Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Benefits and Moral Development in Apuleius' Metamorphoses

Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Benefits and Moral Development in Apuleius' Metamorphoses

Article excerpt

The world of the Metamorphoses 1-10 is not a pretty one, being full of treachery, robbery, exploitation, and cruelty. Evil or unpleasant characters and situations outnumber the positive ones. Nevertheless, people do show kindness, generosity, loyalty, and self-sacrifice on occasion. They bestow favours and benefits on each other, sometimes even to an ass. They are able to adopt the perspective of others and respond to their needs and concerns. The question is, what motivates these actions? Is it the mutual back-scratching that facilitates the task of survival in a difficult world and/or conformity to communal and group values that need to be observed in order to preserve or enhance one's standing therein? Or is there beneficial action based on belief on some wider principle such as upholding the law for the protection and welfare of all, some commitment to the greater good of the society or humanity in general for its own sake? In a work shaped by an author steeped in philosophy, one might expect awareness of higher moral principles to seep in somewhere, somehow, especially in the last book, where Apuleius moves further away from the picaresque tale of lechery and sadism that he inherited from the Onos. (1) When Lucius becomes a devotee of Isis, he apparently gains access not only to some valuable secret knowledge, reassurance about what happens to him on death, a greater sense of life's meaning, a feeling of being protected against the workings of blind Fortune. He can feel confident that his career as a lawyer will lead to fame and fortune. It has been made clear to him that delving into magical arts is not a good way of empowering himself against whatever society or Fortune may hurl at him, or a suitable area for pursuing idle curiosity (11,15). But do changes go beyond that? Do his values undergo any fundamental change? Is there an honouring and integration of perspectives that go beyond what it is like to be a pauper, slave or ass, and to be subject to constant maltreatment and abuse? Is he committed to the welfare of anyone beyond his relatives, friends, clients, and fellow devotees of Isis? Scholars in recent years have argued that Lucius in Book 11 remains the same gullible dupe he has always been, that he changes little. But even if we assume good faith on the part of the priests of Isis and Osiris who extract considerable sums of money from him, just what kind of salvation does he secure? Apart from whatever benefit accrues to Roman society from having a more contented, more disciplined, and less anxious Lucius in its midst, will he make his mark for good in any other way? Law, Lucius' profession, is about negotiating and defining rights and responsibilities, about lubricating social relations in a way that should benefit the wider society. But in the pursuit of their own or their clients' interests, lawyers may ignore or subvert rather than uphold and apply the ideals and higher principles inherent in a body of law.

There are several spheres of interaction in the story: between humans (including episodes where the asinine Lucius feels and acts like a human being, as when he is outraged at the infidelity of the baker's wife and brings about the betrayal of her latest escapade, 9,27); between gods; between gods and humans (Cupid and Psyche, Isis and Lucius); between humans and animals, and animals with each other; and even between features of the landscape and humans, as when a reed and a tower speak to Psyche and help her. There are also the vague, inscrutable workings of Providence and Fortune upon the lives of humans. If we focus on how humans and anthropomorphic deities behave when they are apparently behaving well and doing things that enhance or show concern for others in some way, we can get an idea of what heights are reached by the prevailing morality and see whether Lucius' adherence to Isis and Osiris takes him beyond that level or, essentially, leaves him there.

In doing this, we will apply the work of Lawrence Kohlberg on the moral stages humans develop through and operate at to a novel whose prologue (1,1) and coda (11,28-30) signal the author's numerous and elusive perspectives. …

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