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The definition of allegory is found in understanding its history. The subject of allegory is vast, comprising many different practices of writing, interpreting, and representing. It is bound up with developments not only in literature and art, but also in mythology, religion, rhetoric, and intellectual culture over the centuries. Thus any theoretical statement about allegory that seeks to capture its essence can only be as good as the historical understanding on which it is founded. This volume seeks to provide that historical perspective. It traces the development of allegory in the European tradition from antiquity to the modern era, emphasizing its progress through literary culture. The essays assembled here traverse the fields that inform allegorical thought and practice in literature and in textual interpretation. Within the broad scope of the European tradition we incorporate the emergence of allegory in ancient Greece and Rome, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We begin with Greek antiquity, showing how the earliest systems of allegory arose in poetry in relation to philosophy, mystery religions, and hermeneutics or interpretation. By proceeding chronologically, this volume accounts for how allegory came to be understood, by late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, as both a theological problem and a literary device, or how sacred and secular conceptions of allegory could be seen to co-exist in the same text.
In Late Antiquity a series of ideas emerges that adds a kind of buoyancy to allegorism. Readers' impulses toward other regions of knowledge begin to flow more consistently upward, drawn by various metaphysical currents that guide and support them. A whole manner of Platonist-inspired architectures structure the cosmos in the early centuries of the Common Era, among thinkers as diverse as the well-known Origen and the mysterious Numenius. Plato's understanding of appearances had always insisted on some higher, unfallen level of reality, in which the forms dwell, and to which we have no access through our senses. This other level seems to invite allegorical aspirations. Of course, Plato himself prominently declined the invitation, and it is no small irony that his work should have become the font of such heady visions. He consistently disparages poetry's claims to any kind of truth, let alone the grandiose varieties that allegorical readers tend to ascribe to it. The distance between the sensible world and the real source of truth operates for him as a chastening agent, a message of epistemological caution echoing over a chasm. (Plato typically leaves the task of mediating it to the colorless verb metecho ”participate.”) But his later followers do not feel such stringent compunctions. They will embrace Plato's metaphysics of fallenness, but then shift their emphasis from the distance that separates us and the highest truths to the notion that the world here and now is (somehow) connected to a higher order - a position inarguably Platonic but rarely more than implicit in the master's work.
Allegory is a vast subject, and its knotty history is daunting to students and even advanced scholars venturing outside their own historical specializations. This Companion will present, lucidly, systematically, and expertly, the various threads that comprise the allegorical tradition over its entire chronological range. Beginning with Greek antiquity, the volume shows how the earliest systems of allegory developed in poetry dealing with philosophy, mystical religion, and hermeneutics. Once the earliest histories and themes of the allegorical tradition have been presented, the volume turns to literary, intellectual, and cultural manifestations of allegory through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The essays in the last section address literary and theoretical approaches to allegory in the modern era, from reactions to allegory in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to reevaluations of its power in the thought of the twentieth century and beyond.