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The Late Medieval Attack on Analogical Thought:
Undoing Substantial Connection


"Many similarities, when closely examined, prove not to be explicable in terms of imitation. I would freely admit that these are the most interesting ones to observe, for they allow us to take a real step forward in the exciting search for causes. " 1 The similarities documented in this paper are of the order described by Marc Bloch in the statement just quoted. They are not explicable in terms of imitation, nor is it possible to establish a direct causal relation between, say, late-medieval political theory and poetic practise, or between scientific method and political theory. Still there is, I believe, a relation among the phenomena here described. Simultaneity in history is itself a relation, which we sometimes designate by the term "culture." That we speak of "a culture" implies some readiness to suspend the notion of strictly causal relations among various kinds of creative thought; indeed, the etymolo-

1Marc Bloch, "A Contribution Towards a Comparative History of European Societies," in Land and Work in Medieval Europe: Selected Papers (New York, 1969), p. 54.

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gy of "culture" itself carries the image of organic growth, of parallel growths in a common field. If the inquiry after causes is pursued far enough, that common field will be discovered in the economic basis of society, in the social development and changing class structure which it is the business of historians to describe. Here I want simply to notice certain similarities among various intellectual disciplines in the fourteenth century.

Chaucer's dream-vision The House of Fame first brought to my attention the related questions of poetic allegory and analogical thought. That curious work tells of Geffrey's eagle-borne journey through the cosmos to Fame's palace, where he observes the fickle goddess herself distributing judgements that will determine the good or ill fame of various petitioners. The judgement scene is less interesting than significant, for while it only repeats a point that has already been made many times in the poem (i.e., that tradition, or fame, is unreliable as a source of absolute truth), it does represent Chaucer's only original use of fully-developed personification allegory. Why had Chaucer made so little use of a literary mode that had dominated the European mind for nearly a thousand years? It was a mode, moreover, with which Chaucer was quite familiar. He translated two of the most famous and influential of all medieval allegories, the De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius, and part of the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris. From the French Chaucer also translated a personification allegory of virtue and vice which appears in The Canterbury Tales as The Tale of Meiibee. And The Clerk's Tale of patient Griselda is interpreted by its teller according to the traditional method of literal, moral and doctrinal levels of meaning. These examples show that Chaucer knew very well the traditional uses of allegory as a creative mode and as an exegetical tool. Yet, for the greater part by far of his own work, he chose other modes of expression.2 It is the purpose of this paper to explore some uses of the allegorical mode, and to propose some reasons why that mode was not suited to Chaucer's poetic vision.

I. Allegory and Analogy.

Like its close relatives simile and metaphor, allegory is a form of analogy: it establishes a proportional relation among things otherwise unlike. It establishes an analogy, or proportion, between the relation of parts in a nar-

2In some of these works Chaucer uses allegorical personifications in a decorative way, or inserts allegorical episodes. Nonetheless, I am in basic agreement with C. S. Lewis' statement that "Nowhere in Chaucer do we find what can be called a radically allegorical poem." (The Allegory of Love [New York. 1936, 1960]. P. 166). In saying this I don't wish to commit myself to defending Lewis' position on everything else. The distinction between allegory and symbol, for example, is usually less clear-cut than Lewis suggests: and, as Rosamund Tuve points out, it is "born of nineteenth-century German critical theory, not medieval usage." (Allegorical Imagery: Some Medieval Books and their Posterity [Princeton, N.J., 1966], p. 3). Tuve's caveat doesn't invalidate the distinction, though it should be applied cautiously (as I hope I have done later on).

I do want to distinguish very sharply between allegory as a creative mode and allegorical exegesis of the Bible or the classics. I am not, in this paper, concerned with the latter. D. W. Robertson and B. Huppe have practised allegorical exegesis on Chaucer's work (see their Fruvt and Chaf: Studies in Chaucer's Allegories [Princeton, N.J., 1963]). Their method, in my opinion, is as gratuitous and arbitrary as that of the Gesta Romanorum.

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rative, and the relation of parts in another system. By virtue of that analogy, the narrative structure can be said to "correspond" to the other system. Because proportional analogy is the statement of a constant relation, we can-- in mathematics, at least--derive unknown terms from known; we can extract general truths from particular. This mathematical process is supposed to hold true in literature as well; indeed the didactic function of allegory would seem to depend on our performing that inductive operation.

These principles can be illustrated with some well-known literary texts. The earliest extant Christian allegory is the fourth-century epyllion of Prudentius, the Psychomachia. Here, narrative action--the battle of virtues and vices--represents the moral struggle in each individual soul, and also the perpetual cosmic struggle of good and evil in the universe. The narrative image of battle imposes a particular structure upon our moral experience: we infer that the function of Christian virtue is constantly to struggle against vice, and that life consists of a series of confrontations. Battle is to the field what moral conflict is to life itself. The image also suggests a particular structure of mind and behavior, for the reader learns specific manifestations of vice (Libido, Superbia, Luxuria) and the qualities of mind and character required to defeat them (Pudicitia, Mens Humilis, Sobrietas). Battle is to the field what moral struggle is to man's soul. So that the Psychomachia is educational in the strictest etymological sense: its purpose is to lead the reader forth from literal narrative to a higher or more abstract level of meaning.

Guillaume de Guilleville's Pelerinage de Ia Vie Humaine, the anonymous morality play Everyman, and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress have the same purpose as the Psychomachia, though they use a different central metaphor--that of journey or pilgrimage--to represent the way to virtue. Each of these Christian allegories establishes a proportional analogy between narrative structure and a metaphysical structure: the Christian scheme of salvation. In all four, the purpose of the narrative is to transcend itself by directing the reader's attention to theological truth: "God makes base things usher in divine" (Bunyan).

Nor is this process of transcendence limited to religious allegory, for the system to which allegorical narrative "corresponds" may be any structure of ideas. In the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris, the conceptual structures are social and psychological. The Narrator enters a garden which represents courtly society: Oiseuse lets him in, just as leisure permits a man to enter such society. Within he meets figures representing different qualities of the aristocratic life-style: Cortoisie, Leesce, Richece. He chooses a love-object from among many attractive rosebuds in the garden. The Narrator's efforts to pluck his rose bring him into contact with figures who represent aspects of a lady's mind, (Pitié, Venus), of the Narrator's own mind (Reson, Amors) and of society (Male Boche, Jalosie). The interrelation of these personifications tells the story of a young man's initiation into courtly life and courtly love. In fact Guillaume's Roman is an instructional manual in the form of an allegorical romance. "Qui amer veut, or i entende," Guillaume exhorts his readers:

Qui dou songe la fin ora,
je vos di bien que il porra

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des jeus d'Amors asses aprende . . .
(II. 2065-67)

In its own terms, the Roman is didactic, though secular. Its hero is a wealthy, ambitious young "everyman," his conduct is prescribed by the God of Love, the salvation he hopes for is strictly earthly. And the world of the Roman is as rigidly defined as that of theological allegory, its virtues and vices as sharply delineated, its episodes requiring translation into social or psychological terms.

Historical time offers another possibility for allegorical meaning. The past may be thought of as an abstract system with a particular structure. In George Orwell's fable Animal Farm, the animals' rebellion parodies the Russian Revolution of 1917, the relation between the pigs Napoleon and Snowball resembles Stalin's persecution of Trotsky, and Napoleon's policies for managing the farm remind us of Stalin's increasingly revisionist rapprochement with the capitalist world. As with other kinds of allegory, we have to recognize in the narrative the structure of an analogous system. Or epistemology may provide the system, as it does in Plato's allegory of the Cave (Republic, VII, 51 4A), in which a man's progress from darkness to full sunlight represents the movement of the mind from ignorance to enlightenment. In body-allegory such as Spenser's House of Alma (Faerie Queene, II, ix) or Phineas Fletcher's The Purple Island, the system is the structure of the human body. So that the allegorical narrative may refer to a concrete or an abstract structure, its meaning tnay be social, historical, psychological, philosophical or theological. Only the method is constant: it requires the reader to bear in mind a structure different from that of the narrative but proportional to it, and to interpret the narrative in terms of that other system.3

In a general way, all literature must be read inductively, insofar as it represents any larger truth beyond itself. In this sense, all literature might be considered śállos a∆goria: other-speaking. But there is a crucial difference between allegory and other literary modes, and that is the nature of the "other" it implies. Non-allegorical literature usually refers the reader back to the world he inhabits, so that the proportion it establishes is between two known systems. The world beyond the narrative can be verified. Most allegories, however (excepting, of course, biological and historical), refer us to a realm of abstract moral or religious ideas which are not only unknown but unknowable. Its "truth" (if it refers us to an abstract system) is unverifiable. Non-allegorical literature shows us proud persons who are very like other proud persons whom we can actually meet, or it chronicles a love affair such as we can experience if we wish; it describes the society in which we live, or one which we know others to have inhabited. But allegory shows

3Many "allegories" are less consistently or continuously allegorical than those I have mentioned, e.g., Piers Plowman and Tine Faerie Queene. Other works (such as Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae, Pearl, and Thomas Usk's Testament of Love) establish an allegorical situation which frames a straightforward instructional dialogue. Such mixture of modes does not invalidate a discussion of allegory in its purer forms--or, more accurately, of allegory in those works wherein the mode is more rigorously sustained.

[p. 41]

us Pride herself, whom we will never meet, or a psyche whose parts walk before us, or a heavenly city which we will never physically see.

In fact, the allegory of abstraction can produce no new knowledge. Its method is circular, for the general truth to which allegory claims to lead must first be accepted if the narrative is to have any didactic effect. Prudentius' battle is the image of what Christian doctrine teaches about virtue, and Prudentius' reader must already believe that doctrine if he is to benefit morally from the poem. Plato's allegory of the cave is used only when the epistemological system it represents has been carefully laid out in discursive argument: "Every feature in this parable," says Socrates, "is meant to fit our earlier analysis.." A materialist will find the parable no more convincing than the earlier analysis. The instructive value of Guillaume's garden depends on the reader accepting the aristocratic life-style it enshrines. When this is questioned--as it was by Jean de Meun, the continuator of Guillaume's unfinished work--then the action, symbols and iconography appropriate to Guillaume can no longer convince; that is why Jean substituted his own. In Animal Farm, Orwell's use of animal fable already reveals the author's political judgement, and the reader must have a grossly distorted notion of communism if he can accept the symbol of pigs for revolutionaries.

Allegory speaks, then, to the already convinced. It speaks to Christians that they may be saved, to wealthy men that they may succeed in love, to intellectuals that they may be philosopher kings. Far from persuading his audience to accept a particular conceptual structure, the allegorist must expect that that structure has already been accepted. Epistemologically, meaning precedes narrative in allegory. Meaning generates symbols and provides in advance the correct interpretation of those symbols. The rose of Guillaume's Roman is for this reason far easier to understand than the rose of Blake's lyric "The Sick Rose," which refers to no single correct system.

As a form of analogy, poetic allegory shares the fortunes of analogical thought. I want to suggest that analogy and allegory do express a way of perceiving reality, hut that they are not adequate to express all perceptions of reality. During the fourteenth century, scholars in fields as varied as physics and cosmology, political theory and logic, began to question received theories based on analogy. Such simultaneity, rooted in history and therefore far from coincidental, testifies to the emergence of new social needs which generated new ways of looking at man, the universe, and society. It is a cultural phenomenon which may help us to understand Chaucer's curious neglect of the allegorical mode.

II. Analogy and Science.

The theoretical basis for analogical science is what Mircea Eliade has called "archaic ontology." For archaic man,

neither the objects of the external world nor human acts. . . have any autonomous intrinsic value. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate ... in a reality that transcends them.4

4Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History (New York, 1954, 1959), p. 3.

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This transcendent reality provides models which the phenomenal world imitates: "for archaic man, reality is a function of the imitation of the celestial archetype." The world itself thus participates in a cosmic analogy with supraterrestrial reality. It is misleading to label such a world-view "primitive," for societies and individuals at an advanced stage of intellectual sophistication have held it.

Plato's theory of Forms provided the metaphysical basis for much medieval scientific speculation. Indeed, Plato's Timaeus was the only work of classical science (if such it can be called)5 that was known throughout the Middle Ages, for most of Aristotle's work was translated from Greek and Arabic only in the twelfth century. The premise of Timaeus is that "Our world must necessarily be a likeness of something" (29B)6 The world is framed in the likeness of a living creature (30C), which is "the unchanging Form, on-generated and indestructible" (5lE-52).

With the adaptation of Platonic theory to Christian doctrine, the Forms became Ideas in the divine mind (John Scotus Erigena, St. Anselm, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon) or pre-existent effects in an infinite Intelligence (Aquinas' formulation). This provides several possible bases for analogy, among them cause and effect. The effect (the created world) both represents its cause (God) and strives to resemble or rejoin it; indeed the creature "is called a being only insofar as it imitates the First Being."7 The analogy between supraterrestrial "reality" and our own world becomes an analogy between God and the world. In the words of Aquinas' contemporary, St. Bonaventura:

All creatures of this sensible world . . . are shadows, echoes, and pictures, the traces, simulacra, and reflection of that First Principle. ... They are signs divinely bestowed which, I say, are exemplars or rather exemplifications set before our yet untrained minds, limited to sensible things, so that through the sensibles which they see they may be carried forward to the intelligibles which they do not see, as if by signs to the signified.8

Thus, the world itself is an allegory, and we the exegetes.

Some scientific implications of archaic ontology can be observed in Plato's cosmology, and in that of later theorists as well. Plato considered the universe

5The purpose of the Timaeus, like that of Plato's other dialogues, is to disengage our attention from the physical world in order to focus it upon the "true reality" of abstract Forms. Plato's anti-scientific bias has been discussed by G. F. M. de Ste-Croix, in Scientific Change, ed. A. C. Crombie (New York, 1963), pp. 83-84; by J. G. Crowther, The Social Relations of Science (London, 1941, 1967), p. 48; by Benjamin Farrington, Science and Politics in the Ancient World (London, 1939; New York, 1966), pp. 103-106, 134-35; and by Alban D. Winspear, The Genesis of Plato's Thought (New York, 1940, 1956), pp. 156-60. Timaeus was known to medieval scholars through the fourth-century translation and commentary of Chalcidius.

6All references are to Plato's Cosmology, trans. F. M. Cornford (London, 1937 and New York, nd.).

7 I Sent. 4, 2. Although Aquinas wrote no separate treatise on analogy, it is a recurrent topic in his writing. The loci are collected and analyzed in George P. Klubertanz, St. Thomas Aquinas on Analogy (Chicago, 1960).

8Saint Bonaventura, The Mind's Road to God, trans. George Boas (New York, 1953), Chapter II, section 11.

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a living creature composed of matter and form, body and soul, capable of "ceaseless and intelligent life for all time" (Timaeus, 36D-E). Each planet, Plato asserts, is also a creature endowed with a special kind of life; each has a material body and a soul which guides its motion and enables it to learn its appointed task (38E).

While Aristotle denied the theory of Forms--the mythic embodiment of archaic ontology--he did not exorcise every vestige of analogical cosmology from his own scientific speculation.9 The Platonic planetary souls appear in Aristotle, hardly altered, as a set of celestial intelligences. They are posited, of course, from premises different from Plato's, namely from Aristotle's concept of motion as the effect of a continually imparted cause. Since all that moves must be moved by some internal or external force, and since an effect must cease when its cause ceases to operate, then the natural and eternal movement of the celestial spheres must be caused by certain eternal and innate principles of motion, which are analogous in function to the human soul. So Aristotle urges us to think of the stars not as inanimate bodies, but rather "as enjoying life and action . . . similar to that of animals and plants" (De Caelo, 292A-B). He writes of the heaven that it must have, like any other living creature, an absolute directional orientation--above, below, right, left (De Caelo, 285A). And since each of the spheres will have its own "soul," the total number of such celestial intelligences will be fifty-five (Metaphysica, l07A).

Although the theory of celestial intelligences became a central doctrine in Hellenic, Arabic and scholastic cosmology, it was attacked during the fourteenth century by several scholars, and most incisively in the work of Jean Buridan (died c. 1358) and his pupil Nicole Oresme (1320-1382).

Buridan, logician and rector of the University of Paris, was perhaps the most influential of fourteenth-century scientists. His ideas were brought by his pupils to the new universities of central Europe; in western Europe they were known to Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. Buridan refused to consider the planets as animate creatures. He saw them as objects merely and accounted for their motion by the same principle with which he explained projectile motion. In contrast to Aristotle, Buridan developed a theory of impetus:10 motion need not be continually imparted to the moved object by way of the medium (air or water), but once imparted will simply continue until it is overcome by resistance. Thus, the planets, like any moving thing, need not be moved by God or by any celestial intelligence:

Since the creation of the world, God has moved the heavens with movements identical to those with which they move at present; he imprinted in them forces by which they continue to be uniformly moved.

9Aristotle's debt to Plato is acknowledged by most scholars, though its exact extent is debated. See, for example, A. F. Taylor, Aristotle (London, 1943), pp. 44-45: G. E. L. Owen. "The Platonism of Aristotle," in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. LI (1965): Werner Jaeger, Aristotle (Oxford, 1923).

10 The "impetus" theory was not original with Buridan, but had been proposed as early as the sixth century by John Philoponus. a Greek commentator of Aristotle. Philoponus' theory was transmitted to European scholars through the work of Arabic Aristotelians.

End of part one

Click here for part two

Click here for part three

Source: Chaos and Form: History and Literature; Ideas and Relationships; Essays selected and edited with an introd. by Kenneth McRobbie (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972); pp. 37-58.

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