Sometimes Aquinas is Weird

Okay this one’s just an opportunity to laugh at Aquinas. It’s one of the weirder articles I’ve come across, and it – well, you’ll see. In 1a.91.3, Aquinas asks whether the human body is suitably constructed. He starts off by saying no, it’s not suitably constructed, and offers three reasons why: 1) some animals are better than humans at some things; 2) humans don’t have claws and shit; 3) humans are upright like plants. If those points sound weird and illogical, buckle up, because it only gets better from here. 

So I’ll start off by fleshing out the logic behind those ideas. Humans are supposed to be the noblest animals, we’re closest to God because we’re smart and stuff, and so because we’re the noblest animals, we should have the best bodies out of all the other animals. But, Aquinas notes, “there are animals to be found which have sharper senses than man, and are swifter in movement.” Fuck! Not animals with sharper senses! That’s it team, Christianity is over, we’re not the noblest animals after all. Second, Aquinas argues, animals have claws and warm hides and shit, and we don’t have any of that. We had to go and invent it. Ergo, because we’re not naturally equipped with the stuff we need, our bodies are incomplete. They’re missing bits, and therefore lesser. Third, and this is my favourite argument – actually, just have Aquinas directly on this one:

“Again, man is further removed from the plants than the dumb animals are. Yet the plants have an upright posture, while the dumb animals have a horizontal one. So man should not have an upright posture.” 

This is the weirdest and also best thing I’ve read so far. Predestination was one thing, but now we’re talking about plant posture – this is the real heart of the Summa. The basic idea here is that there’s essentially a hierarchy of being. There’s plants, which are shit, and then animals, and then us. Humans are at the top of the physical world, so we’ve got the best versions of everything. But if plants have an upright posture, and then animals have a horizontal posture, the horizontal posture is clearly superior. Humans, with their upright posture, actually have the inferior plant posture instead of the superior animal one. There’s just – I don’t even know where to start here. I guess it’s worth mentioning that like penguins and stuff walk upright, as well as like, uh, kangaroos and birds and shit. Ostriches are bipedal too, and chimps can be I guess. Aquinas goes on to argue that walking upright is actually fine and not an indicator of our degeneracy or whatever, but I’d just like to note that when he does that, he’s actually also implying that ostriches are a higher form of being than any quadruped. I’m also not sure where fish fit into this model. Anyway, yes: it’s funny and weird.

Aquinas responds to these initial concerns with the really boring answer that “every craftsman intends to give his work the best possible constitution, not indeed absolutely speaking, but in relation to its purpose.” We have a purpose, and our bodies are designed so that we can achieve it. If we don’t have claws, it’s because claws don’t help us towards our goal, which is, uh, unclear. Aquinas says that the “immediate purpose of the human body is to serve a rational soul and its activities,” but that’s just deferring the question – we still need to know the purpose of a rational soul. I’m pretty sure Aquinas has previously defined our ultimate purpose as growing closer to God (I don’t have a citation sorry). Assuming that’s our purpose though, why are hands superior to claws? How do hands bring us closer to God than claws? Or flippers or something? How the fuck is your upper limb design relevant to that goal? Ah, whatever.

With that relatively sensible answer out the way, Aquinas quickly returns to the ludicrous. Over in 91.1, Aquinas argued that humans are made up of earth, air, fire, and water – but not light, because that’s silly. Plus we’ve got lots of earth and water in us, because fire and air are too powerful and we needed a bigger amount of earth and water in our bodies to balance out the potency of fire and air. So we’ve got this really delicate balance of all the elements, and that’s why we’re able to be spiritual creatures as well as earthly creatures. In 91.3, Aquinas carries this argument through, saying that because it’s such a delicate balance, there’s a bunch of limitations placed on our bodies. Firstly, we apparently have massive brains relative to the size of our bodies, because we need big brains to be smart and know stuff. Our brains are all wet, and that wetness stops us having good smell because smell requires dryness. The second limitation is that we can’t run fast because our bodies would explode or something, because they’re so delicate from this combination of elements. Just a couple of science facts here to stop us going loopy – according to Wikipedia, a human’s brain to body mass ratio is 1:40, which is about the same as in mice, and much less than in small birds or ants, which can have a ratio of 1:7. Following Aquinas’s logic, birds with a brain to body mass ratio of 1:7 are several times smarter than human beings, because their brains are, in relative terms, much bigger. Alternately if it just comes down to actual brain size, in and of itself rather than as compared to body mass, then whales and elephants are both smarter than humans. Also dogs have both good smell and wet noses, so, you know – I mean to be fair to Aquinas it’s the Middle Ages, so I don’t expect his science to be bang on. But you’d think he would have remembered that dogs exist. And he knows that dogs have good smell too – he mentions it when he’s talking about animals having better senses.

Okay let’s get to the plant thing. Aquinas puts forth four reasons why humans have upright postures, and they’re all amazing. Reason one, most animals are quadrupeds because they’re just looking for food on the ground, but humans are designed to grow smarter and learn. So we have an upright posture so we can look around better, so that we might “become aware of sense objects in every direction, on the earth and in the heavens, so that from them [we] may gather intelligible truth.” Being bipedal helps you learn better – Aquinas Fact! Reason two, the brain is elevated above the rest of the body so it can function more freely. I don’t – honestly I don’t even know what that means. I guess it’s not getting squished by like your intestines and shit, it’s just hanging out on its own like a giant knowledge ballsack, freed from the internal pushing and clamoring that’s probably going on in your torso. There’s also the suggestion that your head is highest on your body because it’s most important in like the hierarchy of the human body. Just accept it. Reason three, being bipedal means our hands can make shit and not just be another set of feet; reason four, if our hands were just feet we’d have to pick shit up in our mouths, and then our mouths would be coarse and rough and oblong – yes, oblong, Aquinas’s word, not mine – and then we wouldn’t be able to speak good and speech is important so that can’t happen.

Anyway, Aquinas concludes, if you think about it, we’re not really like the plants in having an upright structure. Our upper bits are pointing towards the upper bits in the world, and our lower bits are low to the ground. That’s not me taking the piss, it’s literally what’s written in the book: “For man has his uppermost part, namely the head, towards the uppermost part of the world, and his lower part towards the lower part of the world.” Our up bits are up, and our down bits are down, and therefore we’re not like plants, which are totally different. They have their up bits pointed down – wait, what? Apparently, the roots are like the mouth of a plant, because that’s how plants get food. But on humans, the mouth is an up bit, because it’s at the top. Therefore, Aquinas, doctor of the church, argues that plants have their up bits pointed down because their plant mouths are in the ground instead of at the top like human mouths. Humans and plants might both look like they’re upright, but our postures are actually opposites. Humans are really upright, and plants are upside down.

Alright that’s enough of that. Next week is 91.4, which is actually pretty interesting – Aquinas asks whether Genesis does a good enough job of describing the creation of humans. After that is 1a.92, which discusses the creation of women and absolutely definitely will not be sexist at all in the slightest. Not one bit.

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