Sunday, 9 February 2014

Question 96 – Man’s Dominion in the Initial State of Innocence

Why this Question Matters

The Genesis account of creation records that God gave dominion over the rest of material creation to human beings in a state of innocence. In this question Aquinas enquires into what that dominion consisted in and relates it to the natural order of creation towards God. In making this enquiry he asks a number of questions that are strictly speaking, given the fact of the fall, hypothetical concerning what human beings would be like in a state of innocence in paradise.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas finds underlying reasons behind the raw assertion of Genesis 1:26 of the dominion of humans over the animals with three variations on notions of the hierarchy of creation. In the first place he argues that there is a natural order to creation in which the more perfect makes use of the less perfect. As humans sit at the pinnacle of material creation it is therefore natural to them to have dominion over the rest of it. The second argument looks at creation from the point of view of God’s providence whereby lower things are governed by higher things. Finally, looking at the actual properties of man and of the other animals shows one that man has a general ability to make prudent decisions whereas animals lower than humans are only able to make prudential decision in circumstances to which they are adapted; their prudence shows a certain degree of participation in prudence. Aquinas then argues that whatever is such-and-such by participation is subject to that which is such-and-such through its essence.

A2: Aquinas reads Genesis 1:26 as giving humans dominion over all creatures, not just the animals. But there’s an immediate problems with this: what does it mean to have dominion over a daisy, for example? One can see the effect of man’s dominion in the herding of cattle or in the breaking-in of a horse under the influence of human reason; but ordering a daisy around is likely to end in little but frustration.

Aquinas responds by pointing to the way in which human beings have, in a sense, all of creation within themselves. Human beings have reason, like the angels; we have sentient powers, like the other animals; we have natural powers, like plants; we have a material body, in the same way that inanimate objects are material. In human beings the rational powers have dominion over the sentient powers and parallel to this we have dominion over animals by means of the command of reason. Similarly man has dominion over his natural powers and the body itself; but for these the dominion is not one of reason but of use. Therefore we should look for the parallel dominion that man has over the vegetable and the inanimate in the way in which we can make unimpeded use of them for our purposes.

The reply to the second objection brings up, and rejects, the point of view that in paradise animals all got along together just fine without killing and eating each other. Indeed, some have argued that cuisine in paradise was exclusively vegetarian. Aquinas argues that, although man’s first sin may have led to the “fall of creation”, animal natures were not changed in that event (in much the same way that human nature was not changed, but darkened, by the fall). As it is in the nature of animals to fit into a predator prey hierarchy, they would have been eating each other in paradise. Indeed, in domesticating animals, humans would have fed other animals to some of the domesticated animals.

A3: The state of innocence in paradise would seem, at first sight, to also imply a state of equality between human beings; surely, after all, those things that gives rise to inequality between human beings are associated with the consequences of the fall. On the other hand, we recognize at the very least sexual diversity in the very creation of human beings itself. Had there been more than two human beings in paradise, then there would have been diversity of age as well. We can go further than these simple examples: human beings are created with free will and therefore have the freedom of choice of their intellectual and moral development, whatever tools they are born with. There is also no reason to suspect that they would all have been made physically identical (within the sexes); it is perfectly possible for there to be diversity within a perfect creation. Having established that there could be diversity amongst human beings in paradise, we should recognize that the purpose of creation is ordered towards God and that ordering may be most effectively realized through the specialization associated with diversity; as the reply to the third objection observes, God was perfectly free to raise some to a greater degree and some to a lesser degree to achieve His purpose. Such diversity across the range of human attributes must be recognized as a certain form of inequality; but one that does not imply imperfection in creation.

A4: The third article established that there could be inequality amongst human beings in paradise; the obvious question arises as to whether that inequality would have led to dominion of one human being over another. To answer this question we have to recognize a distinction in what we mean by dominion. One way of looking at dominion is to see it in terms of a master and slave relationship. In this form of dominion the master has dominion over the slave for the good of the master and of his purposes. It is this type of dominion that could not have occurred in the state of innocence as this cannot occur without some form of suffering on behalf of the slave; even if the suffering is simply that of having to give entirely to someone else what ought to be one’s own.

The second way of looking at dominion is to see it more generally in terms of governance. In this form of dominion the ruler has dominion over the subject for the benefit of the subject, or for the common good. Humans being social animals is entirely consistent with organizing themselves for the achievement of common ends by means of a governing hierarchy. This second form of dominion of one human being over another is entirely consistent with the state of innocence.

Handy Concepts

  • Human beings have dominion over the rest of material creation. The animals are subject to our reason; plants and inanimate objects are subject to our use.
  • The state of innocence in paradise is consistent with inequality between human beings.
  • The state of innocence in paradise is consistent with the dominion of one human being over another, but only in the sense of governance to benefit the governed and the common good.

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