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Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2008 DOI: 10.

Asinus Philosophans: Platonic Philosophy and the
Prologue to Apuleius Golden Ass
Alexander Kirichenko
Kaesenstrae 27, 50677 Kln, Germany
Received: July 2006; accepted: August 2006
Tis article oers a new interpretation of the role of philosophy in Apuleius
Golden Ass. Its main contention is that references to philosophers and philosophi-
cal texts in the novel are neither gratuitous nor are they meant to imbue the text
with a deep allegorical meaning; on the contrary, they are invariably used to
enhance the novels comic eect and thus, paradoxically, serve to warn the reader
against the temptation to read the novel as a straightforward philosophical alle-
gory. Particular attention is paid to the novels prologue, which is shown to antic-
ipate this overall tendency.
Apuleius, Te Golden Ass, Plato
Since Apuleius, a second-century CE polymath and versatile practitioner
of every conceivable genre of literature in both Greek and Latin,
posed, among numerous other things, a few works on Platos doctrine

and perceived himself as an accomplished Platonic philosopher,
it is
hardly surprising that direct mentions of philosophers and subtle allusions
Fl. 9.27-8, 20.5-6.
Among the philosophical works attributed to Apuleius, De Genio Socratis, De Platone,
and De Mundo are generally considered to be authentic; see Harrison 2000, 139, 174-180.
Cf. Apul. Apol. 10.6, 64.3; Fl. 15.26.
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90 A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107
to various philosophical concepts should be found in abundance in his
only surviving work of ction, the Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass.

However, although no one would seriously deny that references to philoso-
phy constitute an integral part of the novels literary texture, there is no
consensus among scholars as to the interpretation of this philosophical
substratum. Some scholars claim that dierent philosophical ideas can be
seen as the source of the ideological coherence of the novel as a whole

(some even go as far as to claim that the Golden Ass was designed to lure
the uneducated masses to the tenets of Platonism through the more easily
palatable language of popular tales).
Others deny that Apuleius philo-
sophical reminiscences fall into a meaningful pattern and see in them
instead nothing but a fortuitous display of erudition that constitutes just
one more element in the novels complex pastiche of literary allusions.

And nally, there are some who contend that, although allusions to phi-
losophy do lend the novel an allegorical dimension, it is the prerogative of
For instance, Apuleius depiction of metamorphosis has been compared to the Platonic
and Pythagorean idea of transmigration of souls, see Schlam 1970, 480. Tis idea is further
indirectly corroborated by the fact that Lucius mentions Pythagoras immediately before his
retransformation back into a human (11.1). Te idea of curiosity that plays such a promi-
nent role in Apuleius novel has been variously connected with the discussions of
oo in Plato and Plutarch, see, e.g., DeFilippo 1990 and Walsh 1970, 182.
Te tale of Cupid and Psyche is regarded by many as a Platonic allegory that alludes primar-
ily to the Phaedrus and its concept of love induced in the soul by the recollection of perfect
beauty, see, e.g., Schlam 1992, 95, and to the idea of the dual nature of both Aphrodite and
Eros expounded by Pausanias in the Symposium, see Kenney 1990, 19-20. Lucius sudden
moralistic outburst after the pantomime of the Judgment of Paris (10.33) has been com-
pared to Platos condemnation in the Republic of myths that portray gods as morally
corrupt, see Schlam 1970, 485. Apuleius promise made in the prologue to soothe
(1.1 permulceam) his addressees ears with the charm of his tales has been seen by some to
allude to the Platonic that sometimes expresses the idea of the therapeutic eect of
tales, see Schlam 1970, 479-80; Schlam 1992, 13; cf. Pl. Chrm. 157a and Phd. 77e. Finally,
the last book of Apuleius novel has been interpreted by many as directly relying on Plut-
archs treatise De Iside et Osiride that allegorically interprets the Isis cult from the viewpoint
of Platonic and Pythagorean philosophy, see DeFilippo 1990, 482-9; Heller 1983,
322-32; Wlosok 1969, 83-4.
Heller 1983; Walsh 1970, 176 .; Wlosok 1969.
Gianotti 1986.
Sandy 1997, 233-55.
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A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107 91
the reader to decide whether to activate the philosophical code or to read
the novel as a work of lighthearted entertainment.
In this article, I propose to reexamine some of the most obvious refer-
ences to philosophers and philosophical texts in the novel, in order to
show that they indeed do fall into a consistent pattern, although this pat-
tern diers considerably from the one discerned by those who would like
to read the Golden Ass as a transparent philosophical allegory.
To begin with, explicit allusions to philosophy and philosophers in the
Golden Ass are always placed in mildly subversive contexts. One of the
most conspicuously humorous representations of philosophy is located
almost at the very end of the novel. Te ecphrastic description of the Pan-
tomime of the Judgment of Paris (10.30-2), which immediately precedes
Lucius planned performance of a sexual act with a convict woman on the
same stage, greatly contributes to the overall impression of the decadent
sensuality that informs the entire narrative of Book 10.
Te detailed las-
civious description of Venus and her irresistible power shows that the nar-
rator is fully under the spell of the performance and that, if he were Paris,
he would not hesitate for a second to award the prize to Venus.
all of a sudden, the narrator bursts into an impassioned invective against
the venality of judges in general, referring to the Judgment of Paris as an
Schlam 1992, 16.
In Book 10, after many months of forced labor and deprivation, Lucius the ass does not
only receive a chance to enjoy leisure and his favorite human foods but also becomes the
focus of universal attention because of that. Te comment that Lucius the narrator makes
on this unexpected change for the better is that Fortune has never been more benevolent to
him (10.13 adsciscor itaque inter duos illos fratres tertius contubernalis, haud ullo tempore tam
benivolam fortunam expertus). But it gets better still: Lucius popularity attracts throngs of
people desiring to see him perform his tricks, among whom there happens to be a rich
Corinthian matron who falls madly in love with him. Lucius the narrators description of
the sexual act that he performs with the matron (10.19-22) is a paragon of hedonistic sen-
suality that forms a manifest contrast with Lucius self-denying turn to asceticism a few
pages later.
See Zimmerman 2000, 375: For Junos introduction scarcely three Teubner lines
suced, for Minervas scarcely four. Venus, on the other hand, is introduced in ten lines.
Moreover, the dances of Juno and Minerva and their attendants, in which they make their
promises to Paris [. . .] are described more briey than the dance of Venus [. . .] It is clear
that the narrator regards Venus as the main character of the Pantomime. Besides, Lucius
description of the three goddesses leaves no doubt that Venus deservedly won the rst prize
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92 A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107
archetypal case of bribery (10.33). He cites two more examples of unfair
judgment from Greek mythology (Palamedes and Ajax) and concludes his
speech with an ardent eulogy of Socrates, the most famous victim of judi-
cial misjudgment. Ten Lucius interrupts his Cynic diatribe
as unex-
pectedly as he launched it:
sed nequis indignationis meae reprehendat impetum secum sic reputans:
ecce nunc patiemur philosophantem nobis asinum, rursus, unde decessi,
revertar ad fabulam. (10.33)
But lest someone be irritated with the fervor of my indignant outburst,
thinking to himself: Are we really going to put up with an ass teaching us
about philosophy?, I will return to the point in the tale, from which I
Tis self-ironic remark immediately deates the uncompromisingly aus-
tere tone of Lucius speech. Te very image of a philosophizing ass is quite
ridiculous per se. However, the comic eect is further enhanced by the fact
that the narrator completely forgets about the double-time perspective
essential to any rst-person ctional account and presents himself as still
an ass at the moment of narration. From this perspective, the paradoxical
humor of this confusion greatly contributes to the impression that the
narrator is a philosophizing ass, not only because he is an ass talking
about Socrates but also because the way he philosophizes would rather
bet an ass.
Tis comic eect is further intensied when at the very beginning of
Book 11, two pages after Lucius sophomoric remark on the absurdity of a
philosophizing ass, he declares that he suddenly decided to rely on the
support of the Moon goddess (who later on turns out to be Isis) and per-
in this beauty pageant: in contrast to Juno described as puella vultu honesta (10.30), who
moves quieta et inadfectata gesticulatione (10.31), and to Minerva clypeum attollens et hastam
quatiens (10.30), who addresses Paris inquieto capite et oculis in aspectu minacibus (10.31),
Venus is visendo decore praepollens [. . .] nudo et intecto corpore perfectam formonsitatem pro-
fessa (10.31) and moves placide [ . . .] cunctanti lente vestigio et leniter uctuante spinula et
sensim adnutante capite (10.32).
On Lucius tirade as a Cynic diatribe, see Zimmerman 2000, ad loc.
On associations between asininity and stupidity, see Winkler 1985, 150.
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A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107 93
formed ritual ablutions in accordance with a Pythagorean precept (11.1).
Te fact that it is acting like a philosophizing ass (the behavior that has just
been explicitly ridiculed) that ultimately leads Lucius to the Isis cult adds
another deeply ironic touch to his conversion. One of the main conse-
quences of the narrators glaring inconsistency here is that it becomes vir-
tually impossible to take seriously his misplaced attempts at philosophizing.
In other words, Lucius insistent references to philosophy at the end of his
adventures as an ass do not succeed in endowing the comic ctional world
of his narrative with more sublimity; on the contrary, they further under-
score its inherent comic absurdity. Tere are a few more passages in the
Golden Ass where references to philosophy are used for a similarly humor-
ous purpose.
One of the most striking instances of such irreverently witty allusion to
a philosophical text occurs in Aristomenes tale (1.5-19). On a business-
trip to Tessaly, Aristomenes unexpectedly runs into a close friend, curi-
ously enough named Socrates, who has been long declared dead in his
hometown (1.6). Socrates, changed almost beyond recognition and barely
covered with threadbare rags, reveals that he was lured into a love aair by
a Tessalian witch, from whose pernicious aections he is now trying to
escape. Aristomenes oers Socrates to spend the night at his inn so that
they may leave the dangerous town together on the next morning. At
night, however, the abandoned witch and her sister burst into the room
and murder Socrates in a truly gruesome fashion: the witch thrusts a sword
through the left side of Socrates neck, gathers his blood in a leather bottle
to the last drop, sticks her arm into the wound, and pulls out his heart. Her
sister then inserts a sponge into the wound and recites a magical formula
prohibiting it to cross a river.
On the next morning, Socrates mysteri-
ously turns out to be alive, and the two friends depart immediately. How-
ever, when they take a rest under a plane tree growing by a river and
Socrates bends forward for a drink of water, his wound opens up and the
sponge drops out of it, followed by just a few drops of blood.
Te image of the tales protagonist Socrates has been often discussed in
scholarly literature both as an inversion of the Platonic Socrates and as an
echo of the comic tradition exemplied by Aristophanes Socrates in the
1.13 heus tu, inquit, spongia, cave in mari nata per uvium transeas.
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Whatever the case may be, the fact that Apuleius uses the name
of the prototypical philosopher, mentioned again later on in the novel
(10.33), for one of his ctional characters cannot be coincidental. Te fact
that the last scene of the tale takes place under a plane tree growing by a
that is, in the classical locus amoenus, whose literary origin in Platos
Phaedrus (229a-b) was a matter of common knowledge,
clearly shows
that Apuleius intends the reader to establish a connection between this
unfortunate comic character and the Platonic Socrates of the Phaedrus.
Tis connection is further strengthened by another minor detail in Aris-
tomenes tale that also unmistakably evokes Platos Phaedrus. In Plato,
Socrates is prevented from crossing the river by the voice of his o
that urges him to stay and deliver a of his rstblasphemous
speech about love (242b-c). In Apuleius as well, as we have seen, there is a
strong emphasis on Socrates inability to cross the river; moreover, the pro-
hibition also comes from a supernatural source. Since the river that the
Apuleian Socrates proves to be unable to cross happens to be the one that
belongs to the Platonic landscape with a plane tree, the mirroring eect is
virtually complete. What further corroborates the idea that Socrates river-
crossing handicap may be intended as a part of the Platonic allusion is that
Apuleius shows interest in the corresponding passage from the Phaedrus
elsewhereby summarizing it in De Genio Socratis.
What particularly strikes one about Apuleius Socrates is that he is
placed in an extraordinarily un-Socratic contextboth geographically and
conceptually: Apuleius sends his Socrates to Tessaly, where the historical
Socrates refused to ee to avoid execution,
and endows him with the
most un-Socratic traits imaginable: licentiousness, fondness of popular
entertainment, superstition, etc. Te aim of this allusion consists neither
in a critique of Socratic philosophy nor in the insinuation that the tale
Keulen 2003, 110-3.
1.18 iuxta platanum istam residamus aio; 1.19 adsurgit ille et oppertus paululum planio-
rem ripae marginem complicitus in genua adpronat se avidus adfectans poculum.
Trapp 1990, 141-8; Sandy 1997, 253.
Apul. Soc.164 quippe etiam semotis arbitris uno cum Phaedro extra pomerium sub quodam
arboris opaco umbraculo signum illud adnuntium sensit, ne prius transcenderet Ilissi amnis
modicum uentum, quam increpitu indignatum Amorem recinendo placasset.
Pl. Cri. 53d. See Keulen 2003, 110, note 5.
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A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107 95
should be understood as a Platonic allegory of sorts but much rather in a
jeu desprit based on a comic inversion.
Tis kind of mildly subversive use of philosophy for a humorous pur-
pose recurs a few times in the course of the novel. Indirect references to
Platos concepts in the tale of Cupid and Psyche are placed in an equally
deating context: the very fact that this elevated tale is told by the old
drunken hag belonging to a band of robbers (6.25 delira et temulenta illa
[. . .] anicula) produces the same kind of comic reversal as Socrates having
an aair with a Tessalian witch does in Aristomenes tale. Tis blatant
conceptual mismatch constitutes one of the best specimens of the way
Apuleius revels in the erudite absurdity of the comic situations he creates
in his novel.
Te same eect is produced by the very rst explicit mention of phi-
losophers in the novel that occurs at the very beginning of the narrative:
Tessaliamnam et illic originis maternae nostrae fundamenta a Plutarcho
illo inclito ac mox Sexto philosopho nepote eius prodita gloriam nobis faci-
unteam Tessaliam ex negotio petebam. (1.2)
To Tessalyfor I pride myself on stemming from that region too: through
the connection on the maternal side of my family with that famous Plutarch
and later with his nephew philosopher Sextusso, it was to this Tessaly that
I was on my way to transact some business.
Te most peculiar thing about this sentence is that it places Plutarch
and his nephew philosopher Sextus in Tessaly. Tere is no other evidence
of any kind that would suggest that there could have been any conceivable
connections between Plutarch and Sextus as historical gures and Tessaly
as a real country. Both of them are known to stem from Boeotia, and they
are invariably associated with it in all known literary sources.
However, Tessaly in Apuleius has as little to do with historical reality
as the Miletus of the Milesian Tales.
Like Miletus mentioned at the very
beginning of the prologue (1.1 sermone isto Milesio), Tessaly here should
be considered in terms of purely literary geography. As such, Tessaly
is the rst Greek land where Medea practiced her magical arts and, by
Jensson 2004, 293-301.
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extension, the land of witches par excellence. Whenever Tessaly is men-
tioned in ancient literature in contexts that are neither historical nor myth-
ological, it is invariably connected with witchcraft. Moreover, the
connection between Tessaly and magic was so ingrained in antiquity that
the word Tessalian could be used in Roman poetry simply as a synonym
of magical.
Tus magic was probably the only thing that came into an
average Romans mind when he heard the word Tessaly.
Te Tessaly
in which the action of Apuleius novel takes place is of course this legend-
ary Tessaly of witches rather than a real country where any historical
gure could have been born.
It is quite noteworthy that stories about Tessalian sorcery notoriously
belonged to the set of superstitious beliefs that were supposed to be
shunned by any philosophical-minded person. Horace, for instance, men-
tions belief in Tessalian magic among other blatantly un-philosophical
vices that are incompatible with being truly wise.
From this perspective,
it would be hard to overlook a humorous overtone in the fact that the
Platonizing moralist Plutarch and his nephew Sextus, whom his pupil
Marcus Aurelius described as a paragon of Stoic wisdom,
are linked here
with what from their own philosophical viewpoint would have probably
been severely reprehended as a pure superstitious fantasy. Tus the eect of
placing Plutarch and Sextus in Tessaly is in a sense analogous to that of
portraying Socrates forced into a love aair with a Tessalian witch and
of having an illiterate drunken old woman tell a Platonically inspired tale.
Keeping in mind all these comic references to philosophy, I would like
to turn to anotherless straightforwardallusion to a philosophical text,
with which Apuleius begins the prologue to the Golden Ass. I argue that the
Phillips 2002, 382.
Cf. Bowersock 1965, 278: Die meisten Rmer des Prinzipats kannten Tessalien
hauptschlich als einen Ort von Magie und dmonischen Frauen. Von dem tatschlichen
Tessalien hatten sie nur geringe Ahnung.
Hor. Ep. 2.2.205-9 non es avarus: abi. quid? cetera iam simul isto / cum vitio fugere? caret
tibi pectus inani / ambitione? caret mortis formidine et ira? / somnia, terrores magicos, miracula,
sagas, / nocturnos lemures portentaque Tessala rides?
M.Ant. Med. 1. 9. Both the RE and the OCD refer to Sextus as a Platonist, apparently
based on the fact that he was Plutarchs nephew. Most of the sources, however, which point
to his philosophical aliations at all, describe him rather as a Stoic. See Farquharson 1968,
ad loc.
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A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107 97
very rst sentence of the prologue contains an indirect allusion to Plato,
which is put in a similarly deating context:
At ego tibi sermone isto Milesio varias fabulas conseram auresque tuas benivo-
las lepido susurro permulceammodo si papyrum Aegyptiam argutia Nilot-
ici calami inscriptam non spreveris inspicere, guras fortunasque hominum
in alias imagines conversas et in se rursum mutuo nexu refectas ut mireris.
exordior. quis ille? (1.1)
Let me weave together dierent tales in that Milesian mode of storytelling
and let me stroke your kind ears with an elegant whisperas long as you
dont scorn to look at the Egyptian papyrus written over with the sharpness of
a reed-pen from the Nileso that you may wonder at the transformations of
mens shapes and fortunes into alien forms and their reversions, one in con-
nection with the other, to their own. Who is this?
What I am primarily interested in here is the parenthetic remark that
unexpectedly introduces the mention of the Egyptian papyrus. To begin
with, it is quite obvious that, since all of the ancient papyrus supplies came
from Egypt, there can hardly be anything more trivial than to call a papy-
rus Egyptian. As for reed pens (argutia Nilotici calami), even though those
from Egypt were not necessarily considered to be of the best quality, they
were nevertheless preferred by virtue of their metonymical association with
Seen this way, the sheer redundancy of the double emphasis on
the Egyptian provenience of the writing materials produces the overall
impression of a silly joke. At the same time, the very fact that the narrator
states the obvious attracts additional attention to this phrase and thus
implicitly urges one to look further for its possible signicance.
It is obvious that Egypt is mentioned here in conjunction with writ ing
in its most abstract material aspect. Te explicit emphasis on the close con-
nection between Egypt and writing brings to mind the well-established
tradition that the very institution of writing was rst invented in Egypt.

Plin. Nat. 16.157 chartisque serviunt calami, Aegyptii maxime cognatione quadam papyri;
probatiores tamen Cnidii et qui in Asia circa Anaeticum lacum nascuntur. Cf. Mart. 14.38 dat
chartis habiles calamos Memphitica tellus; / texantur reliqua tecta palude tibi.
Mller 1961, 22.
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Te larger context of the prologue, however, draws our attention from the
idea of Egypt as the origin of writing in general to a particular text in
which this idea is propounded.
Writing and reading are presented in the prologue, in contrast to the
unquestionably desirable oral communication, as something that the
addressee is likely to treat with suspicion: from the way the narrator phrases
the rst sentence of the prologue it follows that his addressee is supposed
to be more inclined to listening than to reading and that he may even look
at a written text with disdain (si modo < . . .> non spreveris). Michael Trapp
has recently demonstrated that there is only one other text that similarly
combines the preference of oral over written communication with the idea
of the Egyptian origin of writing: the Egyptian myth placed at the end of
Platos Phaedrus (274c5-275b2).
To support his claim that spoken word is innitely superior to a written
text, Socrates tells Phaedrus a fable about the invention of writing. Te
fable is quite appropriately set in Egypt, since Egypt was generally regarded
as the origin of various aspects of human civilization.
In Socrates story,
the god Teuth demonstrates his various inventions to the highest Egyp-
tian god Ammon. He particularly prides himself on the invention of writ-
ing, which he calls the elixir of memory and wisdom (274e6-7
o o). Ammon, however, objects that this invention
will enhance forgetfulness rather than memory, since the condent reli-
ance on the external support of writing will lead to a neglect of ones own
natural ability to remember. For this reason, writing should be regarded as
an instrument not of memory but of remind ing, which does not produce
true wisdom but only a deceptive semblance of wisdom (275a5-7 oo
o o o o
, o o).
Trapp points out that, by alluding to the contrast between spoken word
and writing expressed in this Platonic myth, Apuleius narrator implicitly
presents himself as a kind of anti-philosopher since he playfully prides
himself on composing a written text in open deance of the philosophical
reservations against writing as a frivolous pursuit. From his point of view,
Trapp 2001.
Kleingnther 1933, 53-9.
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this allusion is nothing but a fairly gratuitous display of knowledge designed
to intensify the impression of a purely hedonistic nature of the text.
I do agree with Trapp that the rst sentence of the prologue alludes to
the Phaedrus and that this allusion is made in a playful tone. However, I
would like to claim that its function is more complex, its scope broader,
and its implications more far-reaching than Trapp has recognized.
Apuleius contrast between Egyptian writing that the addressee is likely
to reject and the irresistibly attractive spoken word can be interpreted as a
joke that functions on a few dierent levels. On the one hand, the mention
of the readers possible contempt for an Egyptian papyrus and, thus, for
writing in general can be viewed as portraying the reader not simply as a
sophisticated intellectual but almost as a convinced Platonist, who has
internalized Socrates outright rejection of writing as a useless activity. Seen
this way, the phrase turns into a combination of subtle attery and sly
mockery: the fact that the text implicitly attributes to the reader the ability
to recognize an allusion to Plato and facetiously assumes that he will act in
accordance with Platos philosophical principles serves to gratify the read-
ers intellectual vanity; at the same time, the implicit Socratic aversion to
written texts ascribed to the reader is ironically undermined by the fact
that he is already reading one at the moment.
On the other hand, the reader is more specically represented as playing
the role analogous to that of Socrates interlocutor Phaedrus. When
Socrates nishes his Egyptian story, Phaedrus cannot conceal his amaze-
ment at how easily his older friend can make up tales that take place in
Egypt or in any other country:
, o oo o
o. (275b3-4)
Socrates, you easily invent stories of Egypt or any other country of your
Socrates answers that his recourse to storytelling is a forced concession to
the sophisticated taste of young people like Phaedrus: unlike their crude
ancestors who were content with hearing truthful oracles even from the
Trapp 2001, 40.
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oak and the rock, the younger generation wants to know not only whether
a saying is true but also who the speaker is and where he comes from:
o , , o o o o
o o . o o , o o oo
o o, o ,
o o o o. o
o o o, o . (275b5-c2)
Tey used to say that the words from the oak at the sanctuary of Dodonian
Zeus were the rst prophecies. Tose who lived at that time, not being so wise
as you young people, were content in their naivet to listen to an oak and a
rock, provided that they spoke the truth. But it seems that to you it makes a
dierence who the speaker is and where he comes from, for you do not con-
sider only whether or not what he says is true.
In other words, in order to be able to teach the truth to the younger
generation, one has to present it in the shape of a narrative that involves
persuasive characters with respectable credentials. In perfect harmony with
the Socratic assumption that young people care less for the truth itself
than for its provenience, Apuleius narrator, having completed the rst part
of the prologue that contains perfectly sucient information about the
narrative that follows, attributes to his ctional addressee the question
about the speakers identity (quis ille? = ) and in his answer
concentrates almost exclusively on where he comes from (o) and
how he got to where he is at the moment:
quis ille? paucis accipe. Hymettos Attica et Isthmos Ephyrea et Taenaros Spar-
tiaca, glebae felices aeternum libris felicioribus conditae, mea vetus prosapia
est; ibi linguam Attidem primis pueritiae stipendiis merui. mox in urbe Latia
advena studiorum Queritium indigenam sermonem aerumnabili labore nullo
magistro praeeunte aggressus excolui. (1.1)
Who is this? Let me tell you briey. My ancestors of old come from Attic
Hymettus, the Ephyrean Isthmus, and Spartan Taenarus, fertile lands forever
enshrined in even more fertile books. It is there that I won the knowledge of
the Attic tongue in the rst campaigns of boyhood. Later in the Latin city, a
stranger to the literary pursuits of the Roman citizens, I attacked and culti-
vated their native language with excruciating diculty and with no teacher to
guide me.
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A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107 101
Te fact that quis ille? can be plausibly regarded as part of the pro -
logues allusion to Platos Phaedrus and that, from this point of view, the
ctional reader is represented as sharing opinions that Socrates with an
implicit ironic disapproval ascribes to Phaedrus contributes to the mildly
mocking tone with which Apuleius treats the addressee of his prologue: the
addressee turns out to be portrayed as dissatised with the ctional truth
of the rst part of the prologue that theoretically he should be now in a
position to verify (i.e., to see o ) by simply reading
the book; the attitude that the narrator attributes to him is that of meddle-
some curiosity that, contrary to the Socratic ideal, detracts his attention
from the essential to the supercial.
However, this kind of light learned mockery directed at the ctional
addressee of the prologue does not exhaust the intertextual potential of the
allusion to the Platonic Phaedrus. Te recognition of the possibility that
this allusion may go beyond the contrast between oral and written com-
munication and comprise a reference to Socrates discussion of the role of
storytelling in conveying the truth raises the question of the relevance of
the Platonic views about storytelling, ction, and mimetic arts in general
for the interpretation of Apuleius novel as a whole.
Platos fervent attack against mimetic arts in the Republic is the primary
source of his views on literary ction. Since myths of poetry imitate reality,
which in its turn is a projection of the only real worldthe world of
ideas, ction is located at a third remove from reality.
From Platos
point of view, mimetic ctions are simply lies, deeply suspect for both
intellectual and moral reasons, and therefore they are of no use for a phi-
losopher interested in the way things really are. Moreover, mimesis is not
only useless but also harmful to the human soul: by encouraging its recip-
ients to identify themselves with ctional characters and with their self-
destructive aects, mimetic literature has a disturbing inuence on their
mental equilibrium and could impair their ability to control their thoughts
and emotions in real life.
Te only function of poetic mimesis is to give
pleasure, whereas the existence of poetry in the Platonic ideal state could
Russell 1981, 102-4.
Pl. R. 395d1-3 o , ,
o. Gill
1993, 44-5.
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102 A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107
be only justied on the grounds of its usefulness and ability to express the
For this reason, in order for poetry to be a suitable vehicle for
conveying the truth, the mimetic element in it has to be reduced to a bare
minimum or eliminated altogether.
Even though Plato equates all ctions with lies, he distinguishes one
kind of ction that would be acceptable even in his ideal state. Te rulers,
whom Plato endows with full possession of the truth, are allowed to lie for
the sake of the common good of the citizens.
He even supplies an exam-
ple of such a noble lie (the so-called Phoenician Tale) that takes the form
of a mythological creation narrative that is supposed to motivate the citi-
zens to accept the peculiar social organization of the state and to sacrice
their lives for it.
Plato also directly formulates theoretical principles, on
which such acceptable myths about the past should be based:
, ooo
o , o o oo. (382d1-3)
Due to our lack of knowledge about the way things truly were in the distant
past, we could only make [stories about] it useful by making our lie as similar
as possible to the truth.
Te truth that Socrates has in mind is the truth arrived at in the course
of a philosophical argument, which, from his point of view, automatically
guarantees its unassailable veracity. Although a ctional narrative that con-
tains such truth would be patently untrue, it may paradoxically represent
the most eective method of conveying the truth.
Tus the only kind of
ction that Plato nds acceptable is a ction that serves to propagate a use-
ful idea, a ction whose minimal mimetic component is completely dom-
inated by its thematic function.
Interestingly, the complete subjugation of the mimetic to the thematic
component of the narrative is the main principle on which Plato relies in
Gill 1993, 47-51; Murray 1996, 14-9.
Pl. R. 607a. See also Ferrari 1989, 108-19.
Pl. R. 389b.
Pl. R. 414b7-415c7. See Ferrari 1989, 111-2.
Gill 1993, 55.
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A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107 103
his own practice of myth-making.
Myths in the Symposium, the Republic,
and other dialogues are all functional fables designed to render various
philosophical truths more vivid.
Te Egyptian myth about the invention
of writing at the end of the Phaedrus is also one of these purely thematic
ctions that serve to illustrate a philosophical point. Moreover, as I pointed
out above, Socrates intimates in conjunction with this myth that he is
forced to resort to storytelling by the intrinsic human weakness of his audi-
ence that is more willing to learn the truth if it is presented in an attractive
narrative packaging and is communicated through a ctional character
with impressive credentials.
Tese observations raise the following question with regard to Apuleius
prologue: if Apuleius narrator envisages his ctional addressee to follow
the example of Socrates audience in expressing interest not so much in
(the truth of ) the story itself as in the provenience of the storyteller,
wouldnt it be only logical to transpose wholesale the dramatic situation of
the Platonic Phaedrus onto Apuleius prologue and to assume that the nar-
rator, too, as it were, casts himself in the role of Socrates and implies that
the tales that he is about to start telling should be read as thematic ctions
akin to Platonic myths that aim at elucidating a philosophical idea?
To begin with, the Latin term fabula that Apuleius uses in his prologue
with reference to his tales, just as its Greek equivalent o, could mean
not only a purely entertaining but also an edifying ction. For instance,
Macrobius in his commentary on Ciceros Somnium Scipionisa typical
Platonic myth that concludes Ciceros De Republica in the same way as the
myth of Er concludes Platos Republicdistinguishes between two dierent
kinds of false narratives, or fabulae: the rst kind aims exclusively at plea-
sure, the second at moral or intellectual improvement.
Of course, the
fact that Macrobius uses Apuleius tales as a typical example of ctions that
only give pleasure to the ears (1.2.8 solas aurium delicias protetura for-
mulation remarkably similar to the prologue-speakers description of the
eect of his own ctions1.1 aures permulceam) and therefore should be
Finkelberg 1998, 189.
Gill 1993, 58.
Macr. In Somn. Scip. 1.2.7 fabulae, quarum nomen indicat falsi professionem, aut tantum
conciliandae auribus voluptatis, aut adhortationis quoque in bonam frugem gratia repertae
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104 A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107
shunned by philosophical-minded readers does not necessarily mean that
Apuleius himself would have seen it that way too. However, the internal
evidence of the prologue also unambiguously points against the possibility
of viewing the presentation of Apuleius ctions in the prologue as philo-
sophical fables.
If we compare the context, in which Apuleius places his allusion to the
Phaedrus, with the original context, to which he alludes, a very important
dierence will immediately become apparent. What Socrates sees as an
alternative to the xed written discourse is a conversation with a wise man
like himself, a living speech of someone who knows the truth and is willing
to impart it to others (Pl. Phdr. 276a8-9 o o o
o), which would certainly comprise edifying philosoph-
ical myths. Te ctional counterpart of the Egyptian papyrus in Apuleius
is, on the contrary, not a discourse about truth but a series of frivolous oral
tales about metamorphoses told in the Milesian fashion, with which the
narrator would like to charm his addressees ears. It is important to bear in
mind that the so-called Milesian tales can be perceived as an embodiment
of all the qualities most hostile to philosophical edication: their most
conspicuous feature is known to be an erotic, or even oensively porno-
graphic, content; they aimed exclusively at light entertainment and were
therefore regarded unworthy of attention of morally and intellectually
mature readers.
Moreover, the way Apuleius rst mentions his tales in the prologue is
reminiscent of the terms that Plato uses to describe the pernicious eect of
the mimetic ctions in general. Troughout his discussion of mimesis,
Plato repeatedly resorts to the notions of sorcery and deception. He
describes the mimetic artist as a magician who casts a spell over the human
soul and instills it with false beliefs.
Plato designates the enchanting
inuence of mimetic poetry by cognates of the verb , which may
correspond to the Latin permulceo that Apuleius uses to describe the eect
of his ctions.
In addition, one of the chief objections against mimetic
Scobie 1975, 66-7; Jensson 2004, 262.
Pl. R. 386a-392a, 394d-398b, 601a-605c. See also Ferrari 1989, 92-3, 108-11, 131-6;
Gill 1993, 44-51.
Pl. R. 595b6, 598d2-5, 601b1, 607c6-8, 608a3. For permulceo in a similar meaning see
Cic. de Orat. 2.135, Hor. Ep. 1.16.23, Quint. Inst. 2.5.8, Apul. Soc. 17. On the
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A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107 105
art that Plato voices is that it involves a high degree of o and
otransformation and multiplicitythat are radically opposed to
the philosophical ideal of the subjects identity to itself.
In order to make
his work more attractive, the mimetic artist imitates an unlimited variety
of things and thus, in a sense, subjects to the disturbing inuence of change
both himself and the recipient of his art. Furthermore, Plato conceives of
the idea of transformation in general in terms of deception. For instance,
one of the standard examples of harmful mimetic poetry that Plato excludes
from his ideal state is poetry communicating the false image of the gods as
capable of deceiving the mortals by assuming dierent shapes.
Te comparison of the rst sentence of Apuleius prologue with these
Platonic views almost creates the impression that Apuleius wrote it in
direct opposition to Plato. Apuleius introduces his work as various tales
(varias fabulas; varietas is the Latin equivalent of the Greek literary critical
term o)
about transformations that will have an enchanting eect
on the reader. Te combination of these three aspectsvariety, transfor-
mation, and enchantmenthappens to correspond exactly to the qualities
that account for Platos abhorrence against mimetic ction in general.
Tus one of the main functions of the allusion to the Phaedrus in the
prologue is to suggest, and then immediately to reject in a superbly ironic
way, the possibility that Apuleius ctions may have a far-reaching the-
matic purpose resembling that of Platonic myths. Te main joke of Apu-
leius allusion to the Phaedrus in his prologue consists in his placing of
Plato in a blatantly un-Platonic context. By substituting edifying philo-
sophical fables, which the allusion to the Phaedrus urges one to expect,
with the embodiment of all the qualities that Plato despised about mimetic
connections between permulceo and , see also Ps.-Lucians Amores (1), where the
eect of the Milesian tales on the listener is also described in terms of sorcery and enchant-
ment: o o
, o o o o
o oo (Tis morning the sweet seductive persuasiveness of [your] sala-
cious stories has cheered me greatly, so that I almost thought that I was Aristides charmed
beyond measure by the Milesian tales).
Pl. R. 388e, 397a1-d5, 604e1-605a6.
Pl. R. 381a6-383a5.
On the concept of o in Greek literary theory and practice, see Heath 1989. On
its use in rhetorical theory (both Greek and Roman), see Cizek 1994, 94-107.
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106 A. Kirichenko / Mnemosyne 61 (2008) 89-107
art, Apuleius produces a witty and sophisticated inversion: he sends austere
Plato to decadent Miletus (in the same way as he sends Socrates, Plutarch,
and Sextus to Tessaly) and thus creates the expectation of an uncompro-
misingly hedonistic but nonetheless intellectually challenging narrative.
At the same time, the reference to Plato in the prologue sets the tone for
all subsequent allusions to philosophy in the novel. Just as the old delirious
woman entertaining Charite with the tale of Cupid and Psyche and Socrates
having a fatal aair with a Tessalian witch in Aristomenes tale, Lucius is
presented as a comic character whose mimetic characteristics are radically
opposed to the stern seriousness of philosophy. Te comic eect produced
by bringing all these ridiculous creatures into close association with phi-
losophy is clearly anticipated by the prologues incongruous conation
between Platonism and Milesian storytelling. Tus it is already at the very
beginning of the novel that we are urged to realize that Apuleius uses phi-
losophy not to redeem but to intensify the bawdy humor of his ctions:
what matters in the Golden Ass is not that philosophy is mentioned at all
but that it is mentioned by the ctional narrator who in some important
sense remains a philosophizing ass throughout his entire account.
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