The Medieval Form/Matter Dichotomy between Men and Women
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.
– Bertrand Russell, Impact of Science on Society (1952)
A highly ludicrous notion of woman which has had an enormous influence on vast segments of human thought holds that “a woman is a defective man.” This view was suggested by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE. Aristotle was one of the most influential philosophers of ancient Greece. His work was rediscovered by Christian theologians in medieval Europe; they referred to him as “the” philosopher and adapted many of his views.
Aristotle lived in a society in which the citizens had free time to enjoy the pursuits of leisure because they had slaves to take care of their states and to do menial work. It was, however, a society in which women occupied a shockingly inferior position. Plato, in projecting the institutions of an ideal state, proposed that all political offices, except that of military leader, should be open to women, because he regarded men and women as essentially equal; but Aristotle accepted the more conventional view of his day concerning the inferiority of women, and went on to elaborate upon it (Freeland, 1993).
Aristotle’s remarks on females are, along with his defense of slavery, generally regarded as the lowest point of his philosophy and science. The problem is not simply that he is wrong (as when he maintained that the sun and other celestial objects orbit the earth); nor is it that there are gaps in his reasoning. The problem is that his views about the female are the product not of honest (though mistaken) science but of ideological bias — specifically, of a misogynist ideology typical of ancient Greek men. Aristotle was in fact as much a sexist as Adolf Hitler was a racist.
Eva Keuls calls Aristotle one of the fiercest misogynists of all times. Maryanne Horwowitz observes that Aristotle’s “sex prejudice” is the source of many of the standard Western arguments for the inferiority of womankind and for the political subordination of women to men in home and in society.
Aristotle writes about several physical differences between males and females, many of which point to the physical inferiority of females, as he sees it. Some of these claims are accurate; many are not. Females, he claims, tend to be, in comparison to males, weaker, less muscular, shorter, slimmer, and slighter. They have softer flesh, paler skin, smoother feet, thinner shins, and softer bones than males do. Women are unable to go bald, though they have less hair on their bodies. Females lack, or possess smaller, defensive parts (e.g., horns in animal species), and females of some species (including human) have fewer teeth. Females are cooler (their blood is not as warm as the blood of males), and as a result, they have smaller brains and fewer sutures in their skulls.
According to Aristotle, males and females contribute something to generation, but their contributions are different. Females contribute menses, which is seed, but not fully concocted seed. The female’s contribution constitutes all of the matter of generation. The female seed is shaped primarily by the contribution from the male and, thus, becomes an embryo and eventually a fully formed animal. The female seed is passive in that, in generation, the male seed does the essential forming.
The key text for the negative rendering of the role of gender in nature is Aristotle’s Generation of Animals, where it is argued that human procreation is the result of the generative action of masculine form upon inert female matter (Garrard 1995).
Aristotle’s view of women very much relied on a theory that among animal species, females have less vital heat than males. He reasoned that woman, lacking heat, was unable to impart shape to what flowed away as menstrual blood. Woman’s part in conception was merely to supply the container, the “flower pot,” one might say, in which the distinctive seed, implanted by a man, grows.
Elshtain writes in her book “Public Man, Private Woman” that “Aristotle buttresses his already strained teleology of female nature with a defective science of biological and reproductive processes.” Aristotle, she observes, holds that “the male implants the human form during mating. He deposits within the female a tiny homunculus for which the female serves as a vessel until this creature matures. The female herself provides nothing essential or determinative.” (1981, 44)
To be sure, Aristotle believed females do contribute something more than a container to generation, namely matter — a passive (and indeterminate) matter. But given the value Aristotle places on form and activity over matter and passivity, this contribution recedes into virtual insignificance.
Keuls writes: “Aristotle’s remarks on sex and procreation reveal the tendentiousness to which Greek biology and medicine had fallen victim. He sought to prove scientifically not only that the male is superior to the female, but also that the female, despite her nurturing of the fetus during pregnancy, has no genetic input into procreation, thus making the father the only real parent.” (1993, 145)
Aristotle not only characterized women’s contribution to the reproductive process as the “matter” or “material” for which the male supplies the “seed” or “principle,” but he also depicted women, per se, as “matter in need of form” (Brown 2004). This is where Aristotle’s rabid prejudice against women takes on a cosmic metaphysical dimension.
In medieval philosophy the female was conventionally perceived as an imperfect, incomplete, and defective version of the male, the gender of inferior intelligence – which led to much palavering by of the medieval church to the effect that woman is the source of all evil, a door to Satan. However, at the origin of this extreme form of gender discrimination was an Aristotelian understanding of the physical universe, which Greek philosophy as well as medieval metaphysics defined as composed of form and matter. While man provides the life-giving principle of form, woman is associated with a chaotic and formless matter. Medieval theology, which in the main shared with Greek philosophers and physicians the same hierarchical perspective and similarly insisted on the natural inferiority of women, supported this metaphysical principle with all kinds of arguments that make little sense in reality. For example, etymological explanations corroborate the contention that woman (femina) is of lesser faith (fe-minus) than man and that as a mother (mater), she belongs to the material world (materia). Her biological constitution being dominated by the wet and cold humors, she is predisposed to be lustful and disobedient. In short, woman is by instinct and nature, more inclined to succumb to the sins of the flesh, whereas man, whose very name (vir) evokes physical (vis) and mental (virtus) strength and who possesses rational and logical abilities, evolves in the world of ideas. Such a view on women justifies the law of subservience according to which they should obey the dictates of men, their natural leaders since Adam, who precedes Eve in the Genesis story (Cazelles, 1991).
In her “Aristotle and the Politicization of the Soul,” Elizabeth Spelman (1999) notes that Aristotle argues for the position that men by nature rule women. However he comes to this conclusion because the rational element of the soul by nature rules the irrational element. Men rule women because masters rule slaves, because tutors rule children. However, it is the rule of men over women that provides us with a means of understanding the kind of relationship among parts of the soul; when the assumption is made that men represent the rational element and women represent the irrational element, the fact of male dominance over women provides us with a means of establishing that in the soul the rational element rules the irrational. And this is how Aristotle’s reasoning goes on in nonsensical circles, while totally based on baseless assumptions. As Malcolm Schofield comments, Aristotle’s remarks on women are a classic example of “false consciousness.”
As a legacy of Aristotle, this kind of false consciousness pervaded throughout the Middle Ages unrestrained. In their pathological eagerness to vilify woman, and assert the supremacy of their own gender, many Christian philosophers of the medieval times whole-heartedly embraced the whole absurdity of Aristotelian philosophy. But even before them, Arabic scholars had attempted to make Aristotle the foundation of Islamic philosophy, while Maimonides decided to integrate Aristotle into Jewish philosophy. In fact, Maimonides (1135 – 1204) became a principal source for the transmission of Aristotle’s arguments for sex polarity.
The Arabs are most significant to the propagation of Aristotelian philosophy because they conveyed such respect for Aristotle’s thought. Avicenna wrote an encyclopedic summary of Aristotle’s main arguments, while Averroes wrote nearly forty commentaries on Aristotle’s writings. It was through these paraphrases and interpretations of Aristotle’s fundamental arguments that his thought moved beyond its Greek origins and spread throughout Europe of the Medieval times.
However, Avicenna is best known for his criticism of Aristotle’s theory of generation. He argued that the female did make a ‘formal’ contribution to generation and that man’s seed too was a ‘formal’ and material contribution. He therefore rejected Aristotle’s single-seed theory of generation. And yet, when Avicenna described in detail the particular formal contributions of male and female, it becomes clear that the female contribution is inferior and secondary to the male’s. Therefore the kind of sex polarity proposed by Avicenna was a qualified and modified one.
Unfortunately, Averroes, who followed Avicenna, retrogrades — and rejects Avicenna’s qualification of Aristotle’s theory of generation. He reaffirms Aristotle’s argument that the female provides matter and the male form, and that this difference is the result of the greater heat in male. In other areas as well, Averroes repeats Aristotle’s arguments for sex polarity. Women ought to obey men and they are not capable of friendships of equality with men. Even so, Averroes concedes that women and men have the same end and that women are capable of philosophy.
While in the sphere of Judaism, although the earlier Jewish philosopher Avicebron adopted Aristotle’s philosophy, he did not go quite far. It was Maimonides who directly brought forward Aristotelian arguments for sex polarity in all its aspects. Beginning with the metaphysical level, Maimonides argues that woman resembles the properties of matter, and man the properties of form. He goes on to assert that women contributes no seed to generation because she is colder than men. Then he limits woman’s access to philosophy and wisdom. Finally, he argues that women ought to obey, while men rule. In all these aspects, Maimonides appealed to Aristotle for a philosophical justification for the sex polarity. By the end of the twelfth century, Jewish philosophy was firmly grounded in Aristotelian arguments (Tirosh-Samuelson, 2004).
While Averroes and Maimonides were thus attempting to integrate Aristotelian rationale for sex polarity into their religious outlooks, Sex complementarity was receiving a complete development by the mystic nun Hildegard of the monastery of Bingen. The environment of the mutual respect of women and men in the monastic setting starkly contrasted with the derogative treatment women were receiving elsewhere. But such a positive trend was given no scope to spread and prevail (Hunter College Women’s Studies Collective, 1995).
Subsequently, St. Albert’s decision to make Aristotle intelligible to the literate Latin-speaking people of his time and St. Thomas Aquinas’s decision to use Aristotle as the foundation for a new Christian philosophy resulted in the complete integration of Aristotle’s arguments for sex polarity into western thought. St.Albert the Great discovered the wealth Aristotelian thought through Maimonides, and he transmitted this rationale for sex polarity to his student St. Thomas. In their theological framework of thought, woman was perceived on the natural level as inferior to man in body and mind, and her inferiority was explained through an Aristotelian rationale.
Specifically, woman was considered to be weak in her reasoning powers and in her capacity for natural virtue. She was also considered as the passive sex because of her inability to provide seed to generation.
Aquinas asserts in his opus Summa Theologica, that “Man begets his like in that by the semen’s power the matter is disposed to receive a certain kind of form.” Elsewhere, he observes in passing: “Now it is evident that in the opinion of philosophers, the active principle of generation is from the father, while the mother provides the matter.”
The process by which the material of the mother slowly was transformed into a fetus is in fact described in great detail by Aquinas. First the material is given a vegetative soul. When the subsequently formed material reaches a certain level of development, the sentient soul begins to function. After this entity reached another stage of development, the rational soul is given to it directly by God. Therefore, the material was provided by the mother, the power for the vegetative and sentient soul by the father, and the rational soul by God.
The Aristotelian metaphysical categories of form/matter, active/passive, and substance/accident were intricately worked into the Thomistic metaphysics of the human existence. In a certain sense, in Thomas a new existential metaphysics of existence and essence took a more important place than the older Aristotelian metaphysics of form and matter. Yet the Aristotelian categories continued to function within this new existential metaphysics. The female is associated with the passive principle, and the male with an active principle with seed, which able to contain form. Thus Aristotelian metaphysical association of the female with passive matter, and the male with active form, is continued within a Thomistic metaphysics. This continuity is a clear indication that Thomas Aquinas fully supported the metaphysical principle for gender polarity.
However, St. Thomas carefully avoids the extreme statements of his predecessors, and frequently tones down positions that devalue women by emphasizing the dignity of each and every human being. At the same time he did not desist from elaborating upon his own misogynistic views, drawing heavily on Aristotle’s philosophy which is of course permeated by gender polarity.
The tremendous popularity of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century led to Aristotle’s arguments for sex polarity gaining a new respectability. In fact, Aristotle was affirmed in a new and more intense way than he ever was in the past.
In this way all the previous association of female identity with the qualities of matter, and male with the qualities of form, gained renewed prominence in the Middle Ages. The medieval Christian philosophers concluded, with Aristotle, that the female was defective or deformed male in body and in mind. Ironically, this deep-seated prejudice against women is perhaps the only philosophical and metaphysical concept coming out of Ancient Greece that has had such a colossal impact on the lives of real people. Fancy notions as they may seem to us today, the suffering this huge body of rank sexist philosophy must have directly and indirectly caused women down the ages is incalculable. More specifically, the religiously sanctioned hatred of women in the time of Aquinas would soon lead to the unimaginable cruelty and torture during massive witch-hunts of medieval Europe.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17897/17897.txt.
(accessed 27 August 2006)
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