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Apuleius: Biography and Apology

Portrait of Apuleius in a Roman coin

Portrait of Apuleius in a Roman coin

Our thanks to Professor Lahcen Oulhaj, the author of the explanation of Apuleius’ work Apopogia.
“When we look at the different people and nations today and their respective contributions, more or less positive and sometimes negative, to the building of civilisation and the heritage of mankind, we can only welcome the fact that we are, today, far from the situation that prevailed in the nineteenth century and that inspired murderous racist ideas.

The nineteenth century inspired a dangerous racist ideology for Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), who lived in Germany from the age of 14, where he adapted the equally racist ideas of Arthur Gobineau (1816-1855). This French author of the “Essay on the Inequality of Human Races” was a proponent of the superiority of the “Indo-European race“. Chamberlain embraced these ideas and adapted them into a Wagnerian pangermanist ideology, based on the superiority of the “Aryan race“. We know that this ideology was espoused by the criminal racist Adolf Hitler and put into practice in his “final solution“. We all know what happened next.
We can only welcome the present situation, characterised by the great diversity of people who enjoy the fruits of rapid growth in China, India and Africa, or who enjoy a high level of prosperity or well-being in Europe, America and elsewhere on our planet. The present situation in the world reinforces the antithesis of racism and Nazism, that of the equality of peoples and nations, that of the equality of all human beings in genius and intelligence, that of humanism. Nature or genetics play no role in determining the level of development or the contribution of each individual to the heritage of humanity. Only culture contributes, and culture is not a natural and immutable fact. Culture evolves and changes. Its change is, however, slow compared to material conditions which can undergo rapid upheavals, such as those we are witnessing today, all over the world. The dominant culture in a country at a certain time can make that country prosper and contribute positively to the prosperity of others, or it can make it contribute to the destruction of the people concerned, to their regression and to the destabilisation of others.

Cultural changes can be internal, as well as the result of external domination or influence. Of course, it is not only culture that changes. Everything changes, in fact, and it is difficult to speak even of a people since every day there are new births as well as disappearances.
Not only that, but every day we change as we grow older and become different. Yet we favour an invariability that is more imaginary than real when talking about the Moroccan, Egyptian or Greek peoples. In so doing, we fail to understand the situation in which each of these people finds itself today. We imagine that it is eternal and that it has always been so. Look at the Egyptians today. How can we understand that ancient Egypt produced a very great civilisation on all philosophical, architectural, legal, and even scientific and technical levels? How can we understand this at a time when Egypt in the twentieth century has produced one of the most destructive and regressive ideologies; that of the “Muslim Brotherhood”? How can we understand the economic and social situation in Greece today when ancient Greece produced the greatest philosophy of all time and invented Athenian democracy? Looking at the Amazigh (Berber) people of North Africa today, it is difficult to imagine that they had any past worth remembering. Yet this “people” contributed greatly to the blossoming of ancient Egyptian civilisation. Let us remember that the concept of pyramids was born in the Canary Islands and the High Atlas. Let’s remember that the Ancient Egyptians claimed in the Book of the Dead to have a “Moroccan” origin and that eternal life for them was located on the west bank of the Nile… Let’s remember that Alexander the Great went to the Oasis of Siwa where Berber is still spoken today, to consult the oracle of Amun. However, despite its present situation, which does not look like much, this Amazigh “people” has produced some very great men and women, of whom I want to celebrate today a worthy representative. I am referring to Apuleius, the great Apuleius, and his work entitled “Apology”.

Biography of Apuleius
Lucius Apuleius was born between 114 and 125, probably in 125, in Madaure, M’Daouruch, located in the Aures, 50 km south of Thagaste (present Souk Hras) where Aurelius Augustinus, aka Saint Augustine of Hippo (Bonne, Annaba), was born on 13 November 354. Mdaourouch was on the borders of Numidia, founded by Massinissa, and its capital was Cirta (Tisirt, present-day Constantine), and of Betulia (Igzuln Senhaja). Moreover, Apuleius’ parents were one Numidian and the other Agzul (Getule). His father was a magistrate in the Roman administration. His mother was Getule. Aupuleius began his studies in his home town, before continuing on in Carthage, and finally in Athens. He did the studies that students from great families did at the time, rhetoric in order to know how to speak well and therefore to think well; studies that led to the high Roman administration or to higher education and the equivalent of the lawyer’s profession today. But also towards the free activity of sophist or philosopher. He also studied philosophy, of course, and music, geometry, and poetry. He also studied law in Rome. He was interested in the science of Aristotle. He stayed in Athens and came back to Madaure. He visited Asia… He died at the age of 71 to 76 between 185 and 190.
Apuleius mastered perfectly the two languages of rhetoric and administration: Greek and Latin. In his lectures, he easily switched from one to the other. His mother tongue was none other than the ‘African’ language, as it was called at the time, i.e. the language spoken in Carthage, Carthaginian, or Punic-Berber. This language was closer to Berber than to Phoenician as one moves away from the 8th century B.C. (foundation of Carthage by the Phoenicians who came from Tir in today’s Lebanon, in the midst of Berber populations) and as one moves away, in space, from Carthage towards the Algerian-Libyan south (two days’ distance between Cirta and Thagaste, 173 km, Carthage-Thagaste: 588 km).

Apuleius acquired a great reputation as a writer and orator. He had great cultural passion and knowledge, and a very great erudition which he shows in his Apology. Humanity owes him a part of what it knows of Plato.

To show you the importance of Apuleius, I think it is enough to remind you that three statues were erected in his honour and during his lifetime: two in Greece and one in Carthage. Some people speak of the Diderot of Antiquity about Apuleius. Apuleius wrote “Asnus n Wurgh or the Metamorphoses”, The Florides, On the Doctrine of Plato, On the God of Socrates, the Apology, and he delivered several eulogies of proconsuls. Apuleius lived under Trajan, Adrian and Marcus Aurelius. He was a contemporary of Plutarch, Sextus, Stace, Pliny, Tacitus, Juvenal, Lucian, Florus, and another giant, Tertullian.

Presentation of “Apologia”

About Apuleius’ Apology, Jackie Pigeaud, who introduces the Belles Lettres edition, writes that it is indeed “the most whirling plea that Antiquity has transmitted to us. One of the most disturbing in any case, and the most complex”. In Apology Apuleius defends himself against the accusation of magic and poisoning, in a trial where he faces the death penalty, between the years 156 and 158.

The trial takes place in Sabrata, 76 km west of Tripoli, in ancient and modern Libya. The judge is Claudius Maximus, proconsul. Originally, Apuleius had gone to Sabrata to defend his wife Emilia Pudentilla against an action by the Granius brothers. Everything turned upside down in a few days and the lawyers of Emilianus, as representative of Pudens, younger brother of Pontanius (son of Pudentilla and son-in-law of Apuleius) accused Apuleius of having used magic to seduce Pudentilla and to seize her fortune. Sicinius Emilianus is the brother of Sicinius Amicus, deceased husband of Pudentilla and therefore uncle of Pudens and Pontanius.

Pontanius was a young pupil of Apuleius in Athens. The great machinator of the trial against Apuleius seems to be Rufinus, father-in-law of Pontanius, who on his deathbed instituted as heirs his mother Pudentilla and his brother Pudens.

Earlier, Apuleius was on his way to Alexandria, when he was detained in Oea (between Sabrata and Tripoli) by his former fellow student Pontanius who succeeded in making him marry his rich widowed mother Pudentilla. This marriage was detrimental to Emilianus who aspired to take back Pudentilla, his brother’s widow.

Henri Feuilleret published the work “Apulée, étude sur l’Afrique païenne au deuxième siècle” in Algiers in 1845. He devotes the first chapter to Apuleius, the teacher. The second chapter deals with Apuleius, the novelist. The third chapter deals with Apuleius, the orator. The fourth is devoted to Apuleius, the magician. The fifth deals with Apuleius, the devotee. The two chapters III and IV deal mainly with the Apology which interests us here. In these chapters, Feuilleret lists the charges brought by the family of Pudentilla against Apuleius.
The two main charges against Apuleius are:
  1. Legacy capture 
  2. magic accusation
The accessory accusations are numerous, let us retain ten of them:
1. Physical beauty;

2. Eloquence and double mastery of Greek and Latin;

3. Possession and use of a mirror;

4. Using toothpaste;

5. Charming a child;

6. Buying fish for magic purposes;

7. Being the cause of the murder of Pontianus;

8. Being an evil poet;

9. Being poor;

10. Being of mixed race, unclean or having dual allegiance.

Masterful advocacy

When Apuleius delivers his Apology or plea, he is about thirty years old. He is still young and handsome. And, above all, he is overwhelmingly erudite in the face of his poor and uneducated accusers.

Against the accusation of eloquence, he replies: “I, who have never had a thought that I was afraid to express aloud… I have always considered any fault as something that should not be spoken of“. Which is to say: “by nature, voice has been attributed to innocence, silence to crime“. In other words, Apuleius is eloquent because he is innocent.

Against the accusation of physical beauty, he says: “it would have been easy for me to answer, like Homer’s Alexander to Hector: “We must not reject the glorious gifts of the gods; these gifts which they themselves grant us, more than one would like them, who does not obtain them.” He adds that it is not forbidden for a philosopher to have a pleasant face. He gives the example of Pythagoras who was the first to take the name of philosopher and who was the most handsome man of his time.

He also cites Zeno of Velia as a handsome man and mentions other philosophers who combined their physical beauty with the dignity of their morals. In fact, he says, his intense work as an intellectual has greatly affected his physical appearance. Concerning the accusation of using toothpaste, he replies that his accusers are using one of his banter works in which it was a question of sending a character (Calpurianus), at his request, a powder made from Arabian plants, whereas he would have done better to use urine to clean his teeth. Apuleius takes exception to the accusation of cleaning the mouth, when the mouth, he says, is the organ that man uses most often, to give a kiss, to hold a conversation, to speak in public, to pray in a temple. The mouth is the vestibule of the soul, the door of the word, the rendezvous of ideas, he says. He sums up his defence by saying that “nothing is more unworthy of a free man of liberal morals than an unclean mouth”.

As for the accusation of having composed gallant verses and therefore of evil devices, Apuleius turns the accusation to ridicule by saying that his accusers seem to be saying: “Apuleius is a poet, therefore he is a magician”. He then invokes in his defence a large number of Greek poets who had composed gallant verses, and in particular Solon, author of a particularly lascivious verse, for the time. Apuleius then cites his incriminating verses and shows that they are far from being libidinous. He then apologised for treating such subjects in court. For him, one cannot “judge the moral value of a man by poetic amusement”. In support of this, he quotes the god Hadrian honouring his friend the poet Voconius with a tribute in verse: ‘Your verse was lascivious, but your soul was chaste’. Then he makes the clincher by referring to his master Plato and his ‘divine thought’ when he distinguishes between the two goddesses Venus, the popular Venus of vulgar love and the celestial Venus of noble love. He quotes the words of Afranius: “Love is for the wise; desire is for others”. Finally, addressing his accuser, he says to him: “If you want to know what is true, Emilianus, and if you are ever capable of understanding these things, it is not so much love that is at stake for the wise man, as reminiscence”. (A clear allusion to Plato’s theory) Concerning the matter of the mirror, Apuleius admits to possessing one. But, he says, “neither possession proves use, nor non-possession, the absence of use”. However, he points out, what he is accused of doing is to look into the mirror. But, he cries out, “what crime is there in knowing one’s image”? Then he turns to his accuser and says, “Do you not know that there is nothing more worthy of contemplation for a man than his own face?” The mirror, Plato tells us, is far superior to any sculpture, for the latter always ends up ceasing to resemble the one it is supposed to represent, whereas the image of the mirror always remains faithful to the one it represents. It changes faithfully according to any change in the latter.

Socrates, we learn from Apuleius, encouraged his disciples to look in the mirror to know themselves. A philosopher must always look in the mirror. He thus summons Plato, Seneca and others on the mirror, and then the whole physics of the mirror of Archimedes of Syracuse. On the subject of his poverty, Apuleius asserts that “poverty has always been an inseparable companion of philosophy”. In support of this, he cites a large number of Greek philosophers who were equally poor and who benefited greatly from their poverty. He then challenges the very meaning of poverty, arguing that “one is not poor when one renounces the superfluous”. And then he adds that even if he were poor, “what reason is there to resent a man for his poverty?” And he pushes the reasoning further by saying that he was flattered by the accusation that he had “a bag and a stick for all his wealth”. Apuleius declares all the same that he inherited “two million sesterces” from his father. He states that he reduced his wealth considerably by his long studies, his travels and the aid he gave to many friends. He says that he endowed the daughters of many masters as a token of his gratitude. He adds that he would not hesitate to spend all his wealth “to acquire a more valuable asset, in defiance of ‘my’ wealth”. Regarding the accusation of being ‘ethnically impure’, Apuleius says: ‘I have indeed declared, in a public lecture…, that I am half-numid and half-getula. But I do not see what is more dishonourable than for Cyrus the Elder to have been of mixed blood, half-Med and half-Persian. It is not the place of birth, but the character of each one that must be considered. He adds, for the products of the earth, one must consider the origin. But for the human soul, “this stranger who comes to stay in the body as a passing guest”, the origin of the body has nothing to do with the virtues and vices of the soul (Plato’s thought). Apuleius, ahead of his time by more than thirteen centuries, concludes: “Have we not seen in all ages all the races producing diverse geniuses, even though some of them seem to be distinguished more by stupidity or intelligence? He gives examples of wise people born among “thick” peoples and of fools born among wise peoples. Against the accusation of having bought certain species of fish, for the sake of brevity, let us simply say that Apuleius stated that he was extending and intended to correct the work done by Aristotle on zoological taxonomy. Obviously, the most delightful, the most erudite part of Apuleius’ Apology is reserved for the refutation of the two main accusations, and in particular that of magic, for which our great orator-philosopher incurred the death penalty. He begins by recalling the meaning of magician, Magus, priests among the Persians, holders of knowledge and the science of Zoroaster. He quotes from memory a long paragraph from Plato’s Alcibiades dialogue on this subject. He concludes that “magic is an art pleasing to the immortal gods”. Apuleius thus concludes that this accusation of magic is rather directed against all philosophers, and he is pleased to see himself “in such numerous and illustrious company”. Moreover, the ancillary charges seen above were attempting to support the main charge of magic. For this reason, Apuleius took his time to refute the charges of fish, bewitchment, seduction and poisoning, displaying his vast knowledge of zoology and medicine.

I do not intend to expose here all the richness of Apuleius’ plea in his “Apology” which fascinated me a lot and which I had an immense pleasure to read. I simply want to make you want to read Apuleius’ Apology to discover the immensity of his talent and his erudition. It seems to me unnecessary to specify that our hero was indeed acquitted at the end of the trial. What is important to me, therefore, are the lessons to be learned from it. Before sharing them with you, allow me to quote at length on the subject of Apuleius a passage from the letter numbered 138 from the bishop Saint Augustine addressed in the year 412 to Marcellinus, in response to his questions on Christianity:
“18. Who would not laugh to see our pagan opponents compare or even prefer Apollonius, Apuleius and other skilled magicians to Christ? It is more bearable that they compare these men to him than to their gods; for, it must be confessed, Apollonius was much better than that character laden with adulteries whom they call Jupiter. This is a fable, they say. But why praise again the licentious and sacrilegious prosperity of a republic which put similar infamies on the account of the gods, infamies not only recounted in books, but even represented on the theatres? There were more crimes there than deities; they took pleasure in it, the gods, when they should have punished their worshippers for putting up with these foul spectacles. But, it is said, they are not gods, those whom these lying fictions represent. Who are these gods, then, that are appeased by such turpitude? Because Christianity has made known the perversity and deceitfulness of those demons by which magic deceives the minds of men, because it has revealed this to the whole world, because it has established the difference between holy angels and evil spirits, because it has taught to distrust them and how to do so, it is said that Christianity is the enemy of the republic! As if, admitting that one could be happy on earth through the devils, it would not be better to prefer the most miserable condition to such happiness! But God did not want to leave us in doubt in this respect; at the time of the old covenant, whose prophetic shadows announced the new covenant, the people who worshipped the one true God and despised the false divinities, were filled with human goods. These temporal felicities granted to the chosen nation showed clearly that it is not the demons who dispense them, but God alone; this God whom the angels obey and whom the demons fear.
19. Apuleius, to speak only of him (because, Africans like us, we know him better), I say, although of an honest birth, of a fine education and of great eloquence, could never, with all its magic, to rise to sovereignty or even to any share of power in the republic. Will we believe that Apuleius professed a philosopher’s disdain for dignities, he who, pontiff of his province, attached so much importance to giving public games and to equipping those who, in these games, had to fight against beasts? ; he who, wanting to obtain a statue in the city of Oéa, where his wife was from, attacked in a lawsuit the bad dispositions of a certain number of citizens, and took all his care not to deprive of his plea the posterity? This magician was therefore all he could do in terms of temporal happiness; and if he did not rise higher, it was not for lack of goodwill. Moreover, he defended himself very eloquently against those who attributed the crime of magic to him. I also admire the fact that his panegyrists, publishing I don’t know what miracles they attribute to him, try to bear witness against him. But let them see once and for all if it is indeed the truth that they themselves are telling us, and if Apuleius is lying in his protests. Let those who are occupied with magic in order to find earthly happiness or for the purpose of guilty curiosity, or who, while they are away from it, speak with dangerous admiration of the alleged power of this art, think of our David, from a shepherd who became a king, without the help of anything of the kind; Scripture has left us ignorant of either his faults or his merits, in order to teach us how not to offend God and how to appease Him after having offended Him. “I have deliberately chosen this passage from Saint Augustine, which shows how much the Berber population held Apuleius in high esteem, more than two centuries after his death. Saint Augustine himself held him in high esteem and considered him a worthy representative of Plato’s thought. This is evidenced by the long analysis he makes, in books 8 and 9 of “The City of God”, of the “demonology” developed by Apuleius in his treatise “Of the God of Socrates”.

Géraldine Hertz writes the following: “The Apology becomes the post-mortem meeting place of venerable shadows, most of whom belong to the prestigious past of Greek philosophy. It is therefore the philosophers who will interest us in the first place, whom Apuleius calls “my ancestors”. Géraldine Hertz then raises the question of whether Apuleius instrumentalises the illustrious Greek philosophers or whether he celebrates them in a disinterested manner. The question does not arise for me. Apuleius of course celebrates them in a self-interested way since he is playing for big money. But, just as each one of them, in order to defend himself before a Berber “customary” court, would bring his own, his “Imggila” to be “Inigan”, his witnesses and to take the oath of his innocence, Apuleius summoned “his” philosopher elders, since he himself is a philosopher and nothing else. Apuleius has summoned to his trial to make them almost co-accused (“against my family in particular and (…) against philosophers in general”) both Plato, Socrates and Aristotle as well as Protagoras, Diogenes, Zeno, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus, Epimenides, Pythagoras, Empedocles, and many other Greek philosophers. Apuleius disregards the fact that he is Numido-Getulus, an African in general, to emphasise only his philosophy. The memory he mobilises to defend himself is human, not ethnic, tribal or ‘racial’. It is therefore a lesson in humanism that must be welcomed here.

Apuleius deserves a vibrant celebration. He deserves to have a fourth statue erected to him. Apuleius and many other great philosophers, thinkers, rhetors and theologians of ancient North Africa deserve to be known to the younger generation, to be celebrated and inspired by their greatness and nobility. Our country, Morocco, has recognised in its 2011 constitution the plurality and diversity of the components of our identity and has recognised two official languages while committing itself to preserving all the existing languages and expressions in our country and to opening up to living foreign languages. This implies a rewriting of the country’s official history and a reconsideration of our collective memory, which should cease to be mutilating and one-dimensional, in order to be able to reconcile ourselves with a whole part of our collective memory that has been obscured until now. This is the glorious past of North Africa, where this region of the world was first part of the great North Africa including Egypt, then of Greece to contribute from Cyrenaica and Alexandria to the development of Greek and Hellenic civilisation, and finally of the Roman Empire to participate in the forefront of the Empire and the Catholic Papacy. It should be remembered that the African, the Berber Augustine of Hippo, was the father of the Catholic Church, whose theological thought reigned in Christianity from his century, the fourth, until the advent of the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, i.e. almost a millennium!

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