Sor Juana provides us with a great example of how incorrect rhetorical interpretation can create oppressive, social consequences.
In her letter, The Answer, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz defends not only her life, but also a woman’s right to education. She advances her claim through her structure and style, tropes, and strong refutation.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz employs her argument through a loosely Rogerian model. We constantly see her shifting contexts where her Sister’s view is valid, and where her views are valid; ultimately she demonstrates why her viewpoint is beneficial. When we break her argument into several parts, we see a pattern: first she is apologetic, then she justifies her actions (involves God and her upbringing), argues her main point, follows with a strong refutation, and closes apologetically. Her letter teeters on the fringe of becoming one large argumentum ad misericordiam. But she does it for many reasons. It masks her contempt behind seething sarcasm, appeals to the sympathy of her reader, and safely allows her to deliver her critique. We know she is being sarcastic from many of her baroque expressions. Two for example are “you have allowed me to kiss the top of the golden scepter of your affection” (Sor Juana 45) and “I, who am but an ignorant woman” (Sor Juana 83).
De la Cruz bombards the reader with rhetorical questions on a regular basis. After having appealed to the reader’s sense of pity, she then erodes at the psyche of her unsympathetic audience as to make them more willing to hear her argument. Rhetorical questions are used when the answer to a question is obvious or the author is indifferent. Both seem to be the case here. It is also interesting to note how frequently she pairs it with the scheme of auxesis. Auxesis increases in intensity with every proceeding clause. In the most prominent example, rhetorical questions and auxesis together point out the obvious need for Science to better understand the Scriptures (Sor Juana 53-55). This is also an instance where she demonstrates proficiency at learning. If a reader does not accept this premise, they are at risk of disproving their religion. She essentially traps the reader into this logic frequently throughout her letter. Another great example of her logic is how she justifies her writing. She argues “My writing had never proceeded from any dictate of my own, but a force beyond me…” (Sor Juana 47:180). That is, God, not her, wrote her poems. What is interesting about this is that she constantly changes how she refers to God around this paragraph as well, calling Him “Lord God”, “His Majesty”, “the One”, “Author”, etc. All words connote authority. They recognize God as the apex of the hierarchy. But they also help support the notion that Sor Juana is not responsible for what she wrote. That if Sister and the Church are upset with her writing, they in reality are upset with God’s work. Should they remain stubborn in their convictions, they disprove their own faith by challenging God Himself. By no longer being of faith, they have no right to challenge Sor Juana. Therefore, Sister and the Church must accept Sor Juana’s reasoning, or they risk outing themselves as possible heretics. Such is the beauty and efficacy of Sor Juana’s logic.
What makes Sor Juana’s argument so strong his her refutation the statement “Let women keep silence in the church”. This primary objection, as Sor Juana acknowledges, is why women cannot teach. Immediately, she refutes the statement as a misinterpretation of the sacred scripture (she provides context on p 87.). Sor Juana criticizes such carelessness. As a response, she refutes “…in order to understand many passages, one must know a great deal of the history, customs, rituals, proverbs, and even the habits of speech of the times in which they were written” (Sor Juana 87:1040). Sor Juana directly refers to principles found in St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana. Both call for a critical eye when interpreting ambiguous signs, and special attention to the context in which an idiom is said. Sor Juana argues that translators completely ignored the context in which the statement above was written in, and by doing so, it had adverse implications on a whole demographic. The stakes indeed are high here. What the statement were to say was “Let women learn in silence” when in the church, which is worlds apart in interpretation.
Sor Juana provides us with a great example of how incorrect rhetorical interpretation can create oppressive, social consequences. I am particularly reminded of the anti-LGBT folk today who often quote the poorly misinterpreted Leviticus (18:22) statement “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” As St. Augustine argues, because this statement does not relate directly to Christian morals, it should be interpreted as figuratively as to relate it to Christian morals. However, today, such a statement it taken as literally, and it has similar social repercussions to that of “Let women keep silence in the church”. Even though we are centuries apart from Sor Juana and St. Augustine, many of the errors both elaborate on are still quite relevant today.
Sor Juana excels profoundly when it comes to rhetorical interpretation,. She formats her contempt in a way such that comes off as extremely apologetic, which requires a mastery of rhetoric most do not remotely possess. Aforementioned above, Sor Juana also addresses the consequences of misinterpretation. After all her stakes are high in La Respuesta. Should she fail at persuading her unsympathetic audience, she loses not only her status as a nun, but also her life altogether. However, her claims are sound and compelling—her style effective and infatuating. It’s hard not to side with her, but out of risk of losing everything, she stopped writing. Regardless, her strength lied in her ability to challenge a seemly uncontested institution to empower women everywhere.