“Mortals call him fluttering love, But the immortals call him winged one, Because the growing of wings is a necessity to him.” Plato, Phaedrus

Crazy, Stupid, Love the movie screening currently in Australia is first and foremost a tragic comedy about soul mates. Cal the husband (Steve Carell) decides that his wife (Julianne Moore) who wants a divorce after having an affair with another man (an accountant of all things!) is worth fighting for because she is his soul mate. As his wise and beyond his tender age of 13-year-old son tells his gutted father, you don’t give-up, “you fight for your soul mate”.

The notion of soul mate or kindred spirit is as old as the universe itself if not older, according to Plato. Its earliest entry into Western culture can be traced to Aristophanes’ speech on love in Plato’s Symposium. Love lies at the very heart of Plato’s philosophy and his dialogue the Symposium, together with the Republic, are two of the most important of Plato’s philosophical works. Because love is the cornerstone of Plato’s philosophy it renders his philosophy both universal and relevant for all times and all places. For if love is universal and relevant for everyone so is Plato’s philosophy.

Apart from Diotima’s speech on platonic love, Aristophanes’ tragicomic speech on the origins of romantic love is the second most important speech in the Symposium. Aristophanes’ speech marks a sharp point of departure from the speeches on love that precede it. Whereas those speeches present love as a god or a goddess, Aristophanes’ speech presents love not as a god but as a longing for wholeness.

Aristophanes offers a story dealing with human nature and the human condition. Human beings were once spherical, with eight limbs like an octopus (which may explain why the octopus is not only a tasty meze but also a very intelligent animal) four arms and four legs, one head with two faces and four ears and two sets of genitals, male or female, or both, so that they were any one of three kinds: male-male, male-female, and female-female. One day they offended the gods and to punish them Zeus cut them in half, scattering the two severed halves in opposite directions. Since that day, we are endlessly searching for our other half. When a half meets its other half, they are overcome by Eros and they delight in being with each other. The reason for this is not, or at least not merely, a desire for sexual intercourse: on the contrary, the soul of each wishes for something it cannot put into words. Lovers desire to live a common life and die a common death in a complete and lasting union. The reason is that this is our ancient nature when we were once a unified whole. “Eros” Aristophanes tells us in the Symposium, “is the desire and pursuit of wholeness”.

Love as wholeness, however, is forever frustrated. For if the aim of love is wholeness it is an aim that cannot be wholly achieved. Despite the impulse toward union and wholeness, lovers are inherently and essentially separate. It is their bodies through which they express their union and their love, which is the cause of their separation. That which expresses their longing and desire for wholeness is what divides them and keeps them apart. The paradox of love is in fact a double-paradox. It was originally our wholeness that through its arrogance led to our separation. Now it is our separation that forever frustrates our efforts to recover our original wholeness. That which expresses our wholeness, which our souls desire and seek, is what forever divides us and keeps us apart. Romantic love is essentially mediated by the body which is a cause of our separation rather than our union. We are creatures of a longing that in principle and in practice cannot be completely fulfilled. We crave for wholeness through union with our soul mates, which the physical separation of our bodies hinders us from ever fully achieving.

Aristophanes’ speech itself presents us with no resolution to the paradox of romantic love. Aristophanes offers a myth on love that begins in comedy and ends in a vision of the human condition that is inherently tragicomic. In Stupid, Crazy Love, Steve Carell, a contemporary Aristophanes of the screen gives vision and sound to the tragicomedy of romantic love. For romantic love can be crazy. As the chorus in Antigone warns us, it can drive men and women mad. It can also be stupid, if it is inspired only by the physical Aphrodite Pandemos, the one who causes pandemonium in the hearts of mortals and gods alike, and not by the empyrean Aphrodite Ourania, the one who inspires love of the spirit for our one and only other half, our lifelong lost and found again, soul mate.

* Dr Edward Spence is a Senior Research Fellow at the ARC Special Research Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. He teaches applied philosophy and communication ethics in the School of Communication and Creative Industries at Charles Sturt University.