Sunday, June 7, 2015

2015.06.03

Richard Fletcher, Apuleius' Platonism: The Impersonation of Philosophy. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xi, 319. ISBN 9781107025479. $99.00.

Reviewed by Sasha-Mae Eccleston, Pomona College (SashaMae@pomona.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Preview

Apuleian studies has thrived over the last 30 years. The majority of research in the field has focused explicitly or implicitly on The Metamorphoses. The text can (arguably) be categorized, among other things, as an ancient novel, a product of the Second Sophistic, and/or as satire. This flexibility gives it an alluring elusiveness and makes it useful for researching various facets of the Roman Empire's intellectual, literary, and social cultures. Moreover, Winkler's seminal study of its narrative sophistication,Auctor and Actor, transformed Apuleius' prose fiction from a underappreciated work of a marginal author into a favorite test case for narratological analysis.1 Decades later, those intrigued by The Metamorphoses no longer have to defend their interest: excerpts from it now appear on several undergraduate and graduate program reading lists. But the rest of Apuleius' corpus has garnered significantly less scholarly attention. Though appreciation for Apuleius' Apologia as a unique specimen of forensic oratory in post-Ciceronian Latin has grown, it, like the rest of Apuleius' corpus, lives in the shadow of his bawdy masterpiece.2

Richard Fletcher is fully aware of these aspects of Apuleian studies and addresses them head-on in his monograph, Apuleius' Platonism: the Impersonation of Philosophy. His book is as much about Apuleius' approach to narrating the philosophical life, philosophical concepts, and philosophical protreptic as it is about how one approaches the Apuleian corpus. Fletcher hopes this book will be the "first attempt at redirecting…Apuleian studies to a more responsible acknowledgement of the totality of [Apuleius'] literary and philosophical achievement"(viii). Rejecting the belief that the rest of Apuleius' corpus lacks the nuance and sophistication of his prose fiction, he aims to draw attention to the strategies used by the Madauran to explicate and to encourage his "idiosyncratic brand of Platonism" (vii). Fletcher thus highlights methodological continuities across texts previously segregated from The Metamorphoses and each other as rhetorical (Apologia,Florida) and philosophical (De Mundo,De Platone,De Deo Socratis) works.3 He also foregoes prolonged discussion of Apuleius' 'novel', encouraging his readers to pick up where his study leaves off (viii; 5). His approach represents an important and exciting step in the development of Apuleian studies. Nuanced interpretations of familiar passages and skillful examinations of less cited passages prove his methodology both intellectually interesting and hermeneutically fruitful.

Fletcher develops his argument over 5 dense chapters. The introduction situates his approach to Apuleius' writing amidst critical debates regarding the author's cultural identities and output, especially in relation to more hallowed figures (e.g. Plato) or more readily studied cultural identities (e.g. sophist). In Chapter 2, "Becoming Plato, voicing Platonism," Fletcher claims that Apuleius crafts the biography of Plato that begins De Platone so as to ground the link between philosophy (ratio) and rhetoric (oratio) in his philosophical hero's life, giving his own critical voice authority and protreptic force. Fletcher shows how Apuleius uses personification and point of view in De Mundo and De Deo Socratis to speak authoritatively without undermining Plato's god-like status and to reflect aspects of each treatise in Chapter 3, "Universal reading and demonic interpretation." In Chapter 4, "Platonism on trial and philosophy on stage," Fletcher argues for the continued operation of autobiography as philosophical methodology in Apologia and Florida, where Apuleius replaces Plato as the biographical subject who combines rhetorical gifts with philosophical seriousness. In the concluding chapter, he briefly interprets parts of The Metamorphoses. Fletcher here attempts to "synthesize" his approach with Winkler's interpretations of Apuleian narrativity (281).

In the introduction, Fletcher effectively argues that the issue of corporal unity should be explored as part of the way Apuleius negotiated his positionality as a Latin speaking Platonist orator from North Africa throughout his career. The chapter brings readers up to date with trends in Apuleian studies, explains several key terms to be used throughout his study, and clarifies the stakes of Fletcher's argument. The term 'impersonation" combines the concepts of performativity and embodiment with more familiar notions of authenticity and status, allowing considerations of literary production, rhetorical and philosophical activity, and cultural identity to operate simultaneously (16). Fletcher's understanding of corpus, both in terms of an organic body and an author's body of work, problematizes unity (3). Achieving unity often entails highlighting certain aspects of someone's oeuvre and downplaying or decrying others. In the case of the Madauran's literary output, considering The Metamorphoses the apogee of his career might encourage one to sift through his 'lesser works' to better understand its richness. On the other hand, considering Apuleius a Platonist philosopher in the first instance can render his prose fiction a piece of juvenilia, something he needed to get out of his system so that he could write proper philosophical texts. Both biases may leave one blinkered to the meaningful differences between works and contexts within which they were produced. He cites examples of these biases in the scholarship and its effect on interpreting Apuleius' writing in support of this concern. Admittedly, the discussion of Walter Pater's work on Apuleius and Plato halts the momentum of the chapter (9-11). But on second reading, it strengthens Fletcher's overarching point about underlying assumptions having significant interpretive consequences. If we are to gain "a full appreciation of the corpus as the whole", then using one text as its center might not be the most effective strategy (2). Focusing on methodology might be more effective insofar as Apuleius seems preoccupied with methodology in his own work, when he characterizes the work of Plato, and when he Platonizes Aristotle, Theophrastus, and others. A methodological focus also incorporates a consideration of unity since Apuleius heroizes Plato for using eloquence to perfect the philosophical corpus by unifying ratio and oratio. It is that model Apuleius attempts to reproduce himself.

The philosophical corpus is taken up in the second chapter, where Fletcher successfully demonstrates how Apuleius' 'impersonation of philosophy' works in the De Platone as "biographical exegesis" (55). A close reading of the vita Platonis at its beginning gains significance as Fletcher tracks how it fits into a tradition of philosophical biography: Apuleius' choices respond to contemporary debates about Plato's life to grant Plato an authoritative voice (a voice that stands for philosophy in its perfected form) that will be channeled throughout Apuleius' explication of Platonist doctrine. While several small points are well done in this chapter, Fletcher's clever sifting through of verbs of speaking that could be easily overlooked is particularly noteworthy. He guides the reader as the narrative voice slyly goes from (1) having Plato 'say' an idea, to (2) dramatizing Platonist ideas through personification so as to render what is debatable in a more neutral way, to (3) speaking on behalf of what Plato meant (91). This maneuver and the displacement of an interest in joining philosophical creativity and rhetorical skill from Apuleius the maybe sophist onto Plato the philosopher extraordinaire have the same effect: Apuleius' narrator leeches off of the biographical subject to legitimize his critical interventions and distinguish them from others in a lengthy tradition. Finally, Fletcher usefully highlights Apuleius' interest in ethics throughout the treatise and not just in Book 2 where it is the ostensible subject (79).

In Chapter 3, he asserts that Apuleius chooses different exegetical modes and character(isation)s to complement concepts explained in De Mundo and De Deo Socratis. He establishes that there is more authorial control at work here than mere obedience to genre conventions. In this chapter too, Fletcher succeeds in offering plenty of good individual readings. They build upon the previous chapter's interest in distinguishing the exegesis of what Plato said from the explanation of what the narrator claims Plato meant. Throughout, Fletcher deftly brings out what is significant from aspects of text that can be taken for granted such as transitional statements (132). He thus prompts his reader to return to Apuleius' treatises with even greater appreciation for his craftsmanship. For the De Mundo especially, Fletcher's interpretation of the perspective from which the narrator describes features of the universe proves revelatory.

In Chapter 4, Fletcher helps his audience interpret Apuleius' fancy footwork as he dodges accusations in court (Apologia) and elsewhere (Florida) in order to control his philosophical image. Throughout this book, Fletcher remains carefully attuned to the porosity of generic boundaries. But that vigilance is especially productive for his reading of Florida 18 where he brings out the polyvalence of this speech's captatio benevolentiae (245). Fletcher rightly insists that it is the dynamic between tropes of theatricality and philosophy and not the supremacy of either narrative mode that makes Apuleius' speech so compellingly vivid as a performance of both cultural and intellectual identity (246).

An interpretation of the continued 'impersonation of philosophy' in Apuleius' 'novel' appears in the conclusion where Fletcher gives glimpses into how "philosophy operates as a narrative" (281). Fletcher briefly discloses his reluctance to extend the methodology he used with the rest of Apuleius' corpus to The Metamorphoses in the chapter's final, summarizing paragraph. Over a series of sentences, Fletcher posits one way by which his reader could arrive at the conclusion he seems to have reached: "The Metamorphoses…traces the labor of the stages in the biography of Plato…and betrays the elegantia of Plato's philosophical achievement" (292). Unfortunately, he does not argue this point in full and so his commentary on The Metamorphoses dangles tantalizingly overhead. Throughout the conclusion, the author's keen eye for detail persists but the overall point remains at a greater distance while terms accumulate. Furthermore, at other times, he gestures towards a significant intervention in the interpretation of oft-cited scenes (e.g. the Cupid and Psyche episode) but stops short of offering it (267). As a result, Fletcher's undeniable familiarity with the breadth of Apuleian scholarship could leave readers in the dark as to how other concepts contribute to the interpretation he sketches at the book's end. To be clear, this criticism should not detract from his approach's value; his interpretation of Met. 2.11-12 in conjunction with Plato's Phaedrus and Soc. 6.133-134 testifies to it (273-280). Rather, these admittedly "tentative steps" in the book's final chapter add to the reader's thirst for Fletcher's interpretations as well as alternate ways of reading the 'novel' (265). This outcome is in keeping with the intentions revealed in the study's introductory chapter as noted above.

In sum, Apuleius' Platonism is a thoughtful and thought-provoking addition to the libraries of scholars from several fields, including ancient rhetoric, the ancient novel, and those who work on the dynamic between philosophy and literature. In the preface, Fletcher seeks the goodwill of readers of the Madauran's prose fiction: his "but let me tell you what this book is about" alludes to Met. 1.1 at ego tibi (vii). This playful gesture signals Fletcher's knowledge about his likely audience and his material. Throughout Apuleius' Platonism, Fletcher takes the Madauran's ambitions seriously. But this seriousness complements an apparent fondness for Apuleian creativity to achieve his stated goal of drawing attention to "the totality of Apuleius' achievement" and reorienting Apuleian studies. Fletcher's ideal reader is as scrupulous as the one addressed by the narrator in The Metamorphoses as his in-depth analyses sometimes require revisiting portions of each chapter to see how the arguments work together as a whole. But, if the reader pays attention to all this book offers, she will surely learn and enjoy.



Notes:


1.   John J. Winkler,Auctor and Actor: A Narratological Reading of Apuleius' The Golden Ass (University of California Press, 1985).
2.   V. Hunink, "Apology, Introduction" in S. Harrison, J. Hilton and V. Hunink, eds. Apuleius: Rhetorical Works (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 11.
3.   I here follow Fletcher in characterizing the treatise on demonology as a philosophical work instead of the editors who have translated it in the collection of Apuleius' rhetorical work cited above. This overlap is meaningful for Fletcher's point.

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