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Dante and the 4 Levels of Literary Interpretation

In mediæval literary criticism there was an accepted method of interpreting the Bible which involved 4 levels or senses. It is Dante Alighieri’s description of these 4 levels of interpretation from his book Il Convivio (The Banquet) that many modern critics look to for insight into mediæval literary criticism and theological study. In Il Convivo Dante says, “it is necessary to know that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded principally in four senses“. This need not only apply to the Bible or mediæval writings though. You can use this same guide to understand modern works, too.

The Literal

At the first level of interpretation there is the literal, “and this is the sense that does not go beyond the surface of the letter” as Dante explains it. This is simply what a piece literally means. For instance, in the Bible God literally creates the universe in 7 days:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. (Genesis 2:1-2)

Or to take something more contemporary, in the movie Star Wars Luke Skywalker and the ragtag bunch of rebels literally battle against Darth Vader and the Empire.

This may seem like the most obvious level of interpretation, but if you look to poetry, you’ll find that a lot of readers new to poetry have a tough time with it because they don’t try to understand it literally first—they dive right into the deep end, searching for the meaning of life, and are unsurprisingly left struggling to stay afloat. Just as introductory poetry teachers will say to first try to understand the poem literally, Dante indicates that to ‘go deep’ we must begin with the shallow.

The Allegorical

The second level of interpretation is the allegorical. This is where we seek some greater truth that we might learn from the actions of the characters in a story. Dante calls allegory “truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction“, and this is usually as far as most modern entertainment is willing to venture. In the Bible, God creates the universe in 7 days with only the will of His words:

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

This act serves to illustrate the power and wonder of the Judeo-Christian creator.

In Star Wars, you might consider Luke’s fight against Darth Vader as an allegory for the struggle that many young people go through against the established power. Young people are prone to rebellion and revolution, whether it be against fascist governments or just their parents (spoiler alert: Vader is literally Luke’s father).

The Moral

Down into the third level of interpretation, we explore the ethical implications of a work of fiction. Moral interpretation answers the question, “How can I use a piece of fiction to inform my actions in my own life?” Dante says, “this is the sense that teachers should intently seek to discover throughout the scriptures, for their own profit and that of their pupils“. In the Bible, God creates the universe with only the will of his words and He also creates humanity in His image, and some writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and JRR Tolkien have extrapolated from this concept.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

God the creator, creates man and woman in His image, and in doing so, sets up humanity as “sub-creators” whose words also hold power and can create wonder. Tolkien refers to the “Cauldron of Story” always boiling and which storytellers continually add to and take from, and Coleridge describes imagination as primary and secondary: the primary being universal and Godly, and the secondary being of man, the sub-creator.

In Star Wars, we learn that though our parents (or whoever the established power is) may be misguided or fascistic, even our greatest enemies can be our greatest supporters. Darth Vader is the biggest, baddest MF in the galaxy, but Luke Skywalker knows that no cause is a lost cause, and everyone deserves a chance for redemption.

The Anagogical

The anagogical is where things get difficult. At this level, we begin spiritual interpretation. While the moral is directed inwards to the human, the anagogical is directed outwards or upwards to the heavens or to the greater universe (depending on your spiritual beliefs). Dante refers to this level if interpretation as “beyond the senses“. He says, “this occurs when a scripture is expounded in a spiritual sense which, although it is true also in the literal sense, signifies by means of the things signified a part of the supernal things of eternal glory“.

Now, it’s pretty easy to find this kind of spiritual content in the Bible. That’s what the Bible is for and the reason most people read it. But when you’re looking at piece of pop culture, it’s a little more difficult to explore these kinds of conclusions.

A cynical person would label the whole thing as malarkey, and that would be the end if it. But have you ever felt a part of greater community because of the media you consume? Have you ever let a piece of fiction shape your sense of being? Anagogical interpretations are often beyond the senses and sometimes even beyond our own consciousness, but that doesn’t stop them from shaping the world, whether that be the actions we take to change the future or simply a perspective of the world in our own minds.

If you look at how pop culture seeps into the real world (for example, activist groups like the Harry Potter Alliance or political groups who don the mask of a certain comic-book anarchist) you’ll find that even fiction can shape our reality.