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Apuleius and the ‘Impossible Tasks’: Linking together the Heavens and the Earth

Elsa Giovanna Simonetti

The narratological development of Apuleius' Metamorphoses, masterly mirrored in the tale of Cupid and
Psyche, is marked by the exhausting series of misadventures involving Lucius and Psyche, captured in the
coils of an adverse fate and finally saved by an unexpected divine intervention. Strikingly, this electionscheme
is oppositely refracted within the suffering experienced by the remaining characters, who appear to
slither toward an inescapable destruction, while no deity is concerned to rescue them. Building on this
contrast, the present paper intends to explore Apuleius' account of moral virtue, evaluating the role played by
divine πρόνοια and ethical responsibility within the individual quest for beatitudo.

As Moreschini pointed out, the efforts of both the simplex Psyche and the doctus Lucius lack any
pedagogical or redemptive purpose, since they do not produce any inner change or moral improvement.
Recalling the scholar's expression, both Psyche and Lucius pass through a series of “impossible tasks”, similar
to those attested in the folkloric narrative tradition. The strenuous succession of labours is unexpectedly
interrupted by the capricious will of a numen (Eros and Isis), who intervenes to bestow on his beloved an
unexpected, undeserved salvation (MORESCHINI 1987).

Both the characters are then chosen to ascend from the chaotic material world up to a superior, ordered one,
undertaking a definitive and arduous αἵρησις: nevertheless, their acquired freedom will result in a new,
voluntary slavery, in a rationally accepted “total surrender” to the new dominus (VERSNEL 1990; PENWILL
2009). In particular, Lucius' predestined dignatio (REITZENSTEIN 1978; Metam. XI 19; 21) – intended as the
fulcrum of this dynamic – will help to clarify the concept of τιμή as a typical feature of the Isis cult (TURCAN
1989). The idea of election is also attested within the Greek Magical Papyri, where the mystes, defined worthy
of the divine favour (ἄξιος or ἀξιοθείς), is allowed to gradually become the slave, the soldier and finally the
friend of the god (FESTUGIÈRE 1932).

Apuleius' philosophical writings, instead, display an ethical conception which is deeply influenced by the
Stoic doctrine (De dogm. Plat. ΙΙ 20,248-II 23,253; BEAUJEU 1973): moral virtue, free from the dictates of fate,
is qualified as the primum bonum et laudabile among the things which depend on us (De dogm. Plat. II 13,
238; ELIASSON 2008). Accordingly, the perfect sage is defined as self-sufficient (nihil indigens), and virtue as
his permanent possession (perpetua possessio), entirely in his power (in sua manu). Only the real sapiens can
achieve the highest moral end (sapientiae finis) of the ὁμοίωσις θεῷ, by being constantly iustus, pius and
prudens. The eternal exemplum of this elitist, autarchic ethical conception is embodied by Socrates, who
properly honoured his personal demon (De deo Socr. 17, 157), or by Ulysses who, thanks to Minerva
(symbolizing prudentia), overcame his own “impossible tasks” (omnia horrenda and adversa, De deo Socr.
24, 178), animated by a wise love for wisdom (just opposed to Lucius' improspera curiositas).

The pattern taken into account then reveals a twofold perspective. In the Metamorphoses salvation depends
on the divine intervention – having nothing to share with rational knowledge and individual qualities. In
Apuleius' philosophical works, instead, beatitudo is defined as achievable only through a personal moral
engagement, while the transcendent deity does not directly intervene into human existence, remaining a
sublime paradigm of absolute perfection (De dogm. Plat. II 23,253). Nevertheless, these two views appear to
share a similar conception of life as a λειτουργία offered to a divine entity – be it a personal god or the inner
demon: the “elected”, fortunate characters of the novel as well as the wise, virtuous philosopher seem
responsible for mediating between the heterogeneous earthly world and the harmonious divine realm,
providing with their own life the empirical proof of their interconnection.

Session/Panel Title

Libros Me Futurum: New Directions in Apuleian Scholarship

Session/Paper Number


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