Tuesday, June 19, 2007

History of Western Philosphy

One of the courses that I listen to from the Teaching Company mentioned Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. I haven't read it (although I just ordered a copy!) and I was surprised that it also came up in a discussion forum just today. One of the quirks of the Internet, I guess.

On the forum, it came up in a discussion regarding admonitions about marriage and how the rules about who to marry, who not to marry, etc were derived. So someone asked the rather odd question of how it was determined to be "bad to marry your brother or sister". Well, we all sort of know this, right? I mean, cultural taboos against incest are pretty deeply grounded. And we all know now that there are some very good physical reasons not to interbreed (the Hapsburg Chin, anyone?), but how has this decision been explained by others?

Well, someone remembered a discussion by St. Thomas Aquinas regarding the topic, and we all were rather amused by the hilarious justification he gives for not marrying your sibling (quoted here from Russell's book):
[According to St. Thomas] Divine Law directs [...] There must be strict monogamy; polygyny is unfair to women, and polyandry makes paternity uncertain. Incest is to be forbidden because it would complicate family life. Against brother-sister incest there is a very curious argument: that if the love of husband and wife were combined with that of brother and sister, mutual attraction would be so strong as to cause unduly frequent intercourse. (H.W.P.p459)

Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica, which has commentary on any number of questions and is intended as a teaching tool for theology of the 13th century He's generally considered to be a fantastically smart guy. But the reason he could come up with to bar sibling marriage was too much sex? You have to admit that's pretty funny, and pretty telling about medieval attitudes towards women and men and the natural things they do together!

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