6. The four senses

Divina Quaternitas

The best introduction to the four-fold way of thinking can be found in the excellent Ph.D. thesis of ESMEIJER (1973/1978), titled ‘Divina Quaternitas’. She gave a comprehensive and illustrated survey of the occurrences of the ‘ordine quadrato’ in the Western European culture. The book is concerned with the medieval ‘quadriga mundi’ (the four-fold world), which is an important part of the present field of investigation (fig. 15).


Fig. 15 –  Four-fold symbolism is prominent in the church of Monreale (Sicily); Photo: Marten Kuilman, 2012).

Focal point in the exegesis (of Bible texts) is the handling of the four ‘senses’, the Latin expression for the ways of observation or the basic viewpoints in a communication:

————————-    Historia                        the (historical) fact

————————-    Allegoria                       the deeper meaning

————————-    Tropologia                   the moral meaning

————————-    Anagogia                      the higher meaning

These four different types of ‘seeing the world’ were established by Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354 – 430) in his ‘De Doctrina Christiana’ (PUSCHMANN, 1983), but their home ground can be found in the Nile-delta in Egypt, in the Alexandrian melting-pot of ideas at the beginning of the Christian era. The fourfold interpretation was well-known in the medieval ‘memoria technica’ and summarized in the following expression (MÂLE, 1910/1961, p. 139):

 Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria

Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia

ECO (1985/1991, p. 218) – in relation to the use of the four senses in the work of Dante (in the ‘Convivio’ and Epistola XIII in the ‘Letter to Cangrande della Scala’; see also de LUBAC (1959/1964), Partie II, Tome II, p. 321) – attributed this distichon to Nicholas de Lyra or Agostine of Dacia. He called the theory of the four senses a ‘manner of interpretation, which was very common during the whole of the mediaeval culture’.

1. The literal meaning (or historia) is based on an empirical approach to reality. Only the visible aspect counts.

2. The deeper meaning based on the allegory. This word is derived from the Greek ‘allos’ (other) and ‘agora’ (marker/forum, creation) and has the connotation: to say something, but mean something else (HAWORTH, 1980). ALLERS (1944) spoke in this context of an ‘example by translation’.

3. The moral meaning or tropologia is an observation supplemented with certain values. ‘Tropos’ is a way of turning (‘conversio’) an expression into another meaning. In the vocabularies of the exegesis, it was a practical synonym with ‘allegoria’ (de LUBAC, 1959/1964; Partie I, Tome II, p. 551/552).

4. The highest meaning or anagogia reaches into the unknown. Within the communication is a distinct area, where the observer is excluded to verify the facts. Nevertheless this area is considered to be of importance and plays a role in the communication-as-a-whole.

The afore-mentioned four ‘senses‘ are placed in a particular sequence. Or, as Henry de LUBAC (1959/1964; I, II, p. 416) could say: ‘La formule classique, celle du quadruple sens, est au fond de structure plus simple‘ (The classical formula of the four senses has, in fact, a simple structure). First the facts, then other facts, followed by the moral of the story and finally the unknown. This is  an empirical approach to the environment. The human observer is placed in the middle of the known world, like the medieval scientist, who thought that the earth was the centre of the cosmos. In a modern (quadralectic) understanding, there has to be a rearrangement to fall in line with a neutral perception.

I.   First Quadrant        –   anagogia     –  the invisible invisibility

II.  Second Quadrant   –   allegoria      –  the invisible visibility

III. Third Quadrant      –   historia        –  the visible visibility

IV. Fourth Quadrant   –   tropologia    –  the visible invisibility

This positioning is scaling new ground. There is, as far as I known, no publication, which associates the above-given classification of the ‘senses’ with a specific type of visibility in a communication. And the mutual position is the heart of the matter. The four ‘senses‘ can be seen in a numerological way, as individual members of a linear visibility, but also as the outcome of an interaction in a cyclic communication. In the latter case, the sequence of names is not haphazard. They point to a distinct phase in a cross-exchange. The ‘senses‘ bear (in a quadralectic interpretation) a topological message and must be viewed in their right perspective.

CAVINESS (1983) gave a well-documented survey of the fourfold ‘visio‘ at the end of the twelfth century. She, like NOLAN (1977), did not place the senses in a particular sequence, but they have something to say about order. Instrumental in their approach was Richard of St. Victor – the Magnus Contemplator – who died in 1173. He was correctly regarded as a key-figure in the interpretation of the spiritual attitude in the later Middle Ages. His utilization of the four ‘senses‘ marked the historic schism between the old, non-hierarchical (four-fold) way and the new, hierarchical (two-fold) way.

At the end of the twelfth century the four, individual – but interrelated – ways of seeing were gradually moulded into a scheme based on opposites: low, simple, down to earth, visible versus high, difficult, heavenly and invisible:

                                                         Low/easy reach/weak

————————–    1. Corporal view    –   the visible world

————————–    2. Mystical view     –   the spiritual world

————————–    3. Figurative view  –   the moral world

————————–    4. Anagogic view   –   the visionary world


Richard of St. Victor’s ‘orbis quadratus’, so vividly described by Barbara BRONDER (1972), moved to a lower division, if the opposites of low-high, human-godlike and body-soul are emphasized. The fourfold ‘visio‘ only returned to a new understanding after six hundred year of  Renaissances, Ages of Reason and Romanticism (STAUDINGER LANE et al, 2009).

SEARS’ book ‘The Ages of Man‘ (1986) will be mentioned next to the work of Esmeijer. The medieval division – not only fourfold – was here the well-researched area of interest. Sears gave many examples of division in ages, cosmological speculations and pointed to the symbolism of figures. She drew the conclusion, that ‘the quadripartite life was defined within a cosmological system developed in antiquity and subsequently transmitted to the Middle Ages’ (fig. 16).


Fig. 16 – The four ages of man in Aldobrandino of Siena’s ‘La regime du corps‘ (1287). In:
BURROW (1986).

The relation between the ‘antique tetradic thought’ and the mediaeval equivalent was painted from Pythagoras as a source (JOOST-GAUGIER, 2006), to Empedocles (four elements), Hippocrates (four humors), Ovidius (Metamorphosis) to Theon of Smyrna (the tetractys as ordering-principle), Ptolemy (Tetrabiblos) and Antiochus of Athens (with a tetradic program). Followed by Ambrosius (the ‘syzygy’ of elements, ‘virtues cardinales‘), Isidore of Seville (Liber de Natura Rerum) and the ‘quarternarius’ of the Anglo-Saxon monk Byrhtferth, with a culmination in the anonymous, early twelfth century, publication of the ‘Tractatus de Quaternario’, concerned with the ‘force and power of the number four’ (fig. 11). This sequence is, to a certain extend, rather eclectic and suggestive, but proves, nevertheless, that the tetradic interest has a long and colorful history.

CAPLAN (1929) and SMALLEY (1931) took up the importance of the four senses as a guiding line in the Scholastic period. The latter, in her article on ‘Stephen Langton and the Four Senses of Scripture‘ stated that ‘the multiple interpretation, its technique, and its value to those who used it, are just beginning to be discussed.’ She referred to Cassian, who gave a clear definition in his ‘Collationes’ (XIV, 8). Guibert of Nogent (MIGNE, 1844/64, PL. CLVI, col. 26) gave the example of the four meanings (senses) of the word ‘Jerusalem’ (fig. 4), but there is no proof that Guibert was the originator.

The first influences of lower division thinking became manifest in the second half of the twelfth century. Stephen Langton, whose class notes lectures in Paris are preserved, never expounded in the Fourth Sense (anagoge). He followed Hugh of St. Victor, who also used a threefold division. The anagogic sense gradually merged with the allegorical and the moral. ‘Langton was grinding the corn (farina) of the Scriptures into the bread of tropology’ (SMALLEY, 1931; p. 69), but ‘it does not occur to him to distinguish between the teaching of Scripture and his own ingenuity’.

The most comprehensive research in the medieval ‘senses‘ was performed by Henri de LUBAC (1959/1964) in his four-parted study ‘Exégèse médiévale. Les quatre sens de l’Ecriture’. This erudite book was written with a firm knowledge of even the most obscure medieval writers and provides a wealth of facts in relation to the fourfold way of thinking in the Scholastic period. He demonstrated the important role of Beda (c. 673 – 735) in the establishment of the theory of the four ‘senses‘ (LeGOFF, 1984/1987, p. 163). De LUBAC (1959, Part I, Tome II, p. 422) speaks of Beda as ‘le premier auteur qui nous offre pour ainsi dire un tableau developpe du quadruple sens‘ (the first author who offers us so to speak a developed overview of the four senses).

ALLERS,  Rudolf (1944). Microcosmus – from Anaximandros to Paracelsus. Pp. 319 – 407 in: QUASTEN, Johannes & KUTTNER,  Stephan (Ed.).  Traditio,  Vol.  II. Cosmopolitan Science & Art Service Co., Inc.      New York, 1944.

BRONDER, Barbara (1972). Das Bild der Schöpfung und Neuschöpfung der Welt als ‘orbis quadratus’. Pp. 188 – 210 in: HAUCK, Karl (Ed.) Frühmittelalterliche Studien. Jahrbuch des Instituts für Frühmittel-alterforschung der Universität Münster, Band 6, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin/New York.

BURROW, J.A. (1986). The Ages of Man. A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Clarendon Press,Oxford

CAPLAN, Harry (1929). The Four Senses of Scriptural Interpretation and the Mediaeval Theory of Preaching. Pp. 282 – 290 in: Speculum 4.

CAVINESS, Madeline H. (1983). Images of Divine Order and the Third Mode of Seeing. Pp. 99 – 120 in: Gesta, XXII/2. The International Center of Medieval Art.

ECO, Umberto (1985/1991). Wat spiegels betreft (‘essays’) (tr. Aafke van der Made). Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam. ISBN 90 351 0863 9

ESMEIJER, Anna C. (1973/1978). Divina Quaternitas. Een onderzoek naar methode en toepassing der visuele exegese. Proefschrift Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht, 29-06-1973. Also as:

–   (1978). Divina Quaternitas. A Preliminary Study in Method and Application of Visual Exegesis. Van Gorcum, Assen/Amsterdam.

GOFF, Le, Jacques (1984/1987).  De cultuur van middeleeuws Europa (La civilisation de l’Occident medieval). Les Editions Arthaud, Paris/Uitgeverij Wereldbibliotheek, Amsterdam. ISBN 90 284 1521 1

HAWORTH, Kenneth R. (1980). Deified virtues, demonic vices and descriptive allegory in Prudentius’ Psychomachia. Adolf M. Hakkert, Amsterdam. ISBN 90-256-0823-X

JOOST-GAUGIER, Christiane L. (2006). Measuring Heaven. Pythagoras and His Influence on Thought and Art in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London. ISBN 976-0-8014-7409-5

LUBAC, de, Henry (1959/1964). Exégèse médiévale. Les quatre sens de l’Ecriture. Tome I – IV. Editions Montaigne; Aubier, Paris.

MÂLE, Émile (1910/1961). The Gothic Image. Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century (tr. Dora Nussey). J.M. Dent & Sons, London, Glasgow/Harper, New York (1958).

MIGNE, J.P. (1844/64). Patrologiae cursus completus sive bibliotheca   universalis… omnium s.s. patrum… Series secunda in qua prodeunt  patres… ecclesiae latinae… (= Patrologia latina; PL.), Paris.

NOLAN, Barbara (1977). The Gothic Visionary Perspective. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-06337-0

PUSCHMANN,  Rosemarie  (1983).  Magisches  Quadrat und Melancholie  in  Thomas Manns Doktor Faustus:  Von der musikalischen Struktur  zum  semantischen Beziehungsnetz. AMPAL Verlag, Bielefeld. ISBN 3-922986-07-2

SEARS, Elizabeth (1986). The Ages of Man. Medieval Interpretations of the Life Cycle. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-04037-0

SMALLEY, Beryl (1931). Stephen Langton and the Four Senses of Scripture. Pp. 60 – 76 in: Speculum, VI (1931).

– (1968). L’Exegèse biblique. Pp. 273 – 293 in: GANDILLAC, de, Maurice & JEAUNEAU, Eduard (Ed.) (1968). Entretien sur la Renaissance du 12e siècle. Décades du Centre Culturel International de Cerisy-la-Salle, Nouvelle serie 9; Mouton,Paris/La Haye.

STAUDINGER LANE, Evelyn; PASTAN, Elizabeth & SHORTELL, Ellen M. (Ed.) (2009). The Four Modes of Seeing. Approaches to Medieval Imagery in Honor of Madeline Harrison Caviness. Ashgate Publishing Limited, Farnham, Surrey (UK). ISBN 0754660109

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5 reacties op 6. The four senses

  1. Pingback: The Book of Nature | Equivalent eXchange

    • A great new entry. My objections against the double opposite position of the senses still stands. It brings the setting of the four senses down to a lower form of division thinking, while their true character is, in my opinion, a sign of higher division thinking (in fours). What do the abbriviation (II, IV, VI and VV) mean?

      • ee zegt:

        Thank you for reading! I am sorry but I really don’t understand your displeasure with my diagrams. Is it the particular arrangement or sequence I have chosen? Or is it the + symbol, with its inherent paired opposition? Would a square be better, or square with diagonals: a tetrahedron? Perhaps any diagram at all is disagreeable?

        Also, you are welcome to leave comments on my blog. In that way I would be notified. When you leave a comment on your own blog I am not notified like your comment to me on 5/22/14 (https://quadralectics.wordpress.com/7-the-quadralectic-theory/). By chance I looked today and saw this comment to me.

        I have noticed that my previous reply to you on 11/2/14 is still awaiting moderation. Perhaps you thought it was too personal: if so edit it as you see fit.

        The codes are abbreviations for your very own terms: II = invisible invisibility, etc. I wanted to maintain a note of the association, but I did not mention it in my post.

        Your texts remain a great source of information, and I appreciate that you have posted them online.

      • You really keep my mind occupied while on holidays (in Hereford). Maybe the holidays spirit caused my initial misunderstanding of your abbreviations (II, IV, VV, VI). I thought they were Roman numerals! In fact I never used these abbreviations myself, but they work well and will use them in the future. However, I would change the Tropologia-Historia sequence, making Historia III and Tropologia IV. Historia deals with visible ‘facts’ (VV), while tropologia is concerned with invisible meanings (IV). Which brings us to the heart of the matter of opposition. I am not against any pairing in cross, square or whatever, but pairing-in-itself is a two-fold exercise, even if you double it. Four-fold thinking comprises an awareness of a four-fold sequence (in any communication). A sequence approach (II, IV, VV, VI in your notation, which I support wholeheartedly) is the crux of the matter. You have to be aware of the meaning (of quadralectic thinking) to understand the communication. Say, for instance, the elements (relics of an ancient way of four-fold thinking). Their sequence is important (in quadralectic thinking): fire, air, earth and water, but in lower division thinking (and/or opposition thinking) – expressed in the Aristotle-attributed square with diagonals – the opposition character of the elements is highlighted. Which in itself is not ‘wrong’, but from a quadralectic point of view ‘lower’ (which is, in that same type of thinking, not related a value judgement). I agree that some sort of (sudden) insight is necessary to grasp the matter, but it happened to me (in 1983!).

  2. ee zegt:

    I will reorder the sequence of the four senses in my text. Yes, it is very easy to confuse the roman numerals (I, II, III, IV) with this code (I.I., I.V., V.V., V.I., perhaps with added periods). For instance, you do it above with Historia (III, V.V.) and Tropologia (IV, V.I.).

    I see that sequence is very important to you, and thus time. I suppose space is very important to me. I have more appreciation for the four-folds of grid and cycle than sequence. Sequence is one-dimensional, but grid and cycle are two-dimensional. Well, cycle is in-between I guess. All are important, of course.

    And your books and web pages are full of images of square symbols and square architectural elements. The image of the vault at the top of this page combines both. The illustration of the ages of man is a sequence within a grid. And although you almost always use lists and tables to itemize your four-folds, you often talk of the quadrants I, II, III, IV. Can you have quadrants without grid or cycle?

    I confess I often have uncertainty about the ordering of my diagrams. I feel that the inherent relationships between the conceptual aspects of the four-fold is what is important, and that I can easily change the diagram at any time. The diagram merely serves as a guide to begin understanding the relations between the four aspects.

    I appreciate your explanations and I hope you enjoy the rest of your vacation!

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