In the Laws (10.896-898), Plato makes the somewhat surprising slip by postulating the existence of a maleficent World Soul in opposition to a beneficent World Soul. The kernels of this distinction can be traced back to his portrayal of the Demiurge using the Same and the Different in making the soul in the Timaeus 35a ff. Naturally, in the eyes of Plato’s successors, this view is further developed to explain the rational and irrational natures or cycles of soul from Xenocrates to Plutarch, Atticus, and even Numenius. In De Isiride 369e, Plutarch delineates more clearly the polarity of Soul as two opposite principles or two antithetic powers at work in the creation of the universe.
In De Isiride and elsewhere in his works, Plutarch also promotes an allegorical understanding of ancient myths as didactic means to explain philosophical principles and universal truths. His allegorical method of philosophizing in De Isiride undergoes an unexpected but exciting transformation as a part of the development of the literary genre of romances, most notably represented by Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (or the Golden Ass) and Heliodorus’ Aethiopica (or the Adventures of Theagenes and Chariclea). I say unexpected because, from a philosophical viewpoint, the genre of romantic novel has little to do with the serious and well-established modes of philosophical literature: dialogues, commentaries, or handbooks. On the other hand, this transformation is exciting, from both philosophical and literary viewpoint, because it shows the vitality of philosophical allegory in Middle Platonic and even Neoplatonic literature and the reception of philosophy in other literary genres. This literary expansion, although still rather slim and somewhat anomalous, finds its prototype in Plutarch’s De Isiride and it acquires its full literary strength as a genre in Apuleius and Heliodorus.
In this paper, I will explore the uncharted territory of the philosophical motifs in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica as an allegorical interpretation of the duality of soul. As a literary successor of Apuleius, Heliodorus continues in his footsteps of writing ‘light’ literary prose with ‘heavy’ philosophical meaning. In the beginning of the novel, the wonderings of Chariclea, abandoned at birth by her mother Persina, the queen of the Moon, at first sight, seems to present a suitable case study of the permutations of the irrational part of soul on its journey in the physical realm. At a closer look, however, at the end of the story, the division in the roles of the lost daughter and the grieving mother is replaced by the happy reunion of mother and daughter as the two natures of soul. This reunion is surprisingly both hindered and facilitated by the strict dogmatic views of the Gymnosophists. Through the story, Heliodorus turns to be quite a connoisseur of Eastern religious schools and theology infused with strong Platonic overtones.
The ‘philosophical content’ or value of the romance type of literature has been easily overlooked and oftentimes dismissed as insignificant. But the long tradition of allegorical interpretation of philosophical concepts from Plutarch to Proclus suggests that it has merits in its own philosophical right.