Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.33

Claudio Moreschini, Apuleius and the Metamorphoses of Platonism. Nutrix, 10.   Turnhout:  Brepols Publishers, 2014.  Pp. 420.  ISBN 9782503554709.  €110.00.  

Reviewed by Anna Marmodoro and Vito Limone, Corpus Christi College, Oxford; University Vita-Salute San Raffaele (;

Moreschini’s contribution to the literature about Apuleius of Madaura (125-180 AD) is well-known, as his original and prominent studies in the last decades clearly witness (e.g. “La posizione di Apuleio e della scuola di Gaio nell’àmbito del medioplatonismo”, ASNS 33, 1964, pp. 17-56; Studi sul ‘De dogmate Platonis’ di Apuleio, Pisa 1966; Apuleio e il platonismo, Florence 1978). Once again he offers the reader an outstanding and very erudite monograph on Apuleius’ thought, with focus on his interaction with the philosophical and literary context contemporary to him, and on his sources. Nevertheless, regarding this book as an extensive and detailed exploration in Apuleius’ philosophy would be an understatement: in fact, the accurate overview of Apuleius’ writings and doctrines gives Moreschini the chance to engage in a large discussion on the relationships between the disparate philosophical schools in the high-imperial period, with particular attention to the development of Middle Platonism. Therefore, this is an in-depth study not only on Apuleius, but also on philosophy in Late Antiquity. This book consists of nine chapters, which range from a stringent analysis of Apuleius’ writings to his interplay with the philosophical tradition and background. The book is enriched with an up-to-date bibliography, and with the index of names of ancient and modern authors.

Ch. 1 is devoted to two of Apuleius’ intertwined writings, the Apologia (or De Magia) and the Florida. With respect to the former, it is an oration in the Second Sophistic style, delivered in around 185 AD: though it conflates disparate elements of the early imperial philosophical background, Moreschini shines a light on two main topics, namely, magic and the reception of Platonism. In response to the accusation of being a magician, Apuleius does not deny it, but he distinguishes a noble magic, theurgy, which is the relationship of the philosopher to all the gods and his access to the mysteries, and a vulgar magic, which is the relationship with demons and the exercise of a supernatural power. This distinction implies that the notion of theurgy as interaction with the divine world and its link to philosophy are widespread in Late Antiquity, especially in the Platonic tradition. The account of Platonism in the Apologia is a compendium of references to the best-known dialogues of Plato in the second century AD, that is, Timaeus, Phaedrus, Symposium, and the Second Epistle. In particular, the doctrine of the composition of the soul in tim. 69e-70a and the scientific theories in Timaeus are largely recovered; the definition of demons as intermediate beings draws inspiration from symp. 202d; the attribution of apophatic predicates to the godhead recalls phaedr. 247c; finally, in accordance with a hermeneutical trend contemporary to him, and in agreement with other philosophers (Numenius, Atticus, and Maximus of Tyre) Apuleius gives God the name ‘king’, derived from epist. II 312e. The latter work, the Florida, is an anthology of fragments from orations that Apuleius may have delivered under the empire of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (161-169 AD). As Moreschini points out, both the content and the language of these orations lead us to place Apuleius in the middle between philosophy and rhetoric: on the one hand, he proves to be aquainted with the high-imperial philosophical background, especially with the Platonic tradition; on the other hand, his usage of the philosophical literature and his adaptation of it to a non-specialist audience disclose his belonging to the Second Sophistics.

Chs. 2 and 3 are dedicated to an accurate analysis of the most famous writing of Apuleius, the Metamorphoses, with focus on the tale of Cupid and Psyche (Met. IV,28-VI,24). First of all, Moreschini discusses the two most dominant positions of scholars about the Metamorphoses: the ‘separatists’, as for instance B.E. Perry, are confident that it is solely an anthology of comical, funny stories without any pedagogical or moral meaning; the ‘unitarians’, as K. Kerényi, R. Merkelbach, P. Scazzoso, believe that it is a fundamentally serious work with moral and religious intentions. In this regard, Moreschini agrees with some scholars, such as R. Heine and W.R. Nethercut, about a new approach to this writing of Apuleius: whilst the separatists regard only the comical shade of it, and the unitarians only the religious- philosophical one, he suggests considering the ‘serious’ and the ‘funny’ as two essential components of it, insofar as both of them are key to the narrative structure of the text and to our understanding of its meaning. Furthermore, Moreschini also agrees with the results of J.J. Winkler’s book, published in 1985, that is, that the Metamorphoses is an affirmation of religious skepticism, rather than the expression of a well-defined religious belief. Particular attention is devoted to the philosophical background of the Metamorphoses: despite the references to Platonism in it, as R. Helm already displayed in a detailed study of Apuleius’ philosophical sources, Moreschini returns to a hypothesis which he put forward in a previous contribution of his (“Elementi filosofici nelle Metamorfosi di Apuleio”, KOINΩΝΙΑ 17, 1993, pp. 109-123), and argues that Apuleius’ Platonism is to be summarized in two fundamental concepts, that of the irrationality of the material life of human being, and the exhortation to become similar to god, who in the novel is the goddess Isis, not the Platonic god. Moreschini also highlights that this approach of Apuleius to philosophy, especially Platonism, is understandble in light of his aforementioned belonging to the general context of the Second Sophistics: resuming two definitions of G. Anderson, Moreschini calls Apuleius a ‘pepaideumenos’, that is, a man heavily formed in the schools of rhetoric, and a ‘Halbphilosoph’, that is, a man provided with a popular philosophy, namely, a philosophy that is widespread in circles of cultivated people, who dedicate themselves to it without the intention to carry out specific scientific research. An extensive evaluation is directed to the tale of Cupid and Psyche: after collecting the major studies on it and dividing them into six kinds of interpretation (the symbolic, the folkloric, the religious, the literary, the moral, and the philosophical), Moreschini focuses on the echoes of Platonism in it. In accordance with the recent contributions of M. Edwards (“The Tale of Cupid and Psyche”, ZPE 94, 1992, pp. 77-94) and Ch. O. Tommasi (“Gnostic Variations on the Tale of Cupid and Psyche”, in Intende lector – Echoes of Myth, Religion and Ritual in Ancient Novel, ed. M. Futre Pineiro, Berlin 2013, pp. 123-144), he underscores that Apuleius’ story of Cupid and Psyche is derived from a high-imperial Platonic source, which combines the myth of the fallen soul in the Phaedrus and that of Eros in the Symposium, as it is further attested by the occurrence of a version of this story in a Gnostic text (NHC II,5).

Apuleius’ demonology is studied in detail in ch. 4, which deals with the De deo Socratis. As Moreschini confirms, this writing is universally considered to be a successful attempt to develop systematically Middle Platonic demonology. In fact, in accordance with other Middle Platonists, for example Plutarch, Maximus of Tyre, and Calcidius, Apuleius admits two classes of beings, i.e. the gods, which are divided into visible gods (stars and planets) and invisible gods, and the humans. Thus, the existence of these two classes of beings, namely, gods and humans, gives rise to the necessity of the existence of intermediaries, that is, the demons. Once again inspired by Plato’s Symposium, Apuleius assumes that demons are ministers of the gods, in the sense that they bring human desires to the gods and, vice versa, inform humans about the gods’ will. At the end of this chapter, Moreschini focuses on a controversial topic: the ambiguity of Minerva/Athena in De deo Socratis. In fact, whilst in Socrat. 2,121 she belongs to the pantheon of traditional religion, in 11,145 and 20,166, especially in case of Achilles’ discussion with Agamemnon (Iliad I,198), she is represented as a demon, which appears only to Achilles and prevents him from erupting in anger. In contrast with some scholars who try to solve this contradiction, such as F. Regen and B.L. Hijmans, Moreschini conjectures that in the case of Minerva/Athena’s appearance to Achilles Apuleius metaphorically uses the name of the goddess to indicate the virtue of prudence.

An in-depth overview of Apuleius’ philosophical works, De Platone et eius dogmate, De mundo, and De interpretatione, which is in the sixth chapter, is introduced by a very extensive presentation of the rhetoric- philosophical context in the early imperial age (ch. 5), with a particular attention to the most significant personalities (Fronto, Marcus Aurelius, Favorinus, Aulus Gellius, Calvisius Taurus, Aelianus, and Aelius Aristides). De Platone is divided into two books: the first draws the physical theories from Plato’s Timaeus, whereas the second exposes an ethical doctrine which is the result of a systematization of the Hellenistic philosophical schools. In this regard, Moreschini notes that the very idea of composing a treatise of ethics, such as the second book of De Platone, is far from the Platonic perspective, and it is grounded upon the mixture of Stoic, Platonic, and Peripatetic elements typical of Middle Platonism. Moreschini regards De Platone and De mundo, which is the Latin translation of the pseudo-aristotelian treatise περὶ κόσμου, as Apuleian works, but he denies any authenticity to De interpretatione, which was attributed to him by Medieval tradition and for long time considered the third book of De Platone, and whose authenticity has actually been questioned since the critical edition of G.F. Hildebrand in 1842.

Chs. 7 and 8 are respectively about Apuleius’ physics and ethics. With regard to his physics, Moreschini underlines that Apuleius restates the so called ‘doctrine of three principles’, that is, god/demiurge, the ideas, and the matter, which is typical of Middle Platonism, and he reformulates it on basis of Plato’s notion of transcendence of the Good. This means that, though he assumes the three principles, the first one, that is, god/demiurge, is beyond both ideas and matter. This doctrine of transcendence of the first principle is key to the understanding of the other aspects of Apuleius’ physics, especially his henotheism, namely, the necessary existence of intermediate beings which is grounded upon the distinction between the divine and the human worlds, his concept of matter, which conflates Stoic and Peripatetic tools, his view about creation of the universe, in particular of the individual soul. As far as Apuleius’ ethics is concerned, Moreschini points out that he combines doctrines coming from disparate philosophical traditions, as for example that of the so called ‘oikeiosis’ from Stoics, that of virtue from Peripatetics, and that of likeness to God from Platonists, and he rephrases each of them in light of his eclectic approach.

Ch. 9 is an original study of the relationship between Apuleius and the Christian environment contemporary to him, and of the reception of his writings in Christianity. In this regard, Moreschini suggests at least four reasons why Apuleius was very overlooked by Christians: firstly, he was regarded as the typical representative of paganism; secondly, his intellectual syncretism, that is, the combination of philosophy, mystery cults, and sophistic ostentation, was exactly what Paul condemned in his epistles; thirdly, in a famous passage of his Metamorphoses (IX,14) he expressed a hostile and offensive attitude towards Christians; finally, in Africa he was supposed to have been a magician. Despite these assumptions, Moreschini considers Apuleius’ De deo Socratis as the best known of his writings to the Christians, especially Arnobius and Augustine.

In conclusion, Moreschini suggests a reassessment of the relation between Apuleius and Platonism, and underscores two main points. At first, in contrast with the opposing views that Platonism is Apuleius’ specific requirement, or that Platonism is inconsistent with his eclecticism, he argues that his thought, as aforementioned, is not a scholastic philosophy, but is a mixture of philosophy and literature. Furthermore, Moreschini notices that Apuleius continuously devotes himself to Platonism from his early writings, like the Apologia, in which he declares himself as a Platonic philosopher, until his late ones, as the treatise De Platone and the translation De mundo.

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