Friday, March 5, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Aron Sjöblad, Metaphors Cicero Lived By: The Role of Metaphor and Simile in De senectute. Studia Graeca et Latina Lundensia, 16. Lund: Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, 2009. Pp. 205. ISBN 9789162877996. (pb).
Reviewed by Myles Lavan, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

The theory of conceptual metaphor developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson has had considerable impact on the study of metaphor over the past 30 years.1 The central idea is that that metaphor is a cognitive, rather than merely a linguistic or rhetorical, phenomenon. It is an essential part of how we think. We inevitably seek to make sense of the abstract and the strange in terms of the concrete and the familiar. Since these conceptual metaphors tend to be grounded in experience -- particularly bodily experience -- they are likely to be common to many or all cultures. In what is his doctoral dissertation, Sjöblad sets out to test whether these claims about the universality of key conceptual metaphors are borne out by the Roman evidence. It is an interesting question, but the book delivers disappointingly little in the way of insight or analysis.

Sjöblad puts the Lakoff-Johnson theory to the test by looking at a single Ciceronian dialogue (the De senectute), which he supplements with reference to the OLD in order to distinguish new from conventional usages. The Introduction gives a short overview of the Lakoff-Johnson approach to metaphor (as well as superfluous accounts of, inter alia, the dialogue's manuscript tradition and the biographies of its characters). The bulk of the book consists of two surveys of the metaphors in the dialogue -- one structured by source domain (physical burdens, the body, etc.), the other by target domain (old age, youth, etc.) -- with the result that many metaphors are cited and discussed twice. A short conclusion suggests that the dialogue presents a coherent metaphorical system centred around the concept of the mind as a body.

Confining the investigation to a single text is hardly an ambitious approach. Yet even this limited study lacks analytical rigour. Sjöblad succeeds in showing that some conceptual metaphors that are present in English and other modern languages can also be found in Cicero. But there is no systematic attempt to go further, e.g. by asking whether any common conceptual metaphors are conspicuously absent from the Latin, or whether Latin has any distinctive conceptual metaphors of its own (metaphors of slavery and mastery come to mind; cf Sen. 41 and 47). In the absence of any such synthesis, Sjöblad's list of metaphors has little to offer students of metaphor or Roman culture, though it may be of interest to those working on the De senectute.


1.   The seminal text is G. Lakoff and M. Turner, Metaphors we live by (Chicago, 1980). Z. Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction (Oxford, 2002) is a recent synthesis of the research paradigm.

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