Why There Is No Such Thing As A Soul Mate

Why There Is No Such Thing As A Soul Mate

Reading Plato On Valentine’s Day

By Dr. Frisbee Sheffield (Cambridge University)

February 14, 2017         Picture: Nad Renrel/Flickr.

This is a preview article for The Critique’s upcoming 2018 Valentine’s Day Issue “What Is Love? Friendship, Sex, And Romance In The 21st Century.”

Plato’s dialogues are saturated with references to love. The way in which discussion of this theme is interwoven with wider ethical reflection suggests that he thinks that if we are to lead a good life, then it is a matter of the utmost importance to be clear about passionate love, or desire, what he calls eros. For what or whom one cares about most passionately shapes and determines the course of one’s life and thereby affects one’s chance for happiness. That is one reason why a philosopher so concerned with reflecting upon “the life worth living” considers eros to be of central importance. And yet many have found the spectacular dethronement of the individual at the heart of his account of love disappointing. For Plato, it would seem, there is no such thing as a “soul-mate” if by that we mean a unique individual other to satisfy the demands of passionate love. It is important to realise here, though, that the “soul-mate” idea, ubiquitous in contemporary romantic culture, in fact seems to have its origins in a tale Plato himself tells in his great work on love, the Symposium, as does its most forceful rejection.

Imagine the following scene. Lovers are locked in an embrace and the Greek god Hephaestus stands over them with his mending tools, asking ‘What is it that you human beings really want from each other?’ The lovers are puzzled and he asks them a further question: ‘Is this your heart’s desire, for the two of you to become parts of the same whole and never to separate day or night? If that is your desire, I’d like to weld you together and join you into something whole, so that the two of you are made into one. Look at your love and see if this is what you desire: wouldn’t this be all that you want?’ We are invited to suppose that the copulating lovers would welcome Hephaestus’ offer and think they had found what they wanted: to fuse with their beloved so that two become one. According to this story, this is because we used to be complete wholes but were torn apart by the gods; love is the name for this pursuit of an original state of wholeness and unity.

Plato puts this story into the mouth of the comic poet Aristophanes for a reason, though; he invites us to see it as ridiculous. A sense of this is already present in the image of humans as originally whole “circle people”, who rolled about in their abundant state of unity before the great divide, but the philosophical arguments against it are to be found later in the work, most forcefully expressed in the speech of Socrates. The point of the story, it has always seemed to me, is that when Hephaestus originally asks his question to the copulating lovers, no one would think that sex itself is the reason each takes such a deep joy in being with the other. Each lover apparently longs for something else, but cannot say what it is; the beloved holds out the promise of something beyond him or herself, but that something is obscure to the parties involved. That much about the scenario seems compelling enough; for anyone that has felt the grip of eros there is something familiar about the intensity, rapture, and sense of something beyond the immediate encounter with one’s beloved that is hard to articulate and even harder to fathom properly. And it might well seem ridiculous to suppose that Hephaestus’ solution here, namely the putting together of bodily parts so that we might roll around together forever is all there is to it. Plato’s further attempts to answer Hephaestus’ question – and there are a series of speeches on offer in this work – suggest that he does not think that fiddling with our body parts, fun though that may be, is a fitting answer to eros call. And it is not just that the idea is expressed too physically to capture the emotional richness of the experience. Even if Aristophanes’ speech can accommodate the idea of a couple united in a more elevated spiritual sense (and it surely can), the idea that another individual person can make us complete and whole, can satisfy our deepest longing, is one that Plato takes issue with strongly in this work.


“Plato does not think that fiddling with our body parts, fun though that may be, is a fitting answer to eros call.”


The phenomenology of eros is captured well in Aristophanes’ speech; eros involves a lack and a longing, aroused by an encounter with a beloved, who promises, in some mysterious way, to fulfill that lack. If we can get clearer about this lack, then perhaps we can also get clearer about what would satisfy it. Socrates disagrees strongly with the explanation offered by Aristophanes: a lover does not lack the half or whole of some former self, or as such, the philosopher explains, unless it turns out to be good. After all, people are willing to cut off their own arms and legs if they are diseased. It is only by the possession of good and beautiful things that we can flourish and be happy and we all want that. It seems obvious to Socrates that when we desire some good thing we do so because we think it will make us happy. This is the ultimate aim of desire because:

“One no longer needs to go on to ask “And what reason does the person who wishes to be happy have for wishing it?” Your answer seems complete (Symp. 205a2-3; trans. Rowe).”

Socrates maintains that this desire for happiness (eudaimonia) is the fundamental aim of all erotic striving; for unlike other desirable ends, no one would ask why one wants to achieve that. What we really want as desiring agents is the possession of some good, or goods, to satisfy the desire for happiness. This reflection suggests to Socrates that people are mistaken to suppose that passionate love or desire refers exclusively to sexual desire, or being in love with another individual; in fact, it is happiness quite generally that is desired and sexual desire, or love for another person, is just one way (a pretty poor way, he will argue) in which this broader aim is expressed.

The fact that our most passionate love and desire (specifically eros here) aims, ultimately, at happiness, explains why it is that lovers exhibit the extraordinary behaviour that they do: obsessional devotion, myopic focus, insatiability, not to mention sleeping in doorways, ignoring social conventions and neglecting friends and family (Phaedrus, 252). What explains those dispositional qualities is the kind of valuing involved in the experience of passionate love. The intensity and enthusiasm that typically characterise eros is due to the fact that the objects it pursues as valuable are desired as goods that matter to us in a particular kind of way, as things without which, above all else, we consider life not to be worth living. In this way, the pursuit of such goods comes to define and characterise the life we consider to be valuable. We are not shaped in the same way by all our desires, for example, those for cake, or cigarettes, in the way that we are by the objects of our most passionate longing – eros. Those things that matter to us in such a way that they come to define our lives fall under the domain of eros.

This claim has implications for the subsequent analysis of love, and why another individual person might not be able to satisfy it. For the claim that happiness (however conceived) is the real end of desire suggests to Socrates that the kind of good, or goods, that will satisfy will be of a certain sort. It will be the sort of thing desired for its own sake, for we do not want happiness for the sake of any further end, and it will be an enduring good. In a stretch of argument whose logic is difficult to follow, he argues that we, in fact, want immortality with the good (207a). Now, whilst we might concede that rational agents desire their own good and happiness, and even that there might be a single, or dominant good, central to that enterprise, many readers are stumped as to why we are also thought to desire immortality with the good, as part of the aspiration towards happiness. It is important to bear in mind here that happiness, a common translation of eudaimonia, is not conceived as a state of felicity, or a transitory feeling of pleasure or contentment, but as whatever it is that makes one’s life a worthwhile and flourishing one. If so, then perhaps it is the case that whatever good we take to be central to happiness must be the kind of good that is possessed in a lasting way if it is to be the right kind of good at all; for what constitutes happiness is not to be had in a moment in time. Even if we concede this though, the idea that we desire immortality with the good may still appear as wanton hyperbole. Perhaps the thought here is that there are some goods with which one identifies to such an extent that their survival in some way entails our own, even though our body has ceased to live. Consider the flourishing of one’s children, for example, or the realisation of treasured projects that will only unfold after one’s death. Or, perhaps the desire for immortality with the good is a desire for a certain quality of existence which typically (for a Greek) characterised the divine. However we interpret this claim though, the idea that the fundamental aim of passionate love and desire is happiness has implications for the kind of good that will satisfy it: it must be something desired for its own sake, and be enduring, if it is to satisfy the desire for a worthwhile and happy life. Whether there is or isn’t a “soul mate”, for Plato, will depend on whether such a thing could satisfy these criteria.

Once we appreciate that what we are all really after in love is our own happiness (which is not to exclude the further thought that we might also have other desires for the well-being of others, of course), then Socrates explains that we can appreciate the characteristic effects of love, namely the fact that such love is typically expressed in an attempt to “reproduce in beauty” (206c). By this he does not mean that each and every lover physically desires to reproduce themselves in a beautiful other; rather, what he means is that the beauty of our beloved object (whatever that is) arouses us to some kind of productive activity, one example of which is the production of physical children. For, given the distinctive aim of eros, namely happiness for the agent herself, someone who experiences this kind of love does not just want to gaze at the value of the desired object, or come to possess it in the sense in which one wants to get a piece of cake. Nor does one desire to care for the object in such a way that the beloved object is benefitted; the object itself, insofar as it arouses such love, is seen as perfect and blessed (204c4). This ‘god-like’ quality captures the insight that when we are in love we idealise the object of our affection. But the point here is that the characteristically productive work of love – reproduction in beauty – is designed to reproduce the value of the desired object for the agent herself, and in that way to create something for the agent herself that promises happiness. Plato offers us numerous examples of this phenomenon. Love which is primarily for bodily beauty manifests itself in the attempt to capture that value by the production of physical offspring, thought to provide “memory and happiness for all time to come” (208e); love for a beautiful soul might issue in an attempt to capture that value by the production of fine poems or speeches, thereby securing an honourable life as a poet or educator for their producers (208-209). Love for intelligible ideas might issue in the production of fine arguments, thought to provide happiness for their producers and so on. Beauty either of an individual, or indeed of anything else we value as supremely beautiful, is the creative environment in which we try to secure some share of whatever we deem to be of value for ourselves.

Various creative actions and productions that result from the encounter with beauty (e.g. children in beautiful bodies, or fine conversations in beautiful souls) are ways in which a certain good (e.g. honour, or wisdom), variously specified, and seen as central to a happy life, is realised for the agent in question. Beauty may be misleading in this role; it may not, in fact, deliver the desired good. Part of the reflective work Socrates goes on to advocate is designed to ensure that we desire the sorts of beautiful things that really do lead to a stable and secure state of happiness (more of that in a moment). The point for now is that the beauty one is drawn to in love is fitting in each case to one’s specification of happiness, and functions as a visible manifestation of something one perceives to be of value and wants somehow to capture for oneself. Consider Socrates and his devotees in this dialogue: they all seem attracted to his appearance of wisdom, which is what they consider to be beautiful about him (175d, 219d, 222). When they are in the presence of Socrates they are made aware of the wisdom they lack and perceive to be of value and they take steps to procure this good for themselves (albeit in misguided ways, perhaps). Socrates’ beauty resides in his ability to exhibit that value to them and in so doing to prompt them towards this good. And because he exhibits the desired value, his beauty provides an appropriate environment for them to make that value manifest for themselves: ideally, by producing good arguments and speeches with him (their “reproduction in beauty”). Intellectual intercourse with Socrates is productive of, or at least conducive to, the attainment of the wisdom they consider to be central to their happiness.


“Beauty either of an individual, or indeed of anything else we value as supremely beautiful, is the creative environment in which we try to secure some share of whatever we deem to be of value for ourselves.”


As an account of our deep attraction to beauty, there is much to be said for this thesis. People sometimes have the experience of encountering something beautiful, be it a person, a painting, or a landscape, and feeling they call “inspired”. What is meant here, I take it, is that this encounter motivates them to get their own lives into shape in some way or other, that is, to do something beautiful and good themselves. As lovers of the good, that is, to the extent that we are people who desire our own good and happiness, we are responsive to various ways in which the natural or productive world exhibits value. Though one may not, or cannot, exhibit the kinds of good on display in a landscape or picture, these media can make one aware of one’s own lack of self-realisation and fulfilment nonetheless, and in so doing prompt one to remedy that lack. It is then a further step to figure out how to realise oneself in a productive way, which one desires, and of which one is capable. In these respects those beautiful media are not particularly helpful. But imagine, say, that you believe that wisdom is somehow central to a flourishing and happy life, and then you encounter a person or thing (great book, or beautiful philosophical theory) that manifests that quality, then this will be a dynamic and productive encounter. For it will make you aware of something specific that you lack and desire, and provide the appropriate creative environment for you to try to secure that end.

What Plato offers in this account of love, then, is nothing less than a psychology of creativity; eros is exposed as a fundamental urge to self-creation and our relentless pursuit of beauty a drive to reproduce the value we see in the world and capture it in a life of our own, as parents, poets, legislators, or philosophers. And we can begin to see already how the role of our beloved is being reshaped in light of this conceptual analysis. For the beauty of other persons or things is what arouses our most fundamental desire for happiness, and its presence is a “midwife” and a catalyst for our productive attempts to achieve that aim. To consider a beautiful beloved as a “soul-mate” in the sense of someone, or something, that can fill one’s lack and make one complete and whole is, on this analysis, to abrogate a fundamental human task – to capture that value for ourselves in our own creative efforts and thereby allow ourselves to flourish in the light of that love. The beauty and value in another cannot be ingested, given, or copied, for then it would fail to be our own good and so fail to satisfy our most fundamental and passionate longing for our own happiness; it must be created anew in our own creative endeavours, with others as guides, muses, partners, or goads to that activity.

Plato urges caution not just when it comes to the role of our beloveds, but with our choice of them too. For if love aims at a stable and secure state of happiness and our creative endeavours are a way to secure that end, then these must be able to deliver. What determines our chances here, Plato urges, is the creative environment, that is the beauty, that each chooses to pursue. If one lays hold of an image of beauty, something that bears its property in a fleeting, partial, or unstable manner, then one’s creative work will bear those hallmarks. If the beauty of one’s beloved turns out to be a sham, then it will either cease to inspire, or inspire productions that fail to provide a stable and lasting state of happiness. For example, let us suppose that you are drawn to the physical beauty of another, and this beauty fades over time. In this case, it will either fail to inspire you to create more children (which is how one might try to capture the value of another’s physical beauty), thereby thwarting your chances of achieving some good you think central to happiness, or, if the beauty in question turns out to be only skin deep, perhaps it will be productive of children who fail to provide “memory and happiness for all time to come”, because the offspring in question were not raised by someone who could encourage them to anything good. Or, perhaps you spend your life devoted to an idea you consider to be supremely valuable, which inspires all sorts of creative endeavours that come to nothing because a few years down the line, you realise it is misguided. In both cases, nothing of lasting value will be created from such encounters to secure a stable state of happiness. To guard against this sort of concern, Socrates advocates a wide-ranging and promiscuous encounter with value. Here is the suggested practice, quoted from Plato’s so-called “ladder of love”:

“This is what it is to approach love matters, or to be led by someone else in them, in the correct way: beginning from these beautiful things here, one must always move upwards for the sake of that beauty I speak of, using the other things as steps from one to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, from beautiful bodies to beautiful activities, from activities to beautiful sciences, and finally from sciences to that science, which is science of nothing other than beauty itself, in order that one may finally know what beauty is, itself (Symposium 211-d1; trans. Rowe).”

The “ladder”, or “ascent”, here describes a lover moving beyond sensible examples of beauty that change over time, are subject to change and decay, and are beautiful in one respect and not in another, towards a beauty whose nature is pure, changeless, and divine (211e), and the source of value for its various manifestations. Why beauty of this kind is required draws on complex metaphysical theses Plato explores elsewhere, which concern the instability of value in the sensible world. Their significance here is that the attainment of success and happiness is dependent on the creative environment in which one chooses to be creative: “grasping an image one gives birth to an image, but grasping the truth, he gives birth to truth” (212a). If creative endeavour is nurtured in an environment whose beauty changes over time, is subject to change and decay, and which is beautiful at one time and not at another, the products of these encounters will carry those hallmarks and not secure stable and secure happiness. A fine and beautiful person may hold out the promise of fine offspring, but those children may not, after all, provide “a name for all time”. Poems, or laws, designed to capture the value of beautiful youths, or cities such as Athens or Sparta, might not exhibit anything of enduring value to secure an honourable life for their producers, if the cities and souls that occasion those productions reflect a partial and fragile glimpse of value. Our creative activities carry both the marks of the environment in which they are produced and the efforts of their producers; and these are related. Finding the right kind of creative environment is just what the ascent addresses in its urge to explore the range of phenomena that exhibits value. If we want to love and pursue what is really and not just apparently beautiful (“not an image, but the truth”), in order to produce something really and not just apparently good, then we must understand beauty, see it for what it really is. This, for Plato, is a search that finds fulfillment in the encounter with the idea of beauty itself.

Understanding beauty here is not something separate from the experience of love; rather, it manifests its proper expression, for Plato. Cognitive engagement with beauty, that is using one’s experience of beauty as a “step” to understanding the nature of beauty, is the way in which one comes to be in the creative environment of the genuinely beautiful and, given the nature of the object in question, understanding this object is how we come “to have intercourse with it”. This activity is still an expression of that love for beauty, but where the object is so radically re-conceived, so will the activity by which we encounter it. There is not love on the one hand, and rational activity on the other; philosophy, for Plato, is the perfection of that passionate longing to secure happiness through productive work (now conceived philosophically) in beauty (conceived intelligibly). That love for beauty that characterises all human beings has its roots in the sensible world of beautiful bodies and its proper expression in the intelligible realm of ideas. For, given the assumption that there is such a truth about beauty to be had, a creative production occasioned by this will not fluctuate over time, appear good to one person but not to another, or be beautiful in one respect but not in another: “because it is not an image he is grasping but the truth” (212). Compare Einstein’s famous observation that “politics is for the present, while our equations are for eternity”.

So, it is here unmasked, the dethronement of the beautiful individual in favour of an idea of beauty, in the passage that has led to the charge of cold-hearted egoism (for example, by Gregory Vlastos), and which has been seen as an objectionable feature of Platonic love to so many readers. Not so, I urge you, if we recall what is under consideration here, namely that which makes life, above all else, worth living. What explains our persistent attraction to beauty, for Plato, is the call to our own goodness and happiness, and the intensity and obsessional devotion of the passionate love it arouses is explained in terms of this end. It should be no surprise, then, that it is only the comic poet at this gathering in Plato’s Symposium who finds the end of human fulfillment in the arms of another individual person. Who but the most committed romantic would urge that a person, or persons, could be the proper object of this kind of desire?

It is a sign of the continuing hold of modern romantic notions that Aristophanes’ comic fantasy of missing halves and two becoming one is the best loved speech in this work. But is this not a heavy burden for any individual to carry, and a limited view of the rich possibilities for human aspiration? What individual is so rich and interesting that they can be the central source of value for an entire life? Many people would run a mile if told that they were seen as that which, above all else, made their partner’s life worth living. One might suspect that one’s partner’s horizons were very limited indeed. The same might be said for that other idea readers find difficult, namely that physical offspring rank “lower” than psychic ones (e.g. books, ideas, arguments, equations). If we are persuaded that the aim of our most passionate longing is our own flourishing and happiness, then however delightful one finds one’s children, the idea that one lives through them – they are the sole bearers of their parent’s happiness – can seem rather alarming for both parties, though for different reasons. It is not obviously cold-hearted to consider that both parents and children might be better off if exposed to other ways in which happiness can be achieved. This is not to say, of course, that we do not love and cherish them; it is to say only that they are not, for Plato, that upon which the flourishing and happiness of an individual can depend. (Eros is only one kind of love, for Plato; his account leaves room for the kinds of attachments to family and friends we consider valuable. This kind of love, philia, is discussed in the Lysis and the Phaedrus).


“What explains our persistent attraction to beauty, for Plato, is the call to our own goodness and happiness.”


Numerous puzzles and issues remain, of course. Some of the account here requires arguments and assumptions one might reject. For example, the idea that cultivating the goods of the soul is the best route to happiness, or perhaps the metaphysics involved in that pursuit, which divides the world into appearances and a truth only partially glimpsed in them; but this is not to reject the account as such. We might agree that our lives are better when our desires, sexual and otherwise, are placed within the larger context of a happy life and evaluated on the basis of some conception we hold of where our happiness resides. We might also agree that if our lovers are to play the important role in our lives that they do, then their siren song has better contribute to that enterprise. But that contribution will be of a distinctive kind. For what we are asking our lovers when we ask them to satisfy our passionate desire and love is to be the source of value for our life, to be that on which our happiness depends, and more than that, to produce a life worth living for us, as if such a thing could be given to another as a gift. What lover worthy of the name would ask that from another, and who that truly cares for us would provide it? Other persons can awaken us to a sense of possibility, their beauty an inspiration for us to realise our own, but we radically misinterpret the nature of the enterprise, according to Plato, if we look to others to make us complete and whole. Lovers can be our guides and muses, partners and friends, conjurer of desires and longings; and these roles will be taken up in a distinctive way by a Platonic lover. To contribute to the task of our flourishing and happiness, they will be sure to expand our horizons, encourage sustained reflective activity on what is valuable, be argumentative in a way that unsettles easy comforts, and ask the kinds of questions of us that call us to that task. That is why, for Plato, philosophers make the best lovers.

Frisbee Sheffield
Frisbee Sheffield
Frisbee Sheffield works in ancient philosophy, particularly ancient ethics and politics. Her research explores desire, love, and friendship, and considers their role in the good life for Plato and Aristotle. She is writing a book about Plato’s Phaedrus, and exploring the use made of ancient philosophers in rethinking politics in the work of Hannah Arendt. Recent publications include co-editing the Routledge Companion to Ancient Philosophy (2013), an edition of Plato’s Symposium, with introduction and critical notes for Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (2008), a monograph, Plato’s Symposium: The Ethics of Desire, Oxford University Press (2006), and a co-edited volume Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception, Harvard University Press (2006). Recent articles include: ‘Eros and the Pursuit of Form in Plato’s Symposium’, in Plato’s Symposium: A Critical Guide (forthcoming), ‘Platonic Piety: Beyond the Euthyphro’, in Ancient Philosophy and Religion (forthcoming), ‘Love and Friendship in Plato’, in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Ethics (forthcoming), ‘The Symposium and Platonic Ethics: Plato, Vlastos, and a misguided debate’, Phronesis 2012, ‘Eros before and after tri-partition’, in (ed.) Brittain, Barney and Brennan, Plato and the Divided Soul (Cambridge University Press) 2012, ‘Beyond eros: Plato on Friendship in the Phaedrus’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 2011, and ‘Aristotle and eros’, in (ed.) MM. McCabe, Harte, Sharples and Sheppard, Aristotle Reading Plato, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 2010.
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