A beautiful parable.
A Womb with Three Views
It did not happen. But it could have happened. It is a matter of historical record that Plato was born in Ancient Greece, Aquinas in the Middle Ages, and Jean-Paul Sartre in the Twentieth Century. Yet it would not have been impossible, in the lottery of life, for all three of these talented thinkers to have been conceived by the same woman and, to stretch the imagination to its outer edge, to have been united in the womb as fraternal triplets.
What thoughts might these three extraordinary individuals have shared in their close quarters if they were as precocious in the womb as they were prolific in the world! As philosophers in the world, each of them dominated the intellectual climate of his day; each was a milestone in the history of Western thought. Together they summarize three radically different views of God and life: Plato represented pagan acceptance; Aquinas, Christian reception; Sartre, atheistic rejection.
If the notion of three embryonic philosophers dialoguing in the womb seems a bit fanciful, it may be worth noting that the small world of the womb has often been regarded as a prototype of the larger world outside. An ancient Jewish proverb states that in the womb man knows his cosmic connection, and after he is born, must rediscover it. Psychotherapist Rollo May claims the womb provides “a state of we-nests” which makes language and communication possible. Media guru Marshall McLuhan remarked that all our senses may very well be “specialized variants” of “womb-wise” touch. Thomas Merton compared the child in the womb with the cloistered religious when he referred to him as “Planted in the night of contemplation/Sealed in the dark waiting to be born.”
Furthermore, our imaginative dialogue is not altogether without historical foundation. Let us recall the Visitation recorded in Luke’s gospel, when Elizabeth’s child “leaped in her womb” at the recognition of another child in the womb—Jesus.
It is late in the prenatal development of our precocious and prolific trio. They have slumbered deeply for several months and now, having awakened from that long period of peace, begin to make observations, raise questions, and draw certain personal conclusions. The one who will be known as Plato proposes a most ingenious theory. He judges the womb to be a deprived environment where shadow has been separated from substance. He argues that the womb is but a prison and that outside it is a world infinitely richer and more real. “There is a being who is good and who sustains and nourishes us,” he reasons, “but we must find the courage to get out of our cave-like dwelling and enter the light so that we may come to know this being. If we continue to feast on shadows, we will remain entirely oblivious to reality.”
Aquinas listens intently as Plato waxes eloquent. But he is more patient. There is such a being, he agrees. And the life that awaits us when we are delivered from this exile is indeed more beautiful and more satisfying than anything we can imagine. “We must have hope. These ‘shadows,’ as you call them,” he explains to Plato in a confident tone, “are also real and have their own value and purpose. We must wait and hope, and in due time we will be delivered. We will finally meet the being who sustains and nourishes us, but only when the time is propitious.”
The third occupant, having listed attentively to the other two, shakes his head angrily. “Neither of you are being realistic in any sense! You do not have the courage to face the brute fact that this is a squalid and hopeless place. Because you cannot admit to the absurdity of our existence in this dismal and congested chamber, you imagine beautiful places that simply do not exist. You must accept the absurdity of your fate. Only then will you be free. Your wishful fabrications can only prevent you from being truly yourselves.”
Plato and Aquinas try very hard to explain the doctrine of cause and effect to their cynical sibling. They reason that since we are not the cause of our being, and since we are not the authors of our own life, spirit, and capacity to think, there must be some higher cause that produces these effects. If you follow the law of reason, they advise, you too will conclude that there must be an order of reality that transcends this gloomy confine and our humble mode of existence.
“All I know is what I see,” Sartre replies. “I can do without superstitious nonsense.” Then Aquinas, speaking very gently, says that he understands his brother’s doubts and that he has many doubts of his own, but whenever he is plagued by uncertainties, he prefers to believe in more reality than in less.
Upon hearing this, Sartre becomes even more enraged and shakes the umbilical cords so vehemently that he momentarily shuts off the air supply. “Don’t do that,” gasps Plato, after regaining his equilibrium. “You are acting like a being without reason.”
Aquinas antagonizes Sartre even further by lecturing him on the virtues of commutative justice and fraternal charity.
“Let me put it as bluntly as I can,” Sartre snaps. “There is no exit from this place. And what is more, I do not owe either of you anything. I belong to myself alone. And frankly, after listening to your verbal inanities, I am convinced more than every that man’s greatest trial is other people. In fact, if I may coin a phrase, ‘Hell is other people.’ And one more thing! These cords you seem to think are so important are really fetters. I shall cut them; only then shall we be free.”
“No!” Aquinas bellows. “These cords connect us with the source of our nourishment and love. We are dependent beings. If we sever our connections with the being who sustains us, we shall surely die.”
“If we remain attached to another,” Sartre retorts, “we cannot be ourselves, we cannot be the masters of our own destiny.”
“Our freedom lies in obedience,” Aquinas answers, “and in the wisdom to love and serve the one who is our Master.” “Knowledge will be our freedom,” adds Plato. Yet Sartre remains adamant: “Faith in anyone else is bad faith. I believe in myself. Now please leave me alone.”
Plato, in a more reflective mood, calls attention to the low, steady beats that reverberate throughout the womb. “These rhythmic sounds,” he muses, are the footsteps of the demiurge who assisted in our creation. He lingers awhile to be assured that we are all right.”
Sartre reproaches him one again: “These endless, repetitious sounds I hear overwhelm me with a feeling of nausea. They are as senseless as life itself and serve only to announce our impending doom.”
“I beg to differ with you,” Aquinas states, almost apologetically. “I believe these ever-present beats are a sign that we are under constant protection. Moreover, I believe that this protection is a natural emanation from a source of continual love.”
More time passes. The triangular dispute remains unresolved. Then the hour arrives when spasms occur and jostle the embryonic trinity. The walls of their fleshy incubator contracts and convulses with increasing severity. The trio are now tumbling and careening into each other. “What is happening?” they exclaim in unison. “We are dying!” answers Plato. “This is absurd!” shouts Sartre. “Have faith!” urges Aquinas.
Soon the spasms become more frequent and intensify to the point that they expel the three philosophers from their tiny hermitage and force them down through a narrow corridor.
“You see,” says Sartre. “It is just as I have maintained; life is utterly absurd and can lead only to even greater absurdities.” “Truly we are dying,” Plato moans. “No,” says Aquinas calmly: “In death we are born to life; the seed must die so that it may live to a higher life.”
The discussion is ended. With one last great spasm, the three are forced out into the world. They are chilled by the cold and confused by their first experience of weight. As they cry, air fills their lungs for the first time. And then they meet the being whom they both sought and denied, the being who sustained and nourished them.
Her name, however, is not “freedom,” or “first cause” or “demiurge,” but mother. And she is more tender and more beautiful and more loving than they could possibly have imagined. Now the philosophers live in an extra-uterine environment that none of them can possibly deny. Yet their quarrel persists and follows a familiar pattern. Plato is anxious to find his way out of this world of earthly shadows, while Sartre insists that this new environment is all there is. But Aquinas, still patient and full of faith and hope, continues to believe in even more reality.