Love is our mother
Phenomenology and Existentialism
And other philosophical reflections on motherhood
“Mothers are fonder than fathers of their children because they are more certain they are their own.”
Have you ever heard of this Aristotle quote? If so, you might be inclined to think the philosopher had been dismissive of motherhood. You might be right.
In his meditations on friendship in his 10-book Nicomachean Ethics, in which he defined friendship as a sort of virtue, one that was necessary in life, it might appear that Aristotle’s idea of the perfect friendship was almost exclusively between men. But he did think that a mother’s self-sacrifice and unconditional love for her child made the mother-child relationship potentially the highest form of bond between people. To him, even the perfect friendship between two good men, who have so much in common, could only aspire for that kind of relationship. In fact, using that Aristotelian observation, you could argue that, with such an instinct for pure, unquestioning, untiring love, women could make better friends.
Philosophers have always sought the internal drive behind motherhood, trying to explain away such a powerful human impulse. Is it instinct? Is it the DNA? Is it a hormonal predisposition? Is it just a social construct?
To Plato, according to a study of the Phaedo made by Kathryn Rombs, a writer for Mighty Is Her Call, a Catholic mothers’ ministry, “Motherhood is 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.”
My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso. —Pablo Picasso
Socrates’ empathy for mothers, for a man of his time, was unheard of. His mother Phaenarete, after all, was a midwife that, back in those days in Athens, was an esteemed middle-class profession.
Following a brush with his mother, the infamously hot-tempered Xanthippe, one of Socrates’ three sons, Lamprocles, became the subject of what we know now as the Socratic method of questioning, by which Socrates tried to influence Lamprocles’ feelings about his mother. In their exchange, according to a retelling by Xenophon as paraphrased by American cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist Donald Roberston, father and son agreed that “being ungrateful to anyone who does you a favor, friend or enemy, would be the height of injustice.”
It was in this line of thinking that Socrates enumerated the sacrifices of Lamprocles’ mother, including carrying him in her womb for months and risking her own life to give birth to him even as he had yet to do her any favor.
This argument illustrates a principle of both Socratic and Stoic thinking not only toward the faults of a mother but of other people in general, which is to give the good that one does greater regard than the harm one causes, such as the hurtful effects of Xanthippe’s tongue-lashings on both her husband and her sons.
Incidentally, did you know that Confucianism as “an ethical guide to life and living with strong character,” as the National Geographic has put it, might have been designed by some stretch of imagination by mothers?
Its leading proponents, Confucius, whose father died when he was three, and Mencius, the best-known Confucian philosopher after Confucius himself, grew up in single-parent homes, raised by their mothers alone. Many other Confucian philosophers of later times, such as the brothers Cheng Ho and Cheng Yi, Lü Xizhe, Gu Yanwu, and Wang Tingzhen, were raised similarly, tutored mostly, if not exclusively, by their mothers. Even Chiang Kai-shek, who lost his father when he was eight, considered his widowed mother “the personification of Confucian virtues,” such as loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, affection, trustworthiness, righteousness, peace, and harmony, all of which a good mother would instil in her child.
Friedrich Nietzsche also lost his father when he was very young. He was four. Like Confucius and Mencius, he was raised by a pious mother, Franziska, who also allowed him the luxury of independent thinking. In his childhood, he was a consummate good boy, “the little pastor,” as his neighborhood called him, but he grew up difficult, turning his back on theology, as he pursued philosophy.
Nietzsche’s relationship with his mother became increasingly strained, especially as he began to denounce God, to whom, as to her son, Franziska devoted her entire life after her husband died. At age 38, he said, “I don’t like my mother,” whom he also blamed for his inability to maintain a relationship with the opposite sex. “Everyone carries within himself an image of womanliness derived from his mother,” he explained. “It is this that determines whether, on the whole, he will revere women, or despise them, or remain generally indifferent to them.”
But though their relationship was one of love and hate, there was no shortage of the former in their bond as mother and child. To Nietzsche, the milk of a mother’s love “can so easily turn into bile,” and he so lengthily reflected on such love—the one received from and given to a mother—as some kind of a shackle on the free spirit. “Usually a mother loves herself in her son more than she loves the son himself,” he would say.
While trying to break away, Nietzsche hurt his mother more and more, despite his love, but when he descended into madness, it was his mother who stayed by his side, caring for him, instead of sending him to an asylum, feeding him, washing him, taking him for walks, and watching him day and night until she died three years before him.
It was the same story for Jean-Paul Sartre, whose father died when he was an infant. His mother Anne-Marie Schweitzer showered him with love and devotion until she married when he was 12. Still, despite what Sartre considered a betrayal, his mother, according to his bibliographer Michel Contat, remained the most important woman in his life. “It’s not Simone de Beauvoir, like people think,” Contat pointed out. “No, no, it was actually Mummy.”
No mother is perfect, but every mother carries the potential to love and to be loved in a way that no philosopher can explain away. As Rumi said, “We are born of love. Love is our mother.”