The idea of a “soul mate” goes way back. How far back? Before the notion that destiny had a hand in marriage and before Eve was allegedly created for Adam by removing his rib. All the way back to Plato, 2500 years ago.
Indeed, in his writing you will find the idea of a “better half,” quite literally. If you believe you are missing something in the relationship department, you can do worse than consult the wisdom of the ancient Greeks.
Plato deals with the proper mate in his Symposium, the story of a dinner party in which everyone takes a turn praising love. The most famous of these speeches is by the poet Aristophanes, who says we were rather different creatures at the dawn of mankind. Humans came in three varieties: males, females, and hermaphrodites (people with both male and female sex organs). These folks were big and strong — pretty full of themselves — and attempted a heavenly assault on the gods.
Zeus, heaven’s CEO, decided to put the insolent hoard in its place. He cleaved each of the three types of Homo sapiens in half to make them all weaker — cutting them down to size and making two people out of each one. Since they all began with two faces, four legs, and four arms; they were left with one head, two legs, and two arms, exactly as we are today. Similarly, because they originally had two sets of sex organs, now they had but one, the standard allotment for you, me, and our children. Of course, Zeus had to do a bit of sewing to make appearances seemly.
What happened next speaks to the question of looking for your soul mate:
“Now, when the work of bisection was complete it left each half with a desperate yearning for the other, and they ran together and flung their arms around each others’ necks, and asked for nothing better than to be rolled into one … “
Aristophanes story thus explains why we are always trying to make “two into one.” “Each of us is forever seeking the half that will tally with himself.” We wish “to be merged, that is, into an utter oneness with the beloved.”
The author also explains sexual preferences. The original man, when cut in two, sought another man — his second self — to retrieve the love he lost. The women who began our race also wanted their earlier female counterpart. Only the hermaphrodites desired a heterosexual relationship because their other half was of a different gender.
Later on in this work Plato offers us a speech by Socrates as the ultimate word on love. No soul mates, I’m afraid. For Socrates, love must always be the love of something; and his target is loftier than any of the preceding speakers imagined and free from a preoccupation with mere physical beauty. Indeed, it is so spiritually beautiful, wise, eternal, and perfect as to be beyond even his description. This was the original meaning of a platonic relationship: one in which the partners take part in the most elevated, transcendent discourse.
For those of us living on earth, however, my hunch is Aristophanes’ story has the greatest appeal. It is certainly entertaining and set Western civilization in pursuit of the perfect mate: one who is “hot,” fun to be with, and shares the same interests. Ah, well … perhaps something was lost in the fog of time and translation.
Should you wish to learn more about love I suggest you cozy up to Plato. On the other hand, the Collected Dialogues (of which the Symposium is one) offer cold comfort if you are looking for a warm body.
Still, if you really get into it, you won’t be thinking of human touch. You will be enamored of wisdom — face to face with virtue’s self.
And you will have become a philosopher.*
Socrates would be pleased.
The above painting is an African mixed-media canvas by Turgo Bastien, sourced from Turgoart on Wikimedia Commons.
*The word philosopher derives from two Greek roots: philo, meaning love and sophos, meaning wisdom. Tread lightly, however, when you meet a woman called Sophia. Sophos is the root of her name!