Sor Juana's Letter

March 22, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born Juana Ramírez de Asbaje. Her actual date of birth is unknown, but is thought to be around 1651. At the age of three, she walked to a local school, told the teacher she was five years old, and asked to learn to read and write. Inspired by Juana’s determination the teacher helped her, even though she realized her young age. From that day on, Juana dedicated herself to studying. She became known for her wit, intelligence, and beauty. Despite all odds, her actions and ambition led to an elite education at a time when poor women had very few educational resources.

Juana quickly outgrew the constraints placed on her as an illegitimate child from the small community of San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico. She moved in with an aunt and uncle in Mexico City by the age of eight. There she received formal training from a tutor. She learned languages such as Latin and Nahuatl, and set a rigorous studying regimen for herself. At this time, Mexico was mostly controlled by Spain and maintained a Spanish royalty. Juana caught the attention of the vicereine who immediately asked for her to join their life at court. She so astonished the royals that the Marquis de Mancera invited forty intellectuals (all men) to debate against Juana on different subjects. He writes, “[I]n the manner that a royal galleon might fend off the attacks of a few canoes, so did Juana extricate herself from the questions, arguments, and objections that these many men, each in his specialty, directed to her” (Paz 98). Yet at the height of this royal fame, she decided instead to join a convent. So, at the age of twenty, she entered into the convent of San Jerónimo.

Octavio Paz notes that while Sor Juana embraced many of the characteristics that define the Baroque period and wrote in traditional Baroque forms, she used unique material. Paz describes a style that represented the conflicting emotions of the era such as the desire for instant riches, personal freedom, and a new spiritual kingdom (71). Additionally, Sor Juana was very ambitious. Her poems demonstrate ability and ego. In the book Madres del verbo/ Mothers of the Word: Early Spanish American Women Writers, Nina M. Scott explains some of Sor Juana’s talents. She writes, “From her earliest years Sor Juana was a consummate poet. The baroque was an age splendidly suited to her talents: she loved the play of dialectical opposites, puns and double entendres, labyrinthine syntax and imagery, much of it derived from classical mythology. She was also skilled at all the poetic forms in use at the time and enjoyed showing her mastery of them” (56). It is possible that she entered the convent to avoid marriage, which would make too many demands on her time to allow for studying.

While the vicereine was busy publishing Sor Juana’s material in Mexico and Spain, the church asked her to write about religion. As her fame grew, the church, however, became uncomfortable with Sor Juana’s secular poetry and ‘manly’ aspects (which is how they viewed her religious critiques and opinions). They were uncomfortable with a woman who capably and eloquently criticized the church since theology was thought to be a man’s realm. As a result of her fame and her secular writings, Sor Juana received a notice of censure from “Sister Philotea.” In reality, the Bishop of Puebla penned the letter, but in order to soften the blow he signed his letter “from Sister Philotea.” The actual source was clear to Sor Juana, and to the rest of the convent, however.

Sor Juana replied to his letter with a logical appeal for her situation. Scott explains, “Sor Juana’s famous ‘Reply to Sister Philotea’ is one of the unique documents of the seventeenth century, for it is one of the only ones to record so eloquently a woman’s cry for intellectual freedom” (58). This letter is worth reading solely for the historical content, yet it also speaks to continued struggles for equality today. As part of her defense, Sor Juana explains that God gave her these talents, which she has used on behalf of the good of the church. She defends her continued education and goes even further, asking that all women receive education. Below are a few excerpts from this astounding letter which dates back to 1691 (translated by Nina M. Scott).


“My studies have not been undertaken to hurt or harm anyone and have principally been so private that I have not even made use of the guidance of a teacher but have relied solely upon myself and my work, for I know that studying publicly in schools is unseemly to a woman’s modesty because of the hazardous familiarity with men and this would be the reason for keeping women from public studies; not delegating a special place for their study is probably because as the Republic has no need of women for the government of magistrates (from which area, for the same reasons of propriety, the former are also excluded), [the state] is not concerned with that of which it has no need, but who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do? Well, then, why cannot a woman profit by the privilege of enlightenment as they do? Is her soul not as able to receive the grace and glory of God as that of a man? Well, then, why should she not be just as capable in matters of information and knowledge which are of less import? What divine revelation, what rule of the Church, what reasonable judgment formulated such a severe law for us women?” (75)


“If I have read the prophets and secular orators (a lapse of which Saint Jerome himself was guilty), I also read the Holy Doctors and Scripture and cannot deny that to the former I owe countless gifts and rules of good conduct.

“For which Christian will not avoid wrath when confronted by the patience of a pagan Socrates? Who can be ambitious in view of the modesty of the Cynic Diogenes? Who does not praise God in Aristotle’s intelligence? And finally, what Catholic can fail to be astonished when contemplating the sum of moral virtues in all of the pagan philosophers?” (76)


“Your Reverence wishes that of necessity I should be saved in a state of ignorance, but my beloved Father, can one not accomplish this end and be learned? In the final analysis, for me it is the easier path. Because why should one be led to salvation by the way of ignorance if this is repugnant to one’s nature?

“Is not God as ultimate goodness also ultimate wisdom? Well, then, why should ignorance be more pleasing to Him than learning?

Let Saint Anthony achieve salvation with his holy ignorance and well and good, while Saint Augustine goes by a different path and neither one of the two is wrong.” (76)


“Has Your Reverence any stake in my betterment by reason of obligation, blood relation, upbringing, Church authority, or anything else?

“If it is pure charity, let it seem charity and have it proceed as such, gently, because exasperating me is not a good way to bring me around, for I do not possess such a servile nature that I will do something when threatened which reason would not persuade me to do; neither would I do for human respect that which I would not do for God, for to give up everything that might give me pleasure – even though it might be very just – is good if I do it to humble myself when I might want to do penance, but it is not when Your Reverence wishes to obtain it by dint of reprimands, and these not in secret as befits paternal correction… but publicly, in front of everyone, where each one reacts to a situation to the extent of his understanding and speaks as he may feel.” (78)

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Harvard, 1988.

Scott, Nina M. Madres del verbo/ Mothers of the Word: Early Spanish American Women Writers. Ed., Trans. Nina M. Scott. University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

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Questions on Augustine

August 3, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Each quarter, Harrison Middleton University hosts a Quarterly Discussion. This discussion is open to students and non-students alike. They focus on a short text which everyone reads prior to the discussion. I thoroughly enjoy these because they give me a chance to break away from my own studies, to focus on something in a small group which is a great listening opportunity. This month I was blessed to have Jim Keller, a current HMU master’s student, assist with the discussion topic, reading, and questions. He even led the discussion so that I could participate. What a treat! I think that anyone interested in Shared Inquiry style discussions should try their hand at leading. While it may seem intuitive, there really is a lot to learn about managing the flow of a conversation. Whatever your style, trying to put together a successful discussion requires a great knowledge of the text, but also an ability to listen to disparate voices in a conversation. I find this to be the greatest struggle, but also the greatest benefit, of Shared Inquiry. Many thanks to Jim for the assistance in setting up the conversation, and to the participants for some inspiring conversation.

This month, we read Book XIX from St. Augustine’s City of God. We began with a passage from Chapter 4 which reads, “And justice, whose office it is to render to every man his due, whereby there is in man himself a certain just order of nature, so that the soul is subjected to God, and the flesh to the soul, and consequently both soul and flesh to God – does not this virtue demonstrate that it is as yet rather labouring towards its end than resting in its finished work?” (580B). From this statement, I believe that Augustine’s version of justice can be defined as: “to render every man his due.” Upon first reading, I assumed the implication being that each man received an equal portion. However, Chapter 13 squarely denies that assumption. In Chapter 13, Augustine writes, “Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place” (588A). In other words, we all receive a lot in life, and it may partake of greater or lesser as fits our being. I am still contemplating how this reflects a sense of justice. So, taking both of these statements together, I see that Augustine’s world relies upon order. In the city of man, order is granted as best as can be expected, but imperfectly to say the least. Order is a form of justice in that it is at least an organizing principle. Justice, also, stems from God (or from the City of God) which exists in perfect peace. This ultimate ideal of peace is the justice that Augustine seeks. So, man’s flawed implementation of justice is at least an attempt to model the city of God. I do see how the city of man is flawed and he consistently revisits that throughout the chapter. I still cannot quite come to terms with the idea of inequality as foundational to this sense of justice. I always assumed that God granted portions to each man, so why would he perpetuate inequalities?

I also struggle with the way in which Augustine proves his point. Throughout the book, he claims that human life is flawed and poor in comparison with the life of the soul. And yet, Augustine’s proof always stems from examples of human life. I see the obvious reason for that, being difficult to capture universally-accepted empirical data which proves of the soul’s existence, yet to claim that human life is worthless and then turn around to exclaim its worth seems complicated at best. Chapter 6, for example, describes the ways in which it is acceptable for judges to implement torture. While admitting the system is flawed, Augustine also allows that the wise judge may need to torture innocent persons in order to understand the truth. Though he acknowledges that often tortured persons are innocent and at times the innocent are killed, he finds it to be a necessary part of the process towards the greater good. Augustine writes, “These numerous and important evils he does not consider sins; for the wise judge does these things, not with any intention of doing harm, but because his ignorance compels him, and because human society claims him as a judge. But though we therefore acquit the judge of malice, we must none the less condemn human life as miserable. And if he is compelled to torture and punish the innocent because his office and his ignorance constrain him, is he a happy as well as guiltless man? Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognize the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God ‘From my necessities deliver Thou me’” (583). In other words, while the judge may feel some level of guilt, he is to be absolved of any sin because he is fulfilling the duty required of him. Rather than a reflection on the individual, this scenario is meant to demonstrate man’s absolute depravity. The city of man grants a judge power and it is better for him to pursue this grave responsibility in the manner of the times than to avoid unpleasantness by shirking the judge’s sole responsibility. Duty compels the judge to act.

Contrary to all the questions I have raised above, I did learn quite a bit from these conversations. Reading Augustine begs conversation simply because of the complexity of terms and the text’s density. In this chapter alone, we discussed virtue and vice, good and evil, peace, eternity, eternal life, and justice, just to name a few. I would encourage anyone to pick up a chapter of Augustine and struggle with it as we have. Better yet, pick up the chapter with a few friends and struggle to define these terms in both his context and our contemporary world. My appreciation to the folks who struggled alongside me and listened patiently as we explored the text together.

As usual, I am already looking forward to October’s Quarterly Discussion on de Tocqueville. You can join! Simply email I look forward to hearing from you!

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Caedmon’s Compounding

May 25, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of languages is understanding how they grow. In order to allow for outside influence, a language must be able to change. Old English, for example, often used compounds as a way to form new meanings. While Old English did accept loan words from other languages, it also developed a system to accommodate acculturating forces. One of the techniques used in Old English was to link together two nouns or a noun plus an adjective. This practice was called compounding. (In fact, we still use this method today. A few modern-day examples are: network, snowball and punchline.)

One of the earliest poems in English (some would say the earliest), “Caedmon’s Hymn,” displays some really interesting compounds. As Christianity’s importance grew within the Old English culture, the language needed to expand and account for these new ideas. Poets and authors creatively combined words in order to achieve the desired effect.

The West Saxon version of “Caedmon’s Hymn” reads:

Nu sculon herigean           heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte             and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,          swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,                       or onstealde.

He ærest sceop                 eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,                halig scyppend;
þa middangeard               moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,                       æfter teode
firum foldan,                      frea ælmihtig

Seth Lerer (of the University of California, San Diego) translates Caedmon’s song as:

Now we shall praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,

the Creator’s might, and his mind-thought,

the works of the Glory-father: how he, each of us wonders,

the eternal Lord, established at the beginning.

He first shaped for earth’s children

heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.

Then a middle-yard, mankind’s Guardian,

the eternal Lord, established afterwards,

the earth for the people, the Lord almighty.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this song. First, it is easy to see that the space (caesura) has dropped out. Typically, the caesura is a place to pause for breath between phrases. It may be replaced by commas or // in modern poetry. It was a form of controlling the breath, much as is commonly used in music.

Second, this poem contains a lot of repetition. Before books, the technique of repeating phrases or ideas aided memorization and reinforced the main idea. Caedmon sings of the Lord in many different ways, the “Guardian,” the “Glory-father,” and the “holy Creator” (among others). In such a short work, Caedmon has created metaphors that elaborate on the importance of God.

Furthermore, Caedmon effectively employs compounding. Lerer translates “heofonrices Weard” as “heaven-kingdom’s Guardian” - weard being the warden, and heofonrices translates to heavenly riches. The term “modgeþanc” is really interesting also. Lerer translates it as “mind-thought”, though I find that term also unclear. Other translations simply use “thought”, but that too seems to miss the term’s full meaning. Caedmon did not simply write about thought. It is possible that since alliteration is so important to the poet, he may have included modgeþanc (rather than “þanc”) simply because it added a third “m” sound to the line. The poem pays attention to rhyme and meter and alliteration just as much as it does to meaning, though, and I believe that Caedmon would have been interested in creating compounds that advanced his point, not merely stylized it. I wonder if Caedmon is getting at the idea of a thoughtfulness that accompanies creation. To me, mind-thought in modern English sounds a little too science-fictiony, reminiscent of Doublethink in 1984. Regardless of translation, however, Caedmon clearly utilizes compounding to reinforce his point.

One final compound that I want to mention is "middangeard." A similar term appears in Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German. It is important to note, however, that middangeard is part of a mythology in each of those cultures. In other words, Caedmon anchors Christian elements to a pre-existing mythological term to better describe God’s effect on man. Translated as “middle-yard” here, it likely means earth, but not in the sense of dirt and terrain. Rather, Caedmon chooses this term (over something like Old English “eorthe”) because it symbolizes the human middle-ground, in between heaven and hell. Just as he is not simply speaking of thought, but of thoughtfulness, Caedmon wants to invoke the spiritual space that we inhabit and the best way to do that is to co-opt a familiar term.

In using repetition, alliteration and compounds, Caedmon creates a song that gives us a sense of how language adjusts to new ideas. He embraces Christian elements by incorporating traditional elements and adding the idea of God the father or God the Guardian. He offers simple metaphors, such as heaven as a roof, to help others access the complex ideas of Christianity. God is mentioned in nearly every line in order to solidly establish the lineage and upend previous mythologies. Perhaps this song is best heard. You can listen to a choral arrangement by the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers here.

** Much of this blog draws on ideas from a lecture given by Seth Lerer through the Great Courses. Find more about “The History of the English Language” at the Great Courses website.


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Pleasures of Reading, Thinking and Conversing in Science Fiction Age

May 11, 2018

Thanks to Dr. John Reynolds, HMU alumnus, for today's post.

How malleable the notion of science fiction is! What strange places one ends up in when exploring such a seemingly simple question: "Is Star Wars science fiction?" The question grew out of reflections on and discussions about Alissa Simon's blog post “What is Science Fiction” from April 27, 2018. Originally, I planned on exploring important differences between science fiction and fantasy, and I thought that Star Wars would make an excellent cultural artifact for further conversation, especially with the approach of Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be with You) and a stand-alone Han Solo movie arriving in theaters near the end of May.

I enjoy the passion found in diverse commentators on science fiction who disagree on the classification, value, and influence of Star Wars. They form a community as diverse as the vision for the Star Wars universe. Some find the films and franchise a threat to the genre of authentic science fiction and a disintegrating influence on culture. Others find it part of a benign or even beneficial paradigm shift in our cultural habits concerning narrative, entertainment, and culture. Some scholars and fans make strict distinctions between hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Some adamantly refuse to acknowledge Star Wars as science fiction, citing numerous scientific and technical deficiencies, while others find a home for it in the category of soft science fiction. Those who commend the soft science fiction of Star Wars tend to align it with the ongoing idea of myth. Such mythic identification links the characters, plots, and themes with ongoing archetypes that continue to fascinate human beings across time and cultures. In an older online posting found on The American Prospect, Cara Feinberg captures this sense of interest while exploring the question "Is Star Wars Art?" She explains how the 2002 Brooklyn Museum's presentation of Star Wars: The Magic of Myth "examines the mythological roots of the now legendary film saga that explores themes of heroism and redemption and the triumph of good over evil through the creation of characters that exemplify chivalry, nobility, valor, and evil...." Likewise, I recall Joseph Campbell making such claims while being interviewed by Bill Moyers about the power of myth and the hero's journey in the late eighties.

A few tangential opinions about science fiction provide additional insights about fans and science fiction that go beyond limited concerns involving just Star Wars. Along with the exploratory and predictive functions of science fiction, Jason Sanford asserts that it actually helps create the future, as he winsomely explains how those techies who brought us the Motorola flip-phone were clearly Star Trek fans. In a style reminiscent of Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if..." comedy, one interesting post describes "11 Habits That All Sci-Fi Readers Have In Common," ranging from "[l]ooking for the real science behind the fake science fiction," to "[c]orrecting people on the differences between sci-fi and fantasy," and “[c]oming up with plans for when the aliens arrive". A formal study of reading habits suggests that the genre of science fiction texts may entice its readers to be less skillful interpreters of texts. I suspect that the potentially bad influence depends much more on a given reader's willingness to read any genre thoughtfully. Although my sample size is relatively small, I have known several high school English students who are as critically adept at analyzing Austen and Shakespeare as they are at evaluating android and space stories. Is such science fiction a foe to those of us who deeply value the Great Books and Great Conversation traditions? I think not. When I think of how much one of my current students enjoys discussing traditional literary texts alongside science fiction stories, I am inspired to assert, "It is a universe truthfully acknowledged that technological, sociological, psychological, and spiritual forces need careful balancing."

An even more extensive demonstration of discussing science fiction thoughtfully comes in Adam Roberts' The History of Science Fiction. Roberts carefully examines the contemporary popularity of science fiction and offers a strange point of origin for it in the Protestant Reformation: Adams asserts that his "core argument is not just that SF begins out of the Reformation; it is that the fierce cultural climate of that time shaped SF, wrote its DNA in ways that manifest substantively even into the 21st century." Roberts provides a striking contrast to the well-worn arguments about science fiction's origin in nineteenth or twentieth century. He notes that his own research that yielded his book's first edition led him to see science fiction

"as a distinctly Protestant kind of ‘fantastic’ writing that has budded off from the older (broadly) Catholic traditions of magical and fantastic romances and stories, responding to the new sciences, the advances in which were also tangled up in complex ways with Reformation culture."

As I reflect on his thesis, I cannot help but think of the root meaning of Catholic as "whole" or "universal." Roberts first provides a helpful summation of his view of a classic Catholic vision of human beings in relationship to the universe:

"To an orthodox Catholic imagination a plurality of inhabited worlds becomes an intolerable supposition; other stars and planets become a theological rather than a material reality, as they were for Dante - a sort of spiritual window-dressing to God’s essentially human-sized creation."

In contrast, he shows how he conceives of the Protestant Reformation vision:

"[The] cosmos expands before the probing inquiries of empirical science through the 17th and 18th centuries, and the imaginative-speculative exploration of that universe expands with it. This is the science fiction imagination, and it becomes increasingly a function of Western Protestant culture. From this SF develops as an imaginatively expansive, and materialist mode of literature, as opposed to the magical-fantastic, fundamentally religious mode that comes to be known as fantasy."

For me, this provides a powerful way for reading the texts of Francis Bacon and surfacing, not only his methodology, but also imaginative vision for scientific purpose. I'm finding motivation to re-read him along side of Dante to further explore these strange contrasts: a rather strong material-spiritual dialectic is at work in comparing these two authors. To clarify his personal position on these two streams of influence, Roberts also gently assures us that he does "not mean to suggest a priority of value or merit of one mode over the other," and that he equally enjoys reading fantasy and science fiction.

Clearly, there is much more to explore in Roberts' expositional history of science fiction, but it offers interesting connections for consideration about the nature and popularity of Star Wars and a host of other modern popular fantastical films. Roberts notes that "[t]he level on which Star Wars works most effectively is precisely as visual myth." By this, he suggests that the appeal of Star Wars and its legacy functions to give audiences a grand sense of imaginative connectedness to our ever-expanded sense of smallness in a really big universe - much in the way he envisions the Catholic imaginative tradition. In this line of thought, even more than the Reformation's break from visual and sacramental ways of imagining the world, our society's increasing secularization leaves many of us hungry for ways to re-enchant our connections to nature, the world, and the larger universe. Awareness of such hungers helps us appreciate Roberts' assertion that "SF is now the most popular form of art on the planet because it has colonised visual media." Star Wars was essentially the first film to break open and popularize this experience of visual myth. Even the current excitement about Avengers: Infinity War resembles the visual myth experience and can be traced back to the influence of Star Wars.

If I understand Roberts correctly, we benefit from becoming increasingly aware of how we get so enamored by the power of visual myth and large-scale spectacles because such self-awareness serves as an important part of understanding our collective and individual assumptions about our identities. Otherwise, we lose sight of many important not-so-visual concerns for pursuing human flourishing. Perhaps, this is Socrates with a lightsaber admonishing us to know ourselves? Consequently, many of the resources for sharpening our visions of the present and the future come from understanding the influences of the past more clearly and deeply, and we benefit from conversing about and reflecting on these influences. With a healthy dose of optimism, Roberts finds a glimmer of hope related to this concern as he opines that the two heroes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens "are, respectively, a competent and brave woman, and a man of Nigerian heritage," and that "[e]ven as it cycles through the comforting old tropes and features, this new Star Wars is proving what SF has always known, that this is a mode of art intensely hospitable to diversity." Indeed, from the urban centers to the outer rim of our society, many ideas related to Star Wars have some surprisingly powerful ways of sparking diverse and thoughtful conversations about past, present, and future visions of human flourishing.

“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”  – Yoda

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