© 2002, Bruce J. MacLennan
Platonic philosopher, popular orator, author of a risqué novel, accused sorcerer: what are we to make of Apuleius? He was born about 125 CE in Madauros (modern M'daurouch, in Algeria), a thriving, multicultural Roman colony. His family was prosperous and his father was the chief magistrate of the colony. Punic was probably his first language, but his family was deeply immersed in Roman culture and he became proficient in both Latin and Greek. He received a thorough education at Carthage, Rome, and Athens, and after extensive travels returned to Carthage to become a popular philosophical orator, a well-respected citizen, and high priest of the imperial cult; statues were erected in his honor. He died some time after 170 CE. In addition to his novel, he wrote music, hymns, poetry, satire, erotica, fiction, and treatises on Platonic philosophy, mathematics, music, astronomy, medicine, history, botany, and zoology, only a few of which survive. His insatiable curiosity, especially about religion, mythology, mysticism, and magic, occasionally got him into trouble.
When Apuleius had completed his stay in Athens, about 156 CE, and was on his way to visit Alexandria, he was introduced to Pudentilla, a wealthy widow somewhat older than himself, and they married. Some of her relatives, who were probably afraid of losing control of her money, brought a charge of sorcery against Apuleius, alleging that he had seduced Pudentilla by magic. This was a serious charge, for sorcery was punishable by death.
Apparently he was acquitted, and his Defense (Apologia) is a valuable source of information about ancient magical practices for, ironically, in the process of his defense he displays considerable knowledge of magic. (Indeed, Defense is a comparatively recent title; all the manuscripts call it some variant of On Magic.) His says that he is a philosopher, and that philosophers and magicians engage in superficially similar practices (e.g. collecting plants and animals), but for different purposes. He ridicules his accusers for their ignorance of philosophy and for their impious confusion of religious ritual with magic. Overall, it is a masterful rhetorical display (perhaps thanks to some rewriting after the trial).
He was acquitted, but was he guilty? As his Defense argues, he had little need of love spells, but that does not prove that he did not practice magic. (St. Augustine considered Apuleius and Apollonius of Tyana to be "threats to the faith" because they were reputed to have performed miracles comparable to Christ's.) He is also generally credited with translating and adapting the Asclepius, a well-known Hermetic text. In particular, it is not implausible that Apuleius practiced theurgy: ritual techniques for union with the gods, which were popular with later Platonists and can be traced to his time. Theurgical and magical techniques are superficially similar, for they both depend on symbolic associations and make use of objects, incantations, etc. for their symbolic value.
Apuleius is most famous for his Metamorphoses (Transformations), better known as The Golden Ass. In a first-person account the hero Lucius tells how, by dabbling in magic, he was accidentally transformed into a jackass, and about his subsequent (often ribald) adventures and eventual salvation. The basic storyline is not original, for we have another version, falsely attributed to Lucian; folktales of this sort are common, and this one may have originated in Egypt. However, Apuleius makes two significant additions to the original story.
The first is an embedded narrative, the well-known tale of Cupid and Psyche (in origin, perhaps, a Northwest African folktale). The story begs for an allegorical interpretation (since "Cupid" and "Psyche" mean Love and Soul), and many have read it as a Platonic allegory of the soul's redemption through love.
The second major change is in the last book of the novel, the so-called "Isis book," in which the hero repents and appeals to the goddess Isis to "restore me to myself" (XI.2). The narrator describes a magnificent epiphany of the goddess, in which she says:
"Behold, Lucius, I am present, moved by thy prayers, I, Nature's mother, mistress of all the elements, the first-begotten offspring of the ages, mightiest of deities…" (XI.5)
After the restoration of his humanity, Lucius decides to become an initiate in the mysteries of Isis, after which he addresses to the goddess a beautiful prayer, which begins:
"Thou, O holy and perpetual savior of the human race, ever bountifully cherishing mortals, dost apply the sweet affection of a mother to the misfortunes of the miserable. Nor is there any day or night, or even a slender moment, which passes unattended by thy blessings." (XI.25)
Later he was initiated into the mysteries of her consort, the god Osiris.
The Isis book is suffused with a genuine piety, which contrasts with the wittier and more superficial tone of the earlier books (except "Cupid and Psyche"). Nevertheless, the entire novel has been read as a Platonic allegory of the transformation of the soul and its salvation from the miseries of an unenlightened life. Even it bawdy parts have been explained as a purification intended to relieve the soul of excessive lust. However, it is difficult to say whether Apuleius intended any such allegorical interpretation. The narrator states at the outset that his intention is to entertain, but the true purpose may be hidden under multiple layers of irony and intentional misdirection. Apuleius was a very sophisticated rhetorician and he toys with his reader.
This leads to the vexed issue of whether the Metamorphoses is autobiographical. There are many parallels between the hero Lucius and the author Apuleius. Indeed, until recent times it was taken for granted that they were the same, and the author was often referred to as "Lucius Apuleius." One apparent similarity is the unfortunate consequences of their excessive but superficial curiosity about magic. Apuleius also drops tantalizing hints, such as when he mentions that the hero comes from Madauros. On the other hand, there are also significant differences, so we cannot take the novel as a source of biographical information. Nevertheless, the real depth of feeling in the Isis book and the ritual details, which have been confirmed from other sources, have convinced most scholars that at least this part reflects Apuleius' personal experience. For example, in his Defense (sect. 55) he claims to have "learned complex rituals, many rites, and various ceremonies out of an eagerness for truth and service to the gods."
Apuleius was not an important philosophical innovator, but his philosophy is typical of the Platonism that was taught in his time. According to his work On Plato's Doctrine, reality has four levels: the First God, the Ideas, the World Soul, and Matter (the unformed, featureless potential underlying everything).
The First God is the transcendent first principle, which he describes as "one, unmeasurable, creator, attracting all things, blessed and blessing, excellent, lacking nothing, conferring everything," and further as "celestial, ineffable, unnameable, not to be spoken, nameless, whose nature it is difficult to discover, and when found cannot be enunciated to the multitude" (De Plat. I).
The Ideas are eternal forms or patterns of existence, existing outside of space and time, conceived of as thoughts in the mind of God.
The World Soul is the necessary mediator between the eternal Ideas and the physical world, which is extended in space and changing through time. As Nature, she governs the world (as her body) by giving the Ideas material existence, by thinking them in time and by embodying them in space. As such, the World Soul is also the source of all individual souls, for they exist in time and space (in individual bodies). Our individual souls have levels that reflect those in the universe: divine spirit, mind, soul proper, and body.
An important Platonic principle is that any two opposites must be united by a mediator. For example, the World Soul unites the timeless being of the Ideas with the continual becoming of the physical world. So also Platonists of Apuleius' time saw the necessity of a class of intermediate spirits, the daemons, between the gods, who are immortal and impassive, and humans, who are mortal but "passionate" (susceptible to emotions): daemons are immortal and passionate. Due to their intermediate station, they are crucial as mediators between gods and humans; they are "angels" (from a word that means "messenger"). However, because they are subject to irrational feelings, they are not always beneficial for humans, and might even act "demonically."
Each person has a daemon in his or her soul: the highest, intuitive part of the mind, the divine spark or spirit. In addition, each person is assigned a guardian daemon, who accompanies them through life and is their advocate after death.
Apuleius distinguished three levels of providence. The highest is that of the First God, by which he organizes the universe for his beneficent divine purpose. The second, which operates within the bounds set by the first, is that of the heavenly gods and may be identified with fate, the consequences of our birth into time and space. The third providence is that of the daemons, who govern change and natural processes, subject to the decrees of fate. Human free will operates within the bounds set by providence.
Apuleius says that ethics teaches one how to live well. Virtue is a state of mind in which one is harmonious within oneself and with others. He advocates such classical virtues as prudence, courage, moderation, and justice, the latter including piety (justice towards the gods). One of the most important virtues is wisdom, which he defines as "knowledge of things divine and human" (De Plat. II).
People are neither good nor evil by nature, according to Apuleius, but education can teach people to be good, because vice is fundamentally a consequence of ignorance. Ordinarily, perfect virtue is unattainable by humans, but a sort of perfection is attainable by the philosophical sage, who, through contemplative and practical devotion to the virtues, might attain, through sudden enlightenment, a state of union with the realm of Ideas. Such a person could expect to be deified after death.
The 1566 Adlington translation of The Golden Ass is often reprinted, but outdated and inaccurate and therefore to be avoided. Fortunately, good modern translations are available, including those by Hanson (with facing Latin text), Kenney, Walsh, and others. Unfortunately, English translations of Apuleius' other surviving works are harder to find. The only contemporary translation of the Defense is in a collection of Apuleius' rhetorical works. Taylor's translations of The God of Socrates and Plato's Doctrine are bound with his 1822 translation of The Golden Ass, which is available in a modern edition from the Prometheus Trust.
Apuleius, The Apologia and Florida of Apuleius of Madaura. Transl. H. E. Butler. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909.
Apuleius, Apuleius' Golden Ass and other Philosophical Writings. Transl. Thomas Taylor, Vol. XIV of Thomas Taylor Series. Somerset: Prometheus Trust, 1997.
Apuleius, The Golden Ass. Transl. P. G. Walsh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
Apuleius, The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses. Transl. E.J. Kenney. New York: Penguin, 1998.
Apuleius, Metamorphoses. Ed. & transl. J. Arthur Hanson (2 vols.), Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Apuleius, The Rhetorical Works. Transl. & ann. S. Harrison, J. Hilton, & V. Hunink. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Includes the Defense and The God of Socrates.
Apuleius, The Works of Apuleius. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1911. Includes Met., God of Soc., Florida, Defense, but not Plato's Doctrine.
* Extended version of article in Meet the Philosophers of Greece, ed. Patricia O'Grady, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.