Tristan Potter

St. Augestine and head coverings

Jul 12th, 2020
Originally published Apr 5th, 2018

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” 1

Augustine 354–430, On the Trinity ChVII, pp814

Additionally, the letters from the apostle Paul state different rules for men and women. Augestine felt that all of this was at odds with Aristotle’s ideas of form and matter. In particular, St. Augustine focussed on resolving the contradictions relating to the rules around head-dressings.

At the time, head-dressings were seen as a terrible barrier between a man’s rational thought and God, but women were required to wear them. 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; so why don’t the rules around head-dress apply to men and women equally?

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.2

A new theory of mind

“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.”1

Augustine 354–430, On the Trinity ChVII, pp816

St. Augestine’s reconciles this with a theory of mind where there are two parts; the eternal mind and the everyday mind.

Viewing men and women separately, and observing the ways they spend their time, he decided that man is a closer representation of the human form, and so embodies the eternal mind. He admits that women have the capability to think rationally, but when contrasting how women and men on their own act, women 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.3

He concludes that the material man represents the eternal mind from the human form, and material women represents the everyday mind of the human form. Together, their minds create a complete human mind.

This resolves the tension that St. Augestine was seeing between the writings of Paul and Aristotle. Since women did not embody the eternal mind, a head-dressing wasn’t a barrier to their access of rational thought. Additionally, their embodiment of the “everyday mind” was seen as more worldy, and so less connected to God.

This idea is hinting at a few present-day philosophical ideas of existence:

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote many of the law and training manuals for the Catholic Church, also contributed a lot to our understandings of gender.

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. This hardened the ideas of women as being less than men into law.


The explicit classification of women as having “everyday” instead of higher thinking ability is the pre-cursor for the idea that women should have less decision-making power and should perform more everyday chores for naturalistic reasons. Today, we often see arguments of biological determinism (that a person is defined solely by their biology) to justify the different ways we treat men and women in society, and these arguments are often grounded in the ideas 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, and others are affected by association.

Even fields that are meant to be secular feel the impact. For example, many schools of biology still frame the process of insemination as an aggressive act by the 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.

  1. Clack, Beverley. “Augustine 354–430 Ce.” Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition, Springer, 1999, pp. 59–74.  2

  2. We also know that many of the writings attributed to Paul were written many years after his death. Many of the more mysoginistic statements seem to have been added later, through being accidentally transcribed into the original letters, as well as by later accounts.

    St. Augestine’s wouldn’t know this though, so is attempting to reconcile the writings as if they were written by one person. 

  3. St. Augustine is performing circular reasoning. Current societal roles influence the actions that men and women perform, and St. Augestine is using the actions they perform to justify the way they are being treated by society.

    Additionally, if women are always discussed in terms of bodies, and men in term so of their minds, this leads to more observations of imperfection in women’s bodies, including perceived dirtiness.