Eve on the (Non-)Possibility of Talking Serpents

Another project has me working on Aquinas’s “economics of Eden” at the moment, and I thought Aquinas’s brief discussion of what Eve must have thought about a talking serpent would be of interest here. In Summa Theologiae I.94.4, Aquinas raises the question of “Whether Man in His First State Could Be Deceived,” with his answer being in the negative. The second objection he raises against his position, however, comes from no less than Peter Lombard:

Obj. 2: Further, the Master says (Sent. ii, D, xxi) that, “the woman was not frightened at the serpent speaking, because she thought that he had received the faculty of speech from God.” But this was untrue. Therefore before sin the woman was deceived.

And Aquinas’s reply:

Reply Obj. 2: The woman thought that the serpent had received this faculty, not as acting in accordance with nature, but by virtue of some supernatural operation. We need not, however, follow the Master of the Sentences in this point.

In the previous article, ST I.94.3, Aquinas had argued that Adam would have had perfect natural knowledge of all things, and in the sed contra in particular he makes the point that “Man named the animals (Gen. 2:20). But names should be adapted to the nature of things. Therefore Adam knew the animals’ natures; and in like manner he was possessed of the knowledge of all other things.” Adam, therefore, knowing all creaturely natures by a direct act of divine illumination, would have known that serpents can’t talk. Whether Eve also possessed such comprehensive knowledge or not Aquinas doesn’t say–his unfortunate view of woman’s imperfection in comparison to man would suggest not. What he implies here, at least, is that she also would have known that serpents can’t talk by their natural power, and so would have surmised that the serpent was only able to speak “by virtue of some supernatural operation.” By “supernatural power,” it’s unclear whether Aquinas means any power above the serpent’s own, natural power–in which case Eve’s supposition would have been technically correct, on the supposition that the serpent was speaking by angelic power, and Lombard would have been mistaken–or whether he means, with Lombard, God’s own power–in which case Eve would have been mistaken, if not exactly deceived, but then it’s not clear what Aquinas’s disagreement with Lombard is. Either way, even if Eve had been born yesterday, for Aquinas, she seems to have known an impossibility when she saw one.

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