Creating new idioms in Prudentius’ Psychomachia

Prudentius’ Psychomachia is known as one of the first examples of the literary and artistic form known as allegory, in which  abstract concepts are illustrated through the use of an extended metaphor . In the case of the Psychomachia, Prudentius explains how Christians should live a virtuous life by illustrating a violent battle between personified virtues and vices. (For example: “Faith first takes the field to face the doubtful chances of battle, her rough dress disordered” (281)) This form of the allegory can be seen as a way to, in the words of the French theorist Francois Lyotard, “bear witness to differends by finding idioms for them” (13).  Lyotard defines the differend as a break in understanding between a victim and their audience. For example, trauma cannot be simply described in the terms of straightforward communication that many modern legal systems are built on: much of what a trauma survivor has experienced is beyond expression, too painful to put into words or otherwise impossible to categorize into the boxes required of “language understood as communication” that forms the basis of our legal system. 

While the Psychomachia seems to differ from Lyotard’s ideas in the lack of physical, literal trauma, there is a parallel in the way that the text seeks to explain, and bear witness to, the unexplainable. Here the differend isn’t between a person and the court, but between the reader of the text and God. In  Prudentius’ worldview, God operates on a different level of perception that can understand instinctively the way that virtues and vices work. This is similar to the way that God, as recounted by Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy, has a different understanding of temporality that enables Him to reconcile apparent contradictions that humans can’t understand.  Just as there is a fundamental lack of understanding between the trauma victim and the prosecutor who understands language only as communication, there is a fundamental lack of understanding between humans and God because of understanding the world on different levels. An interesting contrast between the medieval and modern differends is the power difference between the two parties in each case: rather than victims justifying themselves to an authority, the authority is justifying itself to those below them. The authority is also justifying itself prospectively for what will or won’t happen, a contrast to Lyotard’s conception of victims retrospectively bearing witness. 

Psychomachia attempts to bridge this gap in understanding–to “link onto it” as Lyotard puts it–by describing psychological and cosmological ideas in the story of a human battle. By moving from abstraction to physicality, the idea of how virtues and vices oppose each other, how christian good supplanted pagan bad and other abstract ideas become much more comprehensible. Allegory allows the reader to see ideas on another plane of understanding that isn’t possible for us to understand in its purest form because of perception and temporal differences between us and God by translating it into a language we understand, namely, narrative. As Lyotard says:

“To give the differend its due is to institute new addressees, new addressors, new significations, and new referents in order for the wrong to find an expression and for the plaintiff to cease being a victim. This requires new rules for the formation and linking of phrases”(13)


Allegory, and metaphor more broadly, is a “rule for the…linking of phrases”–an new “idiom”– that allows something incomprehensible like trauma, or the human mind, or God’s perception of reality, to be understood, and borne witness to, on the human level. This is similar to the way that drawing, and comics specifically, creates a new form that forces the author to “materialize history” (26) by making ideas concrete in a way that is explicitly unconcerned with the “accuracy of rendering”(72), as discussed by Hillary Chute in Disaster Drawn. The language that turns abstract concepts into people experiencing a human narrative serves the same function as the act of drawing that can tell complex truths without being tied to objective depiction or temporality. Different so-called “genres of discourse”, like literature and comics, create tools in order to bridge the gap in comprehension.


One thought on “Creating new idioms in Prudentius’ Psychomachia

  1. These ideas remind me of this book called “The Metaphors We Live By” by the linguist George Lakoff. Lakoff argues that much of human language is governed by metaphors as metaphors apply what we know from concrete physical/social experiences to abstract, emotional concepts. Lakoff gives a linguistic backbone to the Lyotard we’ve been reading (and generally explains why allegory/metaphor is an effective form of poetics in communicating evil). I think metaphor can fill the lacuna/differend we’ve been talking about because it reaches for physical representations of unspeakable phenomena.

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