Aquinas: On Human Dominion

We’re gonna do all of 1a.96 in one go here today team. It’s generally about the control that humans had in the Garden of Eden, and I’ll pick interesting little bits out of each one to make some bigger, more overarching points. There’s four sub-articles, two of which deal with human control over animals, and two of which deal with human control over other humans. That second one is especially interesting – we may or may not have some chat about slavery.

So 96.1 asks whether Adam and Eve could “hold sway over the animals.” Aquinas answers yes, they did – we’re skipping the initial no arguments here because they’re all unconvincing and we’re on a timer. Aquinas argues yes, they did hold sway – there’s the Genesis line about ruling the fish and the birds and the beasts, and ruling means holding sway, and so therefore Adam and Eve controlled the animals. Aquinas essentially holds up the ecosystem to prove his point: animals eat plants, he says, and humans eat animals and plants, so therefore humans are at the top of the ecosystem. And if humans are at the top of the ecosystem, it’s because they’re hierarchically the best, and therefore everything underneath them has to serve them… and so therefore the animals all obeyed Adam and Eve. There’s some slippage here between animals being used and animals serving. Strictly speaking, animals are used for food, sure – but Aquinas is stretching that a bit to argue that animals serve humans. He then claims that the animals would have understood and obeyed Adam and Eve, because understanding and obeying are logical parts of serving. So ‘serving’ is first presented as a synonym of ‘being used’, but then also has a wider secondary meaning that Aquinas kinda shoehorns in alongside. I think with just that example you can see how the rest of this article is going to go.

In 96.2, Aquinas asks whether humans could have controlled every single creature in existence. He’s including plants and shit in here too, by the way, not just animals. Aquinas kinda backs down from his aggressive interpretations here, and much more mildly asserts that humans have the ability to use plants and rocks and shit for particular purposes. So Adam and Eve couldn’t make rocks jump around or whatever, because rocks obviously aren’t sentient and you can’t deliver them commands. But Aquinas is still wanting to assert that humans have some sort of dominion over plants and rocks, because we’re further up the hierarchy of being and so we have to have control over everything underneath us. That’s how reality works for Aquinas. So Adam and Eve controlled the plants “not by commanding or changing them, but by using them to serve his purposes without any let or hindrance.” Okay, well, that’s more of a sensible claim, so fine, we’ll let that one slide.

96.3 is where things start heating up. Aquinas asks whether all people would’ve been equal in the state of innocence. Obviously he’s living in the 13th century, right, so you’ve got kings and aristocrats and then artisans and merchants, and also peasants and the unwashed hordes. It’s a super hierarchical time, and Aquinas wants to know whether that hierarchy would have existed in the Garden of Eden. There’s no criminals in Eden, right, no sinners – so there’s no hierarchy on that front. And there’s no punishment or reward, so nobody’s any different on that front either. Also some people are born “weak and deformed,” while others are “strong and whole,” but that presumably wouldn’t happen in Eden either. So there’s no hierarchy on that front. Maybe there’s no hierarchy at – oh no wait women still existed. That’s a wrap team, we’ve got our smoking gun. For Aquinas, women are inferior to men, and because both men and women existed in the Garden of Eden, not all people in Eden were equal.

Aquinas goes on to make a really telling statement: “order seems to consist chiefly in disparity.” Disparity is deeply hierarchical, for Aquinas – so if there’s order, there’s disparity, and if there’s disparity, there’s hierarchy. That applies to humans as well as everything else. Some of Aquinas’s points are kinda reasonable here – he mentions age disparity, biological differences like size or height or, uh, handsomeness – and really it’s not unfair to say that biological differences are also a type of difference. Aquinas has his shitty hierarchical view of difference, but set that aside and the general point is more acceptable. The sex differences actually provide a great case study for thinking about Aquinas’s argument more generally. There’s all these differences of age and gender and sex and the rest of it, and for Aquinas those are indicative of hierarchical differences. Some ages are better, some genders are better – and that’s part of the grand and perfect design of reality, rather than a consequence of sin. Today we’d dismiss most of the hierarchy stuff, but accept the more general premise that presumably in the Garden of Eden, if it existed, people would have been different. Some might have even been smarter or more driven. That’s probably not an unreasonable thing to say.

Final article, 96.4, asks if people would have held sway over each other. We’ve had the thing about humans holding sway over animals, and now it’s being applied to other humans. The first argument against people over people belongs to Augustine – good old Augustine, sticking up for human rights. According to Augustine, “Rational man, made in the divine image, was only intended by God to lord over irrational things; not man over man, but man over cattle.” Along similar lines, Aquinas argues that the subjugation of women to men in Genesis is a consequence of sin, not an original state of the world. It’s partly encouraging, but also you know that he’s about to argue against all of this, so don’t get too excited.

Aquinas starts his response by describing two types of lordship over other human beings. There’s the slavery thing, which is bad, and then there’s the governing and directing of free men, which is technically lordship but only in like a nice way. Aquinas argues that “the difference between a slave and a free man is that a free man is because of himself… whereas a slave is geared to the benefit of another.” We might take a flashback here to Aquinas on women: women, apparently, are designed to help men with reproduction, and they also have to rear the kids. But no I’m sure they definitely aren’t slaves. They’re definitely still somehow existing for their own reasons. Aquinas continues blithely on to argue that everyone values their own good and slavery is punitive because if you can’t be for yourself, you’re not able to pursue your own good properly, and therefore you’re robbed of something. He doesn’t think that his whole theory of women is slavery because he doesn’t think it’s robbing them of their good, but it’s pretty obviously saying that the goodness of women exists primarily in their childbearing ability. And that’s, you know, dumb.

The final step in the argument is also quite interesting, but for a different reason than you might expect. Aquinas argues that “man is naturally a social animal, and so men in the state of innocence would have lived together in social groups.” That sounds innocuous, but Aquinas goes on to argue that social groups naturally just organise and have hierarchies and directors and organisers and that’s all good and normal. The claim is only significant if you’re familiar with some of the Christian issues around theories of government. There’s a bit in 1 Samuel 8 where all the Israelites are like ‘we want a king’ and Samuel goes ‘okay but he’ll be really shit’ and they’re all like ‘woo yeah let’s do it’. Then Saul gets appointed as the first king, and thereafter kings are supposed to be understood as a consequence of the people being shit, even though David and Solomon and some other kings were actually okay or maybe even good. Point is, some Christians take that and argue that any form of government is essentially a continuing consequence of that original sinful request for a monarch. We’re not led by prophets in the modern world, and it’s all because the Jews wanted a king, and therefore democracy is bad. It’s a stupid claim, but there you go. What’s interesting about Aquinas, then, is that he says there were governors and leaders in the Garden of Eden. It’s not a bulletproof argument, but it’s a starting point to suggest that hey, actually, maybe democracy isn’t so bad after all.

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