CS. Lewis describes the formation of medieval allegorism in his classic Allegory of Love. He begins by distinguishing between an allegorical and a sacramental or symbolic turn of mind. Allegory begins, he says, with “an immaterial fact, such as the passions which you actually experience” and finds ways to express those passions visibly. An invented person, Ira, has a torch contends with another invented person, Patientia (44–45).
Symbolism works from the other direction. It assumes that the “material world . . . is the copy of an invisible world,” and so symbolists or sacramentalists “attempt to read that something else through its sensible imitations, to see the archetype in the copy” (45).
For the allegorist, the depiction of a passion as a person is simply a literary device, a personification. For Dante, Amor in the Vita Nuova, is a personification of love. He is not pretending to find a transcendent something through the symbolism of love that he uses. Instead, as Dante says, love is not, according to the truth, “an intelligent” or “corporeal substance.” He adds, “Love has not, like a substance, an existence of its own, but is only an accident occurring in a substance” (quoted, 47). Dante “has no thought of pretending that it is more than a personification.”
This allegorical turn is given its impetus, Lewis argues, by the “twilight of the gods” that was already occurring before Christianity took over. There is a double movement, a “fading of the gods and the apotheosis of the abstractions.”
This double movement, he claims, is already inherent in polytheism. Polytheism isn’t the simple opposite of monotheism. Rather than being the rival of polytheism, monotheism is its “maturity”: “Where you find polytheism, combined with any speculative power and any leisure for speculation, monotheism will soon or later arise as a natural development.” And when that happens, “the gods are to be aspects, manifestations, temporary or partial embodiments of the single power. They are, in fact, personifications” (57–8). Thus, “the allegorization of the pantheon is . . . seen to depend on causes that go beyond merely literary history” (58).
Another factor that comes into play here is the shift from Aristotelian ethics and moral psychology to Rome and later Christian conceptions of ethics. For Aristotle, virtue wasn’t a struggle. Instead, the point of cultivating virtue was to form a person who would do the right thing without a second thought, develop the habits that would make a person do the good with ease: “the man who is temperate at a cost is profligate: the really temperate man abstains because he likes abstaining. The ease and pleasure with which good acts are done, the absence of moral ‘effort’ is for [Aristotle] a symptom of virtue.” No “fight the good fight” from Aristotle (59).
In Roman and Christian ethics, though, the notion develops that the good life is a life of continuous combat, a life of temptation and resistance to temptation: “The first step . . . towards an understanding of the role which the abstractions play in Statius and in his successors is to remark that men of that age, if they had not discovered the moral conflict, had at least discovered in it a new importance. They were vividly aware, as the Greeks had not been, of the divided well, the bellum intestinum. The new state of mind can be studied almost equally well in Seneca, in St. Paul, in Epictetus, in Marcus Aurelius, and in Tertullian” (60). This requires that the mind turn in upon itself, and to do so is already to be “on the verge of allegory,” with an allegory of combat between good and evil desires naturally arising.