Alice in Wonderland Philosophy – what does it all mean?
Explore the philosophy of Alice in Wonderland. Unravel characters, quotes & spiritual metaphors from one of a revolutionary children’s book.
You may think that Alice in Wonderland is just a children’s tale you happen to take too seriously. Good news – the Alice in Wonderland books are not just a reason to host surreal tea parties and, indeed unbirthday parties. There is more philosophy, metaphor and spirituality in this revolutionary children’s book than you can fit into a teapot once you’ve taken out the dormouse and the treacle!
The social significance of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party
Anyone familiar with the art of Mark Bryan can tell you the social significance of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. In the Victorian Age, when ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was written, the formal tea party was a function in which social norms and cultural rules were of the highest importance, particularly to the higher classes.
Despite all the rules normally associated at a tea party and the pleasant socialising also associated with it, the tea party is nothing but a function of chaos in ‘Alice in Wonderland’! There are no rules here, and everyone present at the tea party is operating beyond social constraints.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party can be taken as a parallel to society. Society is a collection of social norms which we abuse and use to our own advantage.
The Dormouse and his treacle are a metaphor…
If we want to take it a step further, we can consider the dormouse as a symbol of the proletariat so often mentioned by Karl Marx.
He is constantly abused by the larger and more powerful Hatter and March Hare. The dormouse is tiny and insignificant. He does not voice his opinions, and if he does, he is quickly quieted by the Hatter and the Hare. He is constantly sleeping as though his senses have been dulled.
Marx often portrayed the lower classes as being victims of some sort of mechanism that would stop them from ever fighting for their rights, most often exemplified through the quote ‘religion is the opium of the people’ (more recently twisted to become ‘television is the opium of the masses’).
If we extend this Alice in Wonderland metaphor then, for the dormouse, treacle is the opium of the people.
The King and Queen of Hearts
The King and Queen of Hearts seem to be a straightforward parody of the monarchy.
Their followers are made to do the silliest and most degrading acts, and these followers only do so because they have been instilled with fear. The behaviour of the King and the Queen of hearts – and what they manage to do to their followers – is a simple example of the hysterical and conrolling effects that fear can have on society.
Fear is a prevalent form of social control that is REALLY hard to break – even though, as Alice claims, they are ‘only a pack of cards’. The cardboard monarchy and their followers have one thing in common; they all belong to the same deck of cards, they all belong to the same group. Despite the king and queen being no different than their subjects, they abuse their power nonetheless.
The monarchy’s court of justice can be linked to the tea-party in the wood. It is in the trial of the knave and in the tea-party that the story reaches two heights of complete idiocy.
In Alice in Wonderland, society and its justice system seem to be governed by fools and the result is abuse and oppression.
Alice in Wonderland – A Spiritual Journey to Wisdom
‘Alice in Wonderland’ has a recurring metaphor: Alice going down the rabbit hole is a philosopher’s quest for true knowledge.
Could it be that Wonderland is a world of philosophers? Can it be a world where one can go back to the ‘unmoulded’ brain of a child?
In ‘Sophie’s World’ by Jostein Gaarder, the philosopher tells Sophie she must think like a child to be a true philosopher. Wonderland is the place to do this, to release your inhibitions, to release pre-conceptions of ideas and to start really questioning to gain true wisdom, true knowledge.
In complete separation from the world of adults, one can begin the long journey to true knowledge.
Alice in Wonderland’s ‘We Are All Mad Here’ Philosophy
Wonderland is a place of madness. ‘We’re all mad here,’ states the Cheshire cat.
Through the eyes of society, one who questions – even and perhaps especially the seemingly basic things – may be labelled ‘mad’. If it’s new and might incite change, we tend not to like it. We may look back on the philosopher Socrates with fondness now, but in his day he was executed for corrupting the young with the questions he asked and ideas he explored. Socrates was the White Rabbit that led children down the rabbit hole and made things seem ‘curiouser and curiouser’.
The search for truth, the journey through Wonderland is considered ‘queer’, and to many, it may seem like it is easier to remain in reality and never follow the White Rabbit.
The White Rabbit
The White Rabbit is the spark of curiosity that activates Alice’s spiritual awakening. It is the White Rabbit who leads Alice down the rabbit hole. It is he who woke her up from her daze since the hot day had made her sleepy.
One notices how even though Alice was still a young child, the condescending world of adults was starting to affect her. She was starting to become an adult herself, and thus, would not question anything. Despite the fact she saw a talking rabbit run past her in human clothing, she found nothing too remarkable about it. It was only when he took out a pocket watch that she gave a start.
It is the White Rabbit which Alice runs after and searches for endlessly in Wonderland, a symbol of her quest for knowledge. Just when things seem rather desperate the rabbit appears yet again, and Alice drives on through.
Pre-Socratic Philosophy in Alice in Wonderland
The existence of Non-Being is probably one of the main reasons why the world of Alice was dismissed as one of absolute nonsense. Yet the existence of Non-Being is actually one of the oldest philosophical controversies of Western philosophy. It is clear that Carroll was influenced by his learnings of Greek philosophy at Christ Church.
The beginnings of this controversy can be dated back to the cradle of Western Philosophy: a group of philosophers called the Pre-Socratics (as in pre-Socrates, who in honour of Bill and Ted we should pronouce ‘So-creights’ not the correct ‘Sock-rat-ease’). The Pre-Socratics were also called natural philosophers as they studied the most obvious thing to them: Nature. They wanted to develop the essence of being and explain the changes around them… namely, how things went from being to non-being.
Parmenides of Elea was probably the most radical Pre-Socratic philosopher as he relied, for the most part, entirely on his reason. This Parmenides asserted that change is utterly impossible, as something in existence cannot move out of it. He said that only ‘Is’ (i.e Being) is, and one cannot speak of something that ‘is not’, for who can recognise something that does not exist? It was baffling to his rationality and therefore, he rejected it.
It seems that Carroll disagreed with this assertion, as both the Alice books show. In fact, Humpty Dumpy tells Alice ‘there are three hundred and sixty four days when you might get un-birthday presents’. Carroll here seems to follow the ideas of another natural philosopher: Heraclitus.
Heraclitus and Parmenides are often contrasted because of their opposing views. Heraclitus was the very opposite of a rationalist; he was an empiricist (he followed observations according to what his senses showed him). Heraclitus was so deep that some other ancient guy who thought a lot said ‘it would take a Delian deep sea diver to get to the bottom of him’. Heraclitus spoke of change, and said that opposites do not exclude each other – as Parmenides argued – but in fact complement each other.
Therefore, in a Heraclitean world (and in Wonderland), opposites (being and non-being) co-exist peacefully. This is the philosophical basis that Carroll must surely have used to write the Alice books.
To Carroll it seems that ‘nothingness’ is, in fact, a special essence, something that is immaterial but existent.
Alice in Wonderland Philosophical Quotes
Lewis Carroll also seemed to share the concept of a non-material realm with the philosopher Plato. Here are some examples of the importance Carroll gave to the existence of non-material things:
‘Try another Subtraction sum. Take a bone from a dog: what remains?
Alice considered. ‘The bone wouldn’t remain, of course, if I took it – and the dog wouldn’t remain; it would come to bite me – and I’m sure I shouldn’t remain!’
‘Then you think nothing would remain?’ said the Red Queen.
‘I think that’s the answer.’
‘Wrong, as usual,’ said the Red Queen: ‘the dog’s temper would remain.’
‘But I don’t see how – ‘
‘Why, look here!’ the Red Queen cried. ‘The dog would lose its temper, wouldn’t it?’
‘Perhaps it would,’ Alice replied cautiously.
‘Then if the dog went away, its temper would remain!’ the Queen exclaimed triumphantly.’
Lewis Carroll constantly asserts the essence of nothingness:
‘If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?’
Take some more tea,’ the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
‘I’ve had nothing yet,’ Alice replied in an offended tone, ‘so I can’t take more.’
‘You mean you can’t take LESS,’ said the Hatter: ‘it’s very easy to take MORE than nothing.’
Alice in Wonderland Philosophy tackles Plato via the Cheshire Cat
Plato believed that everything in existence in our world (which is often referred to as the world of experience), exists as an Idea or perfect form in another plain of existence. This belief seemed to be shared by Lewis Carroll also, most clearly in the infamous grin of the Cheshire Cat:
Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin; but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my Life!
According to this Platonic theory, a grin can exist without its master, as a grin may exist entirely on its own, as a non-material being, as a perfect idea of a grin. As the Cheshire cat himself may be a non-material being and can exist, possibly without its body, as a non-material essence of a Cheshire cat head.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless philosophical theories about the world of Wonderland. Some say it is a message about the existence of non-existence, a satire about the war of the roses, a story about Carroll’s interest in Logic and Language or simply written proof that he was high on drugs. This is probably why we are all so fascinated by this story; it is the type of nonsense we can comprehend, the type of nonsense that requires one to have a considerable amount of sense to write it. I’m sure all of you (myself included) are master Logicians when it comes to nonsense and wilful ignorance.
Need more Alice in your life? Buy ‘The Annotated Alice’ (‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ & ‘Through the Looking Glass’ – with fascinating notes)