Being a master of metaphor is a mark of genius, according to Aristotle (382 – 322 BC). And he was wrong.
Of course, I firmly agree that powerful metaphors are massively important in communication – ‘rhetoric’ in Aristotle’s world. Metaphor brings language to life, makes arguments compelling and vivid, helps us to share complex ideas easily and so on. Virtually all of marketing is metaphor.
But Aristotle was wrong in other respects.
The full quote is: “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.”
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.
Of course, we can all agree that there are some metaphors which have a superb elegance, a poetry which marks them out from the everyday. Malcolm Tucker’s vivid (and very sweary) metaphors in The Thick Of It spring to mind as examples. (Beware: link contains very strong language).
Others are horribly clunky, like these which are claimed to originate from high school English students. (Not sure I believe that, BTW.)
But the fact is that all of us are using about six metaphors a minute in ordinary English. These metaphors flow past, completely unnoticed. We’re like fish swimming in a sea of metaphors – we don’t notice the water.
One of the things I’ve learned from teaching my Metaphor Mastery programme is that once my students start to notice metaphors, they start to experience other people’s language as far more colourful than before. An ordinary day at the office might become a battlefield or a soccer game; a night out with friends a magical mystery tour.
Very quickly, they start to share the joy, by asking Clean Language questions about the metaphors they hear. Their colleagues, friends and families join in the fun. And very soon, there’s a whole lot more life in the language of that part of town.
Seems to me there’s no doubt about it: pretty much everyone can make good metaphors, and can develop their skill in doing so. Aristotle was wrong.
- Do you disagree? Or not? Please comment below.