Allegory and Analogy

In my theology courses the words “allegory” and “analogy” come up frequently. I tend to confuse the two with each other, saying “allegory” when in fact “analogy” is the proper word. Why do we have these two words? What is different about them?

Encarta defines allegory as “a work in which the characters and events are understood as representing other things and symbolically expressing a deeper, often spiritual, moral, or political meaning.”

Analogy is “a comparison between two things that are similar in some way, often used to help explain something or make it easier to understand” (Encarta).

One blog editor I found says that, although similar, there is an “enormous difference between the two words: all analogies break down at some point. When one makes an analogy, one’s simply indicating that the two things in comparison are ‘similar in some way’ – then using the similarities to increase understanding of an entirely different item, idea, or situation.”

But I think this distinction comes out of an imbibed modern illusion that difference = alienation. That is, it sounds to me like this writer is saying there is no real unity between different things. The Catholic approach has always been (according to my professors here at Franciscan University) one in which finding distinctions between two things becomes a way to bring them into unity. It is not a matter of “breaking things apart” as the blog writer suggests. So perhaps moderns have the first step right – finding the difference – but then the Catholic scholar will finish the work by seeking to discover the unity.

So what is the difference between allegory and analogy?

My thought is that allegory is a mode of expression and a way of understanding expression whereas analogy is something built in to reality. We use the expression “the analogy of being” to describe how being itself is analogical.

Allegory is a way of understanding expression (whether fictional or factual). But allegory depends on the fundamental reality in being that two things can be like and unlike at the same time. This is analogy. Without analogy, allegory would not be possible. And without a true understanding of analogy, the characters and events of allegory would become useless and purposeless once the deeper meaning which they represent had been found.

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2 thoughts on “Allegory and Analogy

  1. I both agree and disagree. Better stated I have my own perspective on the subject. The words to me while not interchangeable, are congruous in the fact they both use one concept/thing to represent another as a means to an end. It is the end, the goal or reason a allegory or analogy is used, and the depth and complexity, to me, where the differences in the two appear. An Analogy is all about increasing understanding, gaining a deeper and/or fresh perspective. It enriches cognition and mastery of a concept/subject. I believe one of the best ways of teaching because it not only can help one understand/relate to a foreign concept by comparing it a familiar one, it may spark enthusiasm and a desire to learn when the analogy is to something a one enjoys or is passionate about.
    An Allegory to me seeks to convey a theme, idea, message, moral ect., through a literary work, that is beyond merely understanding the parts themselves and how they are related or represent each other. Instead of comparing and analyzing two things like an analogy, the entire narrative: characters, setting, language, visuals, joins together to convey or represent a complex, abstract, theme or idea/ideal. It is a living, breathing, dynamic analogy if you will, and by experiencing it what you gain is far beyond an increased cognition of the what it is “Allegorically” representing.

    • James, thank you for your comment. I appreciate that you found this discussion interesting. It seems to me that you are drawing out more meaning from both these words. I especially like your description of allegory as “beyond merely understanding the parts in themselves.” It seems that an allegory, like a story, involves far more than a comparison. Thanks again!

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