To acknowledge an idea as “deep” is not necessarily to endorse it as true. It is to recognize that the idea operates at the foundation of our thinking and, by shaping our way of seeing, contributes to helping to construct our experience. Indeed, one of the tragedies of life is that so many deep ideas are not true. At any rate, I am claiming that two of Plato’s deep ideas about the nature of love are at work in our psychic depths and thus have a large and ongoing (if hidden) influence on our love lives. I am further claiming that one has a negative influence and the other a positive one.
So what are these deep Platonic ideas about the nature of love? Both are presented in the Symposium, Plato’s dialogue on love. Here, a group of aristocratic gentlemen, recovering from a previous night of heavy drinking, decide only to drink lightly on this night while taking turns giving speeches about love. The first idea comes from Aristophanes’ speech in which he presents a comic myth to explain what love is.
Aristophanes begins by saying that men and women are the separated halves of what was originally one whole being. This original being was round, had four arms, four legs, two faces, and two sets of sexual organs. It could generate great speed and power by coordinating its arms and legs to spin like a cartwheel at incredible speeds, almost like a human bowling ball. Although these beings were asexual and reproduced by casting their seed on the ground, they came in three forms—male, female, and mixed.
Aristophanes says these beings also had great ambition—so much so that they tried to ascend Mount Olympus to attack the gods. Although the gods were understandably outraged, they were perplexed about how to respond. They were inclined to destroy these beings with thunderbolts, as they had destroyed the Titans, but they did not want to lose the worship and sacrifices they provided. After a great effort of thinking, Zeus came up with a plan. He decided that rather than destroying them he would rip them in half, thereby depriving them of their strength and rolling power. In this way humans would lose their arrogance while at the same time doubling in number, thereby increasing the number of sacrifices offered to the gods.
The newly-cut-in-half beings suffered greatly, more so than Zeus had anticipated. They longed so achingly for their other half that they would throw their arms around each other, staying woven together all day in the hope that they would grow completely again. So great was their longing, that they began to die in each other’s arms. Seeing the great show of their sorrow, Zeus took pity on them and made a correction. He moved their genitals to the front, thereby creating sexual reproduction by means of the male penetrating the female.
Aristophanes then says this is how love was born into our being. Love being the force that leads us to try to heal the primal wound to our original nature through sexual union. We are seeking to find our “matching half” in order to become complete again.
Our primal wound also explains our sexual proclivities. Men and women who were split from a mixed being seek wholeness with the opposite sex and are often lecherous. However, women split from a female being seek wholeness with other women, and men split from a male being seek wholeness with other men. The men who seek wholeness with other men, Aristophanes says, are the only type who grow up to be political leaders and, when they are grown men, love only boys and marry only as required by local custom and to make children.
The key point in this comic myth is that it is not a desire for sex that brings us together but the desire to become whole. Sex is the vehicle, not the destination, and love is the fuel for the journey. In addition, it is because lovers find union with their beloved that they cannot bear to be apart.
For all of its outlandishness, this myth expresses the widespread notion that romantic love will end our agonizing loneliness if we can form not merely a stable relationship with another but a sort of metaphysical fusion with them. The idea is that when we are in love, we cease to exist as a separate individual and instead merge or fuse into a new whole being. When this does not happen, it is not love (Bardi, 3).
Now before you dismiss this idea as nonsense, consider how deeply we are influenced by it. How often do we hear someone say they feel “lost” and “incomplete” without their romantic partner? Indeed, we think it is the very heart of romance to feel we need our true love in order to be complete. “I can’t live without you,” “You make me whole again,” “I need you”—all of these romantic sentiments express Aristophanes’ idea.
It is on this basis that Freud associated romantic love with the death instinct. That is, through love (understood as a sort of metaphysical merging) we seek the “death” of our previous, separate existence. This culturally validated idea that true love involves such a merging of identities is a source of great suffering. It is the classic double bind. As autonomous psychic entities, we resist losing our identities. At the same time, as culturally created romantic partners, we not only seek to abandon our separate existence in a romantic fusion, but we use the extent of our success in “becoming one” as a standard to measure the quality of our relationship and marriage. As a tragic consequence, many a healthy, autonomous couple has split apart because one or the other of them felt that their failure to achieve metaphysical “oneness” was a sign that love had died (Bardi, 3).
Unfortunately, there is an even darker element to this. Freud’s association of romantic love with the death instinct opens the door to a number of other strange but revealing connections in our depths. For example, just as the romantic urge can become a dysfunction when it aligns with the death instinct and seeks not just a committed relationship with another but a complete fusion with them, so too can lusting after great wealth. It happens when we want lots of money in order to move out of our neighborhood, get all new clothes, quit our job, and get new friends. In other words, possessing great wealth will enable us to “die” to our old life.
As grim as these dysfunctions are, it may be that the deep inner emptiness that leads to them is not an inherent quality of the human condition, as Freud thought, but simply a natural spiritual response to the denigration of self-worth. These dysfunctions occur when it is a sense of lack that is driving us and not a compassionate and loving urge to give and to serve. Once the feeling of inadequacy and metaphysical lack is established in the psyche—the very feeling Aristophanes based his comic myth upon—then products we don’t need can be sold to us on the basis of the implication that the reason we feel empty and unfulfilled is because we don’t yet have them.
As far as romance is concerned, the idea and feeling that each of us needs something “other” in order to complete ourselves represents a failure to accept our intimate selves.
Bardi, John. Plato, Romance, and self-inquiry. Humanist, February 2011
Plato, Plato: The Collected Dialogues of Plato, translated by Gebundene Ausgabe, New Jersey: Princeton university press, 1871. ISBN: 9780691097183.