The moral philosopher Peter Singer begs to differ. A Princeton professor and founder of the animal rights movement in the 1970s, Singer believes that his campaign to demonstrate the ethical rights of nonhumans can find powerful support in an unlikely source: The Golden Ass, the only ancient Roman novel to survive in its entirety, written by the philosopher and lawyer Apuleius sometime in the second century CE.
A Numidian living under Roman control in northern Africa, Apuleius penned works ranging from Platonic treatises to a legal speech defending himself against charges of sorcery. His novel, whose exact date of composition remains uncertain, offers a first-person account of the misadventures of Lucius, a nobleman whose irrepressible inquisitiveness (curiositas in Latin) sparks a desire to experience magic firsthand during his travels around Greece and Egypt. Discovering that Pamphile, his hostess in Thessaly, is a sorceress, Lucius persuades the slave-girl Fotis to reveal to him Pamphile’s magical secrets. When a spell meant to turn him into a bird goes awry because of Fotis’s error, however, the protagonist finds himself transformed instead into an ass. His servitude as a beast of burden lasts until the goddess Isis restores him to human form by helping him eat the roses that undo the sorcery. Singer’s new edition of the text — featuring an elegant English translation by Classics professor Ellen Finkelpearl — argues that Apuleius “has written a work displaying remarkable empathy for the sufferings of the oppressed and underprivileged, whether they are slaves, an impoverished market gardener mistreated by a Roman soldier, or a donkey.”
Singer’s argument is a contentious one, but Singer is no stranger to controversy. A rare university professor hailed as a rock star by devoted fans and denounced as a murderer by crowds of furious protesters, Singer has earned a reputation as one of the most polarizing public intellectuals of the 21st century. His controversial views on euthanasia, infanticide, and disability have stirred up widespread, vehement opposition. (Singer argues that the right to life depends on the ability to experience pleasure and pain and to have preferences — a formulation that excludes vulnerable groups like the severely disabled or ill, as well as newborn babies.) Singer’s animal rights work, by contrast, has garnered far-reaching acclaim. His edition of Apuleius, he tells us, serves as an argument in favor of animal rights, an extension, in novelistic form, of his philosophical advocacy. By the end of the book, Singer contends, we should recognize the cruelty of harming animals because Lucius in donkey form demonstrates a capacity for anguish, remorse, and hope. Singer’s editorial emendations helpfully present The Golden Ass not merely as a set of whimsical, raunchy tales but rather as a serious meditation on powerlessness, empathy, and the limitations of human control. But they also don’t address some of the ways in which the protagonist might not internalize fully the lessons that Singer attempts to impart to his readers.
Although now relatively unknown outside the field of Classics, Apuleius’s tale enjoyed a broad range of literary and philosophical afterlives. In 1517, Machiavelli wrote an updated (and unfinished) version of the poem entitled L’Asino D’Oro (The Golden Ass) that reworks Apuleius as a moralizing allegory. Shakespeare likely drew in part on Apuleius’s novel, filtered through William Adlington’s popular 1566 translation, when crafting Bottom’s asinine transformation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Platonic allegory of Cupid and Psyche that spans three books of The Golden Ass helped inspire the French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s La Belle et la Bête (1740), retold in classic films by Jean Cocteau and Disney. In the 20th century, the novel was translated into English at least seven times, including by Robert Graves in 1950; C. S. Lewis, in his post-Narnia phase, reworked Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche myth in his final novel, Till We Have Faces (1956), in order to probe questions of divine justice and human redemption in characteristically Christianizing fashion.
Largely glossing over Platonic philosophy, Singer’s version of the text takes Apuleius in a different direction. When Classicists talk about producing an edition of an ancient work, they mean that they’ve painstakingly combed through manuscript evidence to reach a version of the text that represents their best reconstruction of what an ancient author actually wrote. Singer, by contrast, uses “edition” to mean something closer to “adaptation.” He doesn’t pretend to excavate Apuleius’s text but rather acknowledges his radical revisions. In his view, the constant digressions characteristic of “Milesian tales” like The Golden Ass distract from the novel’s examination of human-animal relationships. So, Singer excises nearly all of them. The pared-down version that results, clocking in at roughly half the length of the original, claims to allow “the central narrative to flow as a tale of extraordinary adventures should,” and to bring what Singer sees as the novel’s didactic message to the surface. By transforming the ancient text, Singer suggests, we can arrive at its philosophical center.
Although Singer’s assertion of the irrelevance of the inset stories is an idiosyncratic one — scholars widely recognize that the digressions comment on the main action — his focus on the central plot opens some illuminating new perspectives. For that target audience of non-specialist readers who might hesitate to apply the term “novel” to ancient literature, Singer’s abridged version accentuates the text’s novelistic elements: by stripping other narrative voices, he crafts a version in which Lucius’s subjectivity permeates nearly every scene, his interiority on full display. The translation itself shrewdly amplifies Singer’s assertions of the text’s 21st-century concerns. In a technique reminiscent of Emily Wilson’s 2017 version of the Odyssey, Finkelpearl includes pointedly anachronistic phrases in her English rendering: a visitor who urges a band of robbers to maximize the efficiency of their operation is a “fiscal conservative,” for example, while a frustrated baker accuses his brother of pilfering leftovers for his “freedom fund.” These stylistic decisions also capture nicely the highly allusive quality of Apuleius’s Latin. (As with any translation, however, readers will doubtless quibble with a few specific choices; I personally found it difficult to read that Lucius’s companions, after a long day, engaged in “self-care” without conjuring specifically modern anxieties about burnout and mental health that don’t fully apply.)
From a literary-historical perspective, though, perhaps the edition’s main achievement is its argument for the novel’s thematic unity. Classics scholars often note the oddity of the abrupt pivot that sets up the novel’s sudden resolution: after 10 books that recount the bumbling ass’s amusing misadventures, the novel veers into the strait-laced realm of religious conversion, recounting the protagonist’s sudden re-transformation and entry into Isis’s mystery cult. Singer’s editorial choices, including a preface that urges readers to attend to the torments that Lucius endures as a donkey, help bridge the gap between the “before” and “after” of his return to human form, demonstrating that questions of empathy, disempowerment, and community occupy Lucius’s attention throughout. In some ways, however, Lucius seems to remain a more complex figure than the tidy didactic thrust of this edition allows. Even after Lucius’s metamorphosis and re-transformation, we’re left to wonder how much he has actually changed.
What does it mean to undergo a metamorphosis? Although a shift in physical form can dramatize a change in identity, Latin literature teems with apparent transformations that function instead as sites of radical self-revelation. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a key influence on Apuleius, often recounts this type of transformation, as in the story of Lycaon, a violent, bloodthirsty king who attempts to hunt down and kill the god Jupiter — disguised as a revered guest — and who irreverently slaughters a sacrificial victim. Jupiter punishes him by turning him into a wolf, outwardly confirming his inner animalistic nature as an aggressive alpha predator. (A similar metamorphic logic underlies parts of Dante’s Inferno, where, as scholars have observed, the transformations of punished sinners to reflect their crimes reveals the evil natures they harbored all along.) Of the scenes that Singer includes here, the example par excellence of transformation as self-revelation is Thrasyleon, a beast-like bandit who undergoes a mock transformation of sorts by disguising himself as a bear, in a ploy to frighten and rob a local family. Thrasyleon’s animalistic act proves effortless — he “had totally become a beast” and “[a]s long as he still breathed, he maintained the role he had assumed” — in part because he possesses a bear-like disposition even while human. A violent hunter, he viciously attacks his victims and snatches what’s theirs; the bear costume merely gives him license to indulge fully in his nature. His name confirms his bestial character: Thrasyleon, in Greek, means “bold lion.”
From the outset, Apuleius hints that Lucius’s metamorphosis might invite more continuity than change. Introducing himself in the novel’s opening lines, Lucius explains, “I’m a Greek who came to Rome and learned Latin — which was torture — so I hope you will forgive me if I’m a rough and even braying kind of speaker.” He thus likens his flawed speech to a donkey’s cry and claims a marginalized status, through his linguistic shortcomings, that foreshadows his powerlessness as a literal ass. Likewise, his transformation into a beast of burden confirms the lack of control on display in his attempt to dabble in sorcery, suggesting that he was an ass to think he could harness the magic that launches his physical metamorphosis. Rather than granting him mastery over nature, Lucius’s failed magical experiment, the novel suggests, reflects his servitude to his curiositas, and marks a fitting outcome to what Isis’s priest later terms his pursuit of “slavish pleasures.”
Lucius initially remains unable to alter the inner disposition that his physical transformation reveals. Reeling from his unexpected asinine form, Lucius explodes into rage:
So I debated long and deeply with myself whether I should kill that wicked, worthless woman with thick and fast kicks and attacks with the teeth. But a more rational thought pulled me back from that initial impetuosity — that if I punished Fotis with death, I might be extinguishing all hope of future aid. So, downcast and shaking my head, I gulped down my outrage for the time being and opted for subservience to my harsh lot.
Lucius’s violent fury is only temporarily suppressed, as he pragmatically bides his time until his human re-transformation rather than empathizing with the downtrodden slave girl. When he retreats to the stable for the night and his own horse blocks him from sharing the barley supply, Lucius similarly plots revenge: “I recalled that tomorrow I would be Lucius again with the help of some roses, and was contemplating what revenge I would take on my disloyal horse.” In asserting the primacy of his human identity and viewing his animalistic transformation as a temporary blip, Lucius clings to the power hierarchy that separated them before his metamorphosis, imagining that he will soon reassert his authority through retribution.
As the enduring reality of his metamorphosis sets in, however, Apuleius’s protagonist begins to embrace a brand of fellow-feeling that recognizes the suffering he shares with the novel’s marginalized figures. After robbers steal him from the stable and kill another donkey for refusing to endure more of their cruel torments, Lucius laments the tragic death of his “poor comrade-in-arms”; at the cave that forms the bandits’ headquarters, the plight of his fellow captive Charite almost “brought me to tears.” His empathy reaches its apex as he recounts the grim scenes that he encounters after arriving at a mill run by an unforgiving task master: “As for my fellow beasts of burden, my cohabitants, what shall I say, and how? What aged mules and decrepit nags! […] As I looked at the deathlike state of these mates-in-bondage, I feared the same for myself.”
Breaking down the human-animal divide, Lucius here stresses the physical and situational sameness that links him to his animal counterparts (“my fellow beasts of burden,” “my cohabitants,” “these mates-in-bondage”) and the common dangers that they face (“I feared the same for myself”). In identifying fully as an ass, he turns away from the rigid hierarchy of subordination bound up in his aspirations to revenge and expresses potent fellow-feeling instead. By embracing his status as an animal, Lucius rediscovers his humanity.
The pathos that Lucius feels for the powerless humans and animals around him prefigures his own interaction with the goddess Isis, who appears to him after he begs for rescue from his apparently endless suffering. As the addressee of the ass’s prayers for mercy, Isis finds herself in the same role that Lucius frequently adopts: an observer of miserable suffering who must choose how to respond. She proclaims, “I am at hand bringing sympathy for your plight,” endorsing Lucius’s own parallel moments of compassion for the marginalized. That Isis serves as a stand-in for Apuleius’s readers — an external figure who must decide how to react to Lucius’s miserable suffering — perhaps offers a hint to all of us to respond in kind to his assertions that his animalistic “lot would rightly seem lamentable and pitiable even to the most unsympathetic.”
Despite Singer’s recognition of the powerlessness and pathos that underlie the often comic thrust of Lucius’s narrative, however, his rather rigid framework doesn’t always leave room for Lucius’s complexities, the ways he deviates from the idealized sympathy for the marginalized that Singer identifies as the novel’s moral takeaway. While Singer’s accompanying philosophical essay exhorts readers to view Lucius as a victim of “brutality, anger, and vindictiveness,” Apuleius’s novel itself suggests that Lucius never fully breaks from his retributive impulses.
Consider, for instance, the cycle of revenge that animates Lucius’s antagonistic relationship with a petty slave boy assigned to supervise him. After the slave brutally overworks the ass, Lucius retaliates by instigating his death, abandoning the boy to a vicious bear and condemning him to gruesome dismemberment. He later reports that he rejoices “in this belated revenge.” The slave boy was undoubtedly cruel to Lucius, and the text raises the possibility that his demise is rough justice, but Apuleius’s account isn’t that simple. The boy’s mother recasts Lucius’s revenge as nasty hard-heartedness. “And finally, you shouldn’t have deserted and abandoned him, your fellow slave, your master, companion, and care-taker, and fled all alone,” she berates him. “No pity for my anguish, no thought for the awful fate of his dead master.” Lucius, she suggests, shows no solidarity with his fellow slave, leaving him to a cruel fate; in that sense, he isn’t entirely different from the slave boy himself, who did the same to the mistreated ass. The limits of Lucius’s fellow-feeling also come into view in the protagonist’s attitude toward Fotis, which never fully pivots away from his initial fury. “But I kept cursing Fotis, and she deserved it, for turning me into an ass and not a dog,” he remarks even after he and Charite escape from the robbers; in the mill, he fumes, “I was furious at Fotis’s mistake in making me an ass while trying to make me a bird.” Even after his religious conversion, Lucius’s empathy does not extend to the slave girl who promised to help him experiment with magic. In fact, he never even mentions her.
Lucius, then, remains a more complicated ethical figure than Singer implies. The novel lets us see Lucius as a victim of “brutality, anger, and vindictiveness” but simultaneously presents him as an aggressor, suggesting that his physical transformation has not completely shifted his hierarchical impulse to separate himself from his fellow slaves. Singer at times helpfully acknowledges what he deems Lucius’s “flaws,” noting, for example, his ultimate indifference to Fotis. But his overarching assertion that the novel exudes and endorses fellow-feeling risks repeating the pitfall that Singer’s critics decry in his controversial philosophical work: glossing over the experiences of marginalized groups — here, the slaves that Lucius attacks, derides, or forgets — that might complicate or challenge his narrative.
The complexities in Lucius’s character ultimately encourage readers to expand beyond the didactic philosophical mode of reading that Singer encourages. Apuleius’s novel is not a storehouse of ancient wisdom that the modern reader passively receives, but rather an invitation to engage in a dynamic process of grappling with the text and its narrator in all their contradictions. It’s certainly possible to use Apuleius as a lens through which to develop a greater appreciation of the suffering of the powerless, but sometimes that process does not involve learning from Lucius so much as thinking with him, or even against him. Approaching the novel as if it were a philosophical treatise, intent on advancing a neat, coherent moral worldview, risks downplaying the nuances and contradictions that give The Golden Ass its enduring appeal as a work of literature. Singer’s provocative and insightful text, then, serves as an invitation of sorts to look beyond the novel’s comedy and grapple with its ethical investments. His edition prods us to see how exploring Lucius’s changes — and, crucially, the way he stays the same — can urge introspection and even reform, how an ancient human-to-animal metamorphosis can launch a shift in modern morals.
Caroline Engelmayer studied Classics and English at Harvard and Cambridge. She is currently teaching at Phillips Academy, Andover.