“Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor: Augustine

See first two posts on subject:

Metaphors and Interpretation

“Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor: Aristotle 

To comb through the works of Augustine (this week) and Aquinas (next week) to find their understanding of metaphor would be an interesting work unto itself. Thus, the goal here is not to give a thorough examination of their ideas but to highlight key areas they influenced a Christian understanding of metaphor.

In the Middle Ages, several factors led to the examination of metaphor, for instance:

-the fact words can more than one meaning perplexed logicians

-language about God or the divine perplexed theologians

-the nature of reality, the connection between experience, reality and language, was a core problem of Medieval  metaphysics.

How these issues interrelated was a major part of the discussion on metaphors during this age and I am using Augustine and Aquinas as examples of the discussion. For me, they serve as bookends to glimpse the discussion at the beginning and end this period.

Augustine was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism. There is a separation between the transcendent realm of God and the finite (fallen) world of man, and according to Augustine it is the Word that bridges the gap. For Augustine, the Word is more than scripture it is also Christ, the Word become flesh, but for our purposes the focus is on scripture. Scripture, according to Augustine, is divinely inspired human writings; via inspiration human words are able to point to the eternal. The difficulty in understanding scripture results in part from the very nature of words as signs pointing beyond themselves and here metaphors play an important role.

Conversely, the continued influence of Aristotle’s understanding of metaphor is obvious in Augustine. He discusses metaphors at the level of words, he recognizes that some kind of similarity exists between the words, and he believes it takes insight, effort (Aristotle’s genius) to interpret the meaning of their connection. In fact, one of Augustine’s reasons for engaging metaphor is to help Christians unlock the hidden meanings found in scripture’s metaphors.

Yet, Augustine contributed many of his own thoughts on metaphors. He spends considerable effort examining how to distinguish between literal and figurative speech. Also, he understood metaphors as embellishments of points explained more plainly in other places (following the adage – scripture interprets scripture). But, perhaps his greatest  influence was his insistence of the ethical quality metaphor. He provided two rubrics through which Christians should interpret metaphors:

  1. Love, Mercy, and Justice – no legitimate interpretation can attribute wickedness to God or the saints. He writes, “To carefully turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love” (On Christian Doctrine, 3.15.23). He establishes, therefore, a key component of the use and interpretation of metaphor, to allow all interpretation to point to love.
  2. Universal Truth – Augustine believed humans because of their “lust” would tend to interpret passages in such a way that it justified their sinfulness. Metaphors, therefore, were not open containers that could be spilled out in any manner, but held truth that much be understood correctly. Again, the interpretation of metaphor is highly ethical.

This quick look at Augustine’s work on metaphor is severely lacking, but it can serve as a guide as to how the “Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor evolved into its current state. The influence of Aristotle is clear, but we begin to see how it became crucial for biblical interpretation. For Augustine, metaphors were a means to bridge the gap between human words and divine reality with their ability to serve as signs pointing beyond themselves.


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