Cartesian Gender Confusions (Continued)

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In a previous column, I suggested that much of our confusion about “gender” comes from our modern tendency to separate the mind from the body in ways suggested by the French thinker René Descartes. Whereas some people think of gender solely in terms of the body or certain body parts, others consider it to be solely a function of the mind, whereby if I think I’m a woman, then I’m a woman – no matter what my body says.

The Catholic tradition, and Thomas Aquinas in particular, takes a very different approach. Because of the Genesis creation account, in which all of creation, including the material parts, is proclaimed “good, very good”; because of the Incarnation, in which the uncreated Word becomes “flesh”; and because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, the Catholic faith has always been a very “bodily,” very “fleshy,” religion. The Catholic tradition has worked very hard to avoid the constant gnostic temptation to vilify the body. But it has also had to work very hard to avoid the modern temptation to reduce all spiritual realities to nothing but matter.

When we associate “mind” only with the brain, we tend to forget about the importance of things like our passions, appetites, and emotions, because they are so clearly associated with our bodies.  And yet when we associate our personalities too exclusively with our bodies or with specific functions of the brain, we tend to forget about the importance of things like “meaning,” “purpose” and “value,” and we become all levers and pulleys: mechanisms to be manipulated with drugs or other psycho-therapeutic “fixes.”

Aquinas’s special genius, following the insights of the philosopher Aristotle, is to recognize that the human person is a substantial unity of both body and soul – indeed, that the soul is the substantial form of the body. 

What this means concretely is that, whereas the modern tendency since Descartes has been to see “the mind” solely in relation to the brain, Thomas would claim, rather, that there is not a cell of the living human body from which the soul is absent. Although we are made up of various parts, we are not simply a “heap” of cells. We have an integrated, organic unity and wholeness. And what integrates the whole living person is precisely the human soul. 

One particularly important power of the human soul, which is absent from the integrating principles (or “souls”) of plants or animals, is that we humans are self-aware and have the powers of intellect. But the claim that one of the identifying or defining characteristics of the human person is our power of intellect (as Thomas Aquinas does) is very different from Descartes’ idea that what I am is essentially a “thinking thing” inhabiting (as a sort of foreign “host”) this particular material body.

           In her God-made body

Whereas for Descartes, the mind and the body are two essentially different sorts of things that come together in some odd way in the brain, Thomas affirms a fundamental unity between the two. I am not essentially a mind inhabiting a random body, nor am I a body with a brain that does things we call “mind.” I am an incarnate mind and spirit.

Since the soul is the form of the body and the soul is not absent from any living part of the body, it is not possible, on this view, to say that I have a certain soul, but the wrong body. Only a man missing a foot who accidentally picked up the wrong artificial foot at the hospital can truly say: “I have the wrong foot.” But a man cannot look at his own living foot and say: “I have the wrong foot.” Still less can he look at his own body in the mirror and say: “I have the wrong body.”

I should not say that I have my body in the same way that I say that I have a particular wallet or coat or pair of pants. The man who is getting an artificial limb can point to the new model he’s just bought and say: “I have a foot!” But he doesn’t mean the same thing as the child who points to his own living foot and says to his mother: “I have a foot.” The child’s foot is his not in the sense of ownership, but in the sense that he is pointing at an organic part of himself. So too I do not own my body; it is my body in the sense that it is a part of me.

Modern forms of marketing tempt people to believe that by changing their style of clothing or shaving cream, they can become a different “person,” indeed a better person. But this is adolescent foolishness. I don’t change who I am merely by changing my brand of cologne or my style of shirt. Companies have made a lot of money from teens by selling them this idea. 

The culture that has encouraged teens to think that they can become a different person by changing their brand of clothing is now encouraging them to believe that they can become a different person by changing their sexual organs like you’d change a coat. Will teens be any better off with this newly-minted “freedom” than they have been with the “freedom” to re-make their “personalities” every year or so with new shoes and jeans? Not likely.

The end is not likely to be a good one when your primary goal is to rid yourself of your self – of all the things that make you you – in order that you can finally be someone else, indeed anyone else, other than yourself. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described this refusal to be oneself as “the sickness unto death.” Its natural end is suicide and despair.

Only God can say simply: “I am who I am.” We must say in faithfulness: “I must become who God made me to be.”


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.