(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Apuleius is now remembered as a rhetorician and author of a highly rhetorical novel, The Golden Ass. Typical of his writings, the novel’s style overflows with literary embellishments, particularly archaic words and allusions, all displaying his uncommon education. His prose is rhythmically hypnotic, even to the occasional use of rhymes, so that it resembles the incantations of magicians.

The complexity of his style lends a basic ambiguity to the novel’s tone. When he is at his best, as in the Apologia, the Florida, and The Golden Ass, Apuleius’s jokes manage to be simultaneously self-deprecating and boastful, as demonstrated in a long and humorous passage defending how he brushes his teeth, an unconventional practice at the time. The Golden Ass shifts between worldly cynicism and otherworldly idealism, as well as between playful pornography and serious preaching. Apuleius’s actual attitudes thus remain hidden—appropriately, considering that his subject is the need for secrecy in magic and religion.

In the Apologia, he answers the charge that he possessed an implement of dark magic by saying that the object actually belonged to a mystery religion, and for this reason he is forbidden to reveal what it was. His emphasis on ironic masking and general concealment is typical of second century Latin literature; in this age, the tyranny of the Roman Empire often forced intellectuals to defensively hide or disguise their beliefs in allegories and other coded references.

Apuleius’s early works trace the development of his duplicitous style and chart his literary development, which reached its most advanced state in The Golden Ass. De mundo and De Platone et eius dogmate, both largely translation or paraphrase, mix Platonic concepts and other later ideas that are found in The Golden Ass. More interestingly, the Apologia demonstrates his ability to write charming, first-person narration and his willingness to make fun of himself in small ways that win the readers’ sympathies. For instance, his discussion of his erotic poems in Apologia shows courage and is similar to The Golden Ass’s first-person narrator, Lucius, who also admits his sexual embarrassments. By demonstrating the similarities of Apuleius’s and Plato’s love poems in Apologia, Apuleius implies that he simply follows a model for writing rather than creating poetry that discloses his private life. Similarly, conventional elements in The Golden Ass cloak the autobiographical nature of the work.

Another parallel between the Apologia and The Golden Ass is his attraction toward grotesque humor. In the accusations against Apuleius, for example, a slave and one of Apuleius’s medical patients were allegedly bewitched into convulsions. In a flurry of puns, Apuleius claims the two men were epileptics; thus, keeping them from convulsing would have required him to perform magic. The Golden Ass carries such nightmarish imagery further, with its sadistic violence and numerous transformations of humans into animals.

Like The Golden Ass, the Florida evidences Apuleius’s taste for the exotic, such as his description of a parrot from the Far East. Of all his works, however, The God of Socrates comes the closest to The Golden Ass. The title, The God of Socrates, derives from Plato’s having written that, from time to time, Socrates heard a voice dissuading him from various actions. Today, this might seem to mean that Socrates paid attention to his unconscious, but Apuleius makes it the pretext for discussing the idea that demons, the supposed source of this voice, were intermediate beings between people and gods. These demons included former human beings and lesser gods. Consequently, much of the supernatural cast of The Golden Ass, including Cupid, Psyche, Isis, and Osiris, might be classified as demons.

Demons were the spirits particularly invoked by wizards. After discussing this supernatural world at length, Apuleius advocates an ethical life, so that people may become good demons, or lares, after their death; this passage of The God of Socrates is comparable to the immortality Lucius expects to attain at the close of The Golden Ass. Since in psychological terms Apuleius’s supernatural world represents the unconscious, The God of Socrates, and, even more, The Golden Ass, have been favorites of psychologists, particularly those of the Jungian school, which considers gods and demons to be metaphors for deeply buried instincts, or “archetypes.”

The Golden...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)