BMCR 2004.03.39

Metaphor, Allegory and the Classical Tradition: Ancient Thought and Modern Revisions

, Metaphor, allegory, and the classical tradition : ancient thought and modern revisions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. viii, 305 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199240051 $74.00.

This is a collection of essays, many of which were originally delivered at a series of seminars organized by the editor at Oxford in 1997. In his introductory essay, Boys-Stones begins from a dissatisfaction with what he perceives to be a widely held view, namely that there was “a classical theory of metaphor and/or allegory”, and that that theory can be identified with what is found in ancient rhetorical handbooks. The purpose of the book is, he says, to present “a fairer picture of classical approaches to language”. There is no doubt that Boys-Stones is correct to say that there are problems with the way metaphor and allegory are discussed in contemporary classical scholarship and while I would disagree with his diagnosis of the cause of those problems — discussions of allegory in particular are to my mind characterized more by a lack of clarity than a lack of fairness — this intelligently conceived and well balanced collection should make a substantial contribution to alleviating them.

The volume begins with an overview of ancient discussions of metaphor and allegory by Doreen Innes, ‘Metaphor, Simile, and Allegory as Ornaments of Style’. Reasonably, Innes devotes most space to Aristotle. She finds later writers to have added little to Aristotle’s concept and, like many authors in the volume, has little patience for rhetorical writers’ method of distinguishing and listing tropes. Unlike most of the authors in the volume, she respects simile as a useful and discrete category, although she does not devote much space to it. In conclusion, she deals with Horace at some length, interestingly asking why he does not discuss metaphor. Her answer is that the theory was by that time stale, and that Horace approaches the subject by examples, rather than by the tedious technique of sub-dividing categories and listing examples which an explicit discussion of ‘metaphor’ would seem to have demanded. Innes’ approach to Horace highlights how much ancient literary theory and criticism is to be found in poetry, by no means all of it in overtly didactic works.

Thereafter the book is divided into two sections. The first, and slightly longer, deals with metaphor, the second with allegory. The first essay on metaphor is by Christoph Leidl, ‘The Harlot’s Art: Metaphor and Literary Criticism’. In explaining his title, Leidl cautions the reader against equating ‘literary criticism’ with anything practised by ancient authors, as well as pointing out that the phrase denotes an intellectual exercise quite different from the German Literaturkritik. This is salutary since, as Geoffrey Lloyd argues convincingly in his essay later in this volume, what categories are created to describe features of literary language depends very largely on what sort of enterprise the interpreter is engaged in, and what he or she wishes to achieve by it. Leidl then proceeds to explain what he means by metaphor, offering the definition, ‘talking about one kind of thing in terms of another’. The bulk of his essay consists of an examination of passages from ancient texts in which rhetoric is personified as a woman. 1 His intention in doing this is to illustrate the tension between the ways in which metaphor resides on the one hand in a single word in its context and on the other in a semantic field whose other elements remain among the metaphorical word’s connotative meanings. He ends with two observations, followed by a series of questions for future research. The first observation is that, in the explication of any new field of inquiry, metaphors are inevitable, since a new kind of inquiry requires new language to describe it. It follows, he argues, that by examining the metaphors that were developed by ancient literary critics, we have a special kind of access to the way language was perceived. The second, and related observation, is that normally after a short while the metaphorical vocabulary developed by specialists for their field of knowledge solidifies and loses its metaphorical character, but that this has not happened in the case of ancient literary theory.

E.E. Pender, in her essay, ‘Plato on Metaphors and Models’, sets out to examine a fundamental tension between the form and content of Plato’s writing. On the one hand, Plato sharply distinguishes images from reality and argues that knowledge can never be derived merely from an acquaintance with images but requires the contemplation of reality. On the other, he makes extensive use of metaphor, allegory and myth, and would frequently seem to be offering his readers precisely only images. Pender approaches this problem by a close examination of the Politicus. She argues that the metaphors Socrates and the Eleatic stranger use there to try to discern the nature of the πολιτικός show that, for Plato, metaphor could have a heuristic function in a conversation in which neither party was able absolutely to enlighten the other. However, as she goes on to argue, the dialogue also shows that this heuristic function is limited and is not in itself sufficient to allow one who has learnt from it to attain knowledge.

Paul Crowther’s essay ‘Literary Metaphor and Philosophical Insight: the Significance of Archilochus’ consists of two parts. In the first, he “analyses the logical characteristics of metaphor and the way in which they link predication and perception”. In the second, he applies this analysis to select fragments of Archilochus. Crowther’s thesis in the first part of his essay begins from the position that metaphor is essentially predicative and that its “basic purpose” is “the cognitive elucidation” of what is being described. He goes on to argue that metaphor makes obvious the subjective element in predication for both speaker and listener. That is, using his example, understanding the phrase “falling in love” requires making imaginative connections between one’s ordinary notions of “falling in” and “love”. In fact, he proceeds, this subjective, imaginative, element of understanding is fundamental to all predication. Metaphorical predication is special only in that this element is explicit in metaphorical predication, but not otherwise. In many cases, however, the features of metaphor which are identified in this philosophical analysis are not noticed by most language users. For this subjective element of predication to be made clear in a metaphor, some kind of “framing device”, such as a literary form, is necessary. In the second part of his essay, Crowther explains this analysis further by applying it to fragments of Archilochus. So, for example, by describing sex using military metaphors, Archilochus reveals to the reader a fundamental element of his own subjective experience of the world — due to his having made his living as a mercenary, so far as we know. The reader of the poem understands firstly something of the nature of Archilochus’ consequent perception of his world and secondly something of the subjective nature of all perception (and consequently of the subjective nature of predication). So much so, in fact, that for Crowther “Archilochus’ personal perspective is so emphatic as to define the subjective logical extreme of poetic form itself.” The poetry illustrates the fact that “in all literary discourse, metaphor is realized as part of the fabric of the created aesthetic object”.

Geoffrey Lloyd’s essay, ‘The Problem of Metaphor: Chinese Reflections’ approaches the matter very differently. He argues that there is a tension between two generally held propositions concerning metaphor. The first of these propositions is that metaphor is a universal feature of all language, and the second is that our notion of metaphor has a specific history, which more or less begins with Aristotle. The tension between these two propositions leads Lloyd to a question: Did Aristotle invent or discover metaphor? It will help answer this question, he argues, to find out whether the Chinese developed a notion of metaphor — which according to this essay they did not. This does not itself, Lloyd concedes, lead necessarily to the conclusion that metaphor was a Greek invention. It may be that metaphor existed in Chinese, and, while ancient Chinese philosophers were not astute enough to identify it, we can do so for them. But Lloyd has little sympathy for this position. Rather than forcing every use of language to be identified as either metaphorical or literal, he would prefer to make do with a concept of “semantic stretch”, which allows (1) that our distinctions between the metaphorical and the literal are distinctions rather of degree than of kind, and (2) that every term has some semantic stretch.

Michael Silk shows similar dissatisfaction with Aristotle’s notion of metaphor. He begins his essay ‘Metaphor and Metonymy: Aristotle, Jakobson, Ricoeur and others’ by deploring a “tradition of confused responses by theorists to the relationship, real or supposed, between one-off literary usage and secondary but established idiom within a language.” Silk levels the same criticism against all three thinkers named in his title. That is, while supposedly theorizing about poetic language, they pay almost no attention to the experience of reading or listening to poetry. For example, Jakobson’s thought starts from the fundamental dichotomy of metaphor and metonymy. For Jakobson, and for Ricoeur who follows him, this dichotomy reflects the two fundamental features of linguistic activity as analysed by Saussure: selection and combination. Metaphor, both argue, is essentially a matter of selection, and metonymy one of combination. But, Silk points out, this makes little sense when one compares, say, Yeats’ metaphorical “bursting dawn” with Eliot’s metonymic “footsteps shuffled on the stair”. If anything, it is the latter which draws the reader’s attention to the striking selection of “footsteps”, rather than “feet” or “an old person”. Finding the theories of all three wanting as attempts to make sense of the experience of poetry and poetic language, Silk prefers to develop his own categories, according to which any “deviant” use of language may be characterized as a trope. He follows Jakobson so far as to accept metaphor and metonymy as the two principal kinds of trope. Silk would prefer to analyse the role of metaphor in literary works as consisting of three functions: (1) to make clearer, as in a diagram, (2) to make immediate, as if to the senses, and (3) to exploit associations beyond any limited point of comparison. The trouble, according to Silk, is that theorizing about poetry has gone on without theorists giving thought to actual poems. His solution is Wittgensteinian: ” Denk nicht, sondern schau.

This high note concludes the book’s consideration of metaphor. Andrew Laird’s essay, ‘Figures of Allegory from Homer to Latin Epic’, then begins the half of the work concerned with allegory. Laird’s essay has three purposes: (1) to show that allegory was built into epic, (2) to show why ancient interpreters might be excused for their apparently loose and disparate conceptions of allegory in poetry, and (3) to examine poetry in order to demystify allegory. As far as (1) is concerned, he begins with an engaging and illuminating set of examples. Laird argues that in Latin epic, acts of communication — by which he means things as diverse as visits from divine messengers, the description of fama at Aeneid 4.176-83 or even speeches by individuals — are presented as figures for epic itself. Laird concludes that Latin poets regarded Homeric verse as “symbolic, enigmatic, polysemous, and instructive”, and therefore, essentially, allegorical. For the rest of his essay, Laird leaves Roman poetry for literary theory, and his argument becomes significantly weaker. His next step is to give his definition of an allegory, namely something which “conveys x by means of y where x is greater than y“. This leads us into purpose (2), for once we realize that allegory is so large and so multiform — so much so that Laird can say that “allegorization in the end boils down to interpretation, and interpretation amounts to allegorization” — then any attempt to make sense of a text will involve an implicit or explicit belief that it is an “allegory”. The “demystification” of allegory (3) follows from this: “those who regard allegory as a trope and those who regard allegory as a misguided, deviant form of interpretation are subject to a form of false consciousness.”

Dirk Obbink’s essay, ‘Allegory and Exegesis in the Derveni Papyrus: the Origins of Greek Scholarship’, is more straightforward. Obbink’s thesis is that the symbolic elucidations of cosmology found in the Derveni papyrus constitute “the earliest form of scholarly exegesis in the Greek tradition.” The essay is short, but there is much in it. Obbink’s passing observations on literary history are insightful and should give rise to further thought. For example, he points out that ancient literary critics are rarely concerned with the interpretation of a whole literary work, with issues such as unity and programmatic imagery, and prefer to focus on the level of the word or the gloss.

There follows Boys-Stones’ own essay, ‘The Stoics’ Two Types of Allegory’. His thesis is that the rationale for Stoic allegorical and etymological interpretations of myths derived from a view of the history of humanity. The early Stoic view was that initially human beings had understanding and were happy and blessed. At that time their languages, rites and stories made sense and conveyed that understanding. However, as humanity decayed, people lost their understanding of those myths and rites, and, in passing them down from one generation to the next, created more and more confusion. The result was that in order to have access to the wisdom of those first generations, one had to look hard to discern what was a later accretion or confusion and what had been the original meaning of the myth or rite concerned. The early Stoic position was not that those early people were philosophers but that, in their state of blessedness, they did not need philosophers. By the time of Cornutus, however, the orthodox Stoic position had undergone a change. Boys-Stones ascribes this change to Posidonius. The later Stoic position is not that people were naturally blessed in the golden age but rather that at that time they were ruled over by philosophers, who ensured their happiness and whose views were preserved in traditional myths and stories. According to this later view, the reason for the preservation of truths in allegorical form was not that their original form had been corrupted but that the process of understanding an allegory was similar to that of coming to understand the world philosophically.

Donald Russell’s essay, ‘The Rhetoric of the Homeric Problems’, deals with the work of that title by the prose author Heraclitus. Russell dates the work to the second century AD at the latest. He goes on to identify those ways in which the text follows rhetorical precedents and patterns. While the work is a defence of Homer against his philosophical detractors by a philosophically literate author, it is not itself a work of philosophy. When Heraclitus gives a definition of ἀλληγορία at the opening of the work, he uses what is commonly found in rhetorical handbooks. His scientific allegorical interpretations are reserved for those particularly difficult passages where it would seem that the case against Homer is particularly strong. Moreover, his arguments in defence of the poet follow the same kinds of argument as are practised in the school exercises of ἀνασκευή and κατασκευή (literally “construction” and “destruction”, but perhaps closer in practice to something like “demonstration” and “refutation”). Russell’s case is persuasive. It makes more sense to see Heraclitus as a competent and philosophically literate orator than a mediocre philosopher.

The final essay in the volume, by Mark Edwards, is the only one to deal with allegory in a Christian context, ‘Origen on Christ, Tropology, and Exegesis’. Edwards’ point of departure is the commonplace of twentieth-century theology that the preaching of Jesus, and early Christian interpretation of scripture in general, had no place for allegory. Where that interpretation was figurative, it was “typological”, i.e. it saw in those texts types of which the Christian Gospel was believed to be the antitype. When Christian thought turned to allegory (a step usually attributed to Origen or Clement), that school of thought said, it did so because those authors were excessively influenced by Greek philosophy. Edwards argues that the distinction between typology and allegory serves little purpose: if there is a distinction, it is one of content rather than of method. In any case, he goes on, Origen’s view of scripture, while philosophically informed, was principally Christian, and only secondarily philosophical. He held that, since Scripture is a vehicle for truth rather than strictly identical with it, there is room for a determinate plurality of meanings. This is very different from what came to be the conventional view of Origen’s thought in the twentieth century, that the text was at the mercy of the interpreter.

Edwards’ essay serves to highlight some of the book’s omissions. For all that the contents of collections such as this are to some extent dictated by contingencies, the omissions of Philo, St Paul and Plutarch are striking. So far as Philo and St Paul are concerned, it seems unlikely that allegory would have been thought an important category in ancient thought had it not been so significant in the development of Christian exegesis and consequently in the literary cultures of medieval and early modern Europe. I suppose it is arguable that enough has been written about Plutarch already.2

Those are the principal omissions of data, but there is a more significant conceptual lacuna, namely the authors’ failure to examine the notion of the “literal”. If an examination of ancient concepts of metaphor needs to begin with Aristotle, which seems to be common to almost all the contributors to this book, then it is striking that the term he uses to identify the non-metaphorical, τὸ κύριον (“the standard”), should have such different connotations from our “literal”. By this I do not mean to make the observation that our notion of what is “literal” is problematic — so much confusion surrounds the notion that that observation is just glib. My complaint is that none of the authors examines the rich variety of terms used in Greek and Latin to identify that which is not metaphorical: κύριον, κατ’ εὐθείας, κατ’ εὐηθείας, κατὰ τὸ γράμμα, proprius, literalis, etc. Do they have different meanings? Can we trace any of them to its origin? In particular, where does the identification, or at least association, of what is not metaphorical with what is “of the letter” which we have inherited come from?

These omissions are relatively minor next to the real achievements of the book. There is no question that serious confusion surrounds the concepts of metaphor and allegory in the interpretation of all kinds of ancient literature, and, while it would be too much to expect a collection of essays to dispel such confusion, this does identify most of the problems in question and provide an intelligent range of approaches with which readers will start to identify their own solutions to those problems. It is both a good collection of essays and a collection of good essays.


1. Leidl begins with two passages from Hamlet in which he identifies this personification. In the case of the second, however, I think he has misconstrued the text. Where Hamlet reprimands himself for the fact that he “must like a whore unpack [his] heart with words/ And fall a-cursing like a very drab, a scullion” (2.2.581-83), he is not regretting his propensity for, in Leidl’s phrase, “artfully embellished speech”. Rather, he is referring to his outburst two lines earlier, “Bloody, bawdy villain!/ Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!/ O vengeance!” (2.2.575-77).

2. In relation to the present subject, see especially P.R. Hardie, ‘Plutarch and the interpretation of myth’, ANRW II.33.6 (1992), 4743-87.