In the 2nd century AD a literary author and philosopher, Lucius Apuleius, crafted a story that allegorizes the relationship between the human soul (psyche) and desire (Eros). This happens to be the first real day of class for my students and this is the first year that I have used this text as the opening of the semester. The following translation was available for students: http://www.john-uebersax.com/books/Uebersax-Cupid-and-Psyche-2018.pdf
While ostensibly a classical romance story, the myth of Psyche and Eros can be analyzed allegorically from a (Neo)Platonic perspective, outlining in broad strokes some amazing details about what it means to be human. Beginning first with the comparison between Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Psyche, Soul, I argued that Aphrodite is comparable to the Form of Desire while Psyche is her embodied image. The form/image distinction has a long history in Platonism and so I used the two erotic feminine principles to emphasize the idea of there being an absolute, eternal or unchanging principle or Form that substantiates the particular, temporal and changing image or reflection. To put this in more Neoplatonic language (and, yes, it’s okay if you just hear “blah, blah, 25 cent word, blah…” because I am about to use some fancy cocktail party jargon), arguably, Psyche represents the living image of the noetic reality of Life, i.e. the intelligible-intellective principle of Neoplatonic metaphysics. Soul (Psyche) is that which images the form of Life in eternity and absolute being via its own descent into the psychic world of temporality and becoming. To return to more student-friendly language, Aphrodite qua Absolute or Perfect Desire can also be identified with Absolute or Perfect Life, life which is always life (pure relation that can always substantiate connection), never dying, never becoming anything other than itself, life. Contrariwise, Psyche, as Aphrodite’s embodied image, is life which is attached to its other, to death and becoming otherwise, life that struggles to be what it is, eternal insatiable desire (relation that can never quite perfectly connect). Psyche’s life is the life of the soul that must reach out for itself, always attempting to touch but never quite grasping or realizing her own divinity, her own perfection. In the myth, Psyche’s beauty rivals Aphrodite’s. It seems that human beings desire or find themselves more attracted to temporal, embodied beauty or life than to the Idea of beauty (absolute Life). Aphrodite’s anger gestures to our own misdirected desire. We ought to love divine beauty, the transcendent erotic principle, but, ultimately, we cannot help but to gravitate to the beauty of this world, particularly the spectacular beauty of Soul in its animation of the World and ourselves. I like this idea because human beings aren’t conditioned to think or value the immaterial or transcendent. We, like those in the story, find ourselves looking for beauty and life in the embodied, material and immanent. In fact, it may be the only way we can ever access it. We see the beauty of a dancer and we cannot help but remember or recall absolute beauty. Her movement, her grace, allows us momentarily to see that ‘something’ more. She is beautiful, but that beauty shines in such a way as to remind us that what graces her, what shimmers on the surface of her lived being, constituting our attraction, is the eternal. That is what it means to be a soul in this world. We are the beings that must move, think and create in time, but, in that moving, in that creativity, we express the divine beauty of the eternal. Next, there is Eros’ descent and Aphrodite’s hope that the Soul should be married to something ugly. What should we make of this? The descent of the absolutely erotic (the Form of Desire, Aphrodite’s original progeny) into the world of becoming is a fascinating account of the divine coming to the plane of the temporal. At first, the goal is to unite the Soul to that which Aphrodite thinks is lesser to her, the sensible. This expresses the straightforward fact that the soul’s original and premier love is or should be body and material life. Our first love, so to speak, is the fraility of dying and living in such a way that we, despite having an eternal soul, are far from divine. Nevertheless, due to Eros’ fortune, our lot is not to be attached to the material simply, to that which could never satisfy the soul completely. Rather, Eros’ own fall for Psyche suggests that the Soul will love Love itself, be attached to loving, to the erotic power that constitutes the Soul’s divine beauty versus mere attachment to corporeal beauty. In some ways, Eros and Psyche, both children of Absolute Beauty and Life Itself, mirror Aphrodite – they are forms of desire, whether it be perfect desire or the insatiable desire of the human soul. Yet, Eros and Psyche are also other to Aphrodite in their descent into the World – Psyche by necessity and Eros by divine decree. As two parts of same and other, Psyche is that power of the human soul qua human soul, while Eros is the power of the human soul qua offspring/wife of the divine. In other words, Psyche by herself is the highest desire of human beings; she solidifies the beauty of the temporal and the embodied. Moreover, when joined with Eros, absolutely transcendent desire, she connects with the eternal and incorporeal. Now, before Psyche and Eros are wed, Psyche feels the pain of despair and loneliness so much so that she contemplates suicide. Everyone admires her but no one marries her. Again, think of this qua what it means to be human. There is the highest part of ourselves, which is too much, seemingly unattainable, the beauty of the soul and its desire for the good. Yet, often we don’t think we can attain such beauty. We, like the suitors, settle for the less than, for the average, for a wedding to the lower parts of our soul. Most of us never come to identify with the highest, most beautiful part of the Soul. We settle for the average form of life and as such there is a part of us that always struggles, despairs, feels useless and worthless, going uncared for and neglected. Yes, that part of ourselves that struggles against the mad sea of despair, that part that cries with a sense of meaninglessness, that is the beauty of our psyche. She weeps from a lack of connection and a lack of knowing what she really is, the wife of perfect desire for the Beautiful and the Good. In the end, our soul must take a leap of faith, as Psyche did with Zephryr, finding herself in such a leap at the temple of Eros. Her/our faith that there is something other than our despair, our lack of connection, is what makes possible for true flourishing and enjoyment of the soul. I truly love this image. The soul’s beauty is both in its despair but also in its faith in the ‘more than’, a faith that there is true connection and authentic touching carrying us to the sacred, the house of authentic desire. Yet, recalling that the soul is not Absolute, not Aphrodite, she will not perfectly enjoy or settle into her life with Eros. She becomes lonely, she still needs her sisters, those parts of the soul attached to the material. Many philosophers who have attempted to analyze this part of the myth, often identify the sisters with things like anger, jealousy, the imagination etc. The soul often desires its own faults. Remember, as sisters they image or appear like Psyche too. In other words, they are different forms of Life, different ways of being in the world, souls that married beneath or lower than Psyche’s own marriage to Eros, a god. They are the parts of our soul that marry the material, marry the emotions and desires that come with only identifying or loving the sensible. We ought to love the sensible but not at the expense of the transcendent. The sisters are those parts of us that want true eroticism but fail, because we seek for it in places where it is not, namely in physical union, objectification, money, reputation, etc. Moreover, the sisters act as a temptation. They tempt Psyche into needing to see, needing to objectify the divine, turning him into a ‘thing’, a monster. Here we are invited to recall that Psyche’s flourishing with Eros was a time of intimate trust where the relationship was not about physical sight or touch but about authentic connection and communion. Eros wanted to be her equal. Seeing him, objectifying him as transcendent or even as a mere totem is to force Psyche, on the one hand, into seeing herself as unworthy or, on the other hand, seeing him as unworthy insofar as he could be seen, as the sisters implore, as a monster. Ultimately, our souls are always tempted into turning the divine love in us, as black feminist essayist Audre Lorde put it, into plasticized sensation. This is the human condition. We have the beautiful before us, loving us, but we cannot help but be tempted to hold it, to grasp it, to know it and in such desire we burn our beloved, scare him away. And so our souls despair once again. Psyche wanders in search of her beloved, pained and broken, angry with herself for having betrayed the divine to which she was so happily wedded, however briefly. She wanders without solace for a long time, seemingly forever. Then the divine takes pity on her, offering her challenges so as to see if she is worthy of her other divine half. The challenges often resemble intellectual activities of sorting, sifting and categorizing, symbolizing that the soul must come to the divine through philosophical activities like dialectic. (Plato often compared philosophy to activities like sorting or collecting.) Yet, even in these activities, Psyche is not alone. She is assisted in her journey by the divine, whether it be embodied in the smallest of insects or in advice that allows us to predict calmer waters. In this trust, we are reunited with the divine erotic. When the soul rises to the challenges of this world, knowingly assisted and roused by the divine, she finally becomes immortalized, held in the eternal embrace of Eros. In other words, the myth allows us to see that the soul is that which achieves its own immortality, its own absolute beauty, in loving and being married to the highest parts of herself, a task that incorporates both her own despair, loneliness and need. That descent is part of her/our power. Our soul is beautiful and transcendent precisely because she/we is/are also imperfect and insatiable. We must embrace and love for always, or absolutely, both our transcendence but also our immanence, never objectifying either, never turning the sensible or the immaterial into things. Rather, we are tasked with being married to the erotic, which can never be seen but only loved and we are called to have faith in the stability of that connection even in our darkest hour. The soul is that which always loves in such a way that it ascends and returns to the home, to the beloved, who welcomes us despite our waywardness, despite our need for help, perhaps even because we acknowledge that need and therein transform it into power.