Apuleius and Stoicism in Cupid and Psyche

In the last post, I made the case that the canonical depiction of Jesus’ psychological profile breaks hard and fast with textbook Stoicism. Critical responses of Stoic ethics also appear outside Christian circles, however. One of my personal favorites comes from Apuleius, the second-century Platonist and better known as the author of the Golden Ass. Through one of the subplots in the Golden Ass, specifically the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Apuleius posits certain moral (and particularly psychological) ideals that do not conform with Stoicism. In fact, to some extent, one can read the overarching myth as a partial repudiation of the Stoa. (Readers should note that what I write below presumes a general familiarity with Cupid and Psyche particularly and the Golden Ass broadly.)

For one theme, Apuleius’ treatment of suicide marks an especially notable break with Stoicism. Suicide features throughout not only the Cupid and Psyche narration but through much of the Golden Ass as a whole. According to Andreas Michalopoulos, the parallel between Psyche’s attempted suicides and Lucius’ own should not be overlooked, as it is “proof that the embedded narrative of Cupid and Psyche is closely connected with and reflects the main story of Lucius.”[1] With the Cupid and Psyche myth, E. J. Kenney remarks that, in a lesser author, we might attribute the apparent overuse of the suicide motif to “poverty of invention” or “gratuitous satire.”[2] Considering Apuleius’ portrayals of suicide, Michalopoulos ultimately concludes that Apuleius actually decides against the traditional, negative Platonic and Aristotelian attitudes to suicide for something more akin to the (pro-suicide?) Stoic perspective of Seneca and Epictetus.[3] Here, one can agree with Michalopoulos’ instincts, in that it is at least difficult to read these ubiquitous suicide attempts without thinking of the Stoics. In point of fact, however, at least in the Cupid and Psyche story, Apuleius seems to intentionally point away from the Stoic attitude. In all, Psyche has five different suicidal moments in all: she nearly stabs herself with the razor intended for Cupid; she throws herself into a river; she plans to die by jumping into waterfall; she hastens to an expected death before fetching Stygian water, presumably to throw herself from the mountain; she tries to reach the underworld by falling from the loquacious tower.[4] Of course, none of these succeed.

Particularly in the context of her last three attempts as she is tormented by her Venus, Psyche generally meets the Stoic criteria for a justifiable suicide. The sage would find no fault with a suicide used to escape from slavery and tyranny of her mother-in-law-cum-slave-mistress (and I’ll pass over the ready-made joke about in-laws here). Nevertheless, Fate, the gods, and Nature consistently push back against Psyche’s suicidal efforts. The unwilling razor flies from her hand. The river refuses to drown her. The reed and the tower both dissuade her. By the Stoic estimation, Psyche has just cause for suicide, but the universe itself seems contrived to prevent Psyche from harming herself, as if to turn the Stoic values on their head, since the heart of the Stoic ethic is to live in accord with the divine Nature.

The deeper or perhaps more on-the-nose obvious break with Stoicism, however, comes in the way Apuleius concludes the story. Cupid and Psyche does not end like one of the Senecan tragedies, with the mortal Psyche overpowered and ultimately destroyed by the crushing passions of Venus and Cupid. Instead, she is reconciled to Cupid, made into a goddess, and gives birth to Voluptas: Pleasure. On these points, Apuleius’ Platonic orientation shines through most clearly. As Kenney observes, the divine force that ultimately conquers in the story is Amor Caelestis, overcoming the main antagonist Venus Vulgaris.[5] While this might not qualify as a directly “anti-Stoic” plot resolution in itself, the ending hardly constitutes a vindication of Stoic ideals. As Sandbach writes, for the Stoic “Happiness depends on what is entirely a man’s own doing, the operation of his mind: if he judges correctly and holds steadfastly to the truth he will be a perfect being, whom misfortune may strike but will never harm.”[6] Yet Psyche does not achieve divination through autarkeia or apatheia. In fact, the heroine has little noticeable development, and to the story’s end, Psyche needs saving, requiring a deus ex machina from a deadly sleep that she had brought upon herself. Cupid himself puts matters to right, not Psyche.

Moreover, the last lines of the story also seem pointedly incongruent with Stoicism: Sic rite Psyche convenit in manum Cupidinis et nascitur illis maturo partu filia, quam Voluptatem nominamus: Psyche (the Soul) becomes pregnant from Love/Desire with Pleasure. Recall that in Stoicism, pleasure “was defined as an irrational expansion of the psyche caused by the supposed presence of something good.”[7] And here in the myth, Voluptas does indeed create an “expansion” of the pregnant Psyche, caused by Cupid. But pleasure ultimately represents yet another experience that the Stoic sage discounts. For this myth, however, pleasure comes as the final reward and telos, the proper culmination of the relationship of the soul and divine love, not a discountable and irrational affection.

To conclude by way of sidebar, I suspect C. S. Lewis also discerned Apuleius’ critique of Stoicism. In his underappreciated Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, the character of “the Fox” pretty clearly depicts a Stoic philosopher. Although the Fox serves as an amiable teacher to the narrator Orual, the story also strongly implies his philosophy is incomplete, while at points revealing his outwardly induration toward the world’s sorrows to be a façade.  

  1. Andreas N. Michalopoulos, “Lucius’ Suicide Attempts in Apuleius’ ‘Metamorphoses,’” The Classical Quarterly 52, no. 2 (2002), 545.

  2. E. J. Kenney, introduction to Cupid & Psyche, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 19.

  3. Michalopoulos, 547.
  4. Compare Psyche’s various suicide attempts to Seneca’s famous passage from De Ira 3.15: “In any kind of slavery we shall show that there is a way to freedom. . . . Wherever you look there is an end to your ills. Do you see that precipice? Down there is the way to freedom. Do you see that sea, that river, that well? Freedom sits there below. Do you see that little withered, barren tree? Freedom hangs from its branches. Do you see your throat, your gullet, your heart? They are ways of escape from servitude” (Translation from Sandbach, 51). Interestingly, Psyche contemplates at least three of the methods suggested by Seneca.
  5. Kenney, 20.
  6. Sandbach, 68.
  7. Sandbach, 62.


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