Aristotle on Metaphor

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised: March 28, 2007

Aristotle discusses metaphor primarily in two works: The Poetics, which is about excellence in poetic works, with an emphasis on tragedy, and The Rhetoric, which is about the composition of persuasive speeches. When he is addressing knowledge or science in the strict sense, as in Posterior Analytics, metaphor is nowhere to be seen. It is of some interest that in the Rhetoric he says that metaphor makes learning pleasant, but here he is speaking of the kind of memorable insights that poets like Homer can create through well-chosen vivid metaphors.

From The Poetics, translated by Ingram Bywater:

Chapter 21, 1457b1-30

. . . a noun must always be either (1) the ordinary word for the thing, or (2) a strange word, or (3) a metaphor, or (4) an ornamental word, or (5) a coined word, or (6) a word lengthened out, or (7) curtailed, or (8) altered in form.

By the ordinary word I mean that in general use in a country; and by a strange (foreign?) word, one in use elsewhere. So that the same word may obviously be at once strange and ordinary, though not in reference to the same people. . . . Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, on the grounds of analogy. That from genus to species is exemplified in "Here stands my ship"; for lying at anchor is the "standing" of a particular kind of thing. That from species to genus in "truly ten thousand good deeds has Ulysses wrought," where "ten thousand," which is a particular large number, is put in place for the generic "a large number." That from species to species in "drawing the life with the bronze," and "severing with the bronze"; where the poet uses 'draw' in the sense of 'sever' and 'sever' in that of 'draw,' both words meaning to 'take away' something. That from analogy is possible whenever there are four terms so related that the second (B) is to the first (A) as the fourth (D) is to the third (B), for one may then metaphorically put (D) in lieu of (B) and (B) in lieu of (D). Now and then, too, they qualify the metaphor by adding on to it that to which the word it supplants is relative. Thus a cup (B) is in relation to Dionysus (A) what a shield (D) is to Ares (C). The cup accordingly will be called the shield of Dionysus (D+A). Or to take another instance: As old age (D) is to life (C), so is evening (B) to day (A). One will accordingly describe evening as the "old age of the day" (D+A) . . . and old age (D) as the "evening" or "sunset of life" (B+C). It may be that some of the terms thus related have no special name of their own, but for all that they will be metaphorically described in the same way. Thus to cast forth seed-corn is called sowing; but to cast forth its flame, as said of the sun, has no special name. This nameless act (B), however, stands in just the same relation to its object, sunlight (A), as sowing (D) to the seed-corn (C). Hence the expression in the poet, "sowing a god-created flame." (D+A)

From The Rhetoric, III, trans. by George A. Kennedy

1404b . . . A word in its prevailing and native meaning and metaphor are alone useful in the lexis of prose. A sign of this is that these are the only kinds of words everybody uses; for all people carry on their conversations with metaphors and words in their native and prevailing meanings.1 Thus, it is clear that if one composes well, there will be an unfamiliar quality and it escapes notice and will be clear. [1405a] . . . Metaphor especially has clarity and sweetness and strangeness, and its use cannot be learned from anyone else. One should speak both epithets and metaphors that are appropriate, and this will be from analogy.2 If not, the expression seems inappropriate because opposites are most evident when side-by side with each other. . . . And if you wish to adorn, borrow the metaphor from something better in the same genus, if to denigrate, from something worse. I mean, for example, since they are opposites in the same genus, saying of a person who begs that he "prays" or that a person praying "begs," because both are forms of asking.

1406b . . . A simile is also a metaphor; for there is little difference: when the poet says, "He rushed as a lion," it is a simile, but "The lion rushed" [with lion referring to a man] would be metaphor; since both are brave, he used a metaphor [i.e., a simile] and spoke of Achilles as a lion. . . . [Similes] should be brought in like metaphors; for they are metaphors, differing in the form of expression.

1410b To learn easily is naturally pleasant to all people, and words signify something, so whatever words create knowledge in us3 are the pleasantest. . . . Metaphor most brings about learning; for when [Homer] calls old age "stubble," he creates understanding and knowledge4 through the genus, since both old age and stubble are [species of the genus of] things that have lost their bloom.

. . . Of the four kinds of metaphor, those by analogy are most well liked, [1411a] as when Pericles said that the young manhood killed in the war vanished from the city as though someone took the spring from the year. . . . [1411b] And when Iphicrates said, "My path of words is through the midst of Chares' actions," it was a metaphor by analogy, and "through the midst of" is bringing-before-the-eyes. And to say "Call dangers to the aid of dangers" is bringing-before-the-eyes and metaphor.5

Note 1. Here Aristotle seems to be referring to what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books, 1999) call literal meanings.

Note 2. Lakoff and Johnson seem to be referring to what is here rendered "analogy" when they attribute to Aristotle the view that similarity lies at the heart of metaphor.

Note 3. The Loeb Classical Library trans. by J. H. Freese, published by Harvard University Press, is more literal: "all words which make us learn"

Note 4. The Loeb translation has: "teaches and informs us."

Note 5. The Loeb translation has here "is a vivid metaphor."