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Apuleius : Metamorphoses

Thomas Taylor : The Fable of Cupid and Psyche


lundi 20 juillet 2009

THE following well-known fable is extracted from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, a work replete with elegance and erudition, in which the marvellous and mystic are happily combined with historical precision, and the whole of which is composed in a style inimitably glowing and diffuse.

Its author was by birth an African, and, by profession, a Platonic philosopher. From the account which he gives of himself, it appears most probable that he lived in the times of Antoninus Pius, and his illustrious brothers. He seems to have been very much addicted to the study of magic, but has very ably cleared himself from the accusation of practising it, which was brought against him, in an Oration, the whole of which is still extant. However, though he was a man of extraordinary abilities, and held a distinguished place among the Platonic philosophers of that period, yet he was inferior to any one of that golden race of philosophers, of which the great Plotinus stands at the head. Of the truth of this observation few indeed of the present age are likely to be convinced, from that base prejudice which has taken such deep root in the minds of men of every description, through the declamations of those literary bullies, the verbal critics, on the one hand, and the fraudulent harangues of sophistical priests on the other. Posterity, however, will warmly patronise my assertion, and vindicate the honours of those venerable heroes, the latter Platonists, when such critics and such priests are covered with the shade ? of eternal oblivion.

The following beautiful fable, which was designed to represent the lapse of the human soul from the intelligible world to the earth, was certainly not invented by Apuleius ; for, as will appear in the course of the Introduction, it is evidently alluded to by Synesius, in his book On Dreams, and obscurely by Plato and Plotinus. It is clear, therefore, that Plato could not derive his allusion from Apuleius ; and as to Plotinus and Synesius, those who are at all acquainted with the writings of the Greek philosophers, well know that they never borrowed from Latin authors, from a just conviction that they had the sources of perfection among themselves.

I have said that this fable represented the lapse of the human soul ; of the truth of this the philosophical reader will be convinced by the following observations : In the first place, the gods, as I have elsewhere shown, are super-essential natures, from their profound union with the first cause, who is super-essential without any addition. But though the gods, through their summits or unities, transcend essence, yet their unities are participated either by intellect alone, or by intellect and soul, or by intellect, soul, and body ; from which participation the various orders of the gods are deduced. When, therefore, intellect, soul, and body are in conjunction suspended from this super-essential unity, which is the center flower or blossom of a divine nature, then the god from whom they are suspended is called a mundane god. In the next place, the common . parents of the human soul are the intellect and soul of the world ; but its proximate parents are the intellect and soul of the particular star about which it was originally distributed, and from which it first descends. In the third place, those powers of every mundane god, which are participated by the body suspended from his nature, are called mundane ; but those which are participated by his intellect, are called super-mundane ; and the soul, while subsisting in union with these super-mundane powers, is said to the in the intelligible world ; but when the wholly directs her attention to the .mundane powers of her god, she is said to descend from the intelligible world, even while subsisting in the Heavens.

Thus much being premised, let us proceed to the explanation of the fable ; Psyche, then, or soul, is described as transcendently beautiful ; and this indeed is true of every human soul, before it profoundly merges itself in the defiling folds of dark matter. In the next place, when Psyche is represented as descending from the summit of a lofty mountain into a beautiful valley, this signifies the decent of the soul from the intelligible world into a mundane condition of being, but yet without abandoning its establishment in the Heavens. Hence the palace which Psyche beholds in the valley is, with great propriety, said to be of a royal house, which was not raised by human, but by divine, hands and art. The gems, too, on which Psyche is said to have trod in every part of this palace, are evidently symbolical of the stars. Of this mundane, yet celestial, condition of being, the incorporeal voices which attend upon Psyche are likewise symbolical : for outward discourse is the last image of intellectual energy, according to which the soul alone operates in the intelligible world. voices, therefore, they signify an establishment subordinate to that which is intelligible, but so far as denudated of body, they also signify a condition of being superior to a terrene allotment.

Psyche, in this delightful situation is married to an invisible being, whom she alone recognises by her ears and hands. This, invisible husband proves afterwards to be Love ; that is to fay, the soul, while established in the Heavens, is united with pure desire, (for Love is the same with desire) or, in other words, is not fascinated with outward form. But in this beautiful palace she is attacked by the machinations of her two sisters, who endeavour to persuade her to explore the form of her unknown husband. The sisters, therefore, signify imagination and mature ; just in the same manner as reason is signified by Psyche. Their stratagems at length take effect, and Psyche beholds and falls in love with Love ; that is to fay, the rational part, through the incentives of fantasy and the vegetable power, becomes united with impure or terrene desire ; for vision is symbolical of union between the perceiver and thing perceived. In consequence of this illicit perception Cupid, or pure desire, flies away, and Psyche, or soul, is precipitated to earth. It is remarkable that Psyche, after falling to the ground, is represented as having « a stumbling and often reeling gait » for Plato, in the Phaedo, says, that the soul is drawn into body with a staggering motion.

After this commence the wanderings of Psyche, or soul, in search of Love, or pure desire, from whose embraces the is unhappily torn away. In the course of her journey the arrives at the temples of Ceres and Juno, whose aid the suppliantly implores. Her conduct, indeed, in this respect is highly becoming ; for Ceres comprehends in her essence Juno who is the fountain of souls ; and the safety of the soul arises from converting herself to the divine sources of her being.

In the next place Venus is represented desiring Mercury to proclaim, Psyche through all lands, as one of her female slaves that has fled from her service. It is likewise said that she gave him a small volume, in which the name of Psyche was written, and every other particular respecting her. Now I think it cannot be doubted but that Synesius alludes to this part of the fable in the following passage from his admirable book On Dreams [1] : « When the soul descends spontaneously to its former life, with mercenary views, it receives servitude as the reward of its mercenary labours. But this is the design of decent, that the soul may accomplish a certain servitude to the nature of the universe, prescribed by the laws of Adrastia, or inevitable fate. Hence when the soul is fascinated with material endowments, she is similarly affected to those who, though free born, are, for a certain time, hired by wages to employments, and in this condition captivated with the beauty of some female servant, determine to aft in a menial capacity under the mailer of their beloved object. Thus, in a similar manner, when we are profoundly delighted with external and corporeal goods, we confess that the nature of matter is beautiful, who marks our assent in her secret book ; and if, considering ourselves as free, we at any time determine to depart, she proclaims us deserters, endeavours to bring us back, and openly presenting her mystic volume to the view, apprehends us as fugitives from our mistress. Then, indeed, the soul particularly requires fortitude and divine assistance, as it is no trifling contest to abrogate the confession and compact which she made. Besides, in this case force will be employed ; for the material inflicters of punishments will then be roused to revenge by the decrees of fate against the rebels to her laws. »

Venus, however, must not be considered here as the nature of matter ; for though she is not the celestial Venus, but the offspring of Dione, yet she is that divine power which govern all the co-ordinations in the celestial world and the earth, binds them to each other, and perfects their generative progressions through a kindred conjunction. As the celestial Venus, therefore, separates the pure soul from generation, so she that proceeds from Dione binds the impure soul, as her legitimate slave, to a corporeal life.

After this follows an account of the difficult tasks which Psyche is obliged to execute by the commands of Venus ; all which are images of the mighty toils and anxious cares which the soul must necessarily endure after her lapse, in order to atone for her guilt, and recover her ancient residence in the intelligible world. In accomplishing the last of these labours, the is represented as forced to descend even to the dark regions of Hades ; by which it is evident that Psyche is the image of a soul that descends to the very extremity of things, or that makes the most extended progression before it returns. But Psyche, in returning from Hades, is oppressed with a profound sleep, through indiscreetly opening the box given her by Proserpine, in which fhe expected to find a portion of divine beauty, but met with nothing but an infernal Stygian sleep. This obscurely signifies that the soul, by considering a corporeal life as truly beautiful, passes into a profoundly dormant state : and it appears to me that both Plato and Plotinus allude to this part of our fable in the following passages, for the originals of which I refer the reader to my Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, p. 10. In the first place, then, Plato, in the seventh book of his Republic, observes, that « He who is not able, by the exercise of his reason, to define the idea .of the good separating it from all other objects, and piercing, as in a battle, through every kind of argument :’ endeavouring to confute, not according to opinion, but according to essence, and proceeding through all the dialectical energies with an unshaken reason, is in the present life funk in sleep, and conversant with the delusions of dreams ; and that before he is roused to a vigilant state, he will descend to Hades, and be overwhelmed with a sleep perfectly profound. » And Plotinus, in Ennead I. lib. 8, p. 80, says, « The death of the soul is, while merged, or baptised, as it were, in the present body, to descend into matter, an$ be filled with its impurity, and after departing from this body, to lie absorbed in its filth till it returns to a superior condition, and elevates its eye from the overwhelming mire. For to be plunged into matter is to descend to Hades, and fall asleep. »

Cupid, however, or pure desire, at length recovering his pristine vigour, rouses Psyche, or soul, from her deadly lethargy. In consequence of this, having accomplished her destined toils, she ascends to her native heaven, becomes lawfully united with Cupid, (for while descending her union might be called illegitimate) lives the life of the immortals ; and the natural result of this union with pure desire is pleasure or delight. And thus much for an explanation of the fable of Cupid and Psyche. For farther particulars respecting the lapse of the soul, fee my Introduction to, and Translation of Plotinus on the Decent of the Soul, and my Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries.

I only add, that the Paraphrase on the Speech of Diotima, the Hymns, some of which are illustrative of the Speech, and the other pieces of poetry, are added at the request of a gentleman, whose thirst after knowledge, endeavours to promote it, elegant taste, and friendship for the author, demand a panegyric executed in a more masterly manner at least, though not with greater sincerity, than by the following lines :

While some, the vilest of a puffing age,
With fulsome adulation stain the page,
And time’s irrevocable moments waste
In base compliance with degenerate taste,
Rise honest muse ; and to thy lib’ral lyre
Symphonious sing what friendship shall inspire
Say, shall the wretch, to gain devoted, claim
A place conspicuous ’midst the sons of fame ;
For ill-got wealth with dying accents giv’n,
To bribe the vengeance of impartial Heav’n ?
And shall not be who, ’midst the din of trade,
Has homage at the Muse’s altars paid ;
Astonish’d view’d the depth of Plato’s thought,
And strove to spread the truths sublime he taught—
Attention gain, and gratitude inspire,
And with his worth excite the poet’s fire ?
Yes, Phronimus, my muse, in lib’ral lays,
This friendly tribute to thy merit pays ;
And ardent hopes that ages yet unborn
May fee well pleas’d thy name her works adorn)

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[1See my History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology, at the end of Vol. II. of Proclus on Euclid, in which a translation of the greater part of this excellent piece is given.