Platonist philosopher, rhetorician and fiction writer (ca. 125-180 CE)

Life and Work

Our evidence about Apuleius’ life and activity comes from two main sources, his own testimony and that of Augustine, who takes an interest in Apuleius apparently because of their common origin from North Africa. Apuleius was born in Madaura (M’daurouch of Algeria today) around 125 CE in a well to do and politically active family (Apologia 23-24, Augustine, Epist. 138.19). Apuleius had the opportunity and the zeal to receive considerable education. He was educated first in Carthago in grammar and rhetoric (Florida 18.15, 20.3) and then in Athens, where he, like most of his educated contemporaries, learned Greek and studied philosophy (Florida 20.4). Apuleius lives at the age of the revival of Greek culture known as Second Sophistic. His contemporaries include Lucian, Aelius Aristides, Galen, Aulus Gellius, the physician and philosopher Sextus Empiricus, and the Platonist philosophers Numenius, Atticus, and Calvenus Taurus. It seems that Apuleius also traveled to Rome and he stayed there for a while (Florida 17.4). He returned to North Africa where he got married and made a successful career as rhetorician (Florida 16.36-7). Apuleius was accused of sorcery and was brought to trial in 158/9. He defended himself with the speech Apologia or Pro se de magia, which is extant, and apparently he escaped conviction. Apuleius spent the rest of his life in Carthago, where he probably died around 180 CE.

Apuleius wrote both in Latin and Greek, however only his Latin works are extant. His native tongue, though, must have been Punic, since he was concerned with the right use of Latin (Florida 9.6-7). His works include the Metamorphoses or Golden Ass in 11 books (Metamorphoseon libri, Asinus Aureus XI), the Apologia or De Magia, Florida, De Platone et eius dogmate, De deo Socratis, De mundo, Asclepius, Peri hermeneias.

Apuleius’ Metamorphoses is one of the early novels, a genre that flourishes at his time. The novel narrates in first person the adventures of a certain Lucius, who wanders in Thessaly, the acclaimed country of magic, and he is transformed to an ass but recovers his human form thanks to the intervention of Isis. The Florida on the other hand is, as its title suggests, an anthology of fragments of epideictic oratory (most modern editions contain 23 such fragments). This work illustrates well the rhetorical and sophistic skills of Apuleius.

To pass to Apuleius’ De deo Socratis, this is a philosophical treatise on the mediating role of daemons and the special status of the daemon of Socrates, on which also Plutarch writes (De signo Socratis). In terms of form, the treatise is an epideictic speech, which was probably delivered in front of North African audience, e.g. in Carthage, and in this sense it resembles the works of Dio Chrysostom and Maximus of Tyre (speeches 8 and 9).

In De Platone et eius dogmate (in 2 books) Apuleius offers a systematic summary of Plato’s doctrines (dogmata), which is similar to that of Alcinous’ Didaskalikos. Their main difference lies in the fact that Apuleius omits logic, which comes first in order in Alcinous’ work, and contains only Plato’s physics (book 1) and ethics (books 2).

The De mundo is a revised version of the pseudo-Aristotelian De mundo (Peri kosmou). Similar in kind is also Apuleius’ work Asclepius, which is a translation or adaptation of a lost Greek work concerning Hermes Trismegistus.

Finally, the Peri hermeneias is a short handbook of logic and it is likely to have been originally part of De Platone et eius dogmate. Its authenticity has often been disputed. We should remember, though, that contemporary Platonists used to draw on Aristotle’s logic on the assumption that there are anticipations of that in Plato (Plutarch, De animae procreatione in Timaeo 1023E, Alcinous, Didaskalikos 159.43-5, Anonymous, In Theaetetum 68.7-22).

Philosophical views

Apuleius terms himself as Platonist philosopher (Florida 15.26, Apologia 10.6, 12.1, 39.1, 64.3) and he is similarly termed by Augustine (De Civitate Dei 8.14). This label is confirmed by Apuleius’ own work. De deo Socratis is a typical treatise of contemporary Platonists and De Platone et eius dogmate exhibits features very similar to those of Alcinous’ Didaskalikos, albeit with some differences, as for instance, that in the section on ethics of De Platone virtue is described in Aristotelian terms as the mean (De Platone I.224). Another difference between the two works is that the De Platone makes hardly any reference to Plato’s works. Apuleius agrees with the author of Didaskalikos (ch. 9) on the existence of three principles, God, matter, and Forms, but he begins his treatment with God (I.V), while Alcinous with matter (ch. 8). An interesting feature of De Platone is that it describes the world soul as the source of all souls, while Plato in the Timaeus credits this to the demiurge. Concerning the human soul, Apuleius maintains its tripartite nature (I.XIII) and he suggests that the five senses correspond to the five cosmic elements, fire, water, air, earth and atmis. Finally, in ethics Apuleius follows the Aristotelian view that every virtue is opposed by two vices that represent two extremes, and he sets out to identify two vices for every virtue for all three parts of the soul (I.226).

Conclusion

Apuleius shows considerable interest in rhetoric, as the style of his works makes clear. However, his commitment to and his interest for Platonist philosophy must be beyond doubt. Apuleius appears to believe that there is no conflict between rhetoric and Platonic philosophy but that instead they can be happily combined. And this is precisely what he sets out to do in his work.

Author: George Karamanolis
  • Harrison, St. A Latin Sophist. Oxford, 2000.
  • Hunink, V., Hilton, J., Harrison, St. Apuleius: Rhetorical Works. Oxford, 2001.
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