ESSAY
The Mother’s Smile: Integrative Beauty
POSTED
March 5, 2019

This is a tough era for mothers. Regard for mothers, while it is always booming in some circles, is decidedly lacking in the prevailing winds of the milieu. In high demand by contrast is contribution to the work force, being a consumer, and basic economic survival, often as a solitary individual, in an environment that is harsh economically and socially. There are services out there to help mothers to do these things, and there should be a ton more of them—things like innovative ways to work work around mothering (and fathering). But these don’t necessarily add up to honoring mothers as mothers. How may we deepen the gravitas, heighten the dignity of mothers, in healing subversion of our milieu? I feel that if we could do this, some harsh dynamics in our society might shift toward flourishing. To name a few: how might this combat the chilling winds of social isolation which, according to Times columnist David Brooks, now are driving down, for the first time, life expectancy in the U.S.?[1] To name another: should a woman ever have to surrender childbearing in order to make it economically, or in order to retain her dignity?[2] To name another, why would we need to imagine, as per Times columnist Thomas Friedman, that education should repress mothering for the good of society?[3]

Philosophizing “pierces the dome of the workday world,” as twentieth century German philosopher Joseph Pieper famously said.[4] He had in mind the recent devastation of totalitarianism—how may Western culture never repeat this horror? The mentality of totalizing work—“Arbeit macht frei” ironically inscribed over the door of Auschwitz—is a dome which must be pierced. Totalizing work brings death. This is true for mothers along with any others who do not conform to the ideal specimen of a productive human, whatever that might be. Pieper defends, as dome-piercing, the useless, necessary, truly freeing, wonder which continually gives birth to philosophizing.

This post is about integration, as have been all my “Theopolis Papers” in the last months. But I mean to pierce the dome of the workday world with philosophizing about mothers. May it contribute to restoring the dignity of mothering, and a life-giving culture. The mother’s smile integrates us fundamentally.

My first encounter with the work of D.C. Schindler was reading his essay, “Surprised by Truth”.[5] Indeed I was—surprised by truth—as I spied multiple resonances with motifs of covenant epistemology. And I was seeing inexhaustive further depths.

One surprising resonance was his attention to the profound philosophical import of the mother’s smile.

For decades now I have exhorted my introductory Logic classes to thank their mothers, who gave them language and their first logic with it. Had their mothers not done that, they would not even have made it to my Freshman Logic class. I’ve also pronounced that being a mother or father is the most philosophical thing you can do. You word your child’s world, and therein open it up to them.

Further, in my 2011 book, Loving to Know, I engage the work of philosopher of religion John Macmurray. The opening chapter of his Persons in Relation is called. “Mother and Child.”[6] He argues that the fundamental unit of existence and identity is not, “I,” but “you and I.” To be is to be in communion. Macmurray writes: “The first knowledge, then, is knowledge of the personal Other—the Other with whom I am in communication, who responds to my cry and cares for me. This is the starting-point of all knowledge and is presupposed at every stage of its subsequent development…The knowledge of the Other is the absolute presupposition of all knowledge.”[7] All of human knowing, which I was laboring to expound, comes to be in the gaze of the loving other. All knowing has the interpersonal as its fundamental tenor. Knower and yet to be known are person-like.[8]

Schindler affirms this: I’ve mentioned already that he offers an account of knowing as personal presence, and understands contact with reality as intimate, mutual encounter.[9] However, his account in “Surprised by Truth” moves even further, beyond logical and epistemological. The mother’s smile isn’t just epistemically formative; it forms us ontologically—in our very being.

Schindler describes knowing (“reason”) as fundamentally ecstatic. In this chapter, he argues that such an account successfully makes sense of real surprise in knowing—that you can actually come to know something you don’t already know. He shows that this is something that conventional readings of philosophers throughout the Western tradition fail to do—especially in modernity beginning with Descartes.

Schindler begins with a memorable claim of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s: “The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother.”[10] Schindler elaborates: “The personal gesture that the mother addresses to the child is what gives rise to his capacity to respond in kind.” (45) This is in fundamental challenge to Descartes’ modernity-spawning “Cogito ergo sum,” and Kant’s contemporaneity-spawning structures of the mind that necessarily precondition all human experience of the world: “it affirms that the soul’s conditions of possibility are not fixed prior to and thus independent of the (receptive) encounter with what is other than consciousness, but instead occurs in the encounter. [They] arise, as it were, not wholly from below [or within] but as a gift from above, which, precisely because of its generosity, creates the space for the ‘from below’ capacity to receive it. In other words, because the mother’s smile is a gesture of love that ‘welcomes’ the other, her child, it does not impose itself as an opaque and indeed violent demand, but as an enabling invitation.” Schindler quotes Balthasar: “the child responds to a directive that cannot in any way have come from within its own self … The entire paradise of reality that unfolds around the ‘I’ stands there as an incomprehensible miracle: it is not thanks to the gracious favor of the ‘I’ that space and the world exist, but thanks to the gracious favor of the ‘Thou.’” (46) The mother’s gesture of generous, self-giving, welcome, is a personal address, and can only be responded to in kind—with the baby’s returned smile. With this the newborn launches beyond himself ecstatically into communion with his world.

Anyone so profoundly privileged as to be a mother intuitively grasps this foundational ontology. Grandparents get it, too.

And it isn’t too difficult to infer, even without Balthasar’s beautiful exposition of this, that the Lord has made himself known fundamentally in the mother’s smile, beginning an adventure of loving response to seek His face.[11] Balthasar argues in effect that you can gauge the relative defectiveness of this or that religious form as it falls short of the originary person-forming gesture of the mother in her smile. Any human being the world over, any human being who survives and engages life intelligently, that is, has been the ontologically constituting recipient of their mother’s smile.

I used to fuss jokingly that Descartes’ argument for his Cogito is inherently defective because “he forgot his momma.” After all, his argument necessarily entrusts itself to the language she taught him. It is not possible to doubt provisionally everything all at once. Later on I joked that we need to replace “Cogito ergo sum,” with “Oh! Hi!!” In recent years, Peter Leithart pointed out to me that Descartes actually lost his own momma, soon after birth. That “entire paradise of reality” was lost to this orphan. I no longer joke, so much as grieve. Might modernity have been forged otherwise had his mother lived to continue to gaze in generous self-gift on her little Rene? Kant’s mother died, by the way, when he was 13. Schindler refers to the modern mind as “constitutionally lonely.” (42)

There is a second principle Schindler draws from Balthasar: the mother’s smile is a Gestalt. It is a deeply integrated, and integrating, pattern. And this pattern is the mother’s beauty. “When the other smiles at her child, she is in fact presenting him with a Gestalt in which she makes her person accessible to him as a loving gift. The gesture is not simply an opaque picture, which can adequately be read as it were ‘off the surface.’ Instead, the whole has a meaning because of ‘something’ that is both not any particular part of what she shows him and at the same time transparently present everywhere within it, namely, herself, i.e., her freedom. This freedom is what makes the smile radiant, or in other words genuinely beautiful.”(48-49) Elsewhere Schindler has cited Schiller’s account of beauty, which connects beauty with freedom: “What he means by freedom seems related to the ‘light’ that gives a beautiful form its radiance, insofar as they both indicate a kind of center or ground that, because it is capable of integrating all of the parts of the form into a whole, necessarily transcend those parts.” (48) For Balthasar, the Gestalt is “concrete, brimming, a visible manifestation of nonappearing depths, and intelligible, irreducible unity.” (47)

There is way more in these texts; I hope to reflect further on them in another post. But for now, notice that the mother’s smile of beauty irreducibly integrates her and integrates her child.

Our seeking integration in any world, but especially our distinctively fragmented modern world, is a deeply ontological longing. Longing for integration is who we are, constituted within our mother’s ontologically formative, radiantly beautiful, smile of generous self-gift. It is fulfilled finally (both logically and eschatologically) in the welcoming face of the Lord.

It is not farfetched to associate this era’s fragmentation with the disregard it has engendered for this profound encounter and for the persons, mothers and children, who enact it. Nor is it farfetched, I suggest, to believe that according it the philosophical gravitas it and they are due might bring healing to more than just ourselves.

Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:​Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for KnowingLoving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.


[1] David Brooks, end of the week commentary on NPR in December, 2018.

[2] I suspect that his need drives women to seek an abortion.

[3] Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (New York: Picador, 2017), 198. There is much to be said for the education of women; there is much to be said for the education of mothers. There is much to be said for women’s involvement in the work force in this age of accelerations. There is much to be said for combatting male domination insofar as it restricts these and involves abusive misuse of women’s reproductive capacities. These things, however, should not be taken to imply simplistically that education of women will reduce childbearing, and that this would be good. By itself, this is an ignoratio elenchi. The many other factors which Friedman himself explores are consistent also with the deeply positive impact of philosophically attuned and honored mothers—including, quite obviously, his own. See his chap. 12.

[4] Joseph Pieper, What Does It Mean to Philosophize?: Four Lectures,in For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995, 2004), 32.

[5] You can find it out there online, but it is now Chapter 2 in his Catholicity of Reason (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

[6] John Macmurray, Persons in Relation (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1991).

[7] Quoted in Loving to Know, 228.

[8] Meek, Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), chap. 8.

[9] D.C. Schindler, Love and the Postmodern Predicament (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), chap. 4.

[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Movement Toward God,” in Explorations in Theology, vol. 3: Creator Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 15-55.

[11] Balthasar, “Movement Toward God.”

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