When I read Plato’s allegory of the cave as an undergraduate, I was told it had something to do with the idea that the “form” of a table is more “real” than the table itself. I must confess that I had no idea what this could possibly mean.
As a graduate student, I struggled with philosophical and theological ideas rooted in Platonism. Rosemary Radford Ruether named the flawed worldview created by a “classical dualism” that separates mind from body, spirit from the world, rationality from emotion, and male from female. Her ground-breaking essay “Mother Earth and the Megamachine” clarified the difficulties I was having.
Western philosophy, described by Alfred North Whitehead as a series of footnotes to Plato, had gotten off on the wrong foot. At its very beginnings, western philosophy had attempted to sever mind from the body and nature, alleging that “man’s true home” was not life in the body on planet earth. Platonic ideas spawned the ascetic movements of late antiquity and early Christianity. They are also at the root of the modern scientific worldview that alleges that the body and nature are “mere matter” “without soul” to be entirely controlled by the rational minds of men.
Ruether pointed out that women were identified with the despised body and nature and the realms of emotion and feeling. She called upon feminists and ecofeminists to restore the severed connections between mind and body, spirit and nature, reason and emotion, male and female. These ideas have informed all of my work.
It was not until I began to write She Who Changes that I realized that the Platonic worldview can accurately be said to be rooted in matricide (mother murder) and theacide (Goddess murder). I am not exaggerating.
In the allegory of the cave Plato describes human beings as prisoners shackled to the walls of a cave in such a way that they cannot see the light at its mouth, but only the shadows flickering on its inner walls. Socrates himself interprets this allegory for his student. Its meaning, he says, is that the light of reason is shackled by the “prison house of sight.” The meaning of this, we are told, is that the world we see—the physical world we sense through our bodies—is not the real world. The “real” world is an “intellectual world,” a world of ideas untainted by the body or nature, and to this world Socrates asks his pupil to turn.
Like Socrates, many teachers ask their students to question conventional ideas about the meaning of life. As a feminist teacher, I ask my students to question the inevitability of patriarchy. Am I not following in Socrates’ footsteps? Why then do I insist that the allegory of the cave is matricidal and theacidal?
On the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, from which I returned only a few days ago, we descend into caves where the ancient people of Crete lived, buried their dead, and poured libations to the Source of Life. We understand that the ancient Cretans honored mothers as the source of human life and Mother Earth, Sky, and Sea as the Source of All Life. For them caves were the womb of the Mountain Mother, place of emergence, return, and transformation.
When they lived in caves, people sat around fires and told stories of their ancestors. Surely they saw the shapes of deites, humans, and animals who featured in their stories in the lights and shadows cast on the stalagmites and stalactites and the cave walls. This tradition must go back to the origins of human life; it is clearly documented in the Upper Paleolithic (50,000-10,000 BCE) . As this painting of a pregnant horse shows, the rituals of the Upper Paleolithic were not only “hunting magic,” but also expressed a desire to communicate with the Source of All Life, human and animal.
In light of this, it seems certain that Plato did not “just happen” to choose a cave as the location of his “prison.” Like the Genesis story in the Bible, his was a “tale with a point of view.” The point of view Plato was challenging was the view that this world is our true home, that we should enjoy life in the body, and that we should honor the mothers and the Mother who have have given us life. The view he was propounding was that this world is not our true home, that we should rise above the body, and that we should honor male teachers and the light of transcendent reason. Because “the language of the Goddess” that connected caves with the womb of Mother Earth was still known in his time, Plato did not have to “spell out” the implications of his comparison of the cave to a prison any more than the authors of Genesis 2-3 had to “clarify” for their readers that trees, snakes, and women were considered sacred in the religions they were trying to eradicate.
In order for his new view to take hold, Plato had to dethrone the mothers who birth us into life in the body and the Mother of All Life from whose womb all physical life emerges. Plato teaches us that rather than feeling gratitude for the gifts of birth and life, we should learn to distrust and despise the body and nature. He tells us that we should not honor the mothers and the Mother who birth us into this world, but rather the teachers who offer us a way to escape it.
Matricide and theacide stand at the very beginning of our traditions.
Let us learn again to bless the Source of Life and the circle of birth, death, and regeneration! Let us cherish our life on planet earth.
Carol P. Christ , a founding mother in the fields of women and religion and feminist theology, has just returned from a Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. The next tours are in spring and fall of 2013. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.
20 thoughts on “Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as Matricide and Theacide by Carol P. Christ”
Wow–you’re right! Western philosophy is not good for us. It’s not good for mothers, it’s not good for the earth, it’s not much good for anything except ivory-tower speculation. Hah! Good blog, Carol. Way to go!
Absolutely loved this! Thank you.
Hi Carol —
My work, like yours, is rooted in the body/mind/spirit of Mother Earth and in our own body/mind/spirits as women. I LOVED THIS POST!! You write in a clear, straightforward prose that makes the entangled connections of western philosophy easily understood. I especially liked how you linked the body/mind split that originates in Plato with the flawed materialism of current scientific writing. I’ve never seen it put so baldly. I’ve read everything else that you wrote except for She Who Changes. I guess I’ll have to get past the Whitehead stuff, which I found obfuscating when reading it years ago. Obviously, there must be good material later in the book.
I didn’t really deal with whitehead, but with hartshorne, who is much easier to read.
Well said Karolina! And as midwives, we are still dealing with this daily
So ironic and fitting that Plato’s abstract cave refers to particular sacred ones. This resonates as truth. Thank you!
I really enjoyed this. I have wondered and thought about Plato’s cave for years, but never had time to pursue the subject in a scholarly manner to really figure out what was being said. Your piece is so helpful for understanding the allegory from a feminist perspective. I am definitely going to print and save it. Thanks for your clear precise discussion and the links.
This piece was really helpful in placing Plato’s allegory in a feminist perspective. Thanks for the clear discussion and the links. I have wondered about Plato’s cave for years, but it has been on the periphery of my own research and work. So I love seeing this piece.
Thank you for this post Carol. It helps me understand what you meant when you wrote about my use of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in my latest blog. However, I’m not sure there is only one feminist way to read the cave and that Plato necessarily had in mind killing the Goddess and matricide. I can see the dualism within his writings and when the cave is read with only the concept of the “forms” in mind, this is problematic. However, I think he does have some good insight. He is often concerned with justice, education, goodness and responsibility of one person to another, and one part of the cave is its injustice of keeping people against their will and lying to them about all of the possibilities life holds including understanding and knowledge. I’m also not necessarily convinced that Plato had in mind a devaluing of the body and the world around us just by placing the story in a cave. His cave dwellers, upon leaving the cave, learn knowledge and insight from the natural world around them. They aren’t taught they observe and experience nature and the end of their captivity. (Yes, I know who counted as people for him was very narrowly defined and I can see patriarchal qualities in a lot of his writing.) For these reasons as for others, I’m not ready to throw the story out. However, I do appreciate hearing your understanding of the tale. It gives me much to consider. Thanks again!
In The Mastery of Nature Val Plumwood offers a detailed reading of Plato that I find compelling. Her argument is that the body, nature, and the female are not only denigrated by Plato, but annihilated. I don’t think Plato wants anyone to derive knowledge from the natural world. “The visible realm corresponds to the prison” 281-2 Penguin 1955 ed. of the Republic.
It was Aristotle who thought we could learn from the natural world and I far prefer his approach.
Wonderful post – so well put. Certainly during these past 5,000 years of patriarchal hierarchy there have been and continue to be good people working within those traditions. But I feel you really hit the nail on the head as to Plato’s intent. Fear rather than Love has fueled our psychs for so long now. May your last words come true – Let us truly remember and reconnect with Love of Life.
Wonderful post, Carol. I’m going to return to “Mother Earth and the Megamachine” for a reread. I really enjoyed all the comments as well. Thanks to all.
I do not interpret Plato’s Cave as such. I do see that the allegory of the cave points to the “reality” “behind” “reality”. I do not reject either reality. Those who are bound to either “reality”, without seeing the reality of both, i feel sorry for. . . We are creatures bound by our individual perspectives. And yet the Creator-of-All provides us with all we have, including our subjective perspective: the path to Him/Her is this. Do not be bound by others’ Reality. . . The shaman might tell each of us, do not be bound to your Reality too closely, either. Be open, as the birthing Mother. (from: father of four)
Plato talks about Gnosis. Gnosis comes while in altered consciousness states. Psychedelic plants, which are the mediums our Great Mother (Gaia) had chosen for direct communication with us, break the illusion of ordinary reality, unveil the veil of Maya and open the doors of perception, in order to experience oneness with the Universe and acquire a recognition of our divine nature. This is the recognition that the Goddess is within and immanent. Our ordinary consciousness state (proclaimed as the dominant western ideology since Enlightenment) is what had guided western thought for the last 250 years. Trance, ecstasy and other alterations in consciousness that engage imagination, emotion, intuition and offer opportunities for participation and co-creation in the hidden realms of reality can be portals to Gnosis. There are evidence/suggestions that ancient Greeks were involved in the consumption of entheogenic plants e.g. ergot of barley has been consumed in the Mysteries of Eleusis in which Plato had participated and the ancient wine used in the Dionysian mysteries was also infused with psychedelic herbs. It is more possible that Plato had been inspired from these kind of experiences and I find it very arbitrary to talk about the Cave allegory as matricide. Maybe later Platonism had been interpreted by esotericists for their own agenda in a way that is not in accord with the recognition of the Feminine principle as the fundamental Creative power of the Universe, but this is different than what Plato had been referring to.
This is a fantastic essay explicating what Plato was trying to do with his cave image. Without understanding our philosophical underpinnings we are unable to move out of the box.