Was Aristotle wrong about Metaphor?

The wonderful Judy Rees, clean language guru and Mistress of Metaphor seems to think so. In a recent blog post, she argues that Aristotle was wrong to claim that mastering metaphor was a sign of genius. But what exactly did Aristotle mean by 'genius'? Is there more going on here than it might at first seem?


Judy, whose work I have a lot of respect for, is quoting from the Poetics (Chapter 22 - 1459a).

The translation she's using gives the passage as follows:

‘The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.’

From this, she concludes the following:

‘The quote suggests that Aristotle believed two things which are, quite simply, wrong:

·      Making good metaphors is a special kind of behaviour, restricted to a subset of the population

·      Making good metaphors is a fixed ability, rather than a learnable skill.’

Now this is where I beg to differ.

Joe Sachs in his 2005 edition translates 'genius' as 'a sign of natural gifts'. The Greek word is εφυία (natural goodness of shape, shapeliness). 

So is the ability to think in metaphors something that only people with exceptional talent can do (I'm using 'genius' in the sense we'd think of Einstein, Newton or Bach as geniuses)? That's not what Aristotle's saying.

Is the ability to think metaphorically something that we all have as part and parcel of the natural way we think and do as a matter of course? (I'm thinking of 'genius' here in the sense of 'natural goodness of shape' that Aristotle used it). That's not what Aristotle's saying either.

So when Judy Rees says "pretty much everyone can make good metaphors, and can develop their skill in doing so" I have to agree, and probably so would Aristotle ... however much she might like to prove Aristotle wrong, I'm afraid her argument is unconvincing.

For Aristotle, metaphors are about seeing and expressing the 'natural goodness or shapeliness' that things share and have in common. And, according to him, spotting a metaphor helps us think in a more 'shapely' way - just as a realistic sculptor working with clay or marble shapes his material, the resulting sculpture exhibiting his ability to match his inner vision to the object he is recreating as closely as possible. 

But every time we express our thoughts in words we are using metaphors - we are sculpting thoughts with words, and revealing not just our thoughts but our thought processes - and what our thought processes say about us.

It's no wonder that Judy (and others who use David Grove's clean language system, myself included) put so much importance on metaphor.

But metaphor can mean different things to different people.

'Metaphor' is a blanket term that does include similes and oxymorons (as well as analogies - the very slippery eels in the family). Aristotle groups them together in his 'Rhetoric' (Chapter 3.4; see also 3.10).

Analogies, by the way, draw on the same kind of proportional thinking as is used when working out proportions and ratios in maths and geometry. This is something that was part and parcel of the integrated approach to teaching liberal arts. If you look into the connections, you may well find it has an integrative effect, just as clean language has been shown to have.

While I’m not a fan of pedantry, I have to take issue with Judy’s use of ‘metaphor’ as a catch-all phrase for the many different types of rhetorical device which appear in the examples she gives in her external links. There should be a metaphor for the loose use of rhetorical terms – dirty language, perhaps? There is more to rhetoric as an art form and we all have the ability to be sculptors, and in exercising that art, sculpt our own destinies.

To paraphrase the 'Golden Verses'*, may metaphor 'show unto each the Genius, who is their guide!'

* The 'Golden Verses' are attributed to Pythagoras, and are known from Iamblichus. Algis Uzdavinys believes date from the Hellenistic era (the last 300 years before the Common Era). The translation used above comes from Uzdavinys' and Finamore's 'The Golden Chain' (2004), p 37. 



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