Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Incomplete Woman

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Shown is a painting of St. Augustine in his Study, by Sandro Boticelli.

Shown is a painting of St. Augustine in his Study, by Sandro Boticelli, image by Thomas Gun.

Saint Augustine ( 354-430) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) both set out to Christianise the Greeks. The fact that the Greeks did not know Christianity because their culture preceded Christ, did not deter these theologians, who held the doctrines of the ancient Greeks in high esteem. Therefore, both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived approximately 900 years apart, wanted to reconcile Greek theory with Christianity, so that the Greeks would no longer be a threat to Christian dogma.

The Incomplete Woman

So what did the incomplete, or unfinished woman have to do with all this?  We have only to consider how the Bible describes the creation of Eve – whom God fashioned from the rib of Adam.

Jostein Gaarder, in “The Middle Ages,” Sophie’s World, says, “Unfortunately, Aquinas also adopted Aristotle’s view of women. You may perhaps recall that Aristotle thought that woman was more or less an incomplete man. He also thought that children only inherit the father’s characteristics, since a woman was passive and receptive while the man was active and creative.”

In Aristotle’s view, we should love people (and the deity) according to their worth. We can love God, but God cannot love us. The inferior being must always love the superior being more than the superior loves the inferior. The woman, incomplete and an afterthought, is inferior to the man, therefore less worthy.

Saint Augustine: Rational Thought Must Serve Truth

Saint Augustine (354-430) was the powerful Bishop of Hippo around 395. He found numerous ways to use the Bible to back up his beliefs and reconcile them with those of Plato.  His key works were Confessions and The City of God.  In the last three chapters of the latter work, he gives an explanation of the book of Genesis and of his philosophy on the nature of time.  Augustine believes that God has no future, nor does he have a past.  He is everlasting and eternal and not bound within time.

The City of God is the path taken by those selected for salvation by God. The work also refers to the “City of Man,” which is the path of those who have strayed from truth.

Augustine dipped in and out of a few different religions and philosophies before he settled on Christianity, for example, dualism, stoicism and, finally, as explained by Jostein Gaarder, “…Neoplatonism. Here he came across the idea that all existence is divine in nature.”

St. Augustine: Bringing Together Greek and Jewish Beliefs

Surprisingly, perhaps, St. Augustine does not consider Christianity incompatible with Platonism. He even suggests Plato was familiar with the Old Testament, although Gaardner points out that this is unlikely.

St. Augustine reconciles the Biblical idea that God created the world out of nothing and the Greek belief that the world has always existed, with a simple modification. “…before God created the world, the “ideas” were in the Divine mind.  So Augustine located the Platonic ideas in God and in that way preserved the Platonic view of eternal ideas,” says Gaardner.

There are aspects of St. Augustine’s thought that differ from Platonic thought, for example, the fact that he expounds on the struggle throughout history beween good and evil. Gaardner claims this linear view of good and evil in history is not a Platonic viewpoint.

St. Thomas Aquinas, by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427)  Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

St. Thomas Aquinas, painting by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), image by Eloquence.

St. Thomas Aquinas:  Everything Has a Purpose

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) became a Dominican Friar against the will of his family – his Greek hero was Aristotle. Aquinas’ key works were Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica.

Like Augustine, Aquinas believes it is possible to reconcile Christian faith with the teaching of a Greek thinker.

“Aquinas was among those who tried to make Aristotle’s philosophy compatible with Christianity. We say that he created the great synthesis between faith and knowledge. He did this by entering the philosophy of Aristotle and taking him at his word,” says Jostein Gaarder.  What St. Thomas Aquinas claims is that there need be no conflict between Christianity and Platonic thought, because both often say the same things.

In other words, we can use reason to reach Christian truth.

The Existence of God

Aquinas believes that everything has a purpose. Jeremy Harwood in “St. Thomas Aquinas,” Philosophy, 100 Great Thinkers, says that “…all rational knowledge was acquired through sensory experience on which the mind could then reflect.”  This purpose is given by God and applied to everything, whether animate or inanimate.  But, Aquinas also acknowledges the power of divine revelation, as something beyond that achieved by knowledge through sensory experience, or, in a word, empiricism.

St. Thomas Aquinas claims five proofs for God’s existence and to achieve this he uses deduction based on pure reason.  “His conclusion was that God was, unquestionably, the Prime Mover, the universal First Cause without whom nothing could exist,” says Harwood.  We know, without needing to read the Bible, that it’s wrong to hurt people, and that we must do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We can recognise just by looking at natural things like flowers, that they are the work of God.

A Hierarchy on Earth but Female Equality in Heaven

St. Thomas Aquinas established a hierarchy of being, derived from Aristotle, which fitted in well with Christian theology. God is at the top, above the Angels, and then the hierarchy filters down to man before encompassing animals and plants.

In the hierarchy of being, Aquinas considers Man as the life-giving force, and consequently woman is his inferior. However, as Jostein Gaarder explains in Sophie’s World:

“…it is only as nature-being that woman is inferior to man. Woman’s soul is equal to man’s soul. In Heaven there is complete equality of the sexes because all physical gender differences cease to exist.”

St. Thomas Aquinas’ Revelation

According to Jeremy Harwood, Saint Thomas Aquinas suddenly stopped writing his Summa Theologica.  “Four months before his death he experienced some form of cathartic religious experience during mass,” says Harwood.  He quotes the Saint, as he explains why he never picked up his pen again:

“All that I have written seems to me like straw, compared to what has now been revealed to me.”

Sadly, we will never know the true nature of that revelation.

© Copyright 2013 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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