The chess metaphor

chess Metaphors are everywhere.  As the author of The Immortal Game: A History of Chess states, “So much about the experience of living is intangible, we need choice comparisons and symbols to help frame our thinking, and expand those frames, to make more and more sense of what we see, hear and feel.”

The author explains how the “chess metaphor” helped to alter the dynamic of social relationships during the feudal era in Europe.   Around 1300, a monk named Jacobus de Cessolis wrote a wildly popular book called Libor de Moribus that used chess as a metaphor for life. 

Prior to the dissemination of the ideas in this book, the prominent metaphor for the state was the human body, which depicted citizens as subordinate body parts and the King as the head.   If the King decided the body should walk, the body would walk.  No questions.   The king was in charge.

However, the “chess metaphor,” as popularized by Cessolis, frames each citizen as an independent entity “bound to the state by rules rather than biology.”   The king remains the most important piece because its “capture” marks the end of the game.  But the king is almost completely dependent upon the defensive and offensive powers of lesser pieces. 

The author claims the “chess metaphor” helped knights, shopkeepers, and farmers become more mindful of their interdependence and the importance of their roles in society, while simultaneously forcing nobles to reconsider somewhat the brutal nature of their relationships with those of lower classes. 

In essence, through the chess metaphor, people began to see their own lives played out on the board in front of them and it changed their patterns of thinking.