per rcspectum ad naturam panicularem femina CSI aliquid deficiens, el occasionatum: quia vinus active quae esl in semine maris imcndil producere sibi simile perfectum secundum masculinum SeAurn: sed quad fernina generaretur, hoc est propter vinutis amivae debiliutem, vcl propter aliquan~ materiae indisposiuonem, vel euam proptcr aliquam transmulationem ab extrinseco, puu a ventis australibus qui sumt humid) . . . sed per Comparalionem ad naluram universalem femina non esl aliquid occasionatum, sed esl de imentione naturae ad opus gencrationis ordinau: inientio autem naturae universalis dependa a Deo, qui esl universalis aumor nauorae, a ideo, insutuendo naturam non solum marem sed etiam feminam produxir."
27 Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk 3, c 94. Tne Latin reads: Ad aliod igimr tcndil intentio paniculans agemis, et universalis: narn paruculare ¥s tendit ad bonum partis absolule, el facil eam quanto meliorem pOtCSI; universale auiem agens tendil ad bonum lotius. Sicut patel quod genemio feminae esl preaer intenuionem namrae paniculans, idesl, huius vinuns quse es in hoc sernine, quse ad hoc tendil quad perficial cvnceplum quamo magis potesl: esl autern de intentionc naturae universalis, idest, vinutis universalis agentis ad generalionem infenorum, quod femina generetur.
28 Translated by the Dominican Fathers, London, Bums Oates, 1920.
29 ElhcaNicomachea, Bk8,c12,1162a 0.
30 Summa Theologiae, I qu 92, ar 2.
31 Summa Theologiae,1,qu99,ar2,ag 1.
32 Summa Theologiae,I qu9,°,ar2,ra 1.
33 In Scntcnrias, Bk 4, ds 44, qu 1, ar 3c.
34 Ibid, aB 3.
3S Ibid, n 3.
36 De Geaerarione Animaliwn, Bk 5, c 8, 789b5. Bccause of the widespread belief - tbat Aristatic mbstituted fuml causes for eff~cicnt causc$, it is worthwhile quating thc pas$agc in full: Dcmocritus however omitted to mention thc Frnal Cause, and so all thc things whicb Narurc cmplay$ hc refers to necesaty. It is of course true tbat they arc dacrmi,ned by necc$sity, but at tbe sarnc time they arc for thc sake of some purpose, some Frnal Causc, and for thc sake of that ~VhiC]A is beacr tn each case. And so there is nothing to prevent the tCCtA being fom~ed and be~nB shed in thc way hc rays; but it is not on tbat account that it hppcn$, but on amount af thc F - l Causc, the End; tbosc ather factors arc causes qua causing movanent, qua instrumcots, and qlia material, $incc in fact it i$ probable that Nature makes thc majority of her instnunent$ by means of p~ewna used as an inetrumcnt . . . But to a0ege that thc causc$ arc of thc necesary type is on · par with sufJposing that wben wacr has been drawn aff a dropsical patient tbe rcasal for wbicb it has been drawn off is tbe lu~, and not thc paticuts hcaltb, for rEc $atc of whicn tbe lances made tbc in -:sion.~