"Necessary Roughness": Plato's Phaedrus and Apuleius' Metamorphoses


  • Jeffrey T. Winkle


Several readers of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses have noted that the return of Lucius’ white horse, Candidus, near the end of the novel is likely one of several pieces of “Platonica” scattered throughout the novel. The white horse is a nod toward Plato’s allegory of the tripartite soul in the Phaedrus in which that horse represents the purity and reason which draws the soul, unbidden without whip or goad, toward the divine. In Book 11 Lucius recognizes the true divinity of Isis and this is underscored by the return of his white horse which had abandoned him early in the novel as he sets upon his path of serviles voluptates. Readers have also noted, however, that if the “Candidus episode” is indeed a Platonic allusion, it is an incomplete one at best. Where, for instance, is the unruly black horse which strains at cross-purposes with the white horse and charioteer in the Platonic myth? Where is the charioteer? The thinness or even laziness of the allusion has caused some to question whether Apuleius intended a Platonic tag here at all.

In this essay I argue that the “Candidus episode” is not only a deliberate Platonic allusion but is also just a small part of a much larger use by Apuleius of the soul-chariot allegory throughout the novel. In fact, I go so far as to argue that the Phaedrus myth provides a template which explains principal narrative arcs in the Metamorphoses as well as an argument for the overall unity of the novel. To do this we must recognize that Lucius, as the ass, is the unruly black horse of the Platonic allegory. There are several details in the Phaedrus passage against which Apuleius seems to invite us to read his asinine Lucius. Plato’s black horse is described as having rather asinine features (crooked, fat, flat nose, thick neck), the passions and shortcomings of both the black horse and the Apuleian ass are described in terms of and centered upon physical lusts, and both texts use the euphemism of “tail” (κέρκον, cauda) to refer to the male phallus and as symbolic for the flawed, unruly character of the respective beasts. In addition, we may even see a parody of or allusion to the Phaedrus myth in the aborted escape with Charite (Met. 6.27-30). Here the girl seems to play the part of the charioteer attempting to pull Lucius to the right (both in terms of direction and salvation of sorts) while he fights against her coercion and ultimately delivers them both back into the hands of the thieves.

More importantly, we must recognize that the horses of the Platonic myth should not be understood in the stark white horse/good, black horse/bad terms as many readers seem to have facilely interpreted them. Rather, a close reading of the episode shows that the neighing and tugging of the black horse (albeit misguided) is necessary to approach the divine; the black horse reminds the timid and excessively restrained white horse and charioteer of their ultimate goal and pulls them toward it. The myth goes on to say that after many shameless and lurching attempts to approach the “beloved”, the black horse finally gives in to the guidance of the charioteer, lays aside his hubris, and gazes upon the divine in reverent awe. This is, in a nutshell, the story of Lucius—he stumbles, lusts, runs, escapes, eavesdrops, is whipped and beaten through the better part of ten books before he collapses before the image of the goddess on the Cenchrean shore. Through the lens of the Phaedrus we see that Lucius’ debased wanderings are not a random series of events before a shocking or narratively discordant divine reversal, but rather make up the “necessary roughness” required to push the sinner toward salvation.

Jeffrey Winkle received his PhD from Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois, USA) with a dissertation entitled Daemons, Demiurges, and Dualism: Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and the mysticism of late antiquity. Since then he has presented several papers on various religious and philosophical aspects of the Apuleian novel at many conferences around the globe (including ICAN IV in Lisbon, Portugal) and is currently working on articles concerning Gnostic influences on Apuleius as well as the role of the horse goddess Epona in the Metamorphoses. Since 2005 he has been an assistant professor of Classics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.