Mail Bag: How to Reach and Read On the Third and Fourth Levels of Meaning

f38696486A friend and serious reader who had just finished reading Deathly Hallows wrote me to say “thank you” for recommending he read to the end of the series before passing judgment — and to ask as a throw-away in his post:

How do we learn to read at the third and fourth levels?

That’s a reference to the four levels of reading first propounded by exegetes of the Hebrew Scriptures in ancient times, evident in Plato’s Divided Line, adopted by Aquinas and many others, and sealed to the Western Canon by Dante’s letter to Con Grande (read an introduction with very helpful chart to all that and Plato’s Cave, too, here and, for a ‘for instance’ of its application to a specific story, The Hunger Games, head over here).

If you’re up to speed on the four levels — and the posts behind those two links are a good afternoon of reading — then we can skip to the answer to my friend’s question: How do we learn how to read, how to think, at these levels?” 

Dear John,
The first and hardest step is grasping that allegorical and anagogical reading correspond to knowing with surety and knowing in wisdom (the first two levels corresponding with sense perception and with opinion). 
We know that we can see through tons of data to see the natural law or principle of which the phenomena are only instances. Knowing this principle and seeing the data as ephemeral occasions of it gives us scientia or sure knowledge. This makes the reams of data effectively a transparency, window, or allegorical figure of the principle that is not perceptible in itself. You cannot see the Law of Gravity but you know it from observation of, by seeing through the transparency of the behavior of all natural objects in space-time on earth.
chart001Sophia or wisdom is not a knowing that we acquire but one we become, a knowledge that transforms us into a temporal image of the Principle of Knowing, the Logos. All other knowing is only valuable insomuch as it leads us to this communion and elision.
If we first understand the corresponding knowledges to allegory and sublime writing — again, science and wisdom — and begin to read the world in light of these capacities (instead of remaining subject to surface sensory data and opinions shaped by the errors of our age), then ‘getting’ the depths of books written by authors who are wise or who write in wisdom shaped genres is a natural extension.

f36752102The rest is only learning the tropes of artistry — structure, symbolism, literary syntax — that are the means better writers have used to create the experiences that change us.
Getting the last, however, without seeing the world differently first… That is knowledge that will become cocktail party and blog post fodder to show how sophisticated a thinker and reader one is, an obstacle, another hurdle to spiritual maturity rather than an edifying, providential helper.
And — oh, yeah! — being a believer in a traditional, orthodox, revealed faith helps more than anything. It is the real experience of which reading is only the imaginative shadow. The Orthodox Christian Liturgy, for example, is when uncompromised by innovations only wisdom experience and the Eucharist the Logos incarnate Himself. Baptism and the daily asceticism and joyful sorrow of Orthodoxy is the means to photismos or illumination in the Holy Spirit, as you have discovered.


As you might have guessed from that last, this friend is a recent convert to Orthodox Christianity. Your comments and corrections on the means to reading effectively at four levels are coveted, as always.

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