Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis

Just as Augustine’s ideas were largely a Christianized version of Plato’s thought, Thomas Aquinas’s ideas were, for the most part, a Christianized version of the thought of Aristotle. Following Aristotle, Aquinas identifies the highest good of man as happiness and the means by which happiness is attained he identifies, in chorus with Aristotle, as virtue. Where he differs from Aristotle is in going beyond Aristotle. Whereas Aristotle believed that man could achieve eudemonia, or perfect happiness, in this life, for instance, Aquinas declares in his Summa Contra Gentiles that “man’s ultimate happiness will consist in that knowledge of God which he possesses after this life.”

Important in Aquinas’s thought is his concept of eternal law and natural law. For Aquinas, eternal law is the law of God which can be known only through the revelation of God. Natural law, on the other hand, can be discerned through reason. This is why Aquinas was able to borrow so heavily from Aristotle; he viewed Aristotle and other Greek philosophers as having attained the highest knowledge that can be attained through reason. Christianity did not contradict but instead completed this knowledge through revelation.

This idea of eternal law and natural law is also important to Aquinas’s ethical theories. For Aquinas, as for other thinkers, both pagan and Christian, before him, there is a transcendent and eternal order of reality by which societies and individuals can be measured and judged and to the dictates of which they should seek to conform. The particulars of the values Aquinas arrives at via this method derive from both Aristotle’s works and the biblical tradition. As Augustine’s philosophy often appears to be a bizarre mishmash of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity, so Aquinas’s philosophy is often an uncomfortable synthesis of the thought of Aristotle and the contents of the Bible.

His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92. There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of woman agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.

Perhaps the earliest and greatest feminist rebuttal to Aquinas is Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. There, she points out precisely the question-beginning nature of the assertions about women found in so many philosophers before her, including not only Aquinas but also Aristotle, Plato, and Augustine. They all lived in a society which simultaneously denied women the right to a full education and, in turn, used women’s lack of education to continue to justify their exclusion from education.

Although Maimonides wrote before Aquinas, his work also stands as a critique of Aquinas’s thought in pointing out its question-begging nature in a more general sense as well. Maimonides points out the question-beginning of Aquinas by doing exactly what Aquinas does, namely adapting Aristotle to his own religious beliefs and viewing those beliefs as the completion of Aristotle’s philosophy. For Maimonides, however, this is medieval Judaism and not Aquinas’s medieval Christianity. In the end, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Aquinas all make the same mistake of identifying the eternal order with the particular cultural or religious norms they assume as true, while failing to actually prove that those cultural or religious norms are in fact the truest or best norms and are identical with God’s eternal law.