Sor Juana: The Sheer Love of Learning

Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge

I went on with the studious pursuit (in which I found relaxation during all the free time remaining from my obligations) of reading and more reading, study and more study, with no other teacher than books themselves. On can readily imagine how hard it is to study from those lifeless letters, lacking a teacher’s live voice and explanations. Still I happily put up with all those drawbacks, for the sheer love of learning. Oh, if it had only been for the love of God, which would have been the sound way, what merit would have been mine! I will say that I tried to uplift my study as much as I could and direct it to serving Him, since the goal I aspired to was the study of theology, it seeming to me a mean sort of ineptitude for a Catholic not to know all that can be found out in this life trough natural means concerning divine mysteries. I also felt that being a nun and not a lay person, I should, because of my ecclesiastical status, make a profession of letters—and furthermore that, as a daughter of Saint Jerome and Saint Paula, it would be a great disservice for the daughter of such learned parents to be a fool. This is what I took upon myself, and it seemed right to do so, unless of course—and this is probably the case—it was simply a way of flattering and applauding my own natural tendency, proposing its own pleasure to it as an obligation.

In this way I went on, continually directing the course of my study, as I have said, toward the eminence of sacred theology. To reach this goal, I considered it necessary to ascend the steps of the human arts and sciences, for how can one who has not mastered the style of the ancillary branches of learning hope to understand the general and specific methodologies of which Holy Scripture is composed? How, without rhetoric, could I understand its figures, tropes, and locutions How, without physics, all the natural questions concerning the nature of sacrificial animals, which symbolize so many things already explicated, and so many others? How, whether Saul’s being cured by the sound of David’s harp came about by virtue of the natural power of music, or through supernatural powers which God was pleased to bestow on David? How, lacking arithmetic, could one understand such mysterious computations of years, days, months, hours, weeks, as those of Daniel and others, for the intelligence of which one needs to know the natures, concordances, and properties of numbers? How, without geometry, could one measure the sacred ark of the covenant and the holy city of Jerusalem, whose mysterious measurements form a cube in all its dimensions, and the marvellous proportional distribution of all its parts? How, without a knowledge of architecture, is one to understand Solomon’s great temple, of which God Himself was the artificer who provided the arrangement and layout, the wise king being only the overseer who carried it out? In it, no column’s base was without its mystery, no column without its symbolic sense, no cornice without allusiveness, and so on with all its parts, not even the most miniscule fillet serving solely to support or complement to the design of the whole, but rather itself symbolizing greater things. How will one understand the historical books without a full knowledge of the principles and divisions of which history consists? Those recapitulations in the narrative which postpone what actually occurred first? How will one understand the legal books without a complete acquaintance with both codes of law? How without a great deal of erudition, all the matters of secular history mentioned in Holy Writ, all the customs of the gentiles, the rites, the ways of speaking? How, without many rules and much reading of the Church Fathers, will one be able to understand the prophets’ obscure forms of expression? And how, unless one is thoroughly versed in music, will one understand those musical proportions, with all their finer points, found in so many passages, especially in Abraham’s petitions to God for the cities, asking whether He would forgive them, providing there were fifty righteous men, from which the number went down to forty-five, which is the sesquioctave and as from re to mi; thence to thirty, which is the sesquitierce, or the proportion of the diatessaron; thence to twenty, which is the sesquialter, or that of the diapente; thence to ten, which is the duple, or diapason—and went no further, there being no other harmonic proportions. Now, how is this to be understood without music?

—Sor Juan Inés de la Cruz, In Reply to Sor Philothea

My own justification for spending most of my time in pursuit of knowledge sounds similar to this, but I’m not sure I believe it any more than I believe the sassy Sor Juana. These paragraphs are part of long, sarcastic, allusion-encrusted letter to “Sor Philothea,” a Bishop who publicly admonished her for writing poetry and studying, improper activities for a female, in “her” opinion. Sor Juana’s own sense of the relevance of gender in intellectual matters is stated pretty clearly in her poem to a gentleman of Peru who suggested she should become a man if she wants to write:

with one thought I came to this spot:
to be rid of those who’d inquire
whether I am a woman or not.

In Latin it’s just of the married
that uxor, or woman, is said.
A virgin has no sex at all—
or indeed she has both, being unwed.

So the man who looks upon me
as a woman, shows want of respect,
since one embracing my state
is foreclosed to the other sex.

Of one thing I’m sure: that my body
disinclined to this man or that,
serves only to house the soul—
you might call it neuter or abstract.

You go… um… person!


2 comments on “Sor Juana: The Sheer Love of Learning

  1. alexander says:

    Hello Sylvia,

    I couldn't find a way to contact you so I am writing this in the comments section. Is there an e-mail address or other way that is best to contact you with questions.



  2. Sylvia says:

    Alexander, have a look near the top right corner for an email link.

Comments are closed.