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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The confluence of the Hebrew and the Greek cul-
tural traditions, which occurred in the Hellenistic pe-
riod, is vividly exemplified by the Jewish philosopher
Philo of Alexandria. Although the metaphorical
exegesis of biblical imagery had been known before
him, it was Philo who first turned allegorical inter-
pretation of scripture into a system based on a coherent
philosophical position. Ironically, in view of Plato's
own attitude toward the allegorizing of religious
imagery, Philo's primary philosophical resource was
Platonic, though he drew much in addition from cur-
rent Stoic thought, which tended strongly to support
metaphorical methods of approaching religious tradi-
tion. The substance of Philo's views need not concern
us here; of greater significance is his approach and his
justification for it. Above all one must remember that
Philo was both a convinced Jew and, at the same time,
a determined philosopher. Truth, he argued, cannot be
divided into compartments. If Moses wrote something,
it must be true in some sense; if, on the other hand,
good reasoning shows something to be the case, it must
somehow be compatible with all other truth. There-
fore, when there are apparent conflicts between sacred
scripture and good reasoning, these putative conflicts
cannot be final. In general, Philo thought, wherever
the literal meaning of the Bible leads either to absurd-
ity or to impiety, there it is both right and necessary
to discover the allegorical meaning behind the meta-
phor, since metaphor it must be.

Philo was fortunately situated, philosophically, for
deploying his distinction of literal-metaphorical in this
way because of his thorough acceptance of the Platonic
distinction between the visible world of imperfect,
changing particulars, on the one hand, and the purely
“intelligible world” of perfect, eternal Archetypes, on
the other. Such a distinction makes it easy to interpret
literal descriptions of events or objects in the empirical
world as belonging to an inferior order of reality,
knowledge, and value, while also participating—by
virtue of the Forms—in a higher order of perfection
in all respects. Given such a distinction and such a
method, indeed, the dimensions of what could be taken
as metaphorical were open to vast enlargement. All
things visible, not just a few obvious items like rocks
or shields, on this view, refer beyond themselves to
the world of eternal Archetypes. If the lion image of
Jeremiah had to be given a nonliteral meaning to avoid
absurdity or impiety when applied to God, so, too, the
mention of the “face” of God, or his “walking” in the
Garden of Eden—and the Tree in the Garden, and the
Garden itself—must be given metaphorical meaning
in any systematic account of scriptural truth. This Philo
set out to do, interpreting the Bible as carrying
throughout more than its literal significance. The story
of Joseph and his coat of many colors, for instance,
he treated as a metaphor in which Joseph stood for
the Ideal Form of the Statesman and in which his
many-hued garment signified the complexity of his
political policies.

It is interesting to note that Philo, though profoundly
immersed in the allegorizing of his own scriptures, had
no use whatever (like Plato) for the allegorizing of the
pagan sacred writings in the manner of the contem-
porary Stoics. This trait, a direct reflection of Philo's
Jewish piety, is of course typical of the theological
employment of allegorical interpretations: where there
is absence of respect for the religious literature in
question, there is correspondingly little motivation to
“save” it by appeal to metaphor. Where, on the other


hand, there is both veneration of inherited material
and an explicit theory of what constitutes “absurdity”
and “impiety” in it, the recourse to distinctions be-
tween literal and metaphorical meanings may be
tempting. Here, in fact, we find one of the crucial
differences, among many similarities, between Philo
and Plato. Both, we recall, objected to whatever might
corrupt truth or morals: Plato, on these grounds, urged
the censoring of any poetic images which might have
this effect; Philo, on the same grounds, urged the very
process of allegorizing that Plato condemns. The obvi-
ous difference between them is that Plato is free from
allegiance to the traditional religious forms while Philo
is committed to his.

This difference in commitments is reflected in an-
other way important to the tradition of which Philo
was to be the source. Even the Greek philosophers
who, unlike Plato, were ready to see metaphorical
truths in the religion of their ancestors were not pre-
pared to place primacy on the latter. If in Greece the
myths of old were able to be viewed by some as still
having intellectual value in terms of more adequate
theory, it was only as groping approximations. The
literal truths of reason, by which the metaphors alone
could be recognized as such, were firmly in the primary
place. Philo, however, took the opposite view. The
Bible was God's revelation through Moses. There can
ultimately be no conflict between the truth given di-
rectly by God and the truth discovered by philosophy,
but there can be no doubt, for Philo, which must come
first. Therefore it was a problem for him and for his
Christian successors to explain how the Greeks came
by their truth. Different solutions were given—includ-
ing hypotheses of Greek plagiarism from Moses and
the prophets—all, however, leaving no doubt about the
priority of God's revelation over man's discovery. In
this emphasis we find the root of the famous “hand-
maiden” theory of the relationship between philosophy
and revelation. Revealed truth, given through the tra-
dition to which one is committed, must be the ruling
mistress; philosophy, through which the metaphors of
scripture are harmonized with each other and with
other systematic knowledge, must be ancillary (from
ancilla, the Latin word for serving girl).

Christian adoption of metaphorical interpretation of
their authoritative religious discourse was soon to fol-
low, deeply indebted to Philo, particularly after the
second century, and carrying with it the various theo-
logical overtones we have just noted. This process was
encouraged by a certain amount of allegorizing in the
New Testament itself. Saint Paul, for example, takes
the statement from Deuteronomy “You shall not
muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (Deuteron-
omy 25:4) as a metaphorical justification for his own
financial support (I Corinthians 9:9); and elsewhere he
uses allegory explicitly to argue his position (Galatians
4:21). The author of the Gospel of John, too, clearly
makes conscious use of metaphor throughout. Jesus'
parables, furthermore, whether they were uttered self-
consciously or in the primary mode of simple religious
speech, lend themselves obviously to allegorical inter-
pretation, sometimes as simple metaphor (e.g., the
cursing of the fig tree), and sometimes, when extended,
as allegory (e.g., the Sower, the Laborers in the Vine-

Enthusiastic use of metaphor of various sorts, pri-
marily allegory, was characteristic of the early Church
Fathers both in the Latin-speaking West and in the
Greek-speaking East despite the disapproval of
Irenaeus (fl. 177) and Tertullian (160?-?230) in East
and West respectively. Both of these authors were
disturbed by dangerous similarities between allegorized
Christian doctrine and the always luxuriantly meta-
phorical thought of Gnosticism. The tide, however, was
too strong in Hellenistic times to be resisted, and one
finds the greatest names among the supporters of
metaphorical exposition: Clement of Alexandria
(150?-?220) and Origen (185?-?254), both of the Greek
church, continued to be strong influences in favor of
the method despite the multi-volumed polemics of
Theodore of Mopsuestia (350?-?428), who argued that
without a literal, historical base the excesses of meta-
phorical hermeneutics could have no check at all.
Likewise, in the Latin church, Saint Jerome used met-
aphor, for example, to justify Jacob's polygamy and
favoritism by letting Leah stand for Judaism and Rachel
for Christianity. Saint Augustine, too, found meta-
phorical interpretation useful, especially in apologetics,
and justifies it scripturally by an appeal to Saint Paul's
distinction between the letter, which “kills,” and the
spirit, which “gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6). Given
such authority, it is not surprising that the approach
to religious discourse by means of metaphorical inter-
pretation was widespread in medieval times, though
for many centuries the substructure of explicit philoso-
phy—certainly present in Fathers like Saint Augustine
—was in little evidence. Instead, as exemplified by the
theologians associated with the Abbey of Saint-Victor
during the twelfth century, a devotional concern rein-
forced by a mystic sense of the levels of meaning and
of reality, led sensitive thinkers to contemplate the
various senses—literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical—
in which Scripture could enrich spirituality.

With the rediscovery of Aristotle's thought in the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the efforts of Saint
Thomas Aquinas to unite the truths of Christian reve-
lation with the truths of “the Philosopher” inevitably
included a prominent discussion of the place of meta-


phor in religious discourse. Aquinas predictably came
to the defense of controlled metaphorical inter-
pretation via an appeal to Aristotelian epistemological

It is befitting Holy Scripture to put forward divine and
spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material
things. For God provides for everything according to the
capacity of its nature. Now it is natural to man to attain
to intellectual truths through sensible things, because all
our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Scrip-
ture spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness
of material things

(Summa theologica, Q. I, Art. 9).

In answer to the charge that it is somehow unfitting
to represent higher things by lower, he pointed out
that since God is not knowable directly by any sensible
concepts, we are saved from erroneously supposing that
we have literal understanding by the very incongruity
of the metaphors employed in what we have called
primary religious imagery. Besides, such metaphors
have the virtue of being readily available to “the sim-
ple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual
things” while simultaneously being the means whereby
“divine truths are the better hidden from the un-
worthy” (loc. cit.). Elsewhere Aquinas laid foundations
for the important doctrine of analogy, whereby tech-
nical theological theory when applied to God could
be held to avoid the dual threats of literal anthro-
pomorphism, on the one hand, and vacuous equivoca-
tion, on the other. This doctrine, although related to
the idea of metaphor in religious discourse, has its
primary bearing on other philosophical matters and
will not be pursued here.