BMCR 2007.10.18

Allégorie des poètes, allégorie des philosophes. Etudes sur la poétique et l’herméneutique de l’allégorie de l’Antiquité à la Réforme

, , Allégorie des poètes, allégorie des philosophes : études sur la poétique et l'herméneutique de l'allégorie de l'antiquité à la réforme : table ronde internationale de l'Institut des traditions textuelles (Fédération de recherche 33 du C.N.R.S.). Textes et traditions ; 10. Paris: Vrin, 2005. 346 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2711617629. €28.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The unwary reader might suppose, on the basis of the title, back cover, and preface of this volume, that it attempts systematically to address the relations between allegory as a compositional procedure designed to create a new text which communicates a doctrine hidden under the veil of a fiction (what these authors sometimes refer to as “rhetorical allegory”) and allegorical interpretation as an exegetical strategy applied to already existing texts and other artworks in order to ferret out from them the doctrine supposed to lie concealed within them (“hermeneutical allegory”) — distinguishing terminologically between “allegory” for the first sense and “allegorical interpretation” or “allegoresis” for the second would avoid some confusion, here and elsewhere. In fact, however, this rather heterogeneous collection is far from being systematic, and the topic suggested by the title is only one of its many concerns: the essays often have little to do with one another, and cover a wide range of quite miscellaneous topics in the history of allegoresis (and far less so in that of allegory, in the sense just indicated) from the Stoics through the 16th century.

The volume publishes 13 out of the 15 papers presented at a conference in February 2003 organized by the Institut des traditions textuelles of the CNRS (what the other two were, and what became of them, is not revealed); it grows out of an earlier conference on commentaries by the same group, published in 2000.1

The editors’ presentation recounts the origin of the volume and explains that its intention is not so much historical as conceptual: only if allegory is first defined with sufficient clarity can one then go on to exclude pseudo-allegories, create a repertory of genuine cases, investigate their presence in different periods and cultures, and finally establish the history of the phenomenon. They seem to suggest a four-part definition (6): what they call “allegory” (but perhaps they mean “allegoresis”) concerns literary or artistic productions, and not gods, personalities, or historical facts; it is to begin with the work of a creative author or artist; it aims to communicate a meaning which can be attained by the application of an appropriate method; and the material content, the letter or veil is not what the author or artist wanted to communicate. No justification is given for the choice of precisely these four features; some of them seem obscure or problematic, and others can easily be added. Such a definition, if intended as such, seems less than fully satisfactory as the final conceptual fruit of the labors in this book and as a guide for future research.

The first two chapters consider pagan allegoresis. Gourinat investigates the place of allegoresis of myths in Stoicism and has little difficulty refuting the minimalist proposals of Long (and to a certain extent Steinmetz), according to whom the Stoics practiced only etymology of divine names and hardly if at all allegorical interpretation of poems.2 As Gourinat points out, Chrysippus’ well-documented interpretation of the birth of Athena as reported in (his own wild text of) Hesiod’s Theogony (SVF 2.908-9) and the well-attested division of his treatise on the gods into a first book in which he used etymologies of the names of the traditional gods to help explain their physical nature one by one, and a second one in which he harmonized the poetic texts of Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod, and Homer to these explanations (SVF 2.1077-78; the third book was devoted to Zeus) should be enough to demonstrate the importance of allegoresis of the poetic myths to Stoic theology. Gourinat does not point out that the error of Steinmetz and Long derives from their anachronistically and narrowly literary concept of allegoresis, perhaps because his own justifiable concern with the relation between allegory and allegoresis leads him also to worry far too much about the very doubtful connections between Stoic rhetoric and Stoic allegoresis. (Chrysippus’ unattested theory of metaphor, even if it could be reconstructed, would only be relevant to his use of allegoresis on the entirely unproven premise that for Chrysippus too, as for later rhetoric, allegory was related to but distinguished from metaphor.) It would have been more useful to study Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus (SVF 1.537), whose allegorical character Gourinat dismisses in a single sentence (12).

Chiron’s study, despite its ambitious title, is largely devoted only to Heraclitus’ Homeric Allegories (at the end a few pages are appended on Pseudo-Plutarch’s essay On the Life and Poetry of Homer). Chiron too is worried about the relation between allegory and allegoresis, though his approach to allegory exclusively via the ancient tradition of rhetorical handbooks is, though erudite, far too narrow. His attempt to locate systematically Heraclitus’ place within the history of rhetorical theorization cannot be called fully successful — unsurprisingly, given the willfully eclectic nature of this treatise. Chiron seems largely immune to Heraclitus’ idiosyncratic literary charm: any attempt, like his, to reduce this capricious and sometimes playful text to a philosophically serious argument or a reliable rhetorical manual inevitably runs aground, and Chiron’s frequent complaints about the arbitrariness or implausibility of Heraclitus’ interpretations say less about Heraclitus’ treatise than they do about the inappropriateness of some of the questions that Chiron poses to it. Nonetheless, there is much interesting material in this article, particularly on the specifics of Heraclitus’ terminology set against the background of that of the rhetorical tradition.

There follow two articles on Jewish allegoresis. Goulet returns to his thesis of 20 years ago on Philo3 and proposes once again that one can deduce from Philo’s allegorical method the existence and nature of a single running allegorical commentary to the Hebrew Bible, composed by Hellenized Jews in Alexandria probably in the 1st century BC, against which Philo is arguing. It is of course not impossible that such a single commentary, which Goulet attributes to people he calls Physicists or Allegorists, might have once existed, nor that Philo is reacting against it; but Goulet’s attempt to establish these claims on the basis of evidence derived exclusively from Philo (and there is no other evidence) fails to convince. It is certainly true that Philo polemicizes on the one hand against literalists who think the Bible means only what its literal sense would suggest and on the other hand against radical allegorizers who think it has no literal or historical meaning and that its only sense is philosophical and allegorical. But without external evidence we will never know whether these opponents are rhetorical figures Philo creates in order to embody interpretations he imagines but contests or real scholars who existed independently of his text to whose teachings he is reacting (let alone, if they were real, what concrete form their interpretations assumed). Indeed, Goulet is convinced that Philo’s literalists never existed but are simply a projection of Philo’s text: but why should that be true only of his literalists and not of his Allegorists? Goulet’s method could be used just as easily to postulate a single literalist commentary against which Philo would be reacting. The article closes with three useful appendices on Philo’s writings, commentaries, and etymologies (80-87).

Fishbane4 provides a wide-ranging panorama of varieties of allegoresis in ancient and mediaeval Jewish interpretative practice and in the creation of new allegorical texts (concluding with a lovely paragraph about Kafka’s story “Eine kaiserliche Botschaft,” 112). His survey is characteristically learned and stimulating (though, characteristically, it also inclines a bit too much to paradox); particularly suggestive are his discussions of the interpretative difficulties posed by various kinds of texts which may or may not be meant allegorically (105-8) and his final reflections on allegoresis as a spiritual exercise (109-11). It is a pity that his essay bears no conceptual relations at all to the other studies in the volume: it makes no reference to any material outside of the Jewish tradition, and no other article than Dahan’s (212 n. 1) makes any reference to his. These are topics on which Fishbane has written many important studies; Anglophone readers curious about knowing more will be better served by turning not to this article, translated into French, but to his books.5

Three articles examine allegoresis in the Church Fathers. Le Boulluec devotes a careful and thoughtful study to the relation between Paul and Origen as allegorists. As he shows, Paul’s sole usage of the term ἀλληγορούμενα in the problematic passage Gal. 4:21-31 is not fully consistent with the generally typological approach he applies elsewhere and seems to serve here to indicate, and perhaps excuse, the novelty of the strange exegesis he offers. Origen makes frequent reference to this passage to justify his own interpretative methods, but in fact he differs importantly from Paul in that he extends, generalizes, and systematizes allegoresis so that it becomes a fully worked out method which is applicable to numerous passages and which produces an allegorical or mystical meaning collocated with the other two meanings of Scripture, the literal (or historical) and the moral. Le Boulluec points out the crucial role played in Origen’s allegoresis by the premise of the coherence and unity of Scripture (connected with the process of canonization), which leads him to create networks of textual references as a support for deeper meanings.

Fredouille tries his best in his article on Tertullian to derive from this Father’s scattered, brief, and mostly polemical references to allegoresis a systematic account of his views on the subject; the results are not very surprising and suggest that Tertullian had not in fact thought very hard or systematically about allegoresis. Through most of the article, Fredouille refers indifferently to the rhetorical and philosophical traditions as possible contexts for Tertullian’s language and concepts; at the end, in a rather surprising turn stimulated by the following paper by Vasiliu, he adds a coda (146-48) in which he sharply differentiates between personification as a rhetorical compositional device which Tertullian frequently uses and allegoresis as a hermeneutical strategy which he distrusts. It would have been interesting if this view of a radical separation between the two procedures invoked by the volume’s title had been discussed, or even acknowledged, by any of the other participants.

Vasiliu devotes the first thirty pages of her long article to very general and rather murky lucubrations on allegory, icons, visuality, and language, which I forbear to attempt to summarize; the last part (181-93), which gives the impression of having been truncated, discusses Basil of Caesarea’s critique of allegoresis, somewhat more concretely.

The last six articles treat later developments. Lory contributes a brief, clear, but quite sketchy introduction to the vicissitudes of allegoresis in Islam: the putatively divine status of the Qur’an inclined believers to literalism, yet various difficulties (anthropomorphisms, contradictions, obscurities) impelled more independent-minded readers to seek hidden meanings. Lory distinguishes very broadly between three exegetical approaches starting in the 8th century AD: the “rationalism” of the mu’tazilites, the literalism of the Sunnites, and the symbolism of the Sufis. Any application of Western terminology to these schools is precarious, and one wishes there had been some discussion about contact between these Islamic traditions and the Western interpretative conceptions to which this book is largely devoted. The article is accompanied by a very useful introductory bibliography (202-3).

There follow four articles devoted to the Middle Ages. Dahan conducts the reader on a congenial, learned, and quite inconclusive stroll among the trees — not, alas, through the forest — of mediaeval Christian allegorical exegesis of the Bible. He concentrates upon the 12th and 13th centuries but does not give a clear sense of historical change. In general, Dahan’s vast erudition and his remarkable sensitivity to individual inflections and to what was uncontestably a general fluidity of usage lead him to dismantle classifications as soon as he has constructed them; no doubt this is truer to the complexities of the phenomenon than a rigid schematism would have been, but some readers unfamiliar with the material will doubtless wish he had chosen a less ambitious topic, or had succeeded in constructing more convincing conceptual structures. In an appendix he includes an extract from an anonymous unpublished late 12th century text De expositione sacre Scripture.

Dronke contributes a magisterially brief and elegant consideration of conceptions of allegory in Johannes Scotus Eriugena and Hildegard of Bingen. These two authors, different in so many ways, not least in period, are chosen shrewdly to show, by comparison and contrast, how seemingly rigorous traditions could be adapted by original thinkers to new and flexible purposes; Dronke stresses, as always, not the burden of tradition nor the weight of institutions but instead the originality and creativity of the individual writer — one feels sorry sometimes not to have had the good luck to live during his lively and dynamic Middle Ages. Particularly significant is his stress upon allegory as a heuristic device (240-42). In an appendix, Dronke edits an allegoresis of Hildegard on Mt 8:1-13.

Obrist’s article, despite its title, has very much to do with alchemy in the Middle Ages, for which it provides what at times approaches a general introduction and history, and very little to do with Biblical allegory, about which it has almost nothing to say. Her definition of allegory is so vast that she ends up including all kinds of figural and tropological substitution; of course it is not surprising that a practice that sought to transform one substance into another was interested in theories of metaphor, simile, and other forms of figural expression, but the evidence for any serious role of Biblical allegoresis in particular within mediaeval alchemical thought seems to be limited to one very narrow, though historically interesting, school, that of Arnaldus de Villa Nova — where, however, it seems to serve not so much conceptual purposes as rather rhetorical ones, legitimating or ennobling the alchemist’s activity.

Mairey examines the role of allegory in two 14th century English poets, Chaucer and Langland. She constructs, tendentiously, the (in fact quite lively and fluid) discussion of this issue within Anglo-American scholarship as an opposition between two monumental blocks, which she identifies as the “exegetical school” (Robertson, Huppé) on the one hand, which she accuses of reducing the poetic texts to schematic allegories, and New Criticism (Middleton’s term, but instantiated here only by the Marxist Aers), which defends their autonomy and complexity. The way she points out of what she sees as this impasse is a sociology of literature: we must reconstruct the structures of literary communication in terms of groups and institutions if we are to understand the intentions and meanings of these poems. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the precise historical circumstances even of these poets, let alone of their audiences, is extremely defective; the result, predictably, is much summary of the poems and then some vague and no less schematic hand-waving in the direction of lay readers and growing literacy.

The last essay, by Büttgen, on Reformation allegoresis, is one of the best in the volume: it would be a pity if readers, discouraged by some of the preceding ones, failed to reach it. Büttgen focuses on Melanchthon, as initially allied with Luther but eventually moving in his own direction, and he succeeds in teasing out a set of fascinating theoretical consequences and tensions from his familiarity with the Reformer’s complete oeuvre, and especially from the subtle, richly reflective commentary which he devotes to a paragraph on allegorical interpretation from his 1531 Elementa rhetorices. His general remarks on such issues as the relation between Biblical exegesis and theology, or on theology as a form of science, or on Melanchthon’s theory of the loci communes, are as suggestive and deeply informed as his detailed textual analysis is subtle and obstinate. The article is enriched by extremely useful footnotes, which provide bibliographical indications that will be enormously helpful not only to beginners in this crucial field.

The volume is concluded by very useful indices: an index locorum; two indices nominum, one of Biblical or mythological names and one of other names; and finally, and especially commendably, a thematic and terminological index of terms regarding allegory, in French, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek (in that order, curiously).

There is much of value in this collection, but it is very far from being more than the sum of its parts. More genuine discussion and tighter editing might have produced something other than yet another monument to multi- (not: inter-) disciplinarity and to discursive polyphony. At the end, one recalls with some perplexity the editors’ words on its first page: “When we met in order to prepare this round table, it quickly became clear to us that the object of these lectures would not be that of constructing a history of allegory by considering one after another different examples of allegorical exegesis and showing how such and such an interpreter had used this means in order to derive such and such a doctrine from such and such a text. We wished instead to clarify the concept of allegory or of allegorical method in such a way as to distinguish it from adjacent literary phenomena and to trace out better its evolution by identifying all the deformations which the philosophical allegory of the Greeks experienced as it passed into different cultural universes” (5). If that was their intention, and this is the result, one wonders what the book would have looked like if they had decided instead to produce an unsystematic collection of largely unrelated essays on individual cases of allegory and allegoresis.


Richard Goulet and Gilbert Dahan, “Présentation” (5-8)

Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, ” Explicatio fabularum : la place de l’allégorie dans l’interprétation stoïcienne de la mythologie” (9-34)

Pierre Chiron, “Aspects rhétoriques et grammaticaux de l’interprétation allégorique d’Homère” (35-58)

Richard Goulet, “Allégorisme et anti-allégorisme chez Philon d’Alexandrie” (59-87)

Michael Fishbane, “L’allégorie dans la pensée, la littérature et la mentalité juives” (89-112)

Alain le Boulluec, “De Paul à Origène: continuité ou divergence?” (113-32)

Jean-Claude Fredouille, “Réflexions de Tertullien sue l’allégorie,” 133-48)

Anca Vasiliu, “Entre Muses et Logos : invention de l’allégorie et naissance de l’icone ( Sophistes et Pères à la fin de l’antiquité” (149-93)

Pierre Lory, “Les refus d’une exégèse allégorique du Coran en Islam Sunnite” (195-203)

Gilbert Dahan, “L’allégorie dans l’exégèse chrétienne de la Bible au Moyen Age” (205-30)

Peter Dronke, “Les conceptions de l’allégorie chez Jeans Scot Érigène et Hildegarde de Bingen” (231-44)

Barbara Obrist, “Alchimie et allégorie scripturaire au Moyen Age” (245-65)

Aude Mairey, “Pratiques de l’allégorie dans la poésie anglaise du XIV e siècle” (266-88)

Philippe Büttgen, “Doctrine et allégorie au début de la Réforme. Melancthon” (289-322).


1. M.-O. Goulet-Cazé, ed., Le Commentaire entre tradition et innovation. Actes du Colloque International de l’Institut des Traditions Textuelles (Paris et Villejuif, 22-25 septembre 1999). Paris: J. Vrin, 2000. Cf. my review of this volume in Classical Review 55 (2005) 169-71.

2. Peter Steinmetz, “Allegorische Deutung und allegorische Dichtung in der alten Stoa,” Rheinisches Museum 129 (1986) 18-30; Anthony A. Long, “Stoic Readings of Homer,” in R. Lamberton and J. J. Keaney, ed., Homer’s Ancient Readers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 41-66 = A. A. L., Stoic Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 58-84.

3. R. Goulet, La Philosophie de Moïse. Essai de reconstitution d’un commentaire philosophique préphilonien du Pentateuque (Paris: J. Vrin, 1987).

4. Michael Fishbane is an indirect colleague and slight acquaintance of mine at the University of Chicago.

5. E.g., Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).