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How “enlightened selfishness” can lead to a more fulfilling marriage

The philosopher Agnes Callard on pushing the boundaries of modern relationships.

An illustration of a couple walking hand-in-hand on a beach. On one of their shoulders rides a child. Getty Images/fStop

If I asked you to imagine the stereotypical philosopher, who’s the first person that springs to mind? If it’s a historical figure, there’s a decent chance it’s Socrates. Which makes sense, since he’s arguably the founder of the entire tradition of western philosophy.

And even if you don’t know much about Socrates, you probably know at least one thing he said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” That was the guiding principle of his life and it got him into all kinds of trouble in ancient Athens — most famously, leading to his public execution.

It would be way too much to call any current figure a modern-day Socrates, but when I think of public philosophers carrying out his legacy in their own way, I think of Agnes Callard. She teaches at the University of Chicago and is constantly writing for mainstream publications like the Atlantic and the New York Times.

Most recently, Callard was — how shall we put it? — “in the news” after the New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv published a profile of her and her highly unconventional marriage. If you’re interested in the details of that — including the fact that Callard lives with both her husband and ex-husband, all three of whom are philosophers — the piece is worth a read. But I saw it as a fascinating example of Callard’s willingness to think publicly and put herself out there.

She’s currently working on a book about Socrates (her philosophical role model), so I invited her onto The Gray Area to talk about her approach to public philosophy in general and her thoughts on love and marriage in particular. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.

Sean Illing

Do you think that we expect too much from our relationships? Is it unfair or unreasonable to expect one person to be enough for anyone?

Agnes Callard

I think the question, do we expect too much, and the question of expecting one person to be enough, seems separate to me.

I think we don’t expect enough. I’m a Socratic about romance and romantic relationships, and Socrates’ theory of romance is that the way that we behave in connection with romance, is, he uses the Greek word maniae, Mania. It’s like we’re crazy. We become crazy. This kind of craziness, nobody actually thinks, “Oh, the person should be institutionalized or they need to get help.” We think, “Oh yeah, of course, they’re in love, so that’s normal.” We’ve decided that crazy is normal in a certain kind of context. And to show you how twisted that is, we could substitute another kind of motivation for romance. Like, say the thing that people do where, they keep calling their ex and they keep texting them and they hate this person now. And they don’t wanna get back together with them, but they can’t stop themselves texting them. Totally familiar phenomenon, right?

Imagine somebody did that with a restaurant. They wanted to go to a certain restaurant and the restaurant’s closed. So they stand outside the door of the restaurant and they’re banging on the door and you walk up to them and you’re like, “You know, this one’s closed. There’s all these other open ones. Do you want to go to one?” “No, I can only go to this one.” “Is it because the food is so good?” “No, I hate the food.”

If somebody did that with respect to food, we’d be like, there’s something wrong with you. You need help. But when we do it about romance, we’re like, yeah, that’s how it goes. So Socrates thinks this needs interpretation. We need a theory of why it is that this certain kind of craziness starts to take over us.

And his theory is that it’s a sign that we didn’t come from this place that we’re in now. We’re here, but our home is in another world. And in that other world, the rules are different and things are perfectly beautiful.

But of course the other person whom you’ve gotten this glimpse of perfection isn’t themselves perfect, and so what is it to hold onto that glimpse of perfection? I think Socrates thought that what it is to hold onto it is to try to reconcile yourself to the thought that it’s not actually in that person, but that that person could be a way of getting at it together with you.

Sean Illing

I had an excerpt from Plato’s Symposium read at my wedding — the famous speech from Aristophanes. Aristophanes is this comic figure, but in the Symposium, he’s being super serious about love. And he has this idea that at some point in our past, each pair of lovers were one whole and we were separated. And our great quest is to find that person again and reunite. That’s obviously not true, but it’s beautiful. And while I still think that speech is fantastic, I’m not sure it’s the right way to think about love anymore.

It sounds a lot like this notion that the person you love should complete you or help you complete yourself, which sounds a little bit like what you’re saying, unless I’m wrong about that?

Agnes Callard

So the way the Symposium was structured is it was a bunch of speeches and then there’s Socrates’s speech and then Alcibiades’s speech.

Socrates says, “I once heard a story about how lovers love their other half?”

He doesn’t name Aristophanes. It’s like a subtweet. “I once heard a story about how lovers love the other half. That story is wrong. That’s not what love is.”

University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard
University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard
Courtesy of the University of Chicago

So Socrates explicitly comes out against Aristophanes and he says Aristophanes is wrong, don’t interpret my speech as saying the same thing as Aristophanes’s speech. Because Aristophanes’s speech suggests that all you gotta do is find your other half and then that’s it. You’re complete. And I think Socrates would say you’ve confused the beginning of the story for the end of the story.

Sean Illing

When talking about your divorce, you describe that feeling of losing the initial intoxication that comes with love. We all know what that’s like. I guess my question to you is, where does that leave you in the end? That feeling is never sustainable, right?

Agnes Callard

There’s certain feelings like when you first arrive at campus in your first day of classes or when your kid is born and you see them for the first time.

There are these kind of transformative moments that can’t last. And romance just gives us a big, strong version of that. That sudden experience of everything being possible, it doesn’t last. But I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying it’s not sustainable.

The feeling isn’t sustainable, that kind of excitement dissipates over time. But hopefully it doesn’t dissipate so quickly as for you to try to grab onto what is going to be this project that you’re going to engage in with this person.

I see falling in love as your chance to hook onto it, and in a way, that experience has to go away. Because that experience is the Aristophanic experience. It’s the experience of, “This person completes me, I’ve found my other half, I’m done.” It’s the experience of being done and in order to have the other experience of just getting started, that has to somewhat fade.

Sean Illing

If I understand correctly, the Socratic model of a good life is this attempt to get closer to our ideals. And when someone enters our life and helps us in that aspiration, that’s love and that’s great. And when someone doesn’t do that for us anymore or we don’t do that for them, maybe that’s the time to part ways. And that doesn’t necessarily make your marriage a failure or anyone’s marriage of failure. But let me push back a little bit on this.

You poke fun at your own selfishness in that New Yorker profile. And I wonder if you think it’s possible that this is too self-centered, a way of thinking about marriage and family and maybe even life itself? Maybe the point of these experiences is precisely to give ourselves over to other people to care less about ourselves.

Agnes Callard

There are bad kinds of selfishness. Let’s say, there’s a narrow kind of selfishness that is born from an impoverished sense of what yourself is, but there’s bad kinds of selflessness that are just born from conformity and a narrow set of expectations as to what other people want. I think what’s enticing about another person in the context of love and also in some other kinds of philosophical context is that they bring out possibilities for yourself that you didn’t know were there before. In that sense, it can also be selfless because it’s also directed toward their self, but there are many forms of selflessness that are very unromantic and that people don’t really want from us.

So I think it is a bit selfish, but as long as it’s a kind of enlightened selfishness, I’m okay with that. And at that point, I’m not sure that it is so different from at least one kind of selflessness.

Sean Illing

What role is there in this model of love and marriage for sacrifice?

Like what role is there for the other? And I don’t mean the other merely as a vehicle for our own philosophical growth, but the other, for the sake of the other? If we live entirely or too much for ourselves following our own passions, then I think we can end up bulldozing over the lives of the people we love. But there are higher and deeper forms of love, right?

Agnes Callard

I think that love involves something known as sacrifice. It involves unpleasantness. It’s a package deal and part of the package is suffering. It’s true of just about every attachment that you have to another human being — it comes with suffering. But, I guess the reason to stick with it and to continue is the good things that are to be gotten for you. I want to be with someone where they’re getting incredible value out of this relationship.

Sean Illing

What should we be expecting of our lovers that we don’t?

Agnes Callard

When you fall in love with someone, you see something divine in them, and the expectation would be that that gets realized. Because the thing you see is only a possibility, and that they have the same expectation of you.

Now, I want to acknowledge something, which is one reaction that this [New Yorker] piece got from a lot of people is like, wow, she seems really exhausting.

And I think that that’s sort of true about me, and maybe there’s just different modes of living. One thing I think philosophers are insufficiently sensitive to is the fact that people are different from other people. There’s just a huge amount of variance among human beings.

One way to think about it is, there are two kinds of people. Some people think the worst thing in life is stress and suffering and the world making too many demands of you, and then other people think the worst thing in life is boredom and nothingness and having an insufficient number of demands being made on you.

I am definitely in the second category. I just always want there to be more. I want everything to happen faster. So I guess the question is, which danger are you more worried about? The thought that failing at this really big task is going to be so dispiriting that you’ll just give up and won’t try at all? Or the thought that not putting a big enough task in front of you is just going to leave you demotivated and think, ah, is this even worth trying?

I’m just more in the second category. Just because something is an infinitely large task, I don’t think that means that it’s too big to ask of someone. But keep in mind, I don’t have to persuade everyone. I just have to persuade the person I’m with. So if most people are like, “Hey, that’s not for me,” that’s okay because I’m not romantically involved with them.

Sean Illing

When I think of Socrates, I think of someone who’s just poking holes in what we think we know. I wonder what you think we need most from philosophers today. What other sorts of questions do you think we should be asking right now of philosophers in particular?

Agnes Callard

I would agree with the description of Socrates as poking holes in things. But the way that I would put that is that he’s opening a bunch of inquiries. He’s saying, “Hey, here’s a bunch of stuff you’re just sort of doing. You’re just sort of going through your day with it, but you could ask about it.” I think the really interesting thing about marriage and romance is just that it’s a place where we will tolerate this, because we are all interested in having philosophical discussions about our romantic lives. And I never realized this so strongly until this piece came out.

I’ve had people report on me and describe me as someone, most of whose work is about romance or my own romances or whatever and none of my academic work is about this and very little of my public philosophy is about this, but people have this impression that’s who I am. Why? Because it’s really gripping to people. And I think this might be the thin edge of the philosophical wedge. If we philosophers want to get people to be interested in their own lives, the place we have to start is romance and marriage, because they will tolerate it there.

People will have long, involved conversations about ideas if those conversations are about romance.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.