In book two, chapter one of Convivio, Dante outlines a fourfold method for the interpretation of literature. The first level of understanding is the literal, which involves the plain, superficial meaning of the text. The second is the allegorical, the identification of symbols of higher truths, what Dante refers to as “truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction.” The third is the moral, by which wisdom about virtue and vice is gleaned from the text. The fourth understanding is the anagogical or spiritual sense, in which “supernal things of eternal glory” are signified, even if the work is also literally true. Using this fourfold method, we may analyze the account of mankind’s fall recorded in the third chapter of Genesis.
In the literal reading of the story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman are created in a sinless state and given one command: not to eat the fruit of a tree that grows in their garden dwelling, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they do so, they are told, they will “surely die.” A crafty serpent approaches the woman and manipulates her into believing and acting in a way contrary to divine proclamation. Tempted by the idea of having her eyes opened and being like God (as the serpent has promised), she partakes of the forbidden fruit and offers it to her husband, who willfully accepts it. As a result, both are banished from their idyllic home, exiled to a difficult mortal life of toil, pain, contention, and distance from God.
Allegorically, the man and woman represent all of humankind, past, present, and future. Like Adam and Eve, all of us exploit our God-given free will to our own detriment, failing to achieve moral perfection. The serpent is a metaphor for the influence of external evil, whether satanic or human in origin. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the pervasive, superficially attractive opportunities for moral depravity, while the Tree of Life may be thought of as symbolizing access to immortality and intimacy with God.
The moral understanding of the account is the lesson that disobedience to divine command is objectively wrong and cannot go unpunished. Sin corrupts the human soul, leading to natural negative consequences and the added misery of broken fellowship with the Creator. Moreover, disobedience has ramifications that affect others to a magnitude and temporal extent that we cannot even begin to fathom.
The anagogical reading offers higher, spiritual truths about good, evil, human nature, and God’s plan of redemption. We are a fallen race living in the midst of cosmic conflict; Satan’s objective is the destruction of the souls of men by the distortion of truth in one manner or another. However, from the very beginning, God has preordained his inevitable victory, which will come through the descendent of the woman. God incarnate, the “offspring,” will eventually trample the enemy, defeating evil and its myriad effects once and for all.