Aquinas vs. Augustine on Their Varying Views of Women

St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine of Hippo are considered to be two of the greatest Christian theologians in the history of Christianity. Both of these men are apart of the same organization, the Church. Just by this fact it would be easy to assume that they agree on all major issues of the day but this is not the case. They have completely differing views with respect to women in secular and religious life corresponding with the idea of original sin, human sexuality, and social roles.
Even in the modern Catholic Church they are still regarded as two of the most important doctors of the church despite their different teachings on key important aspects of leading a Christian life. This shows the variability within the institution of the Catholic Church and some degrees of disagreement within a major faith organization. St Augustine of Hippo termed the idea of original sin. Nowhere in the history of the church had any such concept been taught. He was a man who lived a life of sin and promiscuity until he had an extreme conversion.
After this conversion he needed a way to justify all his bad decisions. He did so by terming original sin as the first sin made by Eve that doomed all of mankind for the rest of days. Augustine blames Eve for all the bad experiences in his life, even for all the bad decisions that he has made. He uses original sin and reveals the idea in such a way that no one has to take responsibility for his or her actions because it is innate in us to be bad. Original sin gives people an ‘easy out’ to excuse all previous bad behavior.

Never before had the term ‘original sin’ been placed on the sin’s of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Augustine’s example of an ideal woman, his mother, is even faulted by this original sin caused by Eve. “…the torments which she suffered were proof that she had inherited the legacy of Eve, seeking in sorrow what with sorrow she had brought into the world” (Confessions, 101). It is as if woman cannot help but be lesser than man. Even his mother, who he has a high regard for, is as good as she can be—for a woman, “It is not of her gifts that I shall speak, but of the gifts you gave to her” (Confessions, 192).
Original sin is possessed by all humankind and cannot be avoided, this makes it easy for people to remain blameless for sins they have committed. St Thomas Aquinas did not believe in the idea of original sin. He believed that you make choices in life and that original sin was a way to get out of taking responsibility for all the actions that you make, “…so original sin is not the sin of this person except insofar as this person receives his nature from his first parent” (The Summa, 44).
He notices that in Genesis that man and woman are created by God before sin and by this interpretation it would be impossible for original sin to exist if it is inherent in mankind. “What is natural to man was neither taken away nor added to him by sin” (The Summa, 40). Inadvertently by stating this, he is not blaming women for the fall of man. He didn’t believe that woman should be blamed for every evil thing in the world. In fact, he agues that woman was made to perfect man and that without her he would not be whole and able to procreate. …it was necessary for woman to be made as a ‘helpmate’ to man” (The Summa, 37). Woman is not condemned to be below man. Aquinas does not explicitly state this however; he does omit mentioning woman as separate from man in his section of the order among man and other things. He states, “Those of superior intellect are the natural rulers while those who are less intelligent but have stronger bodies seem to be made by nature to serve…” (The Summa, 11). He is not gender specific. In fact, one could read into this that most men are to be the servants because they have a stronger physique for working.
Aquinas is much more for the idea of actual sin where …”the sin that is the result of [the action of] the soul upon the parts of the body…” (The Summa, 44). This means that each person’s sin is based upon the choices that they make in their life, not from something that is passed down from the original man. In a different aspect, Augustine believes that human sexuality is dirty. His writing is in favor of rejecting his own sexual nature to live a life away from woman altogether. In his writing he always uses negative language to talk about sexuality.
He writes about a dream. He sees Continence and she says to him a quote from the Psalms “Close your ears to the unclean whispers of your body, so that it may be mortified. It tells you of things that delight you, but not such things as the law of the Lord your God has to tell” (Confessions, 176). These sexual temptations are impure, and disordered. He has to turn away from all things sexual. Through all his giving in to temptation in life he pulls a 180-degree turn once he converts and believes that he should never be with another woman again.
He runs away from the general population and hides away in a monastery for the rest of his life. He changes from not being able to wait two years for a wife to have sex, to giving up sex forever. He feels like he had been greedy in the first part of his life and that the latter part should be given up to God. “…no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed luster upon it, was worthy of comparison…beside the happiness of the life of the saints” (Confessions, 197). Aquinas believes that human sexuality is innocent.
He argues against the popular belief that woman is a ‘ misbegotten man’ by stating that “…woman is not something misbegotten but intended by nature to be directed to the work of procreation” (The Summa, 38). He goes on to say in that paragraph that because God is the creator of all things, and he created male and female, it is obvious that God intended for man and woman to exist with each other equally in nature. Human sexuality is necessary for procreation. Sin does not define whether or not human nature would procreate. “What is natural to man was neither taken away nor added to him by sin” (The Summa, 40).
Sex is not a dirty act, quite the contrary; it is a perfection of God’s creation. “…by nature there is a union of the male and female for the purpose of procreation” (The Summa, 40). If the human race had never sinned and the world was in complete innocence we would still have the need to procreate and sex would be the necessary means to such. “In the state of innocence, however, reproduction would have taken place without lust” (The Summa, 40). Augustine had ideas for woman’s social roles as well. He had his mother as an example of an ideal woman and described how the ideal woman would be.
Woman should behave a certain way. There is no circumstance where a woman would be over a man in any situation. He uses the example of his mother who he praises as possessing “…modesty and temperance…obey[ing] her parents…” (Confessions, 194) as well as serving her husband as her lord (Confessions, 194). With her husband she “…knew better than to say or do anything to resist him when he was angry (Confessions, 195) and encouraged other women to “…not defy their masters” (Confessions, 195), in speaking about spousal relationships.
In other words, woman should know their place and serve their husband without regard for self. He believed that the man was always to be placed first in every situation and that all women should be like his mother. Service should be a woman’s strong suit and it seems that Augustine believed that in this woman would be fulfilled. Aquinas believed that woman had worth and uses reason to prove this. Throughout his writings he uses non-gendered terms to describe most things, which is a sign to the reader that he believes in equality amongst men and women.
He does say that woman was not made to be subjective to man in that she is a slave to him. He points out the two different meanings of subjection. The one kind is a product of the result of sin. The other kind is “…that of the household or the citizen in which the superior makes us of his subjects for their benefit or good” (The Summa, 38). He further specifies this to women when he says “woman is naturally subject to man in this kind of subjection because by nature man possesses more discernment of the reason” (The Summa, 38). In this, he is stating that there is a natural order to things.
Not that woman is below the man in equality, but that there is simply a difference. This introduces the idea, separate but equal in a way. Man and woman are different, but also man and man are different. There are many cases in existence where a leader is needed to take charge. This is not because the one man is highly superior to all other men or that all other men should be slaves to the one, but that someone is needed to be a leader; “…someone can have dominion over another person as a free man, when he directs him to his own good or to the good of the community” (The Summa, 39).
He also introduces an idea that if a woman is raped, she has committed no sin. Previously, when a woman was raped she was unworthy of marriage and was termed ‘dirty’. Aquinas finds worth in woman, and introduces the voice of reason in non-gendered terms in order to have his philosophies available to both man and woman. In their writings, St. Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine of Hippo have presented significantly differing views on women and the roles that they should have in the world.
These three areas are some of the most important aspects of leading a good Christian life. Even today, these two men are regarded as doctors of the church and their ideals and philosophies are taught, with little regard for the fact that some of the things they teach are completely opposite of each other. Through these varying ideas about original sin, human sexuality, and social roles of man and woman they have set the stage for diversity within the Catholic Church.

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