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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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In the expansion of Western thought allegory has
played a major part from the earliest times to the
present. Allegories have taken many forms, from mere
emblems like the eagle and the dove, to the simple
fables of Aesop and parables of Christ, to vast poetic
structures like The Divine Comedy and equally large
forms like the patristic glosses and commentaries on
the Bible. Essentially a means of structuring language
so as to produce continuously linked series of double
or multiple meanings, this symbols mode depends
largely upon syncretic mixtures of symbols from which
it builds up “levels of meaning,” sometimes as few as
two, or as many as seven. Minimally it holds that no
single literal meaning can stand alone, but that a valid
utterance must possess a transcendent meaning as well,
a symbolic surplus beyond the literal level. Most alle-
gories are images of cosmic order, and their fixed,
hierarchical, and timeless character becomes problem-
atic whenever such cosmic orders are subjected to
temporal analysis. The key to the permanence of al-
legory throughout history appears to be its ornamental
surface, which allies it with changes in cosmology and
decorum and gives it an exploratory as well as a tradi-
tional and conservationist function.

Terminology. Following classical tradition, the sev-
enth-century scholar Isidore of Seville called allegory
an inversion of speech, alieni loquium, aliud enim
sonat, aliud intelligitur,
whereby, in saying one thing
a person conveys or understands something else ( Ety-
I, 47.22). Such deceptively simple formulas,
which abound in the history of allegory, suggest, if
nothing else, the fundamentally oblique character of
this symbolic mode. When Saint Augustine speaks of
“a mode of speech in which one thing is understood
by another,” his very open definition is based on the
assumption that some primary or literal (ῥητη̂) level
of sense may include another secondary or even more
remote sense, which the trained interpreter will seek
out through a process of reflection. Such secondary
meanings may be imposed upon a text, or an author
may clearly build them into a text, but no clear dis-
tinction separates the interpretive and creative aspects
of allegory, since the two are poles in a single commu-
nicative method. The allegorical poet encodes an
oblique, multiple (Dante called it a “polysemous”)
meaning in his fiction, using emblems and iconographic
devices, for example, the scythe of time, or the apple
of discord, and the stories that go with them.

The allegorical interpreter decodes this same com-
plex message, which assumes that allegory is a struc-
tural reality within the text. Nevertheless, though al-
legory may exist in a text as a structure, the key to
this structure is usually found in some system of values
or ideas that lies outside the immediate context. “The
allegorical method means the interpretation of a text
in terms of something else, irrespective of what that
something else is. That something else may be book
learning, it may be practical wisdom, or it may be one's
inner consciousness. All these are matters which
depend upon external circumstances” (Wolfson, Philo,
I, 134). Allegory thus not only assumes a certain stabil-
ity of literal meaning, but also the legitimacy of a
movement back and forth between that literal meaning
and some external frame of reference. In the history
of the mode both creators and interpreters have en-
joyed wide freedom in the ways they have understood
the internal and external dimensions of their texts, and
the historian is faced with a bewildering variety of
allegorical procedures. Theologians, however, have
often sought to systematize the allegorical method.

A plethora of traditional technical terms conveys the
encyclopedic spirit of this procedure. Hardly an idea
in the history of Western thought has failed to find
allegorical expression, at some period or other. Major
allegorists like Dante and Spenser have often summed
up the world views of their time. The term “allegory”
itself comes from the teachings of Greco-Roman rhet-
oricians, Demetrius, Cicero, Quintilian, and others,
who take it to mean a series of linked metaphors, as
exemplified in Horace's Ode (I, 14), in which the poet
elaborates on the “ship of state,” subdividing the single
main figure of speech into a series of nautical/political


parallels. Unlike the single metaphor, however, alle-
gory tends to depart from the world of sense-
experience, moving toward rumination. Metaphor sees,
but allegory thinks, and thus often creates an effect
of geometric abstraction. Allegory is furthermore
highly ornamental, using elaborate symbolism and

Deriving from Greek allos + agoreuein (“other +
speak out”), allegory implies only the most general
kind of semantic doubling, and classical rhetoric draws
rather uncertain lines between allegory and other fig-
ures of speech, metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, and
the like. It associates allegory with notions of design,
with terms like paradeigma and schema, and later
critics link allegory with figura, impresa, and emblema,
which point to vision, structure, and external form.

By contrast the older Greek term for allegorical
meaning refers us to a veiling function of language.
Hyponoia (ὑπόνοια) was the term which, Plutarch tells
us (De audiendis poetic 4.19), the “ancients” had used,
and it implies a hidden meaning, a conjectural or
suppositious sense, buried under the literal surface.
Plato (Republic II. 378d), Euripides (Phoenicians
1131-33), Aristophanes (Frogs 1425-31), Xenophon
(Symposium III, 6), all use hyponoia to mean what is
later subsumed under allegory (Pépin, pp. 85-86). Hy-
furthermore has a noetic character; the reader
or listener will have to think his way through a se-
mantic barrier, beyond which lies a realm of mystic
knowledge. Thus Philo Judaeus may equate the hy-
of a text with its latent theme, its mystery, its
secret, its unexpressed, unseen, nonliteral, or simply
intelligible meaning. While theological and other ex-
egetes stress the mysteries of allegory, and classical
rhetoric stresses its semantic form, analyzing the shift
from hidden to open meaning as a semantic inversion,
both exegetes and rhetoricians alike possess a large
store of technical synonyms, among them parabole,
typos, fabula, symbolon, ennoia, fictio, figmentum,
insinuatio, significatio, similitudo, figura, imago, inter-
pretatio, involucrum, integumentum.
Some of these
terms define the “external circumstances” of allegory
as a theological framework, others as philosophy, still
others as rhetoric or poetics. In most of the terms
obliquity and mystery are the chief emphasis. Augus-
tine observes in his De doctrina (2.7-8) that “when
something is searched for with difficulty it is, as a result,
more delightfully discovered.”

If an ascetic interpretive rigor is one main source
of pleasure in allegory, exegetical intricacy is the vice
of the mode. From a certain angle allegory is merely
a mode of systematic commentary upon a text, as
opposed to an unmediated, direct, or literal reading
of the text, and thus exegesis must depart from its
source in the text. This departure may become ob-
sessive. Dante labels his Commedia “digressive,” while
typically the medieval commentator ringed his text
with marginalia. The medieval distinction between a
gloss and a commentary allowed the latter to stray
further from the literal sense. The interpreter often
thought of himself as boring his way through a “rind”
or “bark,” so as to allow the hidden symbolic truth
to flow outward from the textual center. In the Middle
Ages at least a text would be valued in the measure
to which its lode of inner meaning appeared to defy

Continuities in the History of Allegory. A literary
method which encourages the search for multiplicity
of sense is bound to provoke attack from rationalist
quarters, a situation we observe with Plato, whose
rejection of the poets from his ideal republic includes
a rejection of the allegorical defense of Homeric myth.
Early Greek philosophers, among them Heraclitus and
Pythagoras, had found a piety toward god, nature, and
man in apparently scandalous passages concerning the
gods. Philosophy inverted myth, so that, for example,
the jealousy of a god would “truly” represent the
physical activity of a natural force. Such a means of
saving Homer for morality proved both superficial and
irrational in the light of Plato's dialectical analysis.
For Plato this allegorical transformation of evil-minded
myths did more harm than good, for it permitted the
continuance of poetry in preference to the higher
pursuit of philosophy. The wisdom saved thereby was,
in principle, sophistry. Ironically, Plato himself pro-
vided the most substantial mechanism and authority
for the persistence of Western allegory.

The Platonic theory of ideas has two aspects which
lead to allegorical interpretations of both signs and
things, provided the overarching authority of dialectic
is allowed to fade from sight. In the first place the
ideas may be taken to constitute the formulas, if not
exactly the forms, by which the allegorist's “some-
thing” is interpreted as “something else.” If the snake
is an emblem of jealousy, then it is the idea jealousy
that organizes the “coaptation” of the snake for this
symbolic purpose. To speak of “the idea of a thing”
is almost to invoke the allegorical process, for the idea
transcends the thing, much as the allegorist's fiction
departs from the literal sense of an utterance. Yet this
is not the strongest Platonic support for allegory, pow-
erful though it is.

More important is the Platonic arrangement of the
theory of ideas as a vast hierarchical construct, from
lower to higher forms. By adopting the “principle of
plenitude,” the notion that an intelligible world would
possess all possible forms of all possible things—as the
effluence of the One—Plato answered the allegorist's


encyclopedic demand for a plenitude of “somethings”
by which to symbolize his “anythings.” Plenitude also
implied an infinitely subdivided universe, while it led
to an otherworldly tendency within the whole ap-
proach to life, such that a Platonizing allegorist would
always be happy to think of X in terms of Y, since
this would achieve transcendency beyond the bonds
of mere material reference. By questioning the essential
value of material nature, the Platonic dialectic opens
the way to a spiritualizing of nature, and in the case
of Plato himself this leads to the use of allegory pre-
cisely at the moment in his dialogues when the analysis
of nature has reached the highest point of transcend-
ence describable in natural, human terms. At that point
a leap of iconographic faith takes place, as in the vision
of love Diotima gives Socrates, when the realistic and
human drama of the Symposium gives way to a “con-
ceptual myth,” a spiritual diagram of a love which
cannot be represented “in terms of” ordinary human
experience. The Platonic use of allegory, itself alle-
gorized in the Myth of the Cave, reaches a climax in
the Timaeus. There, since the universe is not explicable
in purely natural terms, its ideal character is permitted
to surge up in a fanciful, visionary theory of cosmic

The Platonic example may be archetypal for the
history of allegory, in that his attack upon Homeric
allegorizing is not as general or consistent as at first
it seems. He is perhaps open to the charge that he
is attacking any allegory which differs in its frame of
reference from his own. Throughout the complex de-
velopment of Hebraic-Christian exegesis such private
invectives are common. The Christian exegetes attack
their pagan counterparts, and then proceed to employ
the rejected hermeneutic method.

At the same time, while rejection and resistance to
allegory occur periodically within and between con-
tending schools of thought, the method can survive
attack largely because its principle of semantic inver-
sion enables the allegorist to shift his ground freely
whenever an opponent questions him. Since in the
theological context of most serious ancient allegory
there is scarcely room for a scientific theory of lan-
guage, since, in short, language is here a means of
revelation, there seems to have been no way for the
allegorist to gain perspective on his own activity. By
the second century A.D., as a treatise like Plutarch's
Of Isis and Osiris will show, a multiplicity of Medi-
terranean religions had grown up, yielding an unre-
strained exchange of figures between variant faiths,
each one providing the materials for iconography
within the framework of some other faith.

In spite of the intricacy of much exegesis the mode
generally depends for its force upon the belief that
words have magical power, a belief that is evident in
the influential treatises of Pseudo-Dionysius, On the
Celestial Hierarchy
and On the Divine Names. Plotinus
had already systematized the hierarchical aspect of the
Platonic ideas, giving to each hypostasis of the One
a particular magical quantum of effluence and in-
fluence. Within such frameworks allegory can play a
double role. In its Neo-Platonic aspect it looks “up-
ward” to a transcendental plane of purer Being, but
at the same time it retains the primitivist drive of a
language system in which every term has its own share
of magical force. By the same token most allegorical
fictions are romantic myths, in which the characters
make full use of magical weapons, vehicles, settings,
and quests. The history of allegory is, strictly speaking,
not the history of rival theologies and philosophies. The
logic of allegory is only remotely rationalistic. Instead,
we observe a struggle of magic-thinking to survive
within a climate of ever-increasing intellectual and
semantic sophistication. This is the more curious in the
light of the allegorist's frequent pretense of being logi-
cal and rational. The pretense covers the true situation,
which is that allegories are strict in the manner of
magic rituals, substituting mechanical for rational

Allegorical Syncretism. The creation and inter-
pretation of allegorical texts seems to depend on an
acceptance of syncretism, the kind of colloidal mixture
of religious, philosophical, and cultural beliefs which
particularly marks the Hellenistic Age, the second
century A.D., and the High Renaissance, although in
the Renaissance syncretism is strongly aesthetic in its
combination of elements. Syncretism may be icono-
graphically distinguished from synthesis, insofar as the
former preserves the individual traits of the combining
beliefs, whereas the latter would achieve a radical
transformation of disparate cultural forces, until a sin-
gle set among them came to dominate and control the
assimilation of other sets as minor premisses in the logic
of the culture as a whole. Syncretism is the cult of
diversity within a culture yearning for unified order.
It is often to be associated with gnostic spirituality,
since the experience of gnosis includes a transcendence
of the multiplicity of faiths by entertaining all their
claims on an equal footing. Thus Gnosticism finds its
sources in Greek Orphism, Pythagoreanism, Mazdean
dualism, Jewish apocalyptic, Egyptian mystery-
religions, Hellenistic astrological cult, and various kinds
of numerology, “along with the crass 'spirituality' of
mediums, quacks, and religious adventurers” (Grant,
Roman Hellenism, p. 74).

The early centuries of Christian expansion spanned
a period of syncretism in the Mediterranean world, a
fact not without its bearing on the development of


Christian exegesis. The Alexandrian School, most nota-
bly Clement and Origen, who anticipated the visions
of the fourth-century fathers, Basil of Caesarea,
Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa, introduced
key notions from Greek philosophy, which was given
authority for them by the syncretism of Philo, who,
although a Jew, stands at the head of this tradition.
The broadly allegorical structure of Augustine's two
cities, of God and Man, may owe something to his own
syncretic background. In such a climate the religious
convert may bring remnants of his former faith with
him into the new faith. Syncretism has this great ad-
vantage for the allegorist: it gathers in, rather than
expels; but at the same time it preserves the sense of
diverse origins and intellectual styles.

A similar, if theologically less complicated syn-
cretism surrounds the artist, poet, and scientist during
the Renaissance. The “survival of the pagan gods” can
occur then, as during the Middle Ages, because while
their pagan attributes are assimilated by allegory to
moral and mystical frameworks, all of which are guided
by Christian principle, their identities as pagan gods
are still preserved in ornamental forms within the work
of art. This “neo-paganism,” as we may call it, had
arisen early in the West and its legacy remains alive
even during the Middle Ages, although only when the
Renaissance saw a fresh sense of freedom within the
domain of vision and imagination could the cult of
diversity be permitted to express itself in designs of
universal harmony. There is thus no conflict in the fact
that Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, bases an important
episode and much of the detail of his Fifth Book on
“Egyptian” lore, coming from Plutarch, Of Isis and
and Lucian, De Syria dea, while allegorically
the poet ties these materials to the legend of Saint
George of England, the Arthurian Legend, fairy lore,
and so on, weaving the whole structure with fine traces
of Hermetic philosophy, number symbolism, and the
cosmology of Giordano Bruno. Such combinations sus-
their elements in a sort of mosaic. On the surface
such iconographies are richly textured and decorated.

Piety may be the chief source of syncretic abun-
dance. The allegorist does not wish to lose any of the
materials present to his mind. This is clear in the case
of both Homeric and biblical allegory. A range of
motives may contribute to such systematic “accommo-
dation.” Piety begins with the mystery of the word
itself, spoken in fine verses or written down in magical
alphabetic characters. Ancient allegory also displays
a reverence for age, naturally enough, since men
obeyed inherited social, political, and religious forms
of authority. Finally, piety includes the widely held
belief that poets, prophets, lawmakers, priests, and
philosophers—wise men, in short—enjoyed their wis
dom because they were divinely inspired. Inspiration
in particular could account for the jumble of disparate
pieces that, over time, found its way into a sacred
canon. The inspired and mystical meaning was proved
rather than disproved by the appearance of arbitrary
inclusion. The more erotic the Song of Songs, the better
its candidacy for allegorical interpretation as a myth
of hierogamy between divine and human partners.
Once the alien document is compressed into the overall
vision, its message, assumed to be an inspired revela-
tion, takes on a transcendental character, and allegory
must follow.

To piety as the conservative force of syncretism may
be added its debased form, superstition. A higher mo-
tive, which is harder to define, is the conciliatory and
accommodating desire to permit a diverse world of
many faces and characters. This motive comes into play
when rival world views meet in conflict at their bor-
ders, when the opposite impulse would, as with icono-
clasm, seek to destroy the rival iconography. Allegory
here becomes a diplomatic medium of thought. Pseudo-
Heraclitus, for example, tries to balance different in-
terests in his Homeric Problems (first century A.D.). He
claims that Homer's Apollo represents the sun, in a
physical allegory of the origins of the plague in the
Iliad, while his concern is with cosmogony in reading
Iliad XVIII, where the Shield of Achilles becomes for
him a vast cosmological symbol. Yet with these materi-
alist readings he aligns others of a different sort, as
when he moralizes Athena to mean wisdom, or Hermes
to mean eloquence and reason. Finally, his overall
syncretism stretches to include a quasi-historical alle-
gory, by which the adultery of Ares and Aphrodite
represents the mythic origin of metalworking, while
the ejection of Hephaistos from heaven stands for the
physical discovery that heat can be focussed by mirrors,
to create fire. The immediate aim of these varied inter-
pretations is the defense of Homer against his moraliz-
ing detractors, but beyond this, and perhaps more
deeply felt, is the exegete's desire to use Homer as the
encyclopedic container for a wide and disparate vari-
ety of intellectual disciplines. Philosophy ceases to be
the framework for Homer; Homer becomes the frame-
work for philosophy. Homer has attained the canonical
status of a sacred literary body.

The bolder allegorical syncretisms arise when the
elements to be contained by the allegory are histori-
cally accidental inclusions within an inherited literary
corpus. The problem is clearest with the Old Testa-
ment. Origen, who believes in the mysterious revela-
tions of Scripture, is aware how absurd it is to believe,
literally, that God planted a garden like a farmer, or
that He walked about in the garden. With the New
Testament Origen recognized the patently implausible


character of the story that the Devil could show the
kingdoms of the earth from a single mountain top.
“And the careful reader will detect thousands of other
passages in the gospels like this, which will convince
him that events which did not take place at all are
woven into the records of what literally did happen”
(De principiis IV.3.1). The allegorist therefore proposes
to supplant the literal inconsistency by a spiritual
equivalent possessed of inner truth, precisely, in short,
what had been veiled by the inconsistent literal surface.
Believing that “the skillful plan of [God] the provi-
dential ruler is not so clear in things on earth as it
is in regard to the sun and moon and stars,” Origen
asserts the revelatory function of language when deal-
ing with sacred literature.

Origen is influenced by Philo Judaeus, through the
intermediary Clement of Alexandria, and this Alex-
andrian tradition, which would show parallels in the
development of Hellenistic allegory, suggests that
major allegory requires a belief in miracles and epiphe-
nomena, at least on a verbal level. Origen notes that
it is “the most wonderful thing” that spiritual truths
could be veiled under “stories of wars and conquerors
and the conquered,” and he notes that “the Word of
God has arranged for certain stumbling-blocks, as it
were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted
in the midst of the law and the history.” Such barriers
are providential—the more strange they seem, the
more they goad the reader to “learn from the Scrip-
tures.” Like many allegorists, Origen can suddenly
undercut his own appearance of caprice. He holds that
the historically true passages are “far more numerous
than those which are composed with purely spiritual
meanings.” Yet whenever a historical scandal appears,
he can, if he chooses, fall back on a spiritual inter-
pretation. For this reason his method has appeared to
one of his close students “unchartably subjective....
Whatever Origen's theory of allegory may have been,
it is quite inaccurate to call his application of its sys-
tematic” (Hanson, p. 245). Now, if allegory is expected
to have what Hanson calls “rules,” it seems clear that
Origen and all other major allegorists are “unchartably
subjective.” But then, so is syncretism in general, and
for that reason, in describing his own work, Dante used
his term “polysemous,” or ambiguous.

Yet another approach will demand both more and
less from allegorical syncretism and will perhaps justify
its endless prolixity. This approach is to be found in
the Origenist and Philonic belief in the mystery of the
Word. Prophecy assumes that the prophet not only sees
the vision of the truth, but can “speak out” for this
vision, sharing in the divine Logos. Philo may alle-
gorize any portion of the Old Testament, any single
image or word, any story, any disparity or contra
dictory episode. But he does not do this in a spirit of
negative or defensive reaction, but rather as the ex-
pression of an intellectual or speculative freedom. This
mode employs philosophic methods, but Philo is per-
haps less a philosopher than a prophet of philosophy.
Thus he may go beyond the Platonic use of the Ideas
as the forms, or paradigms, of things in the universe,
and can hold that the Logos is everywhere immanent
in the cosmos—“the totality of the powers of God
existing within the cosmos itself” (Wolfson, Philo, p.
327). This Logos, unlike the Stoics' material logos, is
immaterial, and on that basis can lead to allegories
judged “unchartably subjective” from the perspective
of natural and human history. Phrased differently, the
Philonic use of an immanent logos directs hermeneutic
towards mystery, which is buried within the Word,
whereas the Stoic logos directs it away from mystery
towards reason. Yet Philo and the allegorical tradition
stemming from him may not be identified with the via
of the mystics, since rather than draw his
cosmological interpretations into such a spiritualism
of the Logos that they reach evanescence, in a cloud
of unknowing, he draws them toward an infinitely
ramified, but consistently word-centered universe of
discourse. What saves his allegory from irrationality
is its recognition that “rationality, when conceived as
complete, as excluding all arbitrariness, becomes itself
a kind of irrationality” (Lovejoy, Great Chain of Being,
p. 331). Philo is continuously interested in the verbal,
linguistic aspect of the Word. He shares the almost
immemorial use of exegetical etymologizing, which is
finally canonized in the encyclopedic Etymologiae of
Saint Isidore. If we broaden the Philonic approach to
include images and figures of speech as well as the
literal or referential materials of language, we may
speak of the “logology” of poets and artists as well
as of theologians and philosophers (Burke, Rhetoric of

The underlying wisdom of the Philonic strain of
allegory is its stress on the freedom of the interpreting
mind, on what a seventeenth-century divine called “the
liberty of prophesying.” Its vice is ingenuity, but its
virtue is the corresponding one of a compulsion to
investigate and comment upon the Word and its prog-
eny, words. The noblest document composed with such
allegory in mind is the Fourth Gospel. Common to all
such Logos-centered allegories is the belief that words
contain wisdom, and the form in which we inherit
words from the past is itself not without reason, if we
can only discover the inner web of motives that led
to the slow formation of that legacy. It is often said
that allegory, outside the specifically historical mode
known as typology, is antihistorical. When morality
and ethics are the reference-point, this is true enough.


But because words are an essential mechanism of
human thought, their recorded forms of combination
and formation are primary resources of the historian,
and the allegorist's accommodative impulse includes a
desire to preserve these resources, rather than see them
destroyed by advances or regressions of a cultural set.
When the ancient gloss identifies Zeus as “life,” be-
cause his name coincides with the Greek word for life,
an element of history enters the interpretation through
what may be a false etymology. Such equations hold
that the universe is coherent when read as a logos.

Allegory and the Cosmos. The history of allegory
is tuned to the history of cosmological speculation, so
much so that allegory might be defined as figurative
cosmology. Each such fiction presents the image of a
universe (and this is true even of short works), or
implies that its details fit into a cosmic picture. Yet
this imagery is not identical with the scientist's use of
theoretical models. The allegorist does not prove and
disprove hypotheses which are then dropped if they
fail to hold up as fact. Allegory does not move toward
the certainty of fact; it moves toward tenacity of belief.
Analogy serves the allegorist, as it serves the cosmolo-
gist, but here the test of the figurative schema is not
its yield of experiment or observation, but its fertility
in leading to still further figuration. The allegorist
treats his universe as if its being were literal, as if it
were a book. Thus there arises the tradition of “book
as symbol,” in which Homer and the Bible hold the
first place. Such works are simply large enough to
contain a world of words. In them the cult of the One
gives way to a cult of the Universe.

As distinct from the Hellenic, a somewhat less phys-
ical notion of cosmos governs the Hebraic-Christian
tradition. Here, from the encyclopedic resources of the
Old Testament come theories of the Law as the form
of the universe. Philo found the Law “complete and
true and good,” and in this total system “anything that
seemed to be lacking in it was really hidden behind
the literalness of the words and it was the task of the
student to search it out” (Wolfson, Church Fathers, p.
25). Not necessarily the truth or the goodness of the
Torah led to its exegetical treatment, but rather its
assumed completeness. For Christians this unity carried
over into the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy
by events recounted in the New. The structure of the
Bible as it finally evolved into the canonical Books,
bounded by Genesis and the Apocalypse, implies the
cosmic analogy on which its Logos is ordered.

Syncretism in ancient Mediterranean religious life
raised the question of universal order, while the in-
fluence of Alexander also led in this direction. The
monolithic pretensions of Augustan Rome may likewise
have influenced the strongly allegorical cast of Vergi
lian and Ovidian poetry, so different from Homer. But
it was not until the Middle Ages that the drive toward
universal containment and encirclement led to the
complete dominance of allegorical methods. From the
eleventh century onwards influences from Pseudo-
Dionysius, Plato, and Plotinus give exegetes a secure
sense of philosophic direction. The Timaeus and the
Celestial Hierarchy provide terms and images. But in
all areas of life this period shows universalist pre-
tensions, which Maurice de Wulf characterized simply
as “a tendency toward unity.” Political dreams of a
universal brotherhood, intellectual dreams of a totally
organized body of knowledge, theological dreams of
a total theological summa—these were the natural
background for allegorical literature. Bernard of
Clairvaux finds infinite detail in a closed world, by
imagining four infinitely reflexive “mirrors” of knowl-
edge—the natural, intellectual, moral, and historical.
Dante's Commendia, whose form and setting rival the
universe, finds a parallel in his De monarchia, a theory
of political unification. By symmetry the actual physi-
cal universe is converted into a symbol, and we can
speak of a “symbolic mentality” which denied the more
immediate puzzles presented by the senses. The flight
from the limited toward the infinity of the Divine
Being kept its balance only, if at all, by asserting that
man's world was closed and finite. Ockham's principle
of parsimony was invented, it seems, to stem this icon-
ographic tide, since scholastic thought, at first ration-
alizing, ends by absorbing the medieval compulsion to
turn relations into icons.

In a sense allegory thrives even more abundantly
during the Renaissance, because the new cosmology
does not at once drive out the old, so that visionary
and scientific cosmologies coexist, their very difference
enriching the imagery of poets and theologians. The
main development of the mode is the gradual rejection
of the theory of “levels” of meaning. Most allegorists
have in fact used two levels, whatever they may have
claimed to do. They take a sentence and give it a
double meaning. At its simplest this process will be
seen in the parables of Christ. Clement of Alexandria,
however, distinguished four levels on which he could
read a sacred text, a literal level and three subsidiary
symbolic stages, the moral, physical, and theological.
Origen held that as man is made of body, soul, and
spirit, so interpretation must yield three levels of
meaning, the literal, moral, and spiritual. Jerome in-
voked the literal, tropological, and mystical. Augustine
held that all readings of Scripture, however structured,
should express charity, yet he too could speak of a
hierarchy of levels, for instance, historical, aetiological,
analogical, and allegorical (De utilitate credendi, 3.5).
What became the classical formulation of Christian


method, the fourfold theory, appeared in Saint John
Cassian, who set forth a system of historical (literal),
tropological (moral), allegorical, and anagogical. This
theory is encapsulated in the mnemonic distich, first
cited in 1330, by Augustin de Dacie:
Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
Moralia quid agas, quo tendas anagogica.
The effect of such planar theories of reading is that
allegory becomes more mechanical in theory than it
can or need ever be in practice.

What was once available only to the instructed
interpreter is now the common property of the experi-
encing subject. It is an error, however, to believe that
romantic “symbolism” destroys allegory, although it
loosens and reorders the “levels” on which texts are
made and read. Shelley's Prometheus Unbound is as
much an allegory as the Psychomachia of Prudentius
(348-?410). Where the mode radically declines in force
is not as a creative method, but in the interpretive
divisions of theology, where the new criticism of the
Bible, with its scientific research into textual evolution,
raises questions about the literary level which are so
searching that the dependent symbolic levels pale in
theological importance.

Allegory and Time. “Rationality has nothing to do
with dates.” Thus Lovejoy epitomized the static and
“absolutely rigid” form of the Great Chain of Being
as it had set up the framework of traditional allegory.
The stasis of hierarchy is mirrored in the markedly
static character of most allegorical fictions, be they
stories, dramas, lyrics, or whatever. Allegorical narra-
tive yields a fixated image of change, in which time
is synchronic, never diachronic. Augustine imagines
human destiny in the shape of a city, following the
Book of Revelation. Joachim of Floris diagrams history
as an allegorical tree with stems and branches. Time
becomes a hypostatized form of becoming.

Two aspects of the mode are thus historically prob-
lematic. (1) The Hebraic-Christian belief in prophecy
asserts that historical figures may prefigure other his-
torical figures, Joshua becoming the “type” of Jesus.
Scholars have held that the historicity of the figurae
radically differentiates them from allegorical emblems,
such as the anchor of faith. Yet the typological figure
is under constant pressure to revert to a timeless sym-
bol, since typology in fact is collapsing the diachronic
time-span and stopping the fluent openness of time by
envisioning miraculous kairoi, or prophetic moments
when time “stands still.” (2) Modern science attacks
the fixation of allegory in yet another quarter, and here
perhaps there exists a possibility of a radical change
in the allegorical method. During and after the Renais-
sance new methods arise for the analysis and explora
tion of the origins of things, along with their progres-
sive development away from those origins. The text
of the Bible is one such object of study, but the physical
universe and the historical world of men are more
crucial. In the Monads of Bruno and Leibniz the Great
Chain of Being is “temporalized,” as the closed world
of Ptolemy, so useful to the poet's need for a cosmos,
gives way to an infinite universe.

Even more upsetting is the discovery of anthro-
pological development. With the Renaissance a some-
what aesthetic cult of Euhemerus arises, finding human
origins for the gods, who are regarded as divinized
heroes. Such beliefs lead, along with new historical and
archeological knowledge, to new theories of human
evolution, beginning with primitive forms and advanc-
ing to more complex societies. After Vico it is no longer
possible for mythology or iconography to divorce itself
from temporal change. First the philosophes of the
Enlightenment debunk the allegorizing of the gods and
daemons, then the ground shifts under all forms of
imagination, so that developmental myths take over
from the former static world view. The “new allegor-
ism” tends to be more monolithic than the old, permit-
ting a single theory of change, whatever it may be,
to explain various possible modes of change.

Allegory and Decorum. While a large view may
portend the general undermining of allegory in the
modern period, the close-up analysis of allegory makes
this appear an unlikely development. Allegories are,
as a symbolic mode, composed of ornaments—not,
strictly speaking, metaphors. Thus, the Greek term for
the larger outlines of a major allegory would be kosmos,
while in classical Greek the same term does double
duty for the rhetorician's “ornament.” The same double
usage appears in Latin decus, which grows into the
English terms “decoration” and “decorum.” Allegory
expresses the interplay of little and great worlds, which
are ornamentally reflecting surfaces of microcosm and

There is no reason to suppose that men will cease
to decorate themselves or fail to recognize decorum.
But modes of ornament continuously change. Con-
ceivably the present world, with its increased stand-
ardization of artifacts and its diminishing barriers to
travel, will see the speeding-up of allegorical processes.
Whether revolutions undermine or reorder cosmologies
has become the allegorist's chief problem. Allegory can
no longer be what for centuries it had tried to be, the
image of permanence in a world of flux. Franz Kafka
is perhaps the greatest allegorical writer of modern
times, and his work revels in cloudy interactions be-
tween wierdly undefined characters. Yet Kafka looks
at this obscure scene with microscopic delicacy. He
bases his fictions largely upon “the Law,” on which,


following the ancient Jewish tradition, he meditates
and builds a vision of man's destiny as a creature caught
up in a closed, imprisoning world.

Generally speaking, modern allegory shows sings of
breaking down many of the normal divisions between
things, either by use of dream-mechanisms or by other
surrealistic devices. The mode is creatively perhaps
most alive in science-fiction, but it permeates the art
of advertising, wherever decoration and decorum are
the primary commercial interests. Philosophically and
theologically there is less place for allegory than in
earlier centuries, but one can discern traces of it in
the subjectivism of the phenomenologist's concept of
transcendence, and in the actual use of fiction by ex-
istentialist authors (for example, the novels of Camus,
or earlier, the quasi-fictional treatises of Kierkegaard).
As in previous times, the allegorist can today use many
different media, including music (with “programs” and
leitmotifs) and the visual arts (with emblems and icons).


General discussions: Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of
(Boston, 1961); Jean Daniélou, Sacramentum futuri:
études sur les origines de la typologie biblique
(Paris, 1950);
Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode
(Ithaca, 1964); Northrop Frye, “Allegory,” Dictionary of
Poetry and Poetics
(Princeton, 1967); R. P. C. Hanson, Alle-
gory and Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance
of Origen's Interpretation of Scripture
(London, 1959); Roger
Hinks, Myth and Allegory in Ancient Art (London, 1939);
Henri de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale: les quatre sens de
Parts I and II (Paris, 1959-64); Erwin Panofsky,
Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the
(New York, 1939); Jean Pépin, Mythe et allé-
gorie: les origines grecques et les contestations judéo-
(Paris, 1958); Rosemond Tuve, Allegorical
(Princeton, 1968); H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy
of the Church Fathers,
Vol. I: Faith, Trinity, Incarnation
(Cambridge, Mass., 1956); idem, Philo: Foundations of Reli-
gious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,
2 vols.
(Cambridge, Mass., 1947).

More specialized treatments: Erich Auerbach, “Figura,”
Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays
(New York, 1959); Edgar de Bruyne, Études d'esthétique
(Bruges, 1946); Rudolf Bultmann et al., Kerygma
and Myth: A Theological Debate
(New York, 1961), trans-
lated from the German, Kerygma und Mythos, Vol. I;
Manfred Bukofzer, “Allegory in Baroque Music,” Journal
of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes,
3 (1939-40); M. L.
Colish, The Mirror of Language: A Study in the Medieval
Theory of Knowledge
(New Haven, 1968); C. H. Dodd, The
Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel
(Cambridge, 1953); E. R.
Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some
Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to
(Cambridge, 1968); Austin Farrer, A Rebirth
of Images: the Making of St. John's Apocalypse
1949); Rosemary Freeman, English Emblem Books (London,
1948); F. C. Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testa-
(New York, 1962); Adolf Katzellenbogen, Allegories
of the Virtues and Vices in Mediaeval Art
(London, 1939);
G. B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian
Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers
Mass., 1959); A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: a
Study of the History of an Idea
(Cambridge, Mass., 1936);
Frank Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods
(Cambridge, Mass., 1959); René Roques, L'Univers
dionysien: Structure hiérarchique du monde selon le Pseudo-
(Paris, 1954); Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan
Gods: the Mythological Tradition and its Place in Renais-
sance Humanism and Art
(New York, 1953); C. S. Singleton,
“Allegory,” Essays on Dante, ed. Mark Musa (Bloomington,
1964); Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World
(Baltimore, 1963); Maurice de Wulf, Philosophy
and Civilization in the Middle Ages
(Princeton, 1913); Edgar
Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London, 1958).

On literary conventions: Harry Berger, Jr., The Allegorical
(New Haven, 1957); Ernst Curtius, European Liter-
ature in the Latin Middle Ages,
trans. W. Trask (New York,
1953); Edmond Faral, Les Arts poétiques du XII et du XIII
(Paris, 1924); Edwin Honig, Dark Conceit: the Making
of Allegory
(Evanston, 1959); C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of
(Oxford, 1936); E. D. Leyburn, Satiric Allegory: the
Mirror of Man
(New Haven, 1956); Michael Murrin, The
Veil of Allegory
(Chicago, 1969).

A crucial, but very recent, publication is D. C. Allen,
Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism
and Allegorical Interpretation in the Renaissance


[See also Ambiguity; Analogy; Chain of Being; Hermeticism;
Iconography; Prophecy; Symbol.]