Tropes in Ancient Grammarians V
Bill Long 4/4/08
I first ran into the concept of allegory when I was studying the Bible as a young person. In Gal. 4 Paul has this to say:
"Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. 23 One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. 24 Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother."
I love the way that Wyclif translates v. 24 above: "the whiche thing is ben seid by allegorie, or goostly undirsondinge [Vulg. per allegoriam]." From this I inferred, and I was not really far from the mark, that an allegory is a story or sentence in which one concept stands for another. For example, one of the most famous extended allegories is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, where the journey of Christian from the City of Destruction to the Heavenly City is a picture or allegory of the Christian life from sin to grace, from our life here to the Kingdom of God.
The Classical Tradition, Beginning with Quintilian
Quintilian devotes 8.6.44-59 of the Institutes of Oratory to a discussion of allegory and related terms. In that section he defines the concept but also shows how it shades off into metaphor (8.6.49) and how other ideas, such as enigma or irony, are related to allegory but may not strictly be classified under that name. Thus, Quintilian is more interested in looking at language, its meaning and effects than in classifying things by categories. Nevertheless, by the time the systematizing grammarians got to Quintilian, in the 4th (Donatus) and 7th (Isidore) centuries, they had neatly divided the concept of allegory into seven easily identifiable categories: (a) irony; (b) antiphrasis; (c) riddle/enigma; (d) charientismos; (e) paroemia or proverb; (f) sarcasm; and (g) astysmos or pleasantry. In the remainder of this essay I will examine what Quintilian has to say about allegory and how it shades into other categories, and then turn to the definitions of the subcategories, at least as presented by the systematizers.
Quntilian tells us that allegory, which Latin writers call inversio, "presents one thing in words and another in sense, or sometimes a sense quite contrary to the words," 8.6.44. A few quick examples will get us to the heart of allegory. From the Aeneid 1.184:
"He saw three stags wandering on the shore."
Isidore comments: "where either the three leaders of the Punic wars are meant, or the three Punic wars themselves," I.37.22. Virgil also says, in his Eclogues,
"I have sent ten golden apples,"
by which he means that the sent ten pastoral eclogues to Augustus. The key to allegory, then, is that something stands for something else, without any clear reference being made to the thing really signified. There must, therefore, be a fairly large universe of shared concepts between writer and hearer/reader for allegory to "work." In this regard, allegory is very useful, even as it is quite risky. You first have to make sure you are on the same "wave length" as other people before it can work.
Quintilian tells us that prose likewise admits the use of allegory, but it is rarely pure allegory. It is generally mixed with plain speech because of the speaker's desire to make sense to his/her audience. An example of "pure" allegory is from Cicero:
"For I wonder, and am concerned, that any man should be so eager to destroy another by his words, as even to make a leak in the ship in which he himself is sailing," quoted in 8.6.47.
We don't know what he means; hence, the allegory is lost on us. More popular, Quintilian says, are mixed allegories. He provides this example:
"I indeed always thought that other tempests and storms were to be borne by Milo only amid the waves of popular assemblies."
He comments: "If he had not added 'only amid the waves of popular assemblies,' it would have been pure allegory, but he has thus rendered it mixed," 8.6.48. Quintilian also tells us that allegory is frequently used by the most "common of minds" and "in daily conversation." Phrases such as "to set foot to foot" [we don't have such an expression in English] or "to aim at the throat" or "to draw blood" are allegories, especially if the latter is used in non-military contexts. He comments:
"Novelty and variety in style are indeed pleasing, and what is unexpected is, on that account, the more agreeable," 8.6.51.
But with every good use of a trope, there is also its misuse. Allegory, especially, allows for the possibility of descending into obscurity rather rapidly. Thus, one must take care how it is used. When it becomes obscure, it is called an "enigma," which, in Quintilian's mind, was a fault in style, since to speak with perspicuity is a virtue (8.6.52).
After this lengthy, but fully necessary, introduction to allegory, Quintilian then speaks of enigma, irony, derision, and "speaking of melancholy things in words of a more cheering nature," 8.6.52-57. There is a lacuna in his text, but then he concludes his section by mentioning four other Greek terms: sarkasmos, asteismos, antiphrasis, paroimia. Noting the difference with other rhetoricians, who says these are not species of allegory but are tropes--because allegory is obscure but all these things end up clarifying what we mean--Quintilian refuses to enter into that debate.
Let's now turn to those seven terms, listed above, which the later grammarians use to define the concept of allegory more fully.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long