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Ethics in Culture

On Some Philosophical Roots of Pixar’s “Soul”

By A.G. Holdier
7 Jan 2021

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses several plot details of Disney and Pixar’s new movie “Soul.”]
On December 25th, the 23rd feature film from Pixar Animation Studios was released on the Disney+ streaming platform to great popular acclaim; after nearly a week, “Soul” has steadily retained a 90% score at Rotten Tomatoes with over 2600 audience reviews. Although it has garnered some criticism over at least one of its casting choices, the film’s presentation of a man struggling to come to terms with his life choices (while simultaneously trying to convince a skeptical spirit of life’s value) has resonated with viewers. And, as is often the case with Pixar products, there is plenty of philosophical material to unpack.
Beginning with the death of long-aspiring jazz musician Joe Gardner, much of “Soul” portrays a metaphysical universe that, while cartoonish, might look familiar to anyone who has taken a class on ancient Greek philosophy. According to Plato, something like a spiritual world (the world of the Forms) is more fundamental to reality than the familiar physical world and all human souls exist there before they enter human bodies; Joe Gardner’s discovery of the Great Before, where nascent souls are formed prior to being born on Earth, functions in a similar kind of way to Plato’s sense of a “pre-existence” to life on Earth. However, Plato’s Forms have little to do with a soul “finding their spark” to get their pass to Earth; the character of 22 would need a mentor, in Plato’s perspective, after birth (to be able to remember their innate knowledge of reality, as described in the Meno dialogue), not before it (as in the movie — although Plato does include something similar to “Soul”’s instructors in the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic). “Soul” never explains what happens when a person’s spirit enters the Great Beyond (but its depiction is ominously reminiscent of a bug-zapping lamp), so it’s hard to compare its sense of the afterlife to anything, but at least some Christian traditions (most notably, those stemming from the third century theologian Origen and the 19th century revolutionary Joseph Smith) whole-heartedly embrace a literal sort of pre-existence for human souls.
This sort of dualistic framework (that sees a human being as the composite of two substances: a physical body and nonphysical soul) would go on to powerfully influence Western philosophers and theologians alike; indeed, many contemporary beliefs about human nature bear some form of the ancient Greek stamp (consider, for example, just how many popular stories hinge on some kind of philosophical dualism). “Soul” not only mines this Platonic concept for its setting but for its plot as well when Joe’s spirit accidentally falls into a cat (while 22 temporarily takes over Joe’s body). This kind of event is roughly dependent on what is sometimes called a “simple” view of personal identity (as expressed by, for example, Descartes) whereby what makes a person themselves is simply a matter of their soul (their body is, in a sense, “extra” or “unnecessary” for such calculations).
Many reviews of “Soul”, however, focus less on its metaphysical framework and more on its existentialist message. Granted, existentialist themes — especially those focusing on individuals discovering personal meaning for their lives and “finding their place in the world” — are tropes long trod by Pixar since it released “Toy Story” in 1995 and appear also in films like “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” and “Toy Story 4” (that last one even helped Dictionary.com select “existential” as its 2019 Word of the Year). In a similar way, other releases (like “Finding Nemo,” “Up,” “Coco,” “Toy Story 3,” “Inside Out,” and “Onward”) grapple with the meaning of life specifically within the context of grief, loss, and death. In this way, “Soul” is but the latest in a long line of entertaining animated depictions of philosophical reflections on what it means to be human.
What makes “Soul” unique, however, is that, rather than focusing on what makes individuals special, the film highlights what we all have in common. The climax of the movie comes when Joe Gardner, after accidentally helping 22 find their spark that will allow them to go to Earth, learns that such sparks are not measures or definitions of a soul’s purpose or calling — they are simply an indication that a soul is “ready to live.” Throughout the film, Joe had been operating on the assumption that his spark was “music” because hearing and playing jazz filled him with such passion for life that he felt satisfied and happy in a way far beyond any other experience. Early on, Joe tries, with little luck, to help 22 discover their own passion; it is only after 22 gets an accidental taste of life in Joe’s body that they are truly ready to live — even though 22 never discovers specifically what their “calling” in life might be.
This kind of thinking smells less like Plato than it does his student Aristotle. While Aristotle has a rather different view of the soul than his predecessor (for example: Aristotle denies that a “soul” can sensibly be separated from a “body” like Platonic dualists might allow), Aristotle nevertheless recognizes that something like a soul is a crucial part of our makeup. To Aristotle, your soul is what explains how your body moves and changes, but it isn’t something substantively distinct from it; for example, he draws an analogy to a bronze statue of Hermes: just like how you could not remove the “shape of Hermes” from the bronze without destroying the statue, you could not remove the soul from a body without destroying a person (for more, see his explanation of “hylomorphism”). So, if the soul is something like a power that directs a body to perform different actions, the big question is “what actions should a soul direct a body to perform?” Crucially, Aristotle thinks that the answer to this question is the same for all humans, simply in virtue of being human: we all have the same ergon (“function” or “task”), so what’s “good” for all humans is the same: in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that this amounts to “activity of soul in accordance with virtue.”
So, unlike what he originally assumed, what was ultimately “good” for Joe Gardner was not simply a matter of “playing jazz” — it was a matter of living life in the right way. True happiness (what Aristotle calls “eudaimonia”) is not simply a matter of performing a single task well, but of living all of life, holistically, in a manner that fits with how human lives are meant to be lived. Similarly, whatever sort of passions 22 might discover during their life on Earth, what’s “good” for 22 will also amount to living life in the right way (maple seeds, lollipops, and all). The reason why Jerry (the interdimensional being in charge of the Great Before) explains to Joe that a spark is not a life’s “purpose” is because life itself is the purpose of all souls — empowering beings to live their lives is why souls exist, at least according to Aristotle.
In the scene that sets up the climax of the film, Dorothea Williams tells Joe a story about a dissatisfied fish looking for the ocean, not realizing that he was swimming in it all along; in different ways, both Plato and Aristotle offer their own commentaries on how we can forget (or fail to notice) the sorts of things that give our lives real meaning. Sometimes, it’s nice to have movies like “Soul” to help us remember.

A.G. Holdier is a doctoral student in philosophy and public policy at the University of Arkansas interested in cultural capital, social and political epistemology, and the intersection of ethics with philosophy of language. More info available at www.agholdier.com
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