Allegory as a Rhetorical Device in Ancient Biography
Effective communication was of paramount importance in the ancient world. In order to successfully deliver their meaning, ancient authors employed numerous rhetorical devices, most of which are used today in similar circumstances. One of the most common rhetorical devices seen in ancient Christian and pagan texts is allegory, usually in the form a story which can be interpreted to reveal hidden meaning. Biblical stories abound with allegory as are many of those written by pagan authors.
The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature describes allegory as “a transliteration of the Greek word meaning ‘figurative or metaphorical language” or “to say something different from what one means.” Based upon this definition, most Biblical parables easily qualify as allegory. However, the notion of classifying parables as allegory has been a point of contention among scholars for decades. Until early 20th century, parables were normally interpreted as allegory; Adolf Julicher contested this viewpoint in a 1919 publication, arguing that since parables made a single point, they could not be classified as allegories. Modern scholars disagree, defining allegories “more acceptably” as “extended metaphors in narrative form” and agreeing that the line between parable and allegory is indeed “fuzzy.” The distinction between allegory and parable is nevertheless subtle, and interpreting parables as allegories can be a useful exercise when making comparisons to other non-Christian works (Aune 30-32).
Allegories are not commonly employed by biographers to bring depth to their subjects. However, some “biographies” are themselves allegories, stories with a moral handed down.
It is fairly obvious why Jesus employed allegories when preaching his beliefs; ancient societies were oral cultures and most of what they learned came directly from the mouth of a teacher. In order to teach complicated moral lessons, Jesus would often tell seemingly unrelated stories that summarized or encapsulated lessons he was trying to convey to his audience. Examples in the New Testament are numerous; one of the most well known, the parable of the sower is recorded in the Gospel according to Mark. In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a farmer who is sowing his seed. Some seed falls on the edge of the path and is eaten by birds. Some seed falls on rocky ground and does not take root. Some seed is choked by thorns. Finally, some seed falls on fertile ground and “the yield is thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold” (Mark 4:1-9). In this story, Jesus is the sower. He spreads his word which sometimes falls on dead ears, unenthusiastic followers or those with other priorities. Those who listen to his word, Jesus believes, will “yield a harvest, thirty, sixty or a hundredfold” (Mark 4:13-20).
While speaking in parables undoubtedly confused many of his followers, Jesus had good reason for doing so. He states directly in Mark chapter four that he speaks this way so that his followers “may look and look but never perceive; listen and listen but never understand; to avoid changing their ways and being healed” (Mark 4:12). In other words, by speaking allegorically and in parables, Jesus forces deep introspection on the part of his followers. Rather than telling them directly the err of their ways, Jesus helps guide those who hear his stories to make changes to their lives themselves and on their own terms. The gospel goes on to state that Jesus spoke only in parables when teaching in public, and that he only revealed the meaning of the stories to his disciples when they were alone (Mark 4:33-34).
Since Jesus, by his own admission, spoke allegorically a vast majority of the time, recording his parables was extremely important. As a result, the authors of the gospels spend more time relating and explaining these stories than many of the actual events of Jesus’ life. Many important theological underpinnings of Catholocism were expressed by Jesus via parable. As a result, the importance of allegory in the New Testament cannot be understated.
The Life of Secundis the Silent Philosopher is similar to many of Jesus’s parables. In the allegorical tale, Secundis, an adherent to the cynic school of thought, proposes that every woman is a whore. To test his thesis, he disguises himself and propositions his mother who agrees to sleep with him for fifty gold pieces. After having spent the night together, Secundis reveals himself, leading his mother to hang himself out of shame. Believing his tongue to be responsible for this tragedy, Secundis vows never to speak again. After word of Secundis’s vow spread, the emperor Hadrian summoned Secundis and threatened to execute the philosopher if he did not speak. Secundis refused to relent and, impressed with his resolve, Hadrian granted Secundis reprieve, asking him to answer twenty questions of a philosophical nature instead.
While the entire allegory serves the purpose of delivering the questions at the conclusion, there certainly can be lessons extracted from the story. While the suicide of Secundis’s mother is certainly tragic, by adhering to his vow even in the face of death Secundis saves his own life. Basically, the moral that the allegory impresses is one should be steadfast in his resolve. The Life of Secundis is part of a genre known as “wisdom literature” and was composed to give advice to the reader or listener. Allegorical tales such as this carry much more weight than would an exhortation such as “stand by your word.” By weaving the lesson into an interesting fable, the author’s intent has a greater weight and is remembered much more easily.
The Life of Secundis, like many other fables from the ancient world, was preserved orally and distributed via word of mouth. As a result, the story of Secundis is an amalgamation created by myriad authors, each of whom spun the story to reflect their particular values. While the allegory itself undoubtedly remains unchanged and the moral the same, it is still noteworthy that this biography, anonymously written, bears the mark of numerous authors.
While the Life of Diogenes itself contains few allegories, it would be interesting to hear allegorical tales spun by Diogenes the Cynic. If read as fiction, Diogenes’s life could be rife with allegories. Nearly all of his actions are over the top, intended to engender a response from onlookers. Jesus is similar to Diogenes in that they act symbolically and words in order to elicit a response; while Jesus used words to convey his message, Diogenes used public actions and stunts to get his message across. Many of Diogenes’s actions could be easily interpreted as parables; for example, Diogenes compared those who harbored noble intentions yet failed to execute them to a harp, as the instrument itself had neither hearing nor perception (Diogenes Laertius 67). While this action itself and those similar to it could be most closely identified as metaphorical, Diogenes performed them in a way that fit into a performative narrative that could be defined as allegorical.
Many of the stories included in the life of Diogenes the Cynic as recorded by Diogenes Laertius could be read as allegories. For example, the story of Diogenes being sold as a slave to Xeniades could be understood as a commentary on the arbitrary relationship between a slave and his master. In that story, Diogenes believes himself to be superior to Xeniades, the man who intended to purchase him, by saying “Sell me to this man, he needs a master” (Diogenes Laertius 77).
Given Diogenes the Cynic’s over-the-top actions there would be little need for allegorical embellishment by his biographer. Diogenes lived his philosophy, truly embodying what he believed. This starkly contrasts the gospels, which focus more on what their subject said rather than what he did. Diogenes could undoubtedly create his own allegorical parables to outline his philosophies, but actually practicing and embodying his messages was surely more effective.
In order to be effective, a teacher needs to present his material in a fashion that is poignant and memorable to his audience. In order to do so, an effective communicator often employs rhetorical devices to aid him in his task. In ancient times allegory was one of the most prevalent and effective way to impart a complicated message to an uneducated audience. Jesus’s allegorical parables are well documented in the Old Testament as are those from pagan peoples. Without utilizing allegory as a rhetorical device, it is unlikely that parables and their messages from this time period would have the staying power that have allowed them to last millennia.