Curiosity itself isn't necessarily discouraged, as intellectual, philosophical, and religious curiosities are certainly valued. However, curiosity without discernment, without wisdom, without rationality, is dangerous. Aristomenes is curious about Meroe and is punished, Thelyphron is curious about the corpse and is punished, Psyche is curious about Cupid and Proserpina's box and is punished, and Lucius, of course, is curious about magic and is punished. People must know the limitations and boundaries of their curiosity before acting.
Throughout the text there is a distinction made between magic and religion (although, of course, the two have a much more complicated relationship than Apuleius would have been able to admit). Magic is generally seen as problematic; the witches Meroe and Pamphile are dangerous, melding wanton seductiveness with their dark arts to ensnare hapless men. Magic obscures, harms, and corrupts. Religion, by contrast, as evinced by Isis and Osiris, is healthy, sustaining, and moral. Lucius is delivered from magic by religion.
The Evils of the World
The world in which Lucius inhabits is NOT pleasant. In his journey as an ass, he is beaten more times than can be counted, sodomized, driven to exhaustion, mocked, starved, and more. Further than that, the stories he witnesses and hears about are awful. There are murderous stepmothers, lustful wives, charlatan priests, vengeful suitors, wicked children, depraved thieves, seductive witches, mysterious old men, and all manner of stupid people. The world is a dangerous and at times depraved place, and it is no wonder that Lucius willingly embraces the cult of Isis, as being part of her initiates offers a more meaningful and peaceful life.
Self-will is not something that is celebrated in this novel, especially when it transgresses what is deemed appropriate boundaries. Both Lucius and Psyche allow their self-will to get in the way of their happiness. Psyche chooses not to heed Cupid's warnings even though she loves him and trusts him. When she allows her sisters into her life and then later looks into Proserpina's box, she catapults herself into estrangement, despair, and danger. When Lucius ignores Byrrhena's warnings and the morals of the tales of Aristomenes and Thelyphron, he moves closer to becoming an ass. Neither of these characters exhibits rational, measured thinking, nor do they choose to listen to the advice of others; for that, they are punished.
In this novel, as in many works from the Greek and Roman era, the gods are very apt to get involved with the dealings of humanity. Venus is enraged that Psyche is admired for her beauty more than she is, and seeks to ruin the girl. Jupiter eventually intercedes and makes Psyche immortal. In the central plot, Isis saves Lucius from being an ass and brings him into her cult. There is little distance between the gods and man, which is a reflection of the way religion permeated contemporary life.
Women in this novel, with the exception of Isis and to an extent Charite, are not portrayed in a very flattering light. They betray their husbands, lust after their stepsons, murder their entire family, or accidentally turn someone into an ass. They are witches and vengeful goddesses, using the power of their sexuality to ensnare and punish men. They are irrational, insane, libidinous, and/or cruel. They are terrible mothers, wives, and citizens. The novel clearly associates women with inappropriate forays into magic, as well as depicts them as temptresses leading men into evil. This is unsurprising given the time period in which the work was written, but is nonetheless disturbing.
Connection and Comparison
One of the things Apuleius really wants his readers to take away is that his stories are not just loosely connected, or useless, or for entertainment only; rather, they work with each other to inform the overall meaning of the text, which is that one should be wary of being too curious or being too self-willed as it can lead to suffering and alienation. Within the text, Lucius should also be aware of how the stories he hears have relation to his own life; he should not sit and listen to the tale of Thelyphron or that of Aristomenes and glean nothing from them. He lives in the same world as they do and ought to be aware that their pitfalls can be his (and indeed are) as well.
The Golden Ass Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Golden Ass is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.