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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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In Western cultural history ambiguity has been a
pejorative term until the twentieth century. This bias
against the presence of two or more meanings in any
statement reflects the general bias of the civilization
which traditionally from Classical Greek times has
placed its faith in reason and an orderly universe—a
civilization which, by extension, has operated on a tacit
belief in the reliability of the reasoning process and
its correspondence with external reality. Consequently
men for centuries did not question the relationship
between words and things, and were able to assume
that no responsible statement could contradict any


other, that if apparent contradictions emerged in
speaking, clarity and coherence, hence truth, could be
achieved by amplification. Thus the Greek word for
universe (κόσμος) carried both a scientific and an aes-
thetic meaning. Ambiguity in this cultural context
represented therefore a failure at truth, a failure in
communication attributable either to excessive brevity,
deliberate obscurity of phrasing, or to ineptitude.

Nevertheless, in spite of this general prejudice
against confusing or misleading statements, certain
kinds of ambiguous utterances were acceptable to the
ancient Greeks. The earliest examples of these ambig-
uities are sub-literary and are cast in forms that still
reflect the primitive faith in a world that contains
precise answers to all questions. Oracular utterances
emanating from holy places presupposed the accuracy
of the priestess's veiled message, since it was the voice
of God that spoke through her. Because the passive
role of medium did not include comprehension, eluci-
dation for the priestess as well as the petitioner came
with the passage of time. With arcane formulae and
recipes the speaker assumed an active role—curses,
spells, charms, and ritual signs and dances being early
examples of human attempts to control external events
through empirical means. The body of knowledge
behind these practical skills was invariably recorded
in symbolic language, but the obscurity of this form
of technical jargon could have been ambiguous only
to the non-initiates of occult fraternities.

Closer to art in our sense of the word are riddles
which are self-annihilating word games, a form of
social entertainment that also presupposes the existence
of precise answers to questions, but which require the
agency of interlocutor and respondee to complete the
process: riddles cease to exist when the meaning is
discovered. The contrivance of an endpoint of only one
possible answer or meaning differentiates riddles from
enigmas, myths, and genuine works of art for which
there are no determinable endpoints of contemplation.
Ambiguity as an aesthetic principle emerged therefore
when artists deliberately contrived complex structures
that generated a plurality of meanings.

In Greek literature it was the mantic Pindar who
modified the oracular tradition for artistic purposes.
In the Hymn to Zeus (only fragments of which have
survived) God announces that no beauty is complete
without praise. By inference, therefore, the poet's sta-
tus was holy and his function was to celebrate. But
what Pindar was celebrating in his hymns of victory
for athletes, and why the odes are apparently lacking
in unity constitute an enigma. While there is no mys-
tery as to to whom the ἐπινίκια were addressed, there
is ambiguity as to the true subject of the poems. More-
over the praises characteristically open brilliantly, as
all readers have remarked, but trail off and merely stop,
a criticism that may not be relevant to works meant
to be orchestrated and choreographed. Nevertheless
the structural peculiarities may point to another level
of meaning if the poems are accepted as Pindar's
records of theophanies that occurred at religious
games, an institution that was more ancient than
Homer and the Trojan War. Traditionally, the arena
in which the contest took place was sacred ground,
the athletic event an agon, and the victory a kairos
that transformed the contestant into a hero, a term
originally applied only to the dead, but progressively
applied to the living.

This cultural change created a third, ambiguous
middle zone between the natural and supernatural
worlds, in metaphysical terms a new ontological cate-
gory to which the living aspired. Through excellence
which led to transcendence, the presence of the gods
could be summoned to this juncture between two
worlds. Victory conferred therefore a multivalent status
upon the hero, the attainment of a more complete state
of being poised between time and eternity. But the
duration of this achievement was also ambiguous, since
on the level of actuality the victory won by the indi-
vidual could be lost at the next festival. It is likely,
therefore, that the poet's solution to this cultural para-
dox was the juxtaposition of his favorite images in the
context of an amorphous structure: gold representing
the permanence of the state of pure being; light repre-
senting the incandescent moment of victory when the
hero became a presence, its occurrence a metaphor
for the process of heroization, and its visible behavior
mysterious and of short duration. The waning structure
of the Pindarics may allude therefore to metaphysical
problems that had no solutions, problems that in a
prelogical age could be expressed only in mythopoeic

The traditional practice of classifying according to
the place of the festival might have been consonant
with Pindar's intention, for if the poems were records
of theophanies, where they occurred was more impor-
tant than other considerations. The Olympia I, in
Richmond Lattimore's translation, begins:

Best of all things is water; but gold, like a gleaming fire
by night, outshines all pride of wealth beside.
But, my heart, would you chant the glory of games,
look never beyond the sun
by day for any star shining brighter through the deserted air,
nor any contest than Olympia greater to sing.
It is thence that the song winds strands
in the hearts of the skilled to celebrate
the son of Kronos. They come their ways
to the magnificent board of Hieron....


A prose reading structured according to hierarchy
might be as follows:

Water is the best of all things if usefulness is the criterion,
but it is too humble and ordinary to attract attention. Gold,
on the other hand, not only has the appearance of excellence
but is in fact more valuable than other metals. But better
than either of these is my ode composed at Olympia, sacred
to Zeus, and occasioned by the victory of Syracusan

That this univocal lucidity was achieved by limiting
meanings either by amplification or its opposites, com-
pression or suppression, reveals something of the aims
and techniques of Pindar. A multivalenced reading
might superimpose upon the prose version the follow-

Water is the best of all things because it supports life which
is the best of all things. But what is best in the world of
nature is not best in the metaphysical realm, since the gold
of pure being outshines the earthly fame that adheres to
the possessors of great wealth. But I am a poet, and poetry
is of this world. Therefore in the search for subjects I look
no further than the visible world, but choose excellence.
The sun has no rivals for brilliance by day, Olympia—sacred
to the son of Kronos—none for antiquity and dignity....

Pindar has contrived different levels of reality with
different criteria of excellence through the use of
gnomic opening, riddle, paradox, symbol, myth, and
a multiplicity of meanings through overlapping cate-
gories. Moreover, suppressed information that must be
inferred is not only technique but meaning in poems
that both celebrate and are theophanies. Olympia is
compared to the sun that makes invisible lesser stars.
That Pythia, Isthmia, and Nemea are not mentioned
may be more than tact. Also, the term “Son of Kronos”
is not only traditional formula, but a way of evoking
both gods for the purpose of opposing Time with
Permanence if the self-manifestation of Zeus is the true
subject of the poem. Standing, as it were, historically
between Mycenae and Athens, and artistically between
temple and hippodrome, the Theban Pindar in life was
awarded the right to an equal share of first-fruit offer-
ings by the Pythian priestess of Delphi, and after death,
heroization, his ghost being invited annually to dine
with Apollo (Gilbert Norwood, Pindar [1945]). But
religious games, Thebes, and Pindar were all anachro-
nisms in the light of world history, for the political
reality of the expansion of the Persian Empire and the
need for a Greek response gave the leadership of that
civilization to Athens.

The rapidity of change that accounts for the ultimate
displacement of the arts in Athens also explains the
ascendance of drama over lyric in the early stages of
this process. For, according to John H. Finley, Jr.,
Aeschylus was “the inventor of the idea of meaningful
time” (Pindar and Aeschylus [1955]). But the optimistic
view of history presented in Aeschylus' Oresteia gave
way to the inconclusive debate in Sophocles' Antigone,
and to the doubts raised as to the ambiguous benefits
of language in Euripides' Hippolytus, for the cultural
relativity introduced by the Sophists had challenged
not only the traditional content of the arts, but the
connection between words and things, as well. Thus
on the one hand Aristophanes complained that “They
have dethroned Zeus, and Vortex is King” (Georgio di
Santillana, The Origins of Scientific Thought [1961]).
On the other hand, the new status of language as
reasoning instrument made words the domain of crea-
tors of systems: the scientists, philosophers, and histo-
rians in whom the tacit faith of the dramatists was
continued. Their assertion of the inevitability of conse-
quences from acts knowingly or unwittingly committed
was abstracted as the uniformity of nature's laws which
could be discovered by following the laws of logic. For
the rationalists, therefore, ambiguity was neither thing
nor principle, but a phase in the reasoning process
between perception and knowledge. But the history
of this movement was also one of degeneration, since
“Men seemed to be capable of sacrificing the Law of
Contradiction for the sake of comfort” (George Boas,
Rationalism in Greek Philosophy [1961]).

The history of rationalism parallels the story of
introspection and the discovery of the self. The reduc-
tion of the wealth of Homeric terms for what subse-
quently were the simplified categories of “body” and
“soul” reveals the metamorphosis of the conception
of man from aggregate to unit, a change confirmed
in art by the abandonment of the geometric style of
the late archaic period (Bruno Snell, The Discovery of
the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought

[1953]). This unification through simplification pro-
duced at the same time a common denominator that
could be projected either as causal nexus or as focus
of interest for artistic purposes. The failure of Greek
politics thus gave a new direction to the arts in the
Greco-Roman period (Moses Hadas, Hellenistic Cul-
ture: Fusion and Diffusion
[1959]). The emergence of
the spiritual landscape of the pastoral lyric asserted
the validity of the private and subjective world; the
improbable world of the romances proclaimed at the
same time the unpredictability of Fortune and a faith
in an incomprehensible but benign Providence; and the
composition of spiritual biographies called aretologies
that transformed moral teachers into cult figures—all
point to the kind of consolation men sought.

Nevertheless, after Aristotle, literary works ad-
dressed to the reason as well as to the sentiments were
subject to more stringent standards of consistency,
hence the criticism of Vergil's Aeneid that persists to
this day. Apparently in the cultural climate of his time,


even the political success of Augustan Rome did not
prevent the poet from longing for the other world, and
this moral ambivalence produced an artistic duplicity
in an epic that attempted to satisfy by simple juxta-
position the rival claims of both worlds. The two halves
of the epic are thus disjunctive, the first modeled upon
the horizontal plan of the Odyssey, the second upon
the vertical transcendence of the Iliad, with no attempt
to relate them. At mid-point between the two halves
Vergil placed the gates from the underworld (VI,
888-98; Loeb Library, I, 571):

And when Anchises had led his son over every scene, and
fired his soul with love of fame that was to be, he tells
him then of the wars he must thereafter wage, and instructs
him of the Laurentine peoples and the city of Latinus and
how he is to flee or face each toil.

Two gates of Sleep there are, whereof the one is said
to be of horn, and thereby an easy outlet is given to true
shades; the other gleaming with the sheen of polished ivory,
but false are the dreams sent by the spirits to the world
above. There then with these words Anchises attends both
his son and the Sibyl, and dismisses them by the ivory gate.

Because this episode is pivotal, its interpretation will
determine the meaning of the whole work. The easiest
solution is to conjecture a mistake on the part of the
author. The principle of durior lectio, on the other
hand, requires a reading of the text as it stands. Clearly
Aeneas and the Sibyl have made their exit from the
wrong gate if the world of political Rome is not to
be dismissed as a vain dream; alternatively if the reality
of Rome is asserted, Aeneas himself is a false dream.
Thus the Law of Contradiction is evoked, and as the
two halves of the epic seem mutually exclusive, cen-
turies of readers have in effect discarded the last six
books. It is likely, however, that the poet was in fact
asserting both worlds but could find no satisfactory
solution to his problem. The characterization of his
eponymous hero as “pious” was Vergil's way of making
him both historical founder and presiding genius of city
and empire. Whereas the fusion of two roles in one
character succeeded, the work as a whole did not, and
the poet's instruction in his will that the epic be de-
stroyed may be interpreted as the recognition of his
failure to reconcile the ideas of history and eternity,
a conjecture made more probable by the fact that
Vergil died in Greece while revising the Aeneid. The
precise destination of Vergil's cultural pilgrimage is
unknown, but it was at Alexandria, through Philo's
multileveled but unified interpretation of sacred his-
tory, that a solution was found. Philo's elaborate rami-
fications of the allegorical method are, therefore, the
first critical treatises on one, perhaps the most rational,
type of ambiguity.

Among the backgrounds to the solution of this two-
fold problem was typology, a chronological projection
of allegory that was one of the several innovations of
the Old Testament Prophets. Responding to the imme-
diate political needs of a threatened Judea, their messi-
anic message fused policy with prophecy by historical
analogy. The recurrent cycle of slavery and deliverance
encouraged faith in a redeemer; therefore some of these
leaders saw their lives as both fact and symbol: they
were “types” of Moses and Messiah, intermediary fig-
ures that recapitulated past events while prophetically
living the future. And by generalizing and extending
in both directions it was possible to join together the
end of history with its beginning, erasing the distinction
between prophecy and apocalypse; thus for Isaiah, the
Messiah that he prophesied was to be another Adam
in another Paradise:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of
Jesse.... And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins,
and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. The wolf also shall
dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with
the kid.... And the lion shall eat straw like the ox

11:1, 5-7).

Isaiah's inclusion of a genealogy was an expression
of faith in the continuity of history, even as his projec-
tion of a Messiah documented the need for a cult figure
(as alternative to relapse into idolatry) to focus the
aspirations of a people in troubled times. Centuries
later the selection of Jesus as the announced Second
Adam gave to his followers a fixed point for their
interpretation of history, and Moses was then reduced
to a “type” who prefigured the Christ in whom the
Law and the Prophetic promises were fulfilled. Alle-
gory became therefore an indispensable tool for this
new religion with evangelical and universalist aims.

The Prophetic interpretation of political events
constituted in effect the invention of world history. And
because history was the revealed will of God, approved
records of the past were subsequently organized into
a canon and elevated to the status of Scripture. The
transcendence implied by this new category of writing
produced therefore works in Greco-Roman times that
took on the character of vulgate romances with apocry-
phal additions. The linear projection of history was
now abandoned in favor of a single character who
anachronistically embodied the past and future experi-
ence of the people. But world history could also be
projected in this fashion, as in the case of the gigantic
statue of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the different mate-
rials of which the figure was made representing the
chronology of kingdoms, the last or fifth monarchy
being the millenium. The author of the Book of Daniel
(a figure unrecorded elsewhere before the second cen-
tury) retold therefore the history of the Jews, compos-
ing a “myth” of the Old Testament as nucleus to a
story intended to encourage the people persecuted


under the Seleucid King, Antiochus Epiphanes. Al-
though he set his story in Babylonia and Persia, in the
stratified characterization of Daniel the reader recog-
nizes Joseph and Solomon, and in the apocryphal addi-
tions the ritualistic bias of the Haggidic tradition. In
short, the character of Daniel is an “historical ex-
emplum,” and the technique of deliberate anachronism
allowed the author to shift from Hebrew to late
Aramaic in mid-sentence, a fact that could not be
passed unobserved by his first readers. Seen in this light,
the Book of Daniel served the same aretalogical pur-
pose as the Gospels, the author's open-ended scheme
consistent with a religion historically predicated on the
metaphysical principle of becoming. But unlike the
Gospels, Daniel records the Jewish retreat from uni-
versalism, a fact that also explains their rejection of
Philo as biblical exegete. Contrary to his intentions,
therefore, Philo became the ancestor to the medieval
Christian philosophers (Harry Austryn Wolfson, Philo,
2 vols. [1962]).

The allegorization that unified the Old and New
Testaments for the Christians also transformed their
Bible into a universal history; therefore the word alle-
gory acquired a new meaning. For the Greek ration-
alists, allegory referred merely to a figurative use
of language—in short, a fiction. But for the Christians
symbols were nothing less than visible signs of the
Truth they were instructed to propagate universally.
In the resulting conflicts the production of apologies
in response to attacks progressively clarified doctrine
and assumptions (Claude Tresmontant, La Métaphy-
sique du christianisme et la naissance de la philosophie
[1961]) that later received systematic treat-
ment (Étienne Gilson, La Philosophie au Moyen Age

But it was on the level of sentiment that the appeal
of Christianity lay, since the pessimism inherent in the
Greek cyclical notion of history, and its counterpart
for the individual, endless reincarnation in an un-
changing world governed by eternal laws—could not
compete against a religion that recognized the individ-
ual soul and offered a personal redeemer, a compas-
sionate God, and a progressive, meaningful world his-
tory. The conversion of Constantine that automatically
made Christianity the official religion of the empire,
and the expansion of the Church's boundaries as other
forms of rule failed marked the extent and degree of
this cultural revolution. According to Erwin Panofsky,
(Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism [1951], pp. 3, 4):

To the Carolingian revival of the arts there corresponds,
in philosophy, the phenomenon of John the Scot, equally
magnificent, equally unexpected.... About a hundred
years of fermentation in both fields were followed, in art,
by a variety and contrariety of Romanesque... and, in
theology and philosophy, by a similar multiplicity of diver-
gent currents, from uncompromising fideism and ruthless
rationalism to the proto-humanism of... the school of

The allegory, analogy, and symbolism that charac-
terized medieval thought was the very foundation of
the Gothic church, beginning with the cruciform
groundplan and the general orientation of the struc-
ture. The common supposition that everything visible
was a symbol led William Durandus, the thirteenth-
century Bishop of Mende, to compile and invent in
his Rationale divinorum officiorum layer upon layer
of meaning to every detail of church, ornaments, rites,
and ceremonies. Thus the foundation of the church
represented Faith; the roof Charity, because it covered
a multitude of sins; the door, Obedience—“If thou wilt
enter into life, keep the Commandments” (Matthew
19:17). Moreover, the sacristy symbolized the womb
of the Virgin Mary where Christ put on his humanity,
since that was where the priests, his representatives
on earth, put on their robes.

Because the main entrance to the church, the west
door, faced the material world from which the laity
came to worship, church facades became visual syn-
opses of theology, and in some instances the anonymous
artists found ways to represent doctrinal ambiguities.
Among the statues and the high relief carvings that
make up the facade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame
in Paris is a standing niche figure of the Virgin Mary,
heavy with Child. What distinguishes this work from
others that serve a similar architectural function (Adolf
Katzenellenbogen, The Sculptural Programs of Chartres
Cathedral: Christ-Mary-Ecclesia
[1959]) is the series of
choices the artist made. Like his contemporaries, in
his wish to recall an event in Time and to evoke its
Eternal meaning he engaged in deliberate anachronism,
for his Virgin is not yet the Mother of Jesus; never-
theless she is already crowned the Queen of Heaven.
But beyond these conventional details is the more
significant combination of the Virgin's enigmatic smile
and the gesture of her hands, arrested in mid-motion.
The viewer is uncertain whether she (Figlia del tuo
) is blessing the Fruit of her Womb or whether
she is praying to the Eternal God. The ambiguity in
the intent of her gesture reflected that of her status,
for on the one hand the doctrine of Christ's humanity
allowed one to believe that a dutiful Son would be
obedient to the wishes of his Mother. On the other,
it was also held that the Incarnation was the greatest
indignity suffered by God—in which case the status
of the Virgin was merely that of the Chosen Vessel
which gave her a place of honor but not necessarily
any authority in heaven. Consequently both rank and


function of Queen of Heaven and Mediatrix of Grace,
titles for which no authority existed, were doubtful.

On the practical level the wish of the Church on
Earth to be in accord with the one in Heaven raised
questions touching upon the validity of unauthorized
modes of worship. It is probable that the influence of
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Marian Doctor, en-
couraged the church's toleration of this form of idolatry
as counter-measure against the growing popularity of
the secular cult of the Lady, no longer obscurely deified
in trobar clus, but openly in the vernacular romances
(Maurice Valency, In Praise of Love [1958]). The
ambiguities that surround the statue in question stem
from the authoritative statement of doctrine, the
Creed, which remains officially a Mystery even today.
The implications of a triune God, his dual nature, and
the manner of his birth challenged the artist to present
a mind in tacit play with unanswerable questions of
faith inherent in the figures, both depicted and con-

The economic recovery of Europe that permitted
the building of cathedrals also formalized education
institutionally (Charles Homer Haskins, The Renais-
sance of the 12th Century
[1927]) a fact that may
explain the shift from positive to systematic theology.
But the pedagogue's shift of focus from a theory of
knowledge to a theory of learning led not only to a
reclassification of things according to theoretical,
practical, mechanical, and logical categories, but to
empiricism, as well. Consequently in their theolog-
ical-aesthetic didascalica they were natural theologians
who believed that the Creator could best be understood
by his Creation, and thereby gave an impetus to the
study of the world of things.

They were also mystical theologians who thought
in terms of a sequence of experience out of which
knowledge was to be derived for the unification of
man's mind with that of God. Hence the structural
metaphor of the voyage for Saint Bonaventure's Itiner-
the nuptial metaphor in Hugh of Saint Victor's
De arraha animae, and the figure of Jacob in the
Benjamin Minor of the later Victorine, Richard. For
Richard, man's ascent from earth to heaven by means
of the mystical ladder was premiss and conclusion.
What he analyzed was each episode of Jacob's life as
aspects—ways of seeing and interpreting—of the ulti-
mate unity of things that was implied by the one-
ness of God. The two wives of Jacob served therefore
two functions of as many views of the subject
“Man” as the author cared to contemplate. The fer-
tility of Leah and the sterility of Rachel, on one
level, were interpreted as the appetites of the mind
(Richard of Saint Victor, ed. and trans. Clare Kirch-
berger [1957], p. 91):

For as it is Leah's part to love since she is the affection
of the soul, so it is Rachel's part to know, for she is reason.
The former gives birth to ordered affection; the latter to
the reason or the pure intelligence. Judah represents to
us... love of the highest good. And when Judah is
born... then Rachel begins to desire children passionately,
for she wants to know. Where love is there is vision... and
certainly he who can love invisible things will immediately
desire to know them and to see them by the intelligence.

The canon regulars of Saint Victor (in whose writings
are preserved the earliest systematic treatment of the
four-fold interpretation of Scripture: literal, allegorical,
moral, and anagogical) were the ancestors of the author
of the Epistle to Can Grande. But in adapting this type
of multivalenced textual criticism to the Divine Com-
the author of the letter (if it was Dante) stipulated
only two, the literal and the unspecified symbolic,
ambiguously stating that the work was “polysemos, hoc
est plurium sensuum,
” thus leaving open the question
of how many levels of meaning apply.

From a structural point of view the Commedia might
have included a fourth part, since the Christian heaven
was located outside the closed Ptolemaic cosmos. But
while staying within this universe, Dante chose to open
up his world conditionally. Consequently the problem
that confronts the reader at the end of Purgatorio is
similar to the pivotal episode in the Aeneid. But unlike
Vergil's disjunctive ambiguity, Dante's Garden of Eden
is a conjunctive symbol, the most complex and open
of nexuses in Western letters. In Eden the pilgrim
Dante sees in a vision a giant temporalized emblem
(more complex than Dürer's for the Emperor Maxi-
milian I) that is a pageant of the Church. This allegory
has been glossed alternatively as the Church Militant
on earth or the Church Triumphant in Heaven, but
the probability that Dante intended both is made more
likely by the location of this episode in the work. For
the purposes of his narrative, from Eden the pilgrim
Dante continued his voyage to God in the Paradiso,
but in terms of the meaning of the work, the untold
story of the future of mankind also begins at this point.
Thus, on earth, the closed world of moral categories
is obliterated by the recovery of innocence, and even
the memory of past history is washed away by the
waters of Lethe or Divine forgiveness, since Scripture
assures us that “When He forgives He forgets.” This
uncanonical second baptism constitutes therefore a
new opportunity for man under the new dispensation
of Christian hedonism. Thus Vergil's valedictory bene-
diction to Dante (Purgatorio, XXVII, 131, 142):... lo
tuo piacere omai prendi per duce... per ch'io te sovra
te corono e mitrio
(“Now take pleasure as your
guide... [because you are now master of yourself,
body and soul,] I therefore crown and mitre you”).


The withdrawal of Vergil as Dante's guide was the
poet's way of announcing the obsolescence of reason
as governing principle for human action or principle
of political organization, since the second baptism
made instinctive man's knowledge of natural order, the
poet's definition of Good. His projection of Evil in the
Inferno recalls therefore the statue in the Book of
a human anatomy analyzed both tropologically
and chronologically but inverted, its posture repre-
senting the stance of sin in relation to the natural order
created by God. Conversely, the figure of redemption
in the Purgatorio is represented upright, the attainment
of the recta ratio by man paradoxically obliterating his
need for it. Consequently the problem that is raised
is the connection in Dante's mind between the ideas
of the possible intellect and plenitude, and what these
terms meant to him. In his political theory, stated in
metaphysical terms, Dante was explicit on the first
topic, but not the second (De Monarchia, trans. H. W.
Schneider [1957], p. 6):

... since this power can not be completely actualized in
a single man or in any of the particular communi-
ties... there must be a multitude in mankind through
whom this whole power can be actualized; just as there
must be a multitude of created beings to manifest ade-
quately the whole power of prime matter.... With this
judgment Averroes agrees in his commentary on De anima.

The cultural rebirth of man announced by Dante
was projected two centuries later as a revolution in
education by Rabelais, for whom the exploration of hu-
man possibilities through actualization automatically
meant the rejection of allegory and multiple levels of
reality. He therefore blasted, in the Prologue to the
First Book of Gargantua, the tradition that had ex-
tended from Philo to his day (trans. J. M. Cohen,
Penguin Classics [1955], p. 38):

But do you faithfully believe that Homer, in writing his
Iliad and Odyssey, ever had in mind the allegories squeezed
out of him by Plutarch, Heraclides Ponticus, Eustathius,
and Phornutus, and which Politian afterwards stole from
them in his turn? If you do, you are not within a hand's
or a foot's length of my opinion. For I believe them to have
been as little dreamed of by Homer as the Gospel mysteries
were by Ovid in his Metamorphoses; a case which a certain
Friar Lubin, a true bacon-picker, has actually tried to prove,
in the hope that he may meet others as crazy as himself
and—as the proverb says—a lid to fit his kettle.

It was not, however, the force of Rabelais' language,
but the Scientific Revolution that destroyed the alle-
gorical method. According to Herbert Butterfield in
The Origins of Modern Science (1957), pp. 7, 8:

... it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity
and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank
of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the
system of medieval Christendom.... it changed the
character of men's habitual mental operations... [and]
looms so large as the real origin both of the modern world
and of the modern mentality that our customary periodisa-
tion of European history has become an anachronism and
an encumbrance.

Accordingly, we will approach the centuries extending
from the Florentine Renaissance to the First World
War as a single epoch, tracing the principle of ambig-
uity under three headings, all ultimately derived from
geographical and cosmological exploration.

1. Accidentalism in Open Systems. The seeming
haphazardness of horizontal and open-ended works in
the Renaissance was implicitly a new projection of
ambiguity, for the sole rule of the Abbey of Thélème—
Fay ce que vouldras—when translated to aesthetic
principle produced compositions as savory and varie-
gated (but unpredictable) as the Adventures of Pan-
Adventures, which for other men had led to
the accidental discovery of new continents while
merely searching for new ways of traveling to places
long known, thus unwittingly shifted the center of the
world from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and
added impetus to the nationalism that challenged with
a rival theory of sovereignty the first modern state, the
Church. Similarly the faith in the goodness of instinct
that dignified the study of man's actual behavior led
to the discovery of the ego. But because the ambiguities
of accidentalism at this time had to be conceptualized
by alternative characterizations of God as either the
rational or the capricious Uncreated Being, the result
for men was fideistic optimism or nescience. Thus
Rabelais' optimism shaded into skepticism for Mon-
taigne, since the purposeless exploration of the inner
world of man raised more questions than he could
answer, or that he answered with another question:
“Que sçay-je?” This impatient shrug of Montaigne
reflects the quickened time-sense of the age that now
found essays and short novellas more congenial fare
than long accretions. But it was in the developed drama
with its possibilities for the simultaneous presentation
of multiple relationships and causal connections that
the eclecticism and the ambiguities of an open world
were best expressed.

No treatment of ambiguity can avoid the problem
of Hamlet, since for so many both character and play
have become synonymous with the term. But some of
the problems are the invention of modern critics, dat-
ing no earlier than the advent of the proscenium stage
which introduced not only a different theater but also
a different technique of interpreting drama. The mul-
tiple playing areas of the Elizabethan stage, simulta-
neous action, multiple motives, and the several levels


of reality that are the bases of Shakespearean drama-
turgy were flattened out by the box-stage, realistic
decor, and notions of verisimilitude and linear progres-
sion of action that characterize the novels of Zola.
Therefore the delight of the critic in the multivalence
of Hamlet's madness, or speculation on the motives
for the delay in revenge are false problems; Hamlet
is under palace arrest, and only by his assumed antic
disposition (plan known to Horatio) does he have li-
cense to prowl and to spy.

The genuine ambiguities have to do with the ideas
explored by Shakespeare, and with the structure and
scope of the play. First, revenge is throughout Shake-
speare a negative term, at best what Francis Bacon
calls “a kind of wild justice, which the more man's
nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.”
Whether Shakespeare meant to say that revenge is
acceptable when purged of passion and executed more
in sorrow than in anger, or whether revenge is all that
remains of justice when the times are out of joint must
remain a moot point. Secondly, two notions of kingship
are present in the play: on the political level, Den-
mark's kings are elected; on the theological level suc-
cession of reigns and of dynasties are foreordained by
God. Thus, upon his providential return to Denmark,
after Hamlet has proof of Claudius' guilt and the assur-
ance that he is God's chosen instrument, he announces
his royal pretension with “I, Hamlet the Dane.” Later,
in reviewing with Horatio the evidence against
Claudius, he declares that “the interim is mine,” sug-
gesting that the eldest crime has made invalid the
present reign. Hamlet, therefore, is his father's succes-
sor, the purpose of his uncrowned rule to bring to an
end a dynasty and his own life which are parts of the
general rottenness of Denmark. Hamlet thus is both
scourge of God and victim whose double role in life
requires premeditation of all action to prevent the
tainting of his mind, that purity rewarded in death by
an apotheosis hymned by flights of angels.

But death for the other characters is also a con-
summation, the manner of their dying indicating, but
not revealing entirely, the ambiguous connection be-
tween the actualization of God's will that is provi-
dence, and justice on earth. Among the problems that
Hamlet ponders therefore are the purposes of knowl-
edge, the limits of reason, and God's will. But ulti-
mately all attempts at the capturing of God's mind
are not only vain but blasphemous; therefore augury
must be defied, and like the fallen sparrow man is God's
captive, nescience reason's response to omniscience,
and readiness the proper state of the will in relation
to providence.

The historical setting and the scope of the play are
impossible to determine, since on the one hand the
ostensible reason for dispatching Hamlet to England
is for the collection of the Danegeld (ca. ninth century);
on the other hand, he is a student at Wittenberg which
was founded in 1502, but which did not enjoy a foreign
reputation until Shakespeare's day. Obviously anach-
ronism is present, but the usual function of collapsing
time does not seem to apply. In Hamlet the author's
motive appears to be the opposite: the extension of
Danish and English history centuries beyond the two
months required by the action. Similarly, the dramatic
structure, “all beginning,” becomes appropriate when
it is perceived that Shakespeare was experimenting
with the hero in posse, a risky artistic challenge that
requires the identification of an adolescent protagonist
with his potentialities rather than with his achieve-
ments, with becoming rather than with being: “For he
was likely, had he been put on, to have prov'd most

Technically, Shakespeare had to negotiate the con-
stant shift in focus from the drama on the stage to the
drama within Hamlet's inexperienced but learning
mind by regularly suspending the action with an ab-
normal number of internalizing soliloquies. That
Shakespeare thought he succeeded in his attempts may
be seen in Fortinbras' epilogue, for when the poet feels
secure in his accomplishment he characteristically vio-
lates the illusion he has created in order to reveal his
hand as creator. As for the meaning of so protean a
play, the history of Hamlet criticism parodies Polonius'
response to cloud formations, the various inter-
pretations placed upon Hamlet's antic disposition by
the other characters, and their various reactions to the
play within the play—all these examples anticipating
the Rorschach Test (1923) which is based upon the
interpretation of an articulate but amorphous shape
that elicits self-revealing commentary. The work is
therefore informed with its own literary criticism,
including the tacit assertion that works of art may be
exercises in criticism as well as creation, endeavors
always subject to the fashions of the day. The explicit-
ness of this awareness Shakespeare reserved for his
Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra, V, ii):

The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I'th' posture of a whore.

But the poet's desire to free his work from himself
and from Time is also present in Hamlet, for the play
concludes with an infinite regress. Horatio offers to
follow his prince in death, but his duties are not yet
over. He is not only to report Hamlet's cause aright


to the unsatisfied, but also, in this harsh world, to draw
his breath in pain “to tell my story.” Because Shake-
speare's Hamlet is not the Hamlet of saga, chronicle,
romance, or other dramatic presentations, telling the
story aright requires returning to the beginning, da
and re-experiencing the play, a simple form of
regress that was a familiar device in music.

2. The Autonomy of Art and Self-Reference. The
multivocality of Shakespearean drama that conceals
the author's point of view finds its counterpart in
painting with Leonardo's invention of sfumato. This
shading and blurring of outline in combination with
the disjunctive background explains the enigmatic
quality of the Mona Lisa (E. H. Gombrich, The Story
of Art,
9th ed. [1958]). A comparison of her smile with
that of the Virgin of Notre Dame described above
reveals the historic changes in artistic aims, since re-
peated viewings of the medieval statue will add noth-
ing to the doctrinal ambiguities once they are per-
ceived, for the work, like the church's sacraments, was
no more than a visible sign for a reality that existed
elsewhere. But in the case of Leonardo it is precisely
the repeated viewings that convince the beholder that
her expressions change. Because the moods of the
beholder that are read into the picture are ipso facto
valid, viewing the Mona Lisa becomes a continuous
process of collaborative recreation. Thus the roles of
artist and audience are temporally reversed, and the
question of who is who and what is what remains an
open one. This problem was made the subject of a
painting by Vermeer (Figure 1).

The original title of “An Artist in His Studio” was
“The Painter's Art” (Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer
[1952]) which tells us a great deal more about the
meaning of the work. Vermeer has depicted an artist
painting from a human model costumed and furnished
with the trumpet of fame, the book of history, and
the crown of immortality. But a number of questions
are raised in the viewer's mind. First, the imper-
sonation of Immortality, whether it can be done, and
what reality there is in the artist's portrait of her. It
has therefore been conjectured that the artist was
painting Hope although his model represented another
figure. Secondly, the causal connection between fame
and the artist's work have been reversed, for fame is
a by-product of, not the subject of a painting.

But more importantly, who is the artist? The identity
of the painter depicted by Vermeer is concealed from
the viewer since he is seen only from the back. And
when one steps outside the frame of the canvas, the
same question is posed in a different context, for the
beholder is standing where Vermeer must have stood
as he painted the picture. While this last point may
be made of all easel paintings, it has special relevance
to this particular work because of the subject and its
treatment. On the left side of the canvas is part of
a tapestry painted to look as though it might have been
hanging over the canvas itself. But an equally possible
interpretation is that it hangs in the doorway that
separates two rooms. In either case it is pulled back
to reveal an artist in his studio—or, “An Artist in His
Studio.” Whosesoever the hand that pulls back the
tapestry to reveal the painter painting, the viewer is
permitted an insight into the creative process itself,
the most secret of mysteries. Yet at the same time it
is also public and cosmic, for fame is the judgment
of the world, but the governance of the world may
be providential or entirely fortuitous, an historical

What then is the “subject” of this painting whose
surface lucidity, explicitness of detail, and quietness of
statement conceal as many ambiguities as the beholder
can think up? It is astonishing that something originat-
ing in so small and contained an area as a narrow Dutch
room can have such wide application. But to say that
an event “originates” in a specific place is to make
an arbitrary decision, for within the context of the
assumptions implicit in the painting, this need not be
the case. If no limits of inference are set and if the


categories of causal relations are placed in doubt, each
detail in the painting may at the same time be both
cause and effect. Moreover, the abstraction that is
Fame and the anonymity of the artist depicted place
them in the category of common, not proper nouns.
Consequently it may be surmised that Vermeer was
handling abstractions that touch upon communication
and the human understanding, both within the self and
the public at large; that Vermeer was analyzing the
interpenetration of working, thinking, and creating, as
well as the possibility of an almost infinite succession
of appreciation. That Vermeer's legal executor was the
pioneer microbiologist Leeuwenhoek, famous for his
microscopes, is perhaps not without significance.

The self-reference in a painting about painting was
an acknowledgment of the disappearance of traditional
content from art. When secularization also came to
music, it had certain natural advantages that perhaps
explains its ascendancy in the eighteenth century.
Divorced from reference to the outside world, it be-
came not only the most abstract and formal of the arts,
but also a language without a subject. Or, stated in
another way, it became the subject of its own discourse.
Thus when the composers turned their attention to the
exploration of formal patterns their realization that
reiteration was the only referential mode available to
this kind of music prompted them to explore the ambi-
guities intrinsic to any melody. The pleasure they
derived in con