On a chaotic battlefield in some unknown place, good and evil are fighting to the death in an ecstatic battle for the soul. Chastity slices through lust causing fountains of blood to erupt into the air. Good works has greed held in a chokehold watching her face turn blue and then purple as the last vestiges of air slip away. Faith strikes the head of worship of the Old Gods causing her skull to shatter and flinging brain matter far and wide. This is Psychomachia, an over-1500-year-old poem that takes the vices and virtues of the human spirit and casts them in an extravagant battle that was perhaps not unlike the Avengers of the Middle Ages. Violent scenes depict the ancient glorious triumph of vices of virtue. And yet even with its age psychomachia is participating in a literary trend that we still use today– that of the extended allegory and in doing so it brings up some uncomfortable questions surrounding the way allegories are understood and used by those who read them that we are still asking today.
Immediately within Psychomachia the violence creates a sort of tension within the work, this interplay between the clear message of the allegory– in favor of the virtues who defend man’s soul and the gory imagery that is used, described in beautifully gruesome, detailed diction and accompanied by drawings in some versions of the work. The level of violence in this work is certainly not insignificant, potentially too gratuitous, too pro-violence. For this reason, it is worth asking: why is an internal struggle depicted in such a violent manner? To go even further, was it helpful or productive to do so, or does it in fact spread the wrong message about violence?
For example, I think one interpretation of this violence is that the context of the battle matters. It matters that these are Virtues fighting against vile Vices. So the implication is that there is “good” violence and “bad” violence, and that violence is only a sin whenever the one perpetrating the violence is bad. Which is reasonable, but leads into some tricky areas, as if this is the case does it apply to humans as well? Who makes these determinations and by what right? And then if it does apply, then would it not still be moral to perpetrate violence in the name of God and the “good”? and in some senses this kind of rhetoric and logic is how we end up with something like the crusades where there is this enormous loss of life that is viewed as moral because of the supposed intentions of the actors.
Was this the intention of Prudentius? It is practically impossible to know for sure, but it also does not necessarily matter–this line of reasoning becomes possible due to the inherent nature of allegory. The technique obscures its foundational intent, making it difficult to scrutinize what is meant to be taken literally and what is pure metaphor. And as I stated before, this difficulty is something we still deal with today, for example, the popular TV show Attack on Titan is commonly viewed as a sort of allegory about the cycle of war and genocide especially as it relates to the holocaust. But because it is both an allegory and a sensational work it brings up some uncomfortable implications through its framing of the people many would assume to be stand-ins for “Jewish people.” (Click here for more information on Attack on Titan) It’s the same issue as in Psychomachia, where one could view heathens and pagans as equivalent to the vices and therefore equivalent to the same kinds of violence. In both of these texts and in many allegories like them the ambiguity that often comes with the form combined with the sensationalized lens through which allegories can tell their stories, leaves just enough room for such interpretations– and this can be dangerous.
Now does this mean that we should just stop using allegories? Or make them so absurdly clear as to rid them of all nuances? I don’t think so. Part of their effectiveness is in this obfuscating duality, allowing a more complex and profound message to slip in beneath the battlefield drama. But I do think that it is worthwhile to examine these difficulties and contradictions within what makes up an “allegory” and to realize that these difficulties we have are not new and are simply a single example of a much larger conversation that we as humans have been having for a millennium.