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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The middle Ages made abundant use of analogy and
symbolism in all aspects of its culture. Indeed, its
mentality has rightly been described as symbolic. At
the end of the Middle Ages Dante's Divine Comedy
perfectly expresses this mentality; but as early as the
first centuries after Christ the bases of medieval sym-
bolism were laid down by the Church Fathers.

1. The Patristic Period. The Fathers of the Church
cultivated symbolism both as a means of interpreting
Scripture and of understanding the world and God, its
transcendent cause. Influenced by Philo, Clement of
Alexandria makes frequent use of symbolism. For him,
symbolism expresses the basic unity in all things, de-
spite their multiplicity and diversity. Invisible harmo-
nies, likenesses, and proportions bind the universe to-
gether, and these can be interpreted by symbols and
allegories. Thus symbolism reveals the hidden connec-
tion between things and points to their underlying
unity. Allegorical interpretation of Scripture is needed
because its truth is veiled in symbols. Clement justifies
the concealing of truth in symbols as a means of giving
truth greater power over minds. Moreover, by their
ambiguity symbols contain a richness and complexity
of meaning, in contrast to clear statements, that convey
but one message to the reader.

Clement's pupil, Origen, distinguishes between the
literal or historical meaning of Scripture and its spirit-
ual or allegorical meaning. The spiritual sense, lying
beneath the obvious, literal meaning, is the one princi-
pally intended by the Holy Spirit, the main author of
Scripture, and it can be grasped only by the enlight-
ened and initiated.

For Origen, the allegorical interpretation of Scrip-
ture is justified by the fact that the cosmos itself is
a vast set of symbols created by God to lead the mind
to him. Visible nature is a symbol of the invisible world
in which each individual has its ideal model or type.
Hence all things, Scripture included, have two facets:
one corporeal and sensible, the other spiritual and
mystical. Because God is the author of both Scripture
and Nature, we should except similar problems in
understanding them (De principiis IV, 1, 7). Like
Scripture, nature is a sacred mystery that can be best
expressed by symbols. Only by deciphering the imprint
left by God on the world can we raise ourselves to
the transcendent, invisible world; for God has so
ordered his creation, has so linked the lower to the
higher by subtle signatures and affinities, that the world
we see is, as it were, a great staircase by which the
mind of man must climb upwards to spiritual intelli-
gence (In canticum canticorum 3).

Cosmic symbolism was most clearly expressed for
the Middle Ages by Denis, the Pseudo-Areopagite (fifth
century A.D.). The word ἀναλογία often appears in his
writings, generally with the meaning of relation or
proportion. The proportion denoted by the term is not
abstract or mathematical but the concrete relation of
love between creatures and God. On the one hand,
it means the creature's desire for deification, and, on
the other, God's appearance (theophany) to creatures.
Denis also uses the term to denote the divine ideas,
which define the creature's position in the hierarchy
of creation and his capacity to receive divine gifts. It
also means the creature's capacity for these gifts and
his loving response to God.

For Denis a symbol (σύμβολον) is the relating or
adapting of visible forms in order to reveal something
invisible. Symbols are “unlike likenesses,” and hence
when applied to God they both conceal and reveal
him. No symbol, however, can give us a positive
knowledge of the divinity. Following Plotinus and
Proclus he conceives God as infinite and one, trans-
cending being or reality and every conceivable positive
perfection. As infinite, he is strictly inimitable by any-
thing finite; and yet the finite universe participates in
his riches. This justifies our giving positive names to
him, such as “goodness” and “being.” More suitable
are negative names like “one” and “infinite.” More
appropriate still are superlative names like “super-
good” and “super-being.” In the end we know God
best by realizing our ignorance of him (Divine Names
7, 3; PG 3, 872B).

Following Cicero and the Latin grammarians, the
Latin Fathers used proportio as the equivalent of
ἀναλογία. In the broad sense it meant any likeness or
comparison; more strictly it denoted a likeness or
identity of proportions: as a is to b, so c is to d. For
Saint Augustine analogy is a method of scriptural in-
terpretation by which the harmony of the Old and New
Testaments is established. This differs from allegory,
which reveals the figurative, as opposed to the literal,
sense of Scripture. In the strict sense, Augustine denies
that there is an analogy between the trinity of faculties
of the soul (memory, intelligence, and will) and the
trinity of divine Persons, because this is not a true
comparison between them leading to a knowledge of
the Trinity (Sermo 52, 10; PL 38, 364).

Augustine prefers the term “sign” to “analogy.” A
sign is any word or thing that leads to a knowledge
of something else. If it points to the divine, it is a
sacramentum. The universe itself is holy (a sacrament),
for it contains signs leading the mind above itself to
God. Words have a proper meaning (signa propria) but
they also have a figurative sense (signa translata),
expressing the mysteries hidden within things. In the


interpretation of Scripture and in the study of nature
he has recourse to allegory and symbols drawn from
both biblical and classical sources. Numbers, for exam-
ple, have mysterious and symbolic meanings.

The Dionysian and Augustinian symbolism derive
from Neo-Platonism, though the former places more
emphasis on cosmic symbolism and the latter on the
symbolic value of human signs and history as instru-
ments of spiritual experience. Both tend to devalue the
physical contents of reality and the importance of
scientific explanation through intrinsic causes, and to
place the true significance of reality in its essential
reference to the transcendent God.

2. The Early Middle Ages. Like Augustine, Boethius
transmitted classical philosophical ideas to the Middle
Ages. In his logical works he translates ἀναλογία as
comparatio or proportio, ἀναλογον as proportionale.
he defines as the comparison of similar things.
For example, there is a proportion between the relation
of 4 to 2 and 40 to 20. Similarly genus is related to
specific difference as matter is related to form, e.g.,
animality to rationality in the definition of man.

When treating of our knowledge of God, Boethius
does not appeal to this Aristotelian type of analogy
but to the Platonic notions of participation and image.
This is because he denies any comparison between the
infinite and finite (De consolatione philosophiae II,
prose 7). Thus God is said to be good by substance,
whereas creatures are called good because they come
from his goodness and participate in it. This is shown
by their tendency to goodness. They are “similar to
the primal goodness” and hence are called good in
reference to it.

This rests on the Neo-Platonic notion that by partic-
ipation the intelligible, divine world descends into
matter. The former is the archetype, the latter is its
image, and as such it is the visible representation of
spiritual realities.

In the Byzantine world this same principle was used
by Saint John Damascene to defend the cult of sacred
images. The prototype really exists in its image, he
contended. Hence Christ and the saints are really pres-
ent in icons; they are there by way of image (εἰκονικός).
Thus an icon is a visible means by which God can be
sensibly worshiped. An icon contains its subject “sacramentally.” It is a part of the heavenly world projected
into the earthly. As such, it is the seat of spiritual
powers which are communicated to a worshiper suita-
bly disposed to receive them.

The iconoclasts of the East dismissed these ideas as
essentially pagan and forbade the making of icons. The
Western Church at the time of Charlemagne consid-
ered sacred images useful as adornments and as
instructive in historical matters. But the Libri Carolini
forbade the worship of images as repositories of spirit-
ual powers. At this period the West had no interest
in, or understanding of, the Christian Neo-Platonic
interpretation of images as projections of spiritual
forces into matter. It was scarcely ready to receive the
works of John Scotus Erigena, who a century after
Charlemagne translated into Latin the Corpus
and incorporated Denis' Christian Neo-
Platonism into his own writings.

The patristic theme of the symbolic value of visible
creation for the revelation of God was familiar to
writers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Thus
Hugh of Saint Victor compares the sensible universe
to a book written by the finger of God. Everything
in it is a figure, not invented by human ingenuity, but
instituted by the divine will, in order to manifest and
signify in some way the hidden attributes of God. Alain
of Lille puts this notion in poetry: Omnis mundi cre-
atura/ Quasi liber et pictura/ Nobis est et speculum

(Rythmus; PL 210, 579). Aelred of Rievaulx speaks of
the visible world as the first garment of God, the second
being Scripture.

Cosmological analogies, often borrowed from bibli-
cal and classical sources, abound in early medieval
writings. Thus Macrobius speaks of the glory of God
illuminating the whole world “as one face fills many
mirrors placed in due order.” Alain of Lille compares
the universe to a feudal city, with its periphery
inverted. The empyrean is the central castle where the
emperor (God) sits enthroned. The lower heaven is
occupied by the angelic knighthood; while we on earth
are outside the city wall. These are but two aspects
of the “discarded image” of the Middle Ages (to use
C. S. Lewis' phrase). Both, incidentally, appear in
Dante's Divine Comedy.

Political and ecclesiastical analogies played signifi-
cant roles in medieval society. In the twelfth century
the term “mystical body of Christ,” previously applied
to the consecrated host, was gradually transferred to
the Christian people, whose head is Christ. By analogy
this theological notion was then applied to the body
politic, which was called “the mystical body of the
commonweal.” Secular rulers borrowed the insignia of
spiritual dignitaries; kings were thought of as married
to their realms as Christ is married to the Church. In
the English Tudor period this developed into the notion
of “the King's two bodies”—his natural body and his
body politic. On the other hand, medieval spiritual
leaders borrowed the symbols of the secular powers.
The pope, for example, was called “prince” and “true
emperor” in the later Middle Ages.

The logical basis of such analogies occupied early
medieval logicians such as Abelard. Discussing the
transference (transumptio) of terms, he points out that


a term that principally signifies one thing may be
applied to another because of some likeness. Thus we
can say “The meadow smiles,” transferring “smiles”
from its proper usage to a metaphorical one. Rules
were laid down for arguments based on such transfer-
ence of terms. Abelard bases the argument by analogy
on the maxim: “What occurs in the case of some pro-
portional things happens in others.” Thus one can
argue that the ruler of a city should not be chosen
by lot but for his knowledge, for this is how the pilot
of a ship should be chosen (Dialectica, ed. De Rijk,
p. 442).

3. The Late Middle Ages. With the discovery of the
complete works of Aristotle in the twelfth and thir-
teenth centuries, medieval theories of analogy came
more decisively under his influence. No less than the
Church Fathers, the scholastics of the later Middle
Ages viewed the universe through religious eyes. For
them, too, the universe bears witness to the existence
and attributes of its creator. But under the impact of
Aristotelianism, a Christian naturalism arose that
accorded to the universe a secular dimension unknown
to the early Middle Ages. Creatures were not pure
symbols: transparent films, so to speak, through which
God's glory shines. They were created natures with
values and ends of their own, though subordinate to
their creator. The scholastic doctrines of analogy (es-
pecially that of Saint Thomas Aquinas) were designed
to express this fact.

No scholastic caught the spirit of the Fathers better
than Saint Bonaventure. His Journey of the Mind to
traces the stages by which the human mind
ascends to its creator. The first stage is the discovery
of God's “footprints” (vestigia) in the sensible world.
Like a mirror this world reflects its creator in a distant
way, e.g., through its being or existence. He is seen
more closely and intimately through his image im-
planted in the spiritual soul. The sensible world is an
exterior “book,” the mind an interior one, in which
its creator can be read.

Bonaventure distinguishes between two kinds of
analogy. The first is based on the unequal participation
of several things in one nature, as both man and dog
are called animals, though man possesses animal nature
more perfectly. The second is based on the unity not
of nature, but of proportional likeness. This is the kind
of analogy between God and creatures. They do not
participate in one nature but there is a proportional
similitude between them. Hence terms such as “good-
ness” can be predicated by analogy of both of them.
Proportional unity is sometimes found among crea-
tures; e.g., “light” is predicated of heavenly and earthly
bodies, not because they share in one nature but be-
cause of their proportional likeness. Analogy always
implies similarity and dissimilarity; in the case of God
and creatures the dissimilarity is greater than the

For Saint Thomas Aquinas, as for Saint Bonaventure,
names apply to God and creatures only by analogy.
Names cannot be predicated of them univocally, i.e.,
in entirely the same sense, for this would imply that
they have a nature in common. Aquinas defines a
univocal term as one whose meaning is entirely the
same when predicated of several things; e.g., “animal”
predicated of horse and cow. An equivocal term is
attributed to several things with entirely different
meanings; e.g., “dog” predicated of the animal and the
constellation. Analogous terms are predicated of sev-
eral subjects with a meaning that is partly the same
and partly different. More precisely, their meaning is
absolutely (simpliciter) different and relatively or pro-
portionately (secundum quid) the same. For example,
both animals and food are called healthy: animals
because they possess health in the proper sense of the
term, food because it is a cause of health.

Thus predication by analogy means predication ac-
cording to a relation or proportion. This may be a
relation of one thing to another, as in the above exam-
ple of health. Or it may be a likeness of proportions,
or proportionality; e.g., “sight” is attributed to both
the eye and the intellect, because as sight is in the
eye, so understanding is in the mind (Saint Thomas
Aquinas, On Truth, 2, 11). In some proportionalities
names are transferred to things to which they do not
properly belong, the transference being justified by a
similarity of effects. For example, God is called a “sun”
because he is the source of spiritual life as the sun is
the source of physical life. Such a transference of a
name Thomas calls a metaphor. He points out that
Scripture contains many metaphors of corporeal prop-
erties being transferred to spiritual realities because
of a dynamic likeness. Thus grace is said to efface
spiritual stains as water washes away bodily stains.

In other proportionalities there is no figurative
transference of terms. The term is ascribed to several
things in its proper sense, though they possess the
property denoted by the term in different modes. Thus
“being” is ascribed to man and stone in its proper sense,
but their being is only proportionately the same, for
each exists or is a being in proportion to its nature.
Similarly “goodness” is attributed to God and creatures
in its proper sense, though God possesses goodness in
a higher mode than creatures.

The Thomistic doctrine of analogy makes it possible
to speak meaningfully of God and to establish a theol-
ogy, i.e., a science of God. But it does not allow us
to know what God is in himself. Our knowledge of
God is either negative (as when we know that he is


not material or not finite), or it is analogical (i.e., he
is known insofar as he is represented by creatures by
proportional similitude).

Duns Scotus, on the contrary, contended that nega-
tive and analogical knowledge of God presupposes
more basic univocal concepts of God and creatures.
He argued that we cannot know what God is not, unless
we first know what he is. Hence we must conceive
God through positive concepts, derived from creatures,
which apply to them in exactly the same sense. Exam-
ples of such univocal concepts are “being” and the
transcendental properties of being such as “goodness.”
Scotus also argued that we cannot know God by anal-
ogy with creatures unless we know the two terms of
the analogy, and for this we need absolute (i.e., nonre-
lational) concepts of what God is in himself. Such
knowledge is given through univocal concepts, espe-
cially that of being. For Scotus, however, being is a
univocal concept only when abstracted from all its
modalities. When beings are considered as they actu-
ally exist, they are either infinite and uncreated being
(God), or they are finite and created being (creatures).
Thus conceived, they are beings only by analogy.

Toward the close of the Middle Ages theories of
analogy came more strongly under the influence of
Neo-Platonism. In particular, there was a revival of
Boethian and Dionysian perspectives on analogy in the
works of Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa.

For Master Eckhart God is the analogous cause of
creatures. Since there is both similarity and dissimilar-
ity between the creator and his creatures, names given
to them in common, such as “unity,” “being,” and
“goodness,” are neither univocal nor equivocal but
analogous. Things participate in the divine perfections
but they do not possess them as their own. In them-
selves they are pure nothingness. They are said to be,
to be one or good, only in reference to God, who alone
is Being, Unity, and Goodness. These perfections are
ascribed to creatures entirely from without and they
never positively take root in them.

Nicholas of Cusa resorted to symbolism to arrive at
a knowledge of spiritual realities. Convinced that the
visible universe is a faithful reflection of the invisible
divine world, he thought it legitimate to use images
to reach the latter analogically. He praised the Platon-
ists, especially Augustine and Boethius, for realizing
that the most perfect images of spiritual realities are
drawn from mathematics—the science that gives the
greatest certitude. Cusa himself often used mathe-
matical symbols in his mystical ascent to God. Thus
for him the coincidence of an infinite straight line with
an infinite circle and triangle shows by analogy the
coincidence of opposites in the infinite God (De docta
I, 11-16).


Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the
Middle Ages
(New York, 1955). The Cambridge History of
Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy,
ed. A. H.
Armstrong (Cambridge, 1967). H. DeLubac, Exégèse
médiévale: les quatre sens de l'écriture,
4 vols. (Paris,
1959-62). M.-D. Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the
Twelfth Century,
trans. J. Taylor, L. K. Little (Chicago,
1968). E. F. Osborn, The Philosophy of Clement of Alexan-
(Cambridge, 1957). V. Lossky, “La notion des 'analogies'
chez Denys le pseudo-Aréopagite,” Archives d'histoire doc-
trinale et littéraire du Moyen Age,
5 (1930), 279-309. J. Koch,
“Zur analogielehre Meister Eckharts,” Mélanges offerts à
Étienne Gilson
(Toronto and Paris, 1959), pp. 327-50. G. P.
Klubertanz, St. Thomas Aquinas on Analogy (Chicago,
1960). C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge, 1964).


[See also Allegory; Analogy in Early Greek Thought;
Creation in Religion; God; Hierarchy; Holy; Infinity; Love;
Nature; Number; Platonism; Symbol.]