DANTE’s Fourfold Method: The Interpretation of Symbol and Allegory
This interpretive method, known as the "four-fold method" or the "allegory of theologians," was commonly
applied to the Bible in the Middle Ages. The four senses could be remembered with the following medieval
Littera gesta docet, The literal sense teaches what happened,
Quod credas allegoria. The allegorical what you believe.
Moralia quod agas, The moral what you should do,
Quo tendas anagogia. The anagogical where you are going.
This is a way to analyze symbol and allegory. Dante Alighieri, explained in his “Epistle to Can Grande”
that allegories can be interpreted on Four Levels.
The "Letter to Can Grande" also provides a more basic description of the allegory of Dante's poem:
The subject of the whole work, then, taken literally, is the state of souls after death, understood in a simple
sense; for the movement of the whole work turns upon this and about this. If on the other hand the work is
taken allegorically, the subject is man, in the exercise of his free will, earning or becoming liable to the
rewards or punishments of justice.
What is most remarkable about Dante's idea of allegory, and what sharply distinguishes the Divine Comedy
from many other allegorical works, is the poet's emphasis (sincere or rhetorical as it may be) on the literal
or historical truth of his narrative as a foundation for any other level of meaning. Dante himself followed a
simpler form of allegory in other works, such as the Convivio (dedicated to Lady Philosophy). The poem sung
by Casella (2.112-14) is in fact a canzone ("Love that speaks within my mind") to which the narrator-
commentator of the Convivio provides an allegorical reading.
Level 1: Literal/Historical
The things that are actually happening in the story on a surface level. For example, in Sophocles Antigone,
Antigone chooses to bury her brother despite her uncle’s direct orders to the contrary, thus risking
Level 2: PoliticalLevel
The level on which human beings relate to others in a community and in the world. In Antigone, this level
of interpretation shows the reader that Antigone’s defiance threatens King Creon’s political power and the
stability of the polis. The rule of law is shaken and the city’s order is threatened. The question is this:
Which is more important: the state’s stability or the individual’s conscience?
Level 3: Moral or Psychological Level:
The way in which the self relates to the realm of ethics. In Sophocles’ play, Antigone must bury her
brother because not doing so would be both a moral crime against the family and an inhuman denial of the
brotherhood of man. It is right to show respect for the dead: in this, the law of the gods must prevail.
Level 4: The Spiritual Level
The universal level on which a person relates to the cosmos, the way of the pilgrim soul. On this level,
Antigone represents any free spirit bound to rebel against the repression of absolute authority. She
symbolizes free will and the power of the individual. She shows the reader the idealism of youth that
inflexibility seeks martyrdom rather than compromise.
The Fourfold Method lends itself to the analysis of drama, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Many different
types of texts may allegorical; this technique allows students to go as far up the ladder of interpretation as
they would while grounding their interpretation in the text itself. Each level is valid; each can stand alone.
Some works only contain only two of the levels; others may exist on all four planes.