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 was not impossible, in the lottery of life, for all three of these talented thinkers to have been conceived by the same woman and, to strain the outer edge of imagination, to have been united as fraternal triplets during the same pregnancy.

And 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! Each of these philosophers 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 representing their pagan acceptance; Aquinas, their Christian reception; Sartre, their atheistic rejection.

If the idea 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 that the womb provides “a state of we-ness” which makes language and understanding possible. Marshall McLuhan remarks that all our senses may very well be “specialized variants” of “womb-wise” touch. Thomas Merton has compared the child in the womb with the cloistered religious when he refers 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, when Elizabeth’s child “leaped in her womb” at the recognition of another child in the womb – Jesus.

Precocious trio

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 named 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 on the outside is a world that is infinitely richer and more real. “There is a being who is good and who sustains and nourishes us,” he opines, “but we must find the courage to get out of our cave-like dwelling and enter into the light so that we may come to know this being. If we continue to feast on shadows, we will remain entirely oblivious of 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. But we must be patient. “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 in due time we will be delivered. We will finally meet the being who sustains and nourishes us only when the time is propitious.”

The third occupant, having listened carefully to the other two, shakes his head angrily. “Neither of you is 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 silly wishful inventions 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 here, and since we are not the authors of our own life, spirit, and thought, 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 humble confine and our lowly lives.

“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 rather than in less.

Upon hearing this, Sartre becomes even more enraged and shakes the umbilical cord 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 that man’s greatest trial must be other people. In fact, if I may coin a phrase, I believe that Hell is other people. And one more thing! This cord you seem to think is so important is really our enemy. I shall cut it; only then shall I be free.”

“No!” Aquinas bellows. “This cord connects us with the source of our nourishment and love. We are dependent beings. If we sever our connection with the being who sustains us, we shall surely die.”

Masters of our destiny

“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, “they 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 once more. “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 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.”

At this moment terrible spasms shake the three companions from their places. The walls of their protoplasmic enclosure contract violently. They are tumbling and careening into each other. “What is happening?” they exclaim in union. “We are dying!” answers Plato. “This is absurd!” shouts Sartre. “Have faith!” urges Aquinas.

Narrow corridor

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 with weight. As they cry, air fills their lungs for the first time. And then they meet the being 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 world that none of them can possibly deny. Yet their quarrel persists and follows a familiar form. 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, continues to believe in even more reality while waiting to be born again.

Dr. DeMarco is a professor of philosophy
at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.