The Lives of the Philosophers

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Alongside some other writing projects, I’ve been taking time out to do some consultancy for a Dorling Kindersley book called Philosophers: their lives and works. It is a big book of over one hundred biographies of philosophers (a kind of modern-day Diogenes Laërtius!), and at the moment I’m mainly advising on content. In particular, I’m trying to broaden out the scope to improve the gender balance, and to make the book much more international.

My current favourite philosopher is the 17th Century Mexican philosopher, poet and nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I’ve just got hold of Edith Grossman’s translation of her Selected Works, and I’m itching to dive in. Sor Juana taught herself the Aztec language Nahuatl, wrote intense love poetry addressed to women, was a fierce critic of the patriarchal structures of the church, turned her nun’s cell into a kind of philosophical salon, and was accused of “waywardness” by the archbishop of Mexico and a bunch of other dreary bigwigs. In short, she is so incredibly interesting that I’m appalled at myself for not having paid any attention to her before. Somewhat ominously, Netflix has a series about her called Juana Inés, which I’ve bookmarked to watch.

To give a taste of her writing, here’s a stanza from one of her ballads, as translated by Edith Grossman. This particular verse has some nice Daoist echoes as well…

Oh, if there were only a school
or seminary where they taught
classes in how not to know
as they teach classes in knowing.

There’s a nice, brief article on Sor Juana over on Ms. Magazine blog.

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