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themes from “The Golden Ass”

March 13, 2012

Two weeks ago, I read Lucius Apuleius’s novel, The Golden Ass, for the first time.  It had been selected as our February book for the Classic Literature Book Club I facilitate.  Half our group didn’t finish it, half of them didn’t read it, and of those that read it, half of them liked it half as much as they enjoyed fantasy, but the others held half-formed opinions because they’d just finished reading a half-hour before our meeting.

However, in spite of my getting excited about the relevance of these themes and monopolizing almost half the discussion, Apuleius’s story did raise a lot of themes and questions for our discussion.  Some of those themes were:

  • the crazy fantasy of the plot: a guy narrowly escapes being framed for Socrates death at the hand of a witch, only to find himself accidentally turned into a donkey by the servant girl
  • the bawdiness of the story
  • the overt pagan sexuality and its dehumanizing effects on people
  • the awful way women and animals were treated
  • the similarities between the goddess worship procession and processions worshiping the virgin Mary in Roman Catholic countries
  • the stark difference between the mystery religion the protagonist joins and the public nature of biblical Christianity (gnostic cults have secret ceremonies only for the eyes of the initiated, but biblically defined Christianity is public for anyone who cares to see)
  • whether worshiping the goddess Isis (which the main character ends up becoming one of her followers) would result in treating women better or not
  • whether Apuleius wrote the story as commentary on disintegrating society around him

On a gut-level, I found much of Apuleius’s depiction of ancient Roman culture repulsive.  I believe that’s because our modern western ideals of universal human rights, the equal personhood, digity, and worth of women and men, humane treatment of animals, and the freedom of individuals (i.e. we’re not bound by Fate as the story assumed) flow from a culture that’s been deeply shaped by biblical Christianity and the public death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the living one.

Our culture is far from perfect, full of injustices, bigotry, and even slavery today, but the difference is that its also been shaped by generation after generation of people who believe all things will one day be made new, who believe that in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the downpayment has been made.  That means when we see evil in our own culture, we don’t despair or passively accept it as from the Fates: we stand against it and fight for good, knowing that individuals matter and can bring about real change.  Even secular, atheistic westerners still hold to the dignity of individuals, to universal human rights, and to our culture’s self-reflection and democratic processes for societal change and reform.

Other cultures have plenty of good, brilliant people, but their religious worldviews work against them, keeping them from standing for dignity, worth, and compassion for others. In Hindu belief, if all suffering is illusion, why work to alleviate someone’s suffering?–its just their karma.  If all reality is one as many Asia religions claim, why work to bring change to something that isn’t really differentiated at all?  In African and other tribal religions where spirits inhabit and rule everything, what right would people have to work for justice or equal human rights, when even the gods are capricious and might makes right?  In Islam’s Koran, how can there possibly be a basis for universal human rights when a woman’s testimony in court only counts for half of a man’s testimony (Qur’an 2:282), and non Muslims are viewed as infidels to be subjugated by the sword if they don’t convert to Islam (Qur’an 9:5)?

More than anything else, The Golden Ass left me considering the roots of our culture, which has beauty and is humane in ways that Roman culture was not.  Why do we have a culture that values individuals, yet cares for the poor? that generates wealth on a massive scale, yet gives it away to the rest of the world ever time natural disaster strikes or mankind’s wars create refugees?  Why are the rescue dogs Swiss? the international nonprofits such as World Vision, OxFam, the Red Cross, or International Justice Mission so deeply rooted in the UK and US?  What is it about cultures shaped by the West that create surplus wealth and the compassion to give it in disaster relief, development aid, or humanitarian assistance?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Morgan Moore permalink
    September 17, 2012 5:01 pm

    Can I ask you a quick question, what are the 3 main themes in the book The Golden Ass? I need to know as soon as possible if I can! Thank you!

  2. sean permalink
    November 19, 2013 7:33 pm

    Aristomenes did not get turned into a Donkey, Lucius did. The story about Socrates was told by Aristomenes to Lucius. Did you even read the book?

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