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Neoplatonism in Colonial Latin America

Erika Valdivieso

Brown University

The legacy of Neoplatonism in colonial Spanish America is at least as complex as its development in Europe. In this new context, Neoplatonism became an important mediator between European and American antiquities, invoked as a means to render ancient traditions mutually intelligible. Thus Neoplatonic thought frequently appears when an author describes the customs of indigenous peoples in reference to ancient and Renaissance ideas. Three examples will be discussed which demonstrate the range of application for Neoplatonic thought in the colonial period.

Renaissance Neoplatonism, which originated in Italy, soon made its way to Spain, and from Spain to the New World (Hankins 1990; Ynduráin 1994; Byrne 2015). The writings of the Spanish chronicler Francisco López de Gómara present an early example of its influence. In 1552, he argued that the Americas were part of the lost continent of Atlantis, described in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. López de Gómara, who had never been to New Spain, used tendentious knowledge of Amerindian languages and the works of Ficino to support his claim. The European chronicler’s understanding of the new continent was constituted by Neoplatonic thought, which circumscribed this newly discovered continent within the boundaries of European knowledge.

Neoplatonism was also a conduit between European and indigenous traditions in the writings of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (Miró Quesada 1971). The Inca Garcilaso, a mestizo of European and Amerindian descent, was the first American-born chronicler to enter the western canon. After his emigration to Spain in 1559, he read the Dialoghi d’Amore, the influential Neoplatonic treatise by Leone Hebreo, first published in Rome in 1535 (Panizza 2011). In 1590 the Inca translated this treatise, which was an interpretative milestone in the transmission of the Neoplatonic theory of love (Sommer 1995). Garcilaso’s independent interpretation of Neoplatonism found full expression in his Commentarios Reales, where he suggested that the Incas, like Plato, had attained an approximation of true belief in the absence of divine revelation.

Neoplatonic thought was also pertinent to contemporary debates about the evangelization of the Americas. In their proselytizing efforts, Spanish missionaries adopted the indigenous theater tradition as a vehicle for Christian themes (Meneses 1983; Chang-Rodriguez 1999). Juan de Espinosa Medrano (1629-1688) was a mestizo priest and author of allegorical plays in Quechua. El robo de Proserpina y sueño de Endimión shows a curious use of Neoplatonic allegory. The myth of Persephone had been interpreted as an allegory of the soul in the Middle Ages, but Espinosa Medrano added a love story between Persephone and Endymion. This decision was influenced by contemporary Spanish playwrights, who presented the tale of Cupid and Psyche as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the soul (Itier 2010). It is therefore striking that Espinosa Medrano frequently describes Endymion as cheqaq inti, “the true sun,” aligning the Incan sun god with Christ in his search for his beloved, a missing soul.

Neoplatonic thought had a pervasive influence upon the intellectual tradition of colonial Spanish America, from historiography to theology. This paper resists a monolithic treatment of this influence, and instead shows the variety of ways colonial authors tailored this school of thought to suit the demands of new contexts. Neoplatonism influenced the ways in which Europeans and Americans understood one another, facilitating attempts to establish hegemony over the New World.

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Global Classical Traditions

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