Our Beloved Filo-Sofi’a – Is she Dulcinea or Aldonza?

By | October 4, 2011

By Juan Bernal

Dulcinea: Don Quijote’s imagined damsel, a mythical lady of perfect virtue and beauty beyond description.

Aldonza: The actual woman that Quijote pursued, a poor, young woman who worked at the roadside inn frequented by mule-drivers and ruffians of all variety.

(Both ladies are characters in Miguel de Cervantes’ great novel, Don Quijote De La Mancha)

Elements of the Story:

As Miguel de Cervantes [1] described him, Don Quijote was an elderly “hidalgo” (Spanish nobleman) who read too many romantic novels and became deluded and partially insane as a result. He became obsessed with the idea that he was a knight of old, who would take up the mission of fighting evil and defending all that’s good and beautiful. Part of his romantic delusion required that he have a lady to whom he would dedicate all his knightly accomplishments, a lady of unsurpassed beauty and flawless virtue. He named her “Dulcinea” and in his feverish delusion somehow associated her with a young woman who worked at the roadside inn at a place called Toboso, a poor woman of questionable virtue named Aldonza, whom Quijote had not actually ever seen. So he was free to imagine what his “lady’ must be like. At one point in the story he had his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, make the long journey to Taboso and deliver a letter he had written to his ‘Dulcinea.’ [2]

After Sancho finds and talks with Aldonza at the Toboso, he returns and reports to his master. What follows is a hilarious and revealing dialogue between Quijote and his squire [3]:

Quijote: Tell me all about it. What did you say? What did she reply? Did you find her stringing pearls to send to her noble knight? Or bordering a clothed message with gold?
Sancho: Well, I found her husking several baskets of wheat in the corral.
Quijote: Tell me, did not the grains of wheat become pearls in her hands? Surely they were white grains of the highest quality?
Sancho: Nope, just regular, low-grade grains of wheat.
. . . .
Quijote: So tell me more. What charming conversations did you have with her? Did she ask much about me?
Sancho: She did not ask anything. I just told her about your dedication to her and all the penance and hardship that you endured for her, naked from the waist up in the frigid mountain as if you were a wild animal, going without food and sleeping on the floor, with beard uncombed, crying and bemoaning your fate.
Quijote: There you messed up, for I do not bemoan my fate. Instead I bless her and bless every day of my life for making me worthy of loving as grand and tall a lady as Dulcinea of Toboso!
Sancho: Tall she is not. She stands a bare micro inch taller than me! (Sancho is a very short fellow.)
Quijote: What? You measured yourself with her? How did that happen?
Sancho: Well I helped her to lift the sack of wheat onto a shelf and standing close to her I noticed that we were nearly the same height.
Quijote: Well, anyway I shall adorn her stature with millions of measures of gratitude from my soul. Now tell me, when you stood near to her, did you not perceive her fragrant, heavenly aroma, an aroma so sweet I lack the words to describe it?
Sancho: All I can say, Sire, is that I smelled a faint hint of masculine-like sweat; and it must have been because of all the work she had done, she was perspiring and wet with sweat.
Quijote: That can’t be! Your brains must have malfunctioned and you smelled yourself, because I know very well how sweet a rose smells, or the scent of a lily in the meadow, or the aroma of diluted amber.
Sancho: Yes, Sire, it could be true. I have often given off an odor and thought it came from another as from your lady Dulcinea. But it is not that much a mysterious happening, as much as the work of some little devil up to his tricks here and there.
Quijote: All right, all right, so she finished with the husking and put away the wheat. Then surely she read my letter. What did she say when she read it?
Sancho: She did not read it because she said she could neither read nor write. She tore up the letter into little pieces, saying that she did not want anyone to know her secrets, and asked that I just tell her what your wrote. So I told her about your love for her, all the brave deeds you do for her, and all the penance that you endure for her. Hearing all this she thought it was funny and said she would like to meet you sometime. But she laughed hilariously when I told her your title: the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.



Obviously Sancho’s earthly and realistic perception of “Dulcinea” is very different from Quijote’s illusory picture of the lady. Dulcinea is really Aldonza; and Aldonza is nothing to brag about. But reports from the real world do not have any effect on the mind of Quijote. He is completely dedicated and in a state of deep, Platonic love!

Now, what does all this have to do with philosophy? Maybe not much or maybe a great deal. Lately I have entertained the idea that many enthusiasts of philosophy appear somewhat ‘quixotic’ in their love and devotion to ‘philosophy,’ or what they perceive as philosophy. Granted that they do not actually think of philosophy as a nearly divine lady, but some of their praise for philosophy sounds similar in some respects to Quijote’s exaggerated praise and delusional love for his lady Dulcinea.

Philosophy as a Divine Calling?

There is an ancient history behind the Romantic’s love and praise for philosophy, which in an exaggerated form sees the philosophy as a calling from the gods. We can find seeds of this attitude in Socrates’ defense of his practice of philosophy with the citizens of Athens in Plato’s dialogue, The Apology. In considering the possibility of pardon should he agree to stop his philosophical questioning and examining the beliefs of the people, Socrates rejects that possibility with the following statement of his commitment to philosophy:

“Some one will say: Yes, Socrates, but can’t you hold hour tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less like to believe. Yet I say what is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.”

(Apology, The Dialogues of Plato, translation by Benjamin Jowett, Oxford University Press, 1952, page 210) [my emphasis]

Socrates characterizes his work in philosophy as a “calling of the God” and as the “greatest good of man,” and rejects a life without philosophy as a life not worth living. Given such statements of the value of philosophy, it is easy to understand the boundless praise and nearly divine status that many people apply to philosophy.

Is there an Analogy?

Obviously the character Socrates is very different from the delusional Don Quijote. The ‘Socrates’ of Plato’s dialogues is an admirable, courageous, rational character, not given to romantic delusions. Don Quijote, while exhibiting an odd type of courage and commitment, is obviously out of touch with reality. Without his realistic, unimaginative companion, Sancho Panza, to look out for him, Quijote would have quickly fallen prey to the many predators of the Spanish countryside. But there is an interesting analogy between the quixotic illusion and the Socratic vision. Both envision a divine-like object to which they are completely devoted. Socrates saw philosophy (as he practiced it) as being a divine mission and the greatest good available to humanity. Quijote saw his lady as nearly divine in virtue and beauty. Socrates was willing to do anything, even accept a death sentence, for his philosophy. Quijote was prepared to undergo all trials and tribulation, all impossible struggles and hopeless combat, for his lady Dulcinea.

Suppose we take the perspective of a Sancho Panza – the realist who is not captivated by all this talk of divine status, greatest good to man, and incomparable beauty – and ask: Does the Socratic idea of a divinely-inspired philosophy also need the remedial shock treatment that the real, flesh-and-blood Aldonza brings to the mythical Dulcinea? Is philosophy as envisioned by Socrates and all the Romantics who followed somewhat like the mythical Dulcinea, i.e., a rather pretentious calling but not one that actually takes place in real life? On the other hand, is philosophy as actually practiced by real, fallible humans, more like the poor, uneducated Aldonza? (It can be of some assistance to the sciences, to governance, and the business of living; but it is folly to see it as a divine calling, as searching for a deep Truth, or as being the greatest benefit to humanity.)

Philosophy is not a noble, lady of highest culture. Philosophy is more the working woman who is very much a human being and subject to human limitations. Philosophy is not a divine calling; it is not the “Queen of the Sciences,” nor “the greatest good of humanity.” Philosophy is just hard, piecemeal work. Much of it is the natural preserve of the academics (they manage to clarify a few things); some of it is the work of ordinary people trying to get some understanding of a range of human problems. Much of it goes on without notice or appreciation by the world at large. Much of it is like poor Aldonza, busy in the corral of the roadside inn, just preparing a batch of wheat for the next baking of bread.

[1] Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes is one of the greatest novelists of the Spanish language. His masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605), is one of the most important and influential books in the history of the novel. Cervantes lived from 1547 to 1616. He and Shakespeare died on the same day, Died: April 23, 1616. Cervantes’ stature in Spanish literature is equal to Shakespeare’s in the English language.

[2] Likely most contemporary readers are familiar with Quijote, Sancho Panza, Aldonza, and the confused antics of the “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” by way the “Man of La Mancha” a 1965 a very successful Musical by Dale Wasserman.

[3] This is my attempt at translating the dialogue between Quijote and Sancho Panza from Spanish to English. For those interested and motivated enough, there are surely much better English translations of the novel and of this particular dialogue, as a number of excellent translations of Cervantes’ work are readily available.

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