“Let us assume then […] that “the male” is a principle and is causal in its nature; […][and] that a male is male in virtue of a particular ability, and a female [is] female in virtue of a particular inability”1
Aristotle, Generation of Animals, IV, pp391-392
For millennia, humankind has been asking questions about the nature of differences between people. One of the most discussed and relevant debates, continuing even today, has been on the differentiation of men and women, how that difference is created, and what the implications of it are. The current gendered roles in Western society that we assign to men and women have a deep history, and the ways that the ideas of Western philosophers from thousands of years ago still effect society is astonishing. Beginning with Aristotle, we will investigate the ways that our current ideas of gender were formed, and the ways we can be critical of them.
Aristotle began philosophizing about the nature of the difference between men and women based off the works of previous philosophers. He was mainly looking for a way to determine the ways that men and women are of the same species and the extent that they are different.
“It is however not agreed whether one is male and another female even before the difference is plain to our senses”1
Aristotle, Generation of Animals, IV, pp371
Philosophers and scientists originally hypothesized that all differences were caused by changes in energy (or temperature). Heat caused transformations (destruction, reproduction, etc.) whereas cold caused things to stagnate and slow down. This was vaguely along the same elemental (earth, wind, fire, water) rubrics that were also in use.
(By Chiswick Chap (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Using this framework, Aristotle theorized that there is a perfect definition for each object in reality, and that the reality consisted of mostly-imperfect replicas of that form (a theory called hylomorphism). Aristotle believed that differences in function caused entities to have an alternative definition or form from each other. Aristotle investigated the variations between the the fluids men and women produced as a starting point for his theories on the differentiation of sex.
Most scholars of the time thought that menstrual blood/fluid was the female equivalent to semen. Since all differences are related to hot and cold, they thought that menstrual fluid must be cold whereas semen was hot, which would make them the same in form (definition), but different in reality (matter). Aristotle built off this work to try and determine what made these two fluids different.
Aristotle came to the conclusion that men and women did not differ in their functions, but only by accident of creation. He accepted there are differences within male and female, but believed they were due to imperfections in the ways that people are born. Since the prevailing thought at the time was that the function of humankind was to reproduce, this meant that the men with the hot semen (who controlled reproduction) were more perfect replicas of the perfect form of a human.
These “accidents of creation” were thus due to the heat that was available during procreation. If a man had children that looked exactly like them, that meant that the father was viral and hot; in other words, the man could exact his will on creation. It is noteworthy that Aristotle’s theories allowed for men to have variable will-power, such that a man could have a perfect child one time but imperfect (female) the next.
The idea that women are an imperfect version of men, and that men are the aggressive decision makers of creation is a narrative that is propagated in our current day. The idea that men are naturally aggressive, that they control reproduction, that the sperm fight for the egg are all ideas that stem from Aristotle’s original ideas about sex.
However, there is an obvious loophole in his theory: men can recreate a perfect form through enforcing their will on nature, but women cannot enforce their will in any way to pass on their genetics (because they do not have the ability to produce semen). The difference between the ability to procreate and the inability to procreate is a major difference in function, which is a difference in form.
Despite the flaws in this theory, students are still taught about the aggressive nature of sperm and the passivity of the egg (despite research to the contrary); women are still thought to have little control over reproduction, and the one sex model still influences modern ideas of medication and treatment.
Bible - Genesis; Two make one
The story of humankind’s creation contained in Genesis I and II is another key way that our ideas of gender have been shaped in the last few millennia.
In the first narrative, we have a descriptive account of creation that begins with light and space, moves to the animals, and ends with humankind.
“So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”2
Genesis I, 27
In the Genesis II, the second account, we begin with a flood and move to the creation of man and then the animals.
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus the man became a living creature.”2
Genesis II, 7
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will provide a partner for him.’”2
Genesis II, 18
Noticing that these are the same events of creation, we can look at the ways these stories were told and when to better inform our understanding. A naïve understanding is that God created the world twice; however, a more nuanced investigation reveals that the first account came from nomads almost 500 years before the second account (450 BCE vs 950 BCE).
The difference in timing is important because of the values that these societies would have been interested in: the first was a nomadic society concerned with the ability for the land to produce plentiful and continuous food supplies. The second account comes from a society more interested in agriculture and the ability to create large amounts of food for itself.
We can also notice the difference in framing. The first account is a descriptive one, whereas the second story is much more normative; it aims to provide a reasoning for the way things are.
“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and the two become one flesh.”2
Genesis II, 24
“this shall be called woman, for from man was this taken.”2
Genesis II, 23
Notice how the first account does not specify which sex was created first, it simply states that two sexes were created (“man” is often used as a term for humankind in older literature). As well, it only concerns itself with the details of creation, and not the details of the human condition.
Alternatively, the second story is focused on the human condition; man is given the power to name the rivers and lands, to categorize the world as he sees fit. It also has a justification for marriage, and for women to exist (to assist man in the caretaking of Eden). This indicates that the second story is not meant as a simple catalog of events, but is meant to convey a message to its readers.
This difference, and the interpretations of the second story, inform a staggering amount of literature and societal ideas of gender. The power of naming is often given to those who create and discover, and the power of naming that man is given implies the dominion over the creatures, and in particular Eve. The dependence on Adam that is created when Eve is created from his rib is poignant as well; if God could create Adam from dust, why did God not do the same for Eve?
Finally, the second story brings into question God’s agency. God is seemingly unable to determine the things that Adam needs and wants, and gives Adam large power to dictate the direction of Creation. Additionally, God is unable to create a suitable helper for Adam, which is one of the reasons that is given for God’s need to use Adams un-used rib-bone. The use of the rib-bone and the dominion of naming are used as key reasons for men to be dominant and for women to be submissive.
St Augustine and St. Thomas: Resolving tension
As we have seen in Genesis II, women are portrayed as the helpers of man.
“that man is the image of god, but the woman is the glory of the man” 3
Augustine 354–430, On the Trinity ChVII, pp814
St. Augustine was confused by this, particularly the idea that head-dressings were seen as a terrible barrier between man’s rational thought and God. If men and women were of the same form, as claimed by Aristotle, then they should have equal access to rational thought and equal access to God’s grace; why don’t the rules around head-dress apply to men and women equally?
“But because they are there renewed after the image of God, where there is no sex; man is there made after the image of God, where there is no sex, that is, in the spirit of his mind.”3
Augustine 354–430, On the Trinity ChVII, pp816
This disparity arises because Paul’s policy on why men should act in a certain way is based on form, from the first Genesis story, whereas his policy on how women should be treated is based on matter, from the second Genesis story.
St. Augestine’s decides to reconcile this by creating a theory of mind where there are two parts; the eternal mind and the everyday mind. Thus the material man represents the eternal mind from the human form, and women represents the everyday mind of the human form. Together, their minds create a complete human mind.
St Augestine thought that if we view men and women separately, man is more perfect. While women have the capability to think rationally, when we look at how women on their own and men on their own act on the day-to-day, what do they represent? Women in that day tended to do more every-day chores like tending to the house and family, whereas upper-class men were often more occupied with higher thought. Using his observations of women who are divorced from heterosexual relationships, they are of the same form but embody only the everyday mind and are thus inferior.
Being more critical, if women are always discussed in terms of bodies, and men in minds, this leads to greater observation of imperfection in body, including perceived dirtiness.
The idea that St. Augustine introduced begin to indicate the idea of mind/body dualism, the divide between rationality and emotion, and the heteronormativity that implies men and women (and not any other gender pairing) are required for individuals to be complete.
Another major figure in our understandings of gender is St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote a of law and training manuals for the Catholic Church.
St. Thomas reinforced the ideas of St. Augustine and Aristotle by hypothesizing that women were an “incomplete man,” and an “incidental being”. His theory of law stated that human law was an extension of natural law, and that divine law was found through revelation.
Observations of dirtiness and the explicit classification of women as having “everyday” instead of higher thinking ability is also the beginning of the Idea that women fall short of what they are supposed to be able to do for naturalistic reasons. Today, we often see arguments of biological determinism (that a person is defined solely by their biology) used to justify the different ways we treat men and women in society, and these arguments have their grounding in the ideas of form and matter that St. Augustine uses to justify the teaching of the apostle Paul.
Over 4.5 billion people take the words of these major figures in Abrahamic religious history as their starting point for thinking about gender and sex, which is roughly 4.65 billion people, and others are affected by association. Even fields that are meant to be free from religious impact feel the impact. An example is the ways that biology frames the process of insemination as an aggressive act by sperm towards a passive egg, when in fact there is a large amount of research to say that the egg performs a much larger role in determining the successful sperm.
Simone Beauvoir: The Feminine Reality
Philosophy, science, and society have come a long way since the initial theories of Aristotle and St. Augestine. Simone de Beauvior critiqued the old Western men:
“Man vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularizes it. "The female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities," Aristotle said. "We should regard women’s nature as suffering from natural defectiveness." And Saint Thomas in his turn decreed that woman was an "incomplete man," an "incidental" being. This is what the Genesis story symbolizes, where Eve appears as if drawn from Adam’s "supernumerary" bone, in Bossuet’s words. Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being.” 4
De Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pp2014
In the next post, I will be investigating the thoughts of more nuanced theorists using modern and contemporary research to back their theories of gender and sex.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Random House, 2014. ↩