Aquinas on Sex

This one’s less awful than Aquinas on women, but still not great. It’s also a bit longer than usual – apologies. Today we’re dealing with 1a.98, where Aquinas asks about “the original state or condition with respect to sex.” We’re going to combine the two articles here – one asks if sex would have happened, and the other, oddly, asks “whether procreation would have been by copulation.” We’ve done poop, so I guess today can be sperm.

There’s three opening points as to why procreation wouldn’t happen in the Garden, but only the second one holds any sort of interest. The third is a petty legal argument – we know that humans have been set over all of creation, right, according to Aquinas, and this third argument complains that if there are more humans, then there’s more owners, and you have to subdivide creation so different people can own different things. Oh no! Aquinas has discovered private property! I’m pretty sure the solution is just communism. Actually, I was joking, but I just checked the actual response, and: “in the state of innocence… [humans] would have used in common, without any danger of discord, and in the measure and manner that suited the situation of each, the things that came under their ownership.” Fuck yeah, perfect communism. I guess that is kinda interesting. Never mind then, I take it back. Heaven is probably gonna be communist – you heard it here first.

The second argument, then – Aquinas argues that “the point of procreation is to preserve in the species what cannot be preserved in the individual.” That’s an interesting take on procreation. If everyone’s immortal, there’s no need for procreation, because you don’t have to keep the species alive by reproducing or anything. You’re not losing any of the knowledge or strength or wisdom of an individual.

Aquinas responds that procreation is a good thing, and therefore – ah fuck, it’s the perfection argument again, isn’t it. If procreation is good, then humans had procreation in the Garden, which is when they were at their perfect height. Otherwise humans became sinful and only then received the ability to procreate, meaning they were lesser beings when they were perfect, which is contradictory for Aquinas. Therefore, yes, reproduction in the Garden.

Even with that basic issue set aside, Aquinas spends some time delving further into the theoretical problems of reproduction. Humans are kinda split beings for Aquinas, right, because we have both souls and bodies. Our bodies are perishable but our souls are not. When you get down to it, reproduction might make more bodies, but it doesn’t make souls – those come directly from God. In terms of the species and survival and continuation of humanity, none of those really mattered in the Garden. Everyone was immortal, the species was fine. There’s no biological imperative to reproduce. But, Aquinas says, there were a fuckload of souls that God had out the back, and so reproduction would’ve been a thing to try and get those souls out into the world. Aquinas argues that “[God] is interested in a multitude of individuals for their own sake.” So even though there was no biological need for lots of people in the Garden, God was just kinda keen on it.

Okay, so we’ve established that yes, people would’ve been reproducing in the Garden of Eden, and if Adam and Eve hadn’t fucked up we’d all be born there too. Cool. In 98.2, Aquinas then asks whether sex would’ve been by copulation. Bit of a weird question, but okay, let’s see what he’s thinking. “It is in fleshly copulation that man becomes most like the animals, because the pleasure is so violent; hence the esteem in which continence is held, by which men refrain from this sort of pleasure.” He actually continues explaining this theory in the response: lust is bad and it “besmirches copulation,” and in response a bunch of theologians apparently decided that nobody would have procreated by orgasm, even in the Garden of Eden, because, uhh – I mean this is where the argument breaks down, isn’t it. If the Garden is perfect, then lust wouldn’t have existed, so what’s the problem with orgasms? Aquinas basically runs that line himself. Presumably we had ballsacks in the Garden, he says, and it’d be weird if we didn’t use them. Well, that’s essentially what he says: our copulation in the Garden “is indicated by the organs assigned by nature to this function. And it therefore cannot be said of these natural organs, any more than of the other organs, that they would not have been used before sin.” Have ballsack, must ejaculate. It would be silly if you didn’t use something before the Fall (see earlier post on virtue and perfection; Aquinas is here using the same argument that I used to critique his concept of virtue).

So we have nuts and therefore orgasms happened because otherwise there’s no point in having nuts. But what about this lust stuff? It’s pretty easy for Aquinas to say, well, there wouldn’t have been lust in the Garden because everyone was perfect, and that’s the problem solved. You can kinda just declare that the sin-related problem didn’t exist before sin. But I want to think more through this idea of lust and how it relates to our concepts of sexuality. My general impression, just as a vague starting point, is that for most people there’s the kinda basic sexual desire, which is more or less morally neutral just in a vacuum, and then it can be expressed appropriately or inappropriately – ie you can have consensual sex or be flirty or whatever; or you can be a creeper or assault people. I think most people would separate out the base desire as relatively amoral, and then moralise how you act with that desire. I don’t know – I mean that’s just my instinct on how people might normally think about desire today. You might have a different vibe, and that’s fine – I’m not really going into bat for one view or another. But let’s just take that structure as an example and see how Aquinas’s thoughts might relate to it.

It’s a little hard trying to parse Aquinas’s exact position on sexuality – I don’t want to overreach and make too many assumptions. But it initially seems like he’s saying that all post-sin sex is fundamentally marred by lust. When he’s talking about the (male) orgasm, he says it’s disfigured by “the extravagance of desire.” I think that’s where many people would be turned off by Aquinas – he doesn’t see sexual desire as a good thing, even when it’s in a consensual and otherwise positive relationship. If my hypothetical modern person separates desire as neutral and then the actions related to that desire as moral or immoral, then Aquinas sees desire itself as a problem. And I’m sure many people have had sexual desires that they wish didn’t happen – whether it’s desire for a friend or a coworker, someone who you don’t want to be attracted to for practical reasons but the feeling just kinda comes unbidden. I can imagine an argument for how sometimes desire can operate in a negative way. I don’t want to imply that it’s always a good thing – like I’m not necessarily convinced by this initial division of desire into feeling as amoral and action as moral. But even if we can imagine scenarios in which that kinda lustful desire can be bad for you, I don’t think you’d find much support for the idea that desire in itself is always a bad thing.

So that seems to be Aquinas’s general theory around sexuality – basically, sexy feelings are bad. That’s how it kinda seems. That said, the third response in 98.2 makes me pause. Aquinas writes that “what makes man like the animals in copulation is the inability of reason to temper the pleasure of copulation and the heat of desire.” That’s quite a change in tone from the material just before. Initially he was saying that the orgasm is marred by desire, and that lust “besmirches copulation.” But this argument seems to be more moderate. If the orgasm existed in the Garden of Eden, then orgasms are great – and indeed, he even argues that orgasms would be better because our bodies would be better. That’s… oddly positive. He then repeats his point that the difference between Garden-sex and normal sex is that Garden-sex is more controlled by reason. I honestly have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. He suggests that a reason-controlled desire is where “the pleasure urge should not clutch at the pleasure in an immoderate fashion; and by ‘immoderate’ I mean going beyond the measure of reason.” But that’s tautological – when desire is controlled by reason, the pleasure urge clutches at pleasure according to the measure of reason. What’s the measure of reason? Is Aquinas saying we’d be more in control of our desires? We’d be able to rationally decide whether or not we wanted to be aroused? I dunno – I’m really grasping at straws here. It’s not clear what Aquinas’s vision of perfect sex is. In the meantime, I guess we’re all stuck with normal lusty sex, which, reminder, Aquinas thinks is bad.

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