In the dramatic dialogue The Symposium, Plato placed on the lips of Aristophanes a tale about the origins of romantic love. Aristophanes recounted how it was that humans had come to search for love. In the beginning, he tells us, the gods created three sexes: male, female, and the androgynous sex. The primal humans had four legs, four arms, and one head with two faces. They used to cartwheel around, and were rather powerful. In due time, Zeus became frightened at the possibility of an invasion of the gods’ residence at the hands of the primal humans—so he sought to strike them down with lightning. But the sacrifices the primal humans rendered unto the gods were enticing, so another way of limiting their primeval power was devised instead: cut them into halves.
Having sliced every primal human into half, the gods watched the humans run around as if lost in a haze looking for their other halves. The males sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining homosexuality. The females sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining lesbianism. And the androgynous primal humans cut in half went looking for their counterparts likewise—thus explaining heterosexuality.
“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.”
And if ever asked what it was that these lost “halves” desired, they would readily admit they desired to be one, to be whole again. “[T]here is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.”
This Greek myth is at the center of American individualism. It pervades our culture, our religion, our romantic rendezvous, our language, our literature and our arts. There is not a single facet of American life that is not rendered absolutely helpless in the face of this myth. What, then, is our version of this Greek myth? In this essay, I will argue that American individualism is the idealized obsession that some singular individual—seen as an “autonomous self” detached from a communal reality—exists who could satisfy another individual’s universal cravings. I believe that our individualism plays a particular role when it comes to human relationships. According to our myth, there exists such a person—whom we endow with the endearing phrase “the one”—who is able to fulfill virtually all (if not all) our primal and present urges. This person, this “the one,” is predominantly seen as the end-all-be-all of our entire existence, a person who is able to make us feel “whole again” (whatever that means). In our myth, then, the community—i.e., communal reality—is almost entirely displaced by thoroughgoing individualism. The person is not seen as a part of a community of human beings that share one another’s burdens; instead, the person is seen as a detached individual who must embody the totality of his or her culture’s existence. No longer is the burden of embodying the aforementioned existence placed on the community; in our American culture—driven by the myth of individualism—the burden is shifted onto the individual: a single individual is thought to be capable of embodying an entire religion, an entire nation, and an entire culture.
When the individual is seen as separate and distinct from his or her community—when the community plays virtually no role in romantic relationships—the burden placed on individuals is exceedingly great, even impossible, in my opinion, to bear. The expectations are enormous, being intolerable to sustain. No single individual, no matter how great they may be, could possibly embody an entire community. No single individual could play the role of spouse, lover, sex symbol, parent, employee, religious cleric, food critic, arts and culture specialist, etc., etc. The myth of American individualism supports the ludicrous idea that a single individual—whom we call “the one”—is able to replace the community. In this essay, I will argue that no individual can replace communal reality—and it is detrimental to the human psyche for someone else to expect the impossible from him or her.
In the beginning was the myth, and the myth gave birth to other myths. A thousand myths sprung from this one myth, and this one myth found its way into a book we know worship and adore: the Bible. And God allegedly endorsed this myth, and he called it good. “…[A]nd the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24).
In the book of Genesis, whatever its origins may be, the idea of two becoming one is present—as it is present in Plato’s Symposium. Whatever interpretations one may conjure up in regards to Genesis, the myth, as found in Plato, would be fully and lucidly presupposed in a Jewish text called the Book of Tobit, which dates from around the second-century BCE.
In Tobit, a young man by the name of Tobias falls in love with a virgin girl named Sarah. However, despite the presumed romantic future, Tobias is made aware of a sinister rumor: Sarah had been married to seven different men—and all have been killed by a demon whenever they tried to have sex with her. The demon was thought to be madly in love with Sarah, forbidding any man to sleep with her. En route to Sarah’s house, Tobias was instructed by Raphael, an angel. In his angelic instructions, Raphael told Tobias what he was to do on the first wedding night to make the demon go away. In addition, the angel assured Tobias that Sarah was meant for him. “Do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world was made” (Tobit 6:18 NRSV). The story ends on a happy note, as everything goes as planned. My interest continues, however, because of the verse cited. What the angelic instructions presuppose is the idea of romantic predestination “before the world was made.”
Many Americans today, except for the few Catholics, probably have never heard of Tobit. But that’s all beside the point. The point is that our culture continues to tell this very story using different people and different names. Our romance novels betray romantic predestination; our pop music betrays romantic predestination; even our language betrays predestination. For example, the fact that a definite article precedes “one” in the phrase “the one” assures us of the singularity of this person’s existence. The idea is that there aren’t just several “ones” out there; nay, there is merely “the one.” If we had not bought into the Greek myth, we would have, at the very least, had a language in which “a one” was a colloquial expression. Such is not the case, however. Instead, the myth is shaping our language, the very discourse governing our romantic relations.
From scattered verses in the Bible to love songs buzzing on the radio, the myth of individualism continues. It is not that individually these ideas form a coherent myth; rather, taken as a whole, the ideas shape the underlying myth governing our romantic endeavors. Somewhere in the thousand or so years in which myths such as those found in Plato’s Symposium or the Book of Tobit found their voice, we have tuned in to them along the way and have become their audience. Whether we like it or not, the myth has ruined marriages. A husband turns to his wife for psychiatric consultation when, in fact, he should probably be turning to a trained psychiatrist, one who is within the community. A wife turns to her husband for an emotional need that may only be satisfied, instead, at an all-girls night out. But the myth is there: she was predestined for you; he was predestined for you. The struggle to make an individual replace a community is an impossible struggle—but the myth sustains that very idea. The marriage fails because an ideal is held up as a kind of reality. “I want my husband to be a good parent, an excellent lover, a perfect engineer, a humorous socialite, a…” The list continues into eternity until it vanishes from human sight. It’s okay, in other words, to have a wife that doesn’t function as your psychologist. Maybe you should actually talk about psychology with your friend who is a psychologist. It’s okay, in other words, to have a husband who doesn’t write you breathtaking poems and take you on wild dates. Maybe you should let him take you to the theater and let Hollywood do the romancing on his behalf. It’s okay to be married—and remain in need of community.
The myth of American individualism needs to be disfigured for what it really is: a myth. It’s not helping anyone by implying that someone could function as your everyone.
Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev
Dedicated to Andrei Semenov–for being a good conversationalist as we sipped on Woodford bourbon and discussed the finer things in life…
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 New Living Translation.