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Apuleius’ Use and Abuse of Platonic Myth in the Metamorphoses

Jeffrey Ulrich

Before Winkler changed the paradigms for reading the Metamorphoses, the novel was often analyzed in light of Apuleius’ ‘Platonism’. The methodologies of deciphering Platonism generally followed one of two paths, either (a) finding Platonic moments in the narrative that loosely gesture to a Platonic undertone (Schlam (1970); Thibau (1965)) or (b) placing the novel within its contemporary milieu of middle Platonism (Walsh (1981)). Recently, a few scholars have deftly sought after a new Platonic skeleton key for the Metamorphoses with more sensitivity to the hermeneutic games in the text (DeFilippo (1990); Winkle (2011)); however, they also have struggled to find a monolithic meaning in the wake of Winkler’s aporetic reading. In this paper, I shall suggest an alternate approach to finding ‘Platonism’ in the Metamorphoses, not by searching for a philosophical take away from the Platonic moments in the novel, but rather, by analyzing Apuleius’ use and abuse of Platonic myth – already a highly problematic category – as a thoughtful challenge to Platonic ideals. I will show how two central tropes in Platonic myths are reworked and rehashed in the Metamorphoses, with the ultimate effect of forcing the reader to recollect the paradoxes in Plato’s manipulation of the category of myth. In the spirit of Winkler’s hermeneutic games, I will consider how the text invites us to think not only about its own challenges for interpretation, but also the problematic nature of a Platonic myth.

I will focus on two Platonic allusions at the beginning and the end of the Metamorphoses. The first is a parallel scene to Socrates’ famous ‘Typhonic choice’. In the opening of the Phaedrus, Socrates refuses to rationalize a myth by explaining away mythical beasts. Instead, he introduces the underlying question of the Phaedrus – a variant on the gnōthi seauton tradition - namely whether his soul is more complex than the theriomorphic Typhon. In Metamorphoses 1.4, Lucius introduces a similar concern about myth rationalization, but the conclusions he derives betray an absurd misunderstanding of Socrates’ ‘Typhonic choice’. Lucius refuses to disbelieve fabulae because he has seen mystifying displays of supernatural behavior; in his attempt to reach a Phaedran state of wingedness, he constantly questions whether he is a Pegasus. The ‘Typhonic question’ of the Phaedrus is introduced in the guise of a different theriomorphic image – a winged horse – and then comically misapplied to the state of Lucius’ body rather than structure of his soul. As a result, we are encouraged to question the suitability of allegory for philosophy.

The second Platonic moment is Lucius’ famous loss of curiositas in book 11. It has been recognized in the abundant scholarship on this word that it may be a Latin gloss on the Greek polypragmosunē (Leigh (2013)). Here we can see a connection between Plato’s Odysseus in the Republic and Apuleius’ Lucius. Odysseus is the polypragmōn par excellence in antiquity, which makes Lucius’ comparison between himself and Odysseus (Met. 9.13.4) laughably accurate. In the myth of Er, however, Odysseus chooses a better paradeigma biou than his Homeric life, namely that of an apragmōn idiotēs. It is striking, then, that Lucius ‘loses’ his most Odyssean character trait at the end of the novel and adopts the paradeigma of the Platonic Odysseus. One could argue here that Lucius has somehow learned to become a better reader of Plato. But scholars doubt Lucius’ newfound incuriositas (Harrison (2000)) because it is mediated through the voice of Isis’ priest. In the Republic, it is Er – an initiate who glimpses the afterlife and comes back to relate his story (via Socrates’ narrative) – that tells us of Odysseus’ choice of a better paradeigma. For a reader sensitive to the Platonic allusion, Apuleius’ decision to announce Lucius’ loss of curiositas through the mouth of Isis’ priest highlights the unreliability
of Er as a narrator. Lucius has listened to Socrates’ exhortation to believe Er’s myth, but we

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Libros Me Futurum: New Directions in Apuleian Scholarship

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