Fly on the Wall—Plato’s Mom is Calling

She Wants you to Get Your Critical Thinking Skills Back!

For many of us, long before we were students at AU, our very first professor was our Mother! For others, mother figures have appeared in different forms, but each of us began life with at least one crucial caregiver.  Mother’s Day is a chance to show gratitude to the women who raised us and the principles of inquiry that guide our life’s learning.  Those who saw our first steps and abetted our abilities to become who we are represent invaluable components as we strive toward graduation.

We’re in good company as we develop our minds; in Ancient Greece Plato described Socrates’ methods of reasoning through a series of questions about life as a form of midwifery; the Socratic method of hypothesis testing is “inspired by maieutic principles” (Sedley, online).  Education thus appears as an extension of physical life: we give birth, as our Mother’s did, to new selves.

So our first teacher, our mother, set us toddling in the direction of enlightenment.  A thinker named Pierre Grimes notes that many of our key learning methods are acquired and repeated from learning experiences in childhood; he notes a client who recalled that the most beautiful attention he received from his mother was during times his mother warned him not to be injured playing with his friends (she’d say, I don’t care if you come home with your sword and your shield, I just want you to come home safe): “that’s love, that’s caring, I’m acting it out again and again” by remaking crucial childhood instances through adult pedagogical experiences (Grimes, online).  Patterns of learning, like other aspects of our psyche, we have our dear Mothers to thank for.

Broadly speaking, the first crucial human contact of our pre-conscious years forms us in ways immeasurable and fundamental long before we went to school and experienced peer pressure.  We are literally born into awareness in contact with caregivers.  As we deliver flowers or cherish memories, we know that we owe so much to our mothers, even if, as the old teenage saying goes, we didn’t technically ask to be born.  Learning’s like that too; maybe we didn’t expect to be captured by a particular academic discipline, but nevertheless we find ourselves living a scholastic life.  Our mothers are unique in that they literally teach us as we develop, even before we’re aware that we’re students in life.

Plato as a Boy Going Outside to Play

Society, however, sometimes teaches a less personal and nurturing method of interaction than do our mothers.  Competition and gossip lead to a more fluid social hierarchy than a child typically experiences in the home.  Social ideology tends to divorce adult work from its childhood origins and yet, hidden but certain, the fact remains that every thinker down through the seedy centuries of history had a mother or mother figure: Plato of Ancient Greece would be no exception.  Whatever led Plato to evolve into a philosopher who germinates his ideas—such as the idea of Forms, whereby each element of reality available to our senses is merely an imitation of an Absolute original archetype—began in the Athenian home of his youth.  His most famous Allegory of the Cave, where a prisoner escapes a cave and finds enlightenment, was perhaps an echo of his childhood Athens when he’d go outside and play with his friends and meet new people.  Certainly, the story has modern parallels, as we shall see.  Perhaps we can recall in our youthful days of yore being implored by our mothers to not spend so much time as zombies in front of one or many television, computer, or video game screens.

Exploring the Womb-y Origins of Plato’s Cave

Plato’s cave story illustrates how culture can distract us from higher callings such as education and personal development.  In his allegory, he imagines an instance were all of humanity lies chained in a dark cave with flames from a fire providing flickers of light against the wall.  The fire is behind the prisoners so that the only thing they can see are a series of shadows playing out against the rockface.  Life for these prisoners becomes an eternal trivia game; each is expected to shout out the familiar names of images created by shadows.  (There are echoes in the cave too, leading to an image of life as an endless parade of karaoke singers on a televised talent competition.) Existing only as vague simulations of reality, these shadow figures nevertheless come to mean the world to the prisoners; having no other access to reality, the realm of shadows takes precedence in their minds and they imagine nothing beyond what they are shown.

One can imagine such a cue card approximation of such a game today, with contestants shouting out familiar culture icons matched to shadowy-figure faces:

Kim Kardashian!

George Floyd!

George Takei!

Jagmeet Singh!

Plato then describes how a single convict manages to grapple his way free of his chained entanglement.  Crawling hesitatingly to the cave entrance he manages to stand and is stunned by what he encounters: sunlight!  Emerging into the bright light of day, like a newborn lamb tumbling out of a ewe, at first all he can do is blink.  Then, gathering courage, he begins to explore this new realm of living things and dazzling light and natural sounds.  Shortly he is unalterably changed, like a would-be student who ceases an evening of Netflix to watch a documentary about Marshall McLuhan.  Like the famous 1960s Toronto sociologist, the convict realizes with a start that the “medium is the message” by which reality is moulded, clay-like, according to the will of those with the power to hold us in place.  Reality itself has brought him to be born anew, as he sees the stultifying nature of the social reality he’d inhabited.  Hurrying back to his peers, the convict is greeted by their dulled out faces still entranced by the guessing game where all of reality is about giving the proper answers to anodyne questions.  “They have no idea what awaits them!” he thinks.  Alas, tied into their realm where smarts and knowledge are about saying what they’ve been told to say, and thinking in ways that stimulate only certain methods of inquiry, he finds no audience of inquisitive minds.  It’s as though everyone is sure that expert answers have already been provided by the paradigm of the cave wall.  Their senses and minds are closed off to revolutionary new possibilities.  Momentarily he’s stunned at being stonewalled, and then, disconcertingly, he realizes that he cannot go back to the repetitive realm of repeating the same game over and over.  What’s more, he can no longer play effectively because the bright light of reality has meant his eyes have difficulty adjusting to the murky conditions hitherto seen as normal.  Soon the prisoners are distrustful of him and feel threatened; the enlightened convict becomes a pariah among his peers.

Knowledge Need Not Be Competitive, It Can Be More Like Love

Happily, our life’s learning need not make us feel like an outsider or a superior being to others.  Thanking our mothers for the gift of life reminds us that we are always learning just like everyone else; AU is a boon for this journey but no matter how much we gain we are not becoming better than others so much as different.  There’s a reason that mothers love their children for the unique natures they contain; the phrase “I love you because you’re mine,” comes to mind.  Mother’s love is a reminder that the best things in life and learning transcend the rat race of regular social reality.  And as distance students, we know that Athabasca is a means to maximize ourselves and our special natures as learners.

Life, like education, need not merely be a race or a competition.  It’s a journey that transcends normal social interactions because essentially we are giving birth to new versions of ourselves each time we write an assignment or read a textbook.  We become, in a sense, midwives to ourselves, even as we recall that we owe so much to the mothers that set us loose from the cave of unconsciousness to begin with.


Grimes, P.  (2017).  ‘Philosophical Midwifery with Pierre Grimes’.
Plato: Allegory of the Cave.  Galesburg, Illinois: Knox College.  Retrieved from
Plato.  (c.  400 B.C.E.).  Allegory of the Cave.  Retrieved from
Sedley, D.  In Weller, C.  (2004).  ‘The Midwife of Platonism: Text and Subtext in Plato’s Thaeetetus’.  South Bend, Indiana: Notre Dame University.  Retrieved from

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