The Philosophy of Pixar’s “Soul”

Forget Purpose, Find your “Spark”

Steven Gambardella
The Sophist
Published in
6 min readDec 27, 2020

--

Joe Gardner is so focused on his dream of being a famous jazz musician that he doesn’t stop for a moment to appreciate life. Image: publicity image from Disney Pixar’s “Soul” (Fair use for the purpose of review)

“To the poet and sage, all things are friendly and sacred, all experiences profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”

What are we supposed to do with our lives? This is the question that runs through Pixar’s new movie Soul. It’s a question that goes unanswered, and for good reason.

Pixar films’ commercial strength is producing animated movies that parents are happy to sit through. Soul is the most adult-friendly Pixar film I’ve seen. While other Pixar movies keep the parents happy with wry jokes and observations, Soul’s core story speaks directly to the hopes and fears of most of the adults watching. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch for that reason.

Soul follows Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher, as he tries to find his life’s purpose. Joe is a gifted piano player but feels stuck in a rut. He dreams of being a jazz legend, playing prestigious clubs and concert halls. But his mother has different ideas, she thinks he ought to get a steady job with a pension and health insurance.

Like Joe, many of us are haunted by the feeling that we need to find a purpose in life. We feel envious of the famous, because they have found their purpose by being good at something. Many of us long only for riches or fame, even if those things are achieved in a meaningless way, since fame and money can be a proxy to purpose.

We obsess over our careers, or our hobbies, or being the perfect parent, thinking that a wrong choice will take us off track of our goal to fit a perfect mould that’s waiting for us in the future: the us with a purpose in life. Where does this come from?

The Death — and Afterlife — of Purpose

In pre-modern rigidly hierarchical societies everybody sort of had a purpose. Societies were structured like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king or the emperor. The monarch was ordained by God, and everybody thought they had their “place in life” thanks to God’s will.

The monarch ruled through nobles and spiritual leaders, who ruled above lords, who, in turn, ruled above…

--

--

Steven Gambardella
The Sophist

History PhD. The lessons of history and philosophy for your life and work. Writes The Sophist: https://sophist.substack.com/