In several passages in the Summa Theologiae and elsewhere, Thomas Aquinas asserts that the inferiority of women lies not just in bodily strength but in force of intellect. To top this off, he maintains that feminine intellectual inferiority actually contributes to the order and beauty of the universe. But he also affirms that in Heaven there are and will be women who occupy higher places than men. What can we make of this apparent inconsistency? Is he simply hedging on his seemingly chauvinistic positions to accommodate Mary, Queen of Heaven? Or do his views on women make sense only as part of his comprehensive view of the universe?
To begin to understand his position, we must ask why Aquinas thinks women intellectually inferior in the first place. Scripture is likely his first guide. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:10 that “man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman was created for the sake of man.” This passage echoes Genesis 2:18,19: “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will give him a helpmate.” Aquinas reasons from these scriptural passages that when one thing exists for the sake of another, it is inferior to that other. Other passages indicate more clearly that the intelligence is the seat of woman’s divinely ordained inferiority. When in 1 Corinthians 11:3 St. Paul says that “man is the head of woman,” and in Ephesians 5:22 that “a husband is the head of his wife,” Aquinas takes it as evident that if men are meant to rule, it can only be by virtue of intellectual superiority.
Aquinas’ views on female inferiority were doubtless influenced as well by Aristotle’s reproductive biology, with its understanding of the relation between male and female as one of active (perfect) principle to passive (imperfect) principle. Aristotle saw the sperm as the formative agent; the mother simply supplied raw material to be incorporated into the developing child. He also thought the sperm was directed to producing only male offspring, and that when this did not result it was because something interfered with the active principle within the sperm.
Finally, however, Aquinas does not believe it matters very much whether the particular causes involved in reproduction are to be regarded as failing or not failing when women are engendered. God desires that women be part of the universe, and He orders nature in such a way as to insure that they are produced. (On the question of Aquinas’ biology, see Michael Nolan, “What Aquinas Never Said About Women,” FT, November 1998.)
In addition to the testimony of Scripture and biology, Aquinas probably took female intellectual inferiority to be plain enough from experience. He points out, for example, that shysters prey on widows in preference to men because “men are wiser and more discerning, and not so quickly taken in.” He encourages widows to turn to prayer in their desolation, lest woman’s “softness of soul” lead them to pamper themselves, an occasion of serious sin. He also notes the difficulty women have in sticking to their decisions, and how quickly they can change their minds out of desire, anger, or fear.
Aquinas does not mean, however, that all women or only women are prone to these vices; he acknowledges that there are women outstanding in self-control and men who lack it. He also points out that being less intelligent, and thus less educable, can sometimes prove advantageous from a moral and spiritual point of view. Devoutness is frequently found more often in women and simple, uneducated men because their lack of learning makes it easier for them to trust in God wholeheartedly, rather than in themselves.
But we cannot fairly address the question of woman’s intelligence without considering Aquinas’ general views on the perfection of the universe and on woman’s place in it. Following Aristotle, Aquinas argues that “perfection” can mean two different things: first, that a being has all the parts and powers it ought to have; and second, that its parts and powers are greater than those of another being. A plant that has all the attributes and abilities it ought to have (e.g., to grow, to reproduce) is a perfect plant, but compared to a dog, which not only grows and reproduces but also sees and moves about, it is a less perfect being. In the same way, the general intellectual inferiority of women does not make them defective or inferior simply speaking, but only in the particular natural order, in comparison to most males and to beings with a more perfect nature—namely, the angels.
Far from denigrating women because of their intellectual imperfection, Aquinas sees it—and all imperfection—as an instance of divine wisdom:
God, through His providence, orders all things to divine goodness as to an end; not however in such a manner that His goodness increases through those things which come to be, but so that a likeness of His goodness is imprinted in things insofar as it is possible, for indeed it is necessary that every created substance fall short of divine goodness, so that in order for divine goodness to be communicated to things more perfectly, it was necessary for there to be diversity in things, so that what is not able to be perfectly represented by some one [thing] is represented in a more perfect manner through diverse things in diverse ways. ( Summa Contra Gentiles , III, 97)
Those who fail to see the goodness of relative imperfection often do so because they focus on the parts of the universe and overlook that it is the universe as a whole that best reflects God. Aquinas argues that without imperfection there would be no diversity, and without diversity the universe would not represent God in the best possible way. Arthur Lovejoy misses the mark in The Great Chain of Being when he criticizes Aquinas as saying that it would be better to have a work of pulp fiction and a copy of Virgil than two copies of Virgil. Aquinas would respond that God does create things that are less perfect than others, but not things that are lacking in those qualities or virtues they ought to have. Everything that God makes is good. Diversity does not imply defect or sin on the part of anyone; on the contrary, the relative imperfections of things are desired by God: “The cause of this disparity could be from the part of God, certainly not that He was punishing certain individuals and rewarding others; but that He would raise some up more, and others less, so that the beauty of order would more shine forth in humankind.”
When it comes to perfection in the sense of attaining one’s ultimate end, beatitude, superiorities in the natural order are no longer the determining factor. The rank of a rational creature in the order of glory is determined by God’s love for that individual, a love that is dictated not by the natural perfection of the individual but by God’s good pleasure. The better rational creature is better primarily because God loves it more, but secondarily because the creature, in free response to God’s love, loves God in return more than others do.
Just as some human beings will surpass certain angels in glory despite the inferiority of human nature to angelic nature, so too some women will achieve greater glory than some men despite their inferiority as to intelligence.
In the first state of mankind the body was subject to the soul and nothing could happen in the body which would be contrary to the good of the soul, neither as to its being nor as to its operation; nor is this precluded by the fact that even then there was a diverse dignity of souls according to the diversity of bodies, since it is necessary for the soul to be proportioned to the body, as form to matter, and as mover to moved: and therefore woman, even as to her soul, was more imperfect than man. In the ultimate state, however, such is the subjection [of body to soul] that the quality of body follows the virtue of the mind; whence according to the diversity of merits one soul will be more worthy than another soul, and the body more glorious; whence there will not be a difference on account of diverse sex. ( Scriptum super Sententiis , II, 21, question 2, article 2)
The Blessed Virgin Mary is of course for Aquinas the most unambiguous example of a woman who excels in glory not only all men but all angels, not by virtue of her nature, but on account of grace. The women who stood at the foot of the cross and those who went to Christ’s tomb on Easter morning are also likely to occupy higher ranks in Heaven than most men. Aquinas does not hesitate to commend these women for their outstanding love and devotion.
Regardless of whether we agree with Aquinas’ position on woman’s intelligence, there is at least one important thing we can learn from him about relative inferiorities—we should love our own. God wants inequalities in rational beings, and if we love God we should conform our will to His. It is pride, the excessive desire of our own excellence, that tends to make us sad when another has some perfection or grace we do not have. To sorrow at the good is intrinsically evil. In our discussions of the differences between the sexes, we must avoid yielding to impulses of envy, but strive rather to love whatever littleness we may have due to our sex, as God loves it.
Marie I. George is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York.