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Inferior Characters in “The Golden Age” by Apuleius Essay

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2022


The Golden Ass is one of the preserved ancient Roman novels that was written by Apuleius, the publication date of which remains unknown today. This work is also recognized as metamorphoses that describe the outcomes of human curiosity and the desire to practice something that is poorly acknowledged and understood. On the one hand, the story is full of comedy elements and absurd ideas about human life and relationships. On the other hand, The Golden Ass could be identified as a drama, the main point of which is to be lost and unprotected in regard to external dangers and unpredictability. The connection, as well as distinction, between drama, tragedy, and comedy in ancient literature is hard to define, but it cannot be neglected. Aristotle is a famous Greek philosopher whose work helps to comprehend the essence of tragedy and comedy. According to Aristotle (as cited in Trivigno 70), mature comedy is a possibility of moving away from invective and dramatizing ridiculous actions. To be ridiculous means to be inferior, and comedy is used to represent the worse characteristics in a laughable way.

In this paper, attention will be paid to Aristotle’s position about ridiculous situations that happen to humans in order to reveal their best and worst qualities. The Golden Ass is hardly a real-life story, but it contains a number of significant lessons. It is based on several Greek and Roman myths to underline the worth of cultural and religious beliefs in society. Apuleius focuses on the concepts of love, friendship, desire, and curiosity to prove their appropriateness in the context of ancient literature. In his turn, Aristotle uses ethical and moral principles to adjust Apuleius’ approach and prove the main characters of the novel, Lucius and Socrates, as interiors. In The Golden Ass, the behaviors of Lucius and Socrates are ridiculous due to the impossibility of coping with their curiosity and pleasure but prioritizing sexual satisfaction, basic human needs, and the overwhelming power of knowledge.

Aristotle’s Position

Before comparing the main characters in Apuleius’ novel, one should properly investigate the aspects of comedy and tragedy in order to interpret the chosen human behaviors in a proper context. Aristotle describes comedy as “an imitation of those who are inferior” with “something shameful and distorted but painless” in their behaviors (as cited in Trivigno 69). The ridiculous has such synonyms as the ugly or inferior or, in general, something that ordinary people consider as wrong or bad. To support this position, Plato’s discussion about the ridiculous as “a certain kind of badness,” in terms of which a mixed feeling of pleasure and pain is hard to understand, can be used (6). The combination of positive and negative feelings in one soul is never easy, but it is an integral part of human life where comedic emotions are closely intertwined with tragic actions. Therefore, the inferior may be explained as mistakes people make due to their unawareness or the desire to know more.

Using the opinions of ancient philosophers and writers, the ridiculous concept is closely related to the incongruity of human behaviors, thoughts, or decisions. When a person looks or sounds ridiculous, other people consider him or her as inferior because of the possibility to stay superior. However, as soon as an individual is defined as ridiculous, it is a sign that some action is made, and some change is observed. Aristotle says that to be ridiculous means to do ridiculous things (as cited in Trivigno 70). It is the form of progress and development where ridiculous people discover something new compared to those who remain consistent. Such an achievement cannot be definitely good or bad but different from the already established norms and standards. Aristotle does not want to use the ridiculous element as something negative. Its presence in comedy becomes to be a good opportunity to prove that low characters help the reader to avoid similar mistakes and learn how to achieve improvement. Adding several lessons can make a humorous story a memorable masterpiece.

The Golden Ass’ Summary

The Golden Ass consists of eleven books where the stories of the main character, Lucius, are presented. Lucius is also the narrator of the novel whose life is full of transformations, being ridiculous, unreal, evidence-based, and educative at the same time. The narration is based on his adventure that begins from the decision to visit Thessaly, the homeland of his family on the mother’s side (Apuleius 1). Before Lucius reaches Milo, his wealthy friend, he gets a chance to learn the story of Socrates. It turns out to be a crucial moment because his curiosity about magic in human life is born. Lucius defines himself as “the type which likes to know about everything, or at least about most things” (Apuleius 2). Then, he meets Milo’s family, including his wife, Pamphile, and their servant, Photos. Both women are witches, which makes Lucius intrigued by their actions, and the latter turns him into an ass accidentally.

Like an ass, Lucius is stolen by thieves and continues his adventures, learning new myths and stories about Psyche and Cupid, the jealous wife, unreliable lovers, and the worth of belief. There are many opinions and attitudes toward the idea of turning a man into an ass, including the dependence on humans, the possibility of observation, and the inability to make personal decisions. The main idea of The Golden Ass is the transformation of the character from a greedy for knowledge man who is ready to have multiple sexual affairs to a devoted initiate on a goddess. The choice of this novel for the analysis of the ridiculous in ancient literature is explained by the combination of unreal events like becoming from a man to an ass for understanding the truth. Instead of supporting humans in their desire to expand their knowledge and practice, the author shows how human passion makes them ridiculous and inferior. People want to believe that their progress is the only correct direction, neglecting their mistakes and the importance of such qualities and virtues as forgiveness, support, compassion, and trust.

Lucius vs. Socrates as Ridiculous Characters

In The Golden Ass, there are many characters with their stories, feelings, and goals. Their comparison is used not to identify their weaknesses, mistakes, or concerns but to underline their struggles and opportunities. In addition to the attempts of the narrator, Lucius, to discover the world of magic and become a part of a show, the analysis of Socrates’ actions may be developed for several purposes. Despite the fact that Socrates and Lucius live in different periods and never meet, their destinies have many things in common. Both of them strive for discoveries and recognition and prefer participating in shows and sexual intercourses to ordinary family life. However, compared to Socrates, who is introduced as a passive character and becomes a victim of witchcraft accidentally, Lucius is an active character who understands and wants to observe the possible outcomes of magic. In fact, there are aspects of Lucius and Socrates’ traits to compare and use as evidence for being ridiculous or inferior, including their initial enthusiasm, attitudes to the world around them, and reactions.

Initial Enthusiasm of the Characters in the Golden Age

In the story under analysis, curiosity is one of the integral themes discussed from multiple perspectives. During the first and second books, curiosity is introduced as the explanation to human actions, either rational or irrational. It is the reason for Lucius to get involved in new strange relationships. He admits that he is disposed to curiosity for a long period of time (Apuleius 21). He does not want to pay attention to the potential threat of his desire. Besides, the character underlines that “as soon as I hear mention of the art of magic which I had always prayed for… I was eager even without the compulsion to undergo such schooling willingly” (Apuleius 21). The definition that Aristotle gives to the ridiculous states that it is a kind of mistake. Lucius is ridiculous due to his mistaken belief that he is ready to “pay a heavy price” for “headlong in those murky depths” (Apuleius 21). People, who observe such a passion, feel superior to the character because they find many other things more important for their recognition.

In the case of Socrates, he is not interested in magic as it is but becomes involved in magic affairs by chance. His story begins when he falls “into this misfortune through seeking a diversion at a celebrated gladiatorial show” (Apuleius 5). Compared to Lucius, who leaves home in order to visit his family’s native land, Socrates goes away without any specific purpose, just to find something more interesting than family life. His curiosity has no value and no wisdom and, as a result, becomes a dangerous misery. His actions were not painful or destructive by shameless and distorted, which makes Socrates ridiculous as per Aristotle’s arguments.

Attitudes Toward Events and People

To prove that both characters are inferior despite their different attitudes toward the situations they get themselves into, their beliefs and explanations may be identified. For example, Lucius is “all agog to witness magic from close up” (Apuleius 50). Even when Photos says that she is able to put his wish before her “personal danger” to arrange what Lucius seeks (Apuleius 51). Being poorly aware of the outcomes of supernatural rites, Lucius fails to listen to the precautions of experienced people. He makes a mistake that soon results in one of the most dramatic metamorphoses in his life when he becomes an ass. Magic is unpredictable, and the majority of people know this simple but true fact. Lucius is also informed but he does not use his knowledge for protection but for the possibility of investigating the unknown world closely. In this case, he is not only ridiculous but stupid, with no sense of self-preservation.

Compared to Lucius, the mistake of Socrates is not about his curiosity but about his unwillingness to understand his actions. As soon as Aristomenes hears from Socrates that the latter accepts the services of Meroë (a witch) and sleeps with her, he criticizes everything. It sounds morally and ethically unacceptable to “put the pleasures of sex and a leather-skinned whore before your home and children” (Apuleius 5). As soon as it is immoral for one person, it becomes inferior to society. If Lucius has no feeling of fear or caution and makes a mistake, Socrates has no feeling of shame. Both of them are ridiculous in their attitudes toward their lives and the lives and feelings of their family members. Magic always has its price, either visible or invisible, either high or low.

Outcomes and Consequences of Ridiculous Behaviors

Focusing on the ways in which Lucius and Socrates are inferior, it is possible to investigate the outcomes and lessons these characters experience. At the end of the book, Lucius becomes the follower of Isis because this goddess saves his human life. The idea of Apuleius’ metamorphoses is to show how ruthless curiosity could be. Lucius did not want to become an ass, but he did want to know how magic works. His transformation was voluntary but unexpected, and his life was interesting but humiliating. These contradictions are present in human life, and millions of people are ready to deal with them, using their knowledge and experience. In Lucius’ case, it is hard to cope with all these challenges because a human mind is in an animal body. The character understands his mistakes and wrong judgments and accepts the help of the goddess in order to get another chance and enrich his life by means of safe faith.

Socrates does not find it necessary to work on his mistakes and do something with his failures. Even Aristomenes (who has no history of hurting witches’ feelings) wants to move far away from the place where dangerous witchcraft could influence their lives. Socrates, on the other hand, falls asleep and snores after several drinks, without a single thought that something bad could happen again (Apuleius 7). His end is tragic and terrible and has nothing in common with comedy as hunger and thirst feel his last minutes of life because of the dark magic of the witches. This story seems unreal, and the companion of Aristomenes describes it as “a taller story… a more stupid one than this tissue of lies” (Apuleius 7). However, Socrates loses his life because of being ridiculous and neglecting social norms, and Lucius follows his example, believing that “nothing impossible” makes him ridiculous in his blind and fearless faith.


In general, after reading The Golden Ass, the concept of the ridiculous or inferior developed by Aristotle could gain a new meaning and impact on the reader. The characters of the novel demonstrate how shameless behaviors may be developed within different people: curiosity for the unknown (Lucius) and for action and shows (Socrates). Their stories have actually nothing in common, but the professionalism of Apuleius unites them and creates a solid background for comparison. Both characters are motivated to change something in their lives and avoid routine events. They are also become the victims of dark magic and punished for searching into something that is forbidden and unacceptable but achieves different outcomes (Lucius’ activity saves him, and Socrates’ passivity destroys him). Finally, these two characters are ridiculous or inferior because, following the recommendations of Aristotle, they prefer irrational decisions and actions to commonly accepted rules and standards. However, in both cases, the ridiculous does not mean something bad or wrong. These stories prove that people have a tendency of making mistakes, while someone is able to learn from them and enjoy positive results.

Works Cited

Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Translated by P.G. Walsh, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Plato. “From Philebus (c. 360-354 B.C.E.) Numbers 47-50.” Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Theory of Comedy, edited by Paul Lauter, Doubleday & Company, 1964, pp. 5-8.

Trivigno, Franco V. “Was phthonos a comedic emotion for Aristotle? On the pleasure and moral psychology of laughter.” The Poetics in its Aristotelian Context, edited by Pierre Destrée, Malcolm Heath, and Dana L. Munteanu, Routledge, 2020, pp. 66-87.

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