Plato and Motherhood

Kathryn Rombs // Metaphysics of Motherhood


December 4  

Plato’s Phaedo affords what I consider one of the most important philosophical validations that pertains to motherhood. Motherhood is about love: a selfless self-emptying for another, not because the child has earned or deserved it, but simply by the very fact of being the mother’s child. By virtue of existing as her child, she is loved.

One of the main philosophical problems with motherhood is how to justify love in the sense of maternal love. Is it not just hormones? Instinct? Survival of the fittest? Is not what a mother feels and believes to be love actually a multi-millennia shaping of the brain to foster the impulse in her to nurture, protect and nurture her child? Is it not just DNA and chemicals? This scientific view, based in evolutionary biology, is compatible with a philosophical materialist view. The materialist holds that all that exists is matter. Philosophers have been maintaining this view since the dawn of Western philosophy. The Milesian pre-Socratics and the Atomists held versions of this position starting in the 6th century B.C.  There are always some philosophers in any age and era who are inclined to explain all phenomena in terms of matter.

Plato was deeply disturbed by this effort that he saw as explaining away important realities that are non-material. Justice, friendship, piety, goodness–these are real, and not material. There is no cell or molecule of goodness.  But there are good things, and in his view, it is not just an illusion, mental construct or social definition. Goodness is real, maybe even more real than cells and molecules.

A passage in which he makes this case is when his character Socrates is sitting in a jail cell awaiting his execution. Socrates says in essence, “Why am I sitting in this jail cell?” He says that some might respond with atoms and matter: his thigh bones are horizontal, his calf bones are vertical; his sinews and ligaments are constricted and lengthened just so. But Socrates says, “That is obviously not why I am sitting in a jail cell. The real reason is that the Athenian court convicted me to death and I chose to accept the sentence.” Socrates is referring to his friends who had bribed the guards and made possible his escape. But Socrates chose to submit to the authority of Athens. He is thus referencing everything from free will to intellectual judgment to the difference between right and wrong. Are these things reducible to matter? Socrates suggests that the material answer, bones and sinews, is absurd. The real reason is beyond matter. True, Socrates has bones and sinews, and the material reality exists. But it is compatible with a higher reality, that of the intellect and will.

This is a response against the materialist who would reduce away love in all its forms. Is there a chemical event when a mother bonds with her child? Sure there is. Is there a genetic and instinctual predisposition to keep her child alive and healthy? Sure there is. But is material love reducible to these chemicals and instincts? Just to show that there is a material aspect to maternal love is not to disprove an immaterial aspect. To point to brain chemistry and evolution is no evidence at all against real love. The scientist will never find real love under a microscope but that does not prove it does not exist. Goodness, justice, love–these are realities that are untouched by these philosophical challenges.

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