Aristotelian science and Hippocratic gynaecology

Now in women, I assert that as their vagina is rubbed and their uterus moved during intercourse, a kind of tickling sensation befalls these parts and gives rise to pleasure and warmth in the rest of their body. And women, too, ejaculate from their body, sometimes into their uterus — the uterus then becomes moist — and sometimes externally, if the uterus gapes open more than it should. And a woman feels pleasure, once intercourse begins, for the whole time until the man ejaculates in her; if the woman is eager for intercourse, she ejaculates before the man, and from then on she no longer feels as much pleasure, but if she is not eager, her pleasure ends with the man’s. It is as if someone were to pour fresh, cold water into water that is boiling: the water stops boiling. So, in the same way, a man’s seed falling into the uterus extinguishes a woman’s warmth and pleasure. In fact a woman’s pleasure and warmth leap up at the moment the seed falls into her uterus, but then cease; it is as if someone were to pour wine on to a flame: what happens is that the flame first leaps up and increases for a short time, from the wine being poured on to it, but then ceases. In the same way, a woman’s warmth leaps up from a man’s seed, but then ceases. A woman feels much less pleasure in intercourse than a man, but for a longer time than he does. The reason a man feels more pleasure is that the secretion from his moisture occurs suddenly as the result of a stronger agitation than in the woman. The following point is also true for women: if they have intercourse with men they are more likely to be healthy, if not, then less so.

[Hipp.] On Generation 4 (transl. P. Potter)

ABSTRACT: While Aristotelian science strives to encompass the study of all animals (and plants), it also seeks insight from the already established sciences of the human body. For Aristotle, natural science requires knowledge of the principles of medicine. As the son of a physician, he would have had access to the latest medical views. When it comes to the care of women, there is much to be learned from these practices about the way the natural world operates. How female animals become fertile, conceive, gestate and generate is central to Aristotelian natural philosophy; medicine has various compelling answers already to hand, complete with empirical evidence. By comparing extant medical works to Aristotle’s own writings on generation in humans and animals, we find two intertwined responses – acceptance of much of the evidence provided and occasional challenges. Through careful analysis, it becomes patently clear that Aristotle’s theory of the female body and generation owe a great deal to contemporaneous medical inquiry.

Sophia M. Connell is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck. She works broadly to consolidate and improve philosophical engagement with Aristotle’s biological corpus. In 2016, her book Aristotle on Female Animals came out with Cambridge University Press. She has recently published work on Aristotle’s nutritive soul (Phronesis 2020 and in Nutritive and Nutritive Soul in Aristotle and Aristotelianism, ed. Lo Presti, Korobili, 2020) and is developing a series of papers on the bodily basis for intellect in Aristotle’s philosophy. She is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Biology and The Critical Guide to Aristotle Parts of Animals (both forthcoming) and is writing a commentary and translation of Aristotle’s Generation of Animals for the Clarendon Aristotle series.  

Respondent: Elisa Groff (University of Exeter)

26 October 2020, 16:00 p.m. (UK time)

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