‘Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind’ by Miguel Leon-Portilla is a circa 1990 attempt to extrapolate the metaphysics of Nahuatl-dominated Mesoamerica based off of what surviving sources are available. Much was lost, destroyed, and hidden in the Spanish conquest, not so much due to the war itself as much as the subsequent invasions of priests and missionaries who insisted on demolishing, ISIS-style, as much of previously existing culture as they could. This has left us with imperfect records to work with, yet the Mesoamericans were an incredibly literate people and some had the foresight to safeguard many things until later and less fanatical eras.
Leon-Portilla has an interesting way of approaching this anthropology-meets-philosophy overview. He likes to let primary sources speak for themselves. Only after listing the excerpt he wishes to reference does he then move on to repeating it but while deconstructing each line or paragraph in turn with modern interpretation. This is an atypical way of conducting this kind of analysis, and it takes some getting used to. However, it works extremely well and made me wonder why this method is not used more often.
The author is interested in figuring out the rise of philosophy independent of mythology and religion as much as he can (in many cultures there is not a clear line of division between the two and such is the case here as well). Nevertheless, we must begin with the cultural context of Mexica myth. We get a breakdown of religious beliefs and cosmology but also see that many scholars doubted these accounts going back to the start of what in today is known as the Aztec Empire (actually a triple alliance of three city-states in the Nahuatl culture complex dominated by the Mexica people). Most importantly, there is a summary of how the Mexica people saw their right to rule in the origin of the present Fifth Sun Era. All previous suns had been specific to past eras that had all ended in cataclysm. This current era would be no different, however, its ending could be delayed by honoring the covenant of sacrifice that had made it possible in the first place. For, after the initial creator duality-god/god couple created the other gods, those gods had in turn brought about this new era through the self-sacrifice of two of their own members, Tecuciztecatl and Nanahuatzin. The first showed hesitation thus could only become the moon. The second who jumped right into ‘the God Oven’ became the sun. In order to keep this new and most beneficent sun going, Nanahuatzin/the sun must be periodically recharged with human blood, which holds power when shed due to it having a link with the gods as well. As gods sacrificed themselves to make the world livable for men, so too should men return the favor if they wish these conditions to continue.
Naturally, this also gave the expansionistic Aztecs a great ideological foil to pursue an empire. As the prestige of taking captives for sacrifice fueled war, so too could war fuel growth. Growth, in turn, was tied to a special pact of their empire with the maintenance of divine order. It upheld the cosmos for the Aztecs to expand. If they stopped expanding their world would end.
It becomes apparent that skepticism of religious literalism was quite common in that society for a long time. This put many ‘wise men’ on a different path than that of the religious establishment. Fittingly, since the Mexica saw the most important creator god as one of duality, a core dualism emerges in Aztec thought. There was the priests and the warriors going out and growing the empire through war and sacrifice, but there were also highly respected wise men who taught of empathy in a world of constant entropy, and the utility to practical Epicurean-like pleasures through harm reduction at home. This led to a philosophical emphasis on what we might now call universal primary schooling, with an enormous percentage of children literate and learned for a pre-modern society.
This example also, along with that of, say, the British, pretty firmly puts to bed the idea that educated societies become more peaceful.
The purpose of this new Mesoamerican society was to cultivate a ‘face and heart’, a personality in our terms, that understood the temporary nature of things and the necessary fatalism to cope with it while also building themselves up as distinctly useful for society as a whole. The author emphasizes that while Aztec political culture was collective (hence both public education and public sacrifice spectacle) its concept of personal life was in fact more individualist. Only in a well running collective could things work to allow the arts and philosophy, and only through the arts and philosophy could individuals differentiate themselves from each other in order to better contribute to society by meeting their true potential. While societies with similar civic bargains to this have existed elsewhere, few I know of were so specific in making this their intention. There quite literally is no self/society divide because the self is in service to society and vice-versa.
Mexica intellectual pursuits were dominated by an understanding that all things pass in time. They were also enormous weebs for the previous Toltec culture, using the term ‘Toltec’ to describe things that were well made in a material sense. Much like the Japanese concept of mono no aware, it was the fact that the Toltecs has passed into history but still left moving monuments that inspired the Aztecs to make art. The temporary nature of things was inevitable but beautiful. It was part of nature and life. And it was a reason to build a society with a highly cultivated aesthetic sense. What these thinkers thought when it came to the necessity of blood sacrifice to prolong the apotheosis of the now, it is unknown. I suspect many were skeptical.
Yet, strip the symbolism aside and you really see a society far more honest with itself than that of the moderns. Expansionist orders are founded and maintained by blood. The Aztecs tied a frank openness about this to their very being and even promised a higher destination in the afterlife for those sacrificed than those who died naturally. Compared to our high culture, which lives in total disavowal and denial that our empires are much the same in effect towards other people, and which rigorously seeks to hide our bloodletting far away from view, the honesty of the Aztec tableau is a bracing comparison. For many in the contemporary world, our ritualistic bloodletting goes towards no less a mythical edifice than theirs, as the constant laments from our priestly class for ‘upholding the values of the liberal world order’ imply. At least the Aztecs got a great show for their efforts. We just get to be on ‘the right side of history.’
It also shows us the limits of absolute duality. For it is not that high culture exists despite its gruesome elements, but often in total tandem with them. The lake city of Tenochtitlan was larger than any in Europe at the time of its height. It was remarked upon by the very people who conquered it and enslaved its inhabitants that it was a place of remarkable cleanliness, order, and urbanity. Another water-based city, Venice, exists as an admired tourist attraction to this day not in spite but because it experienced its first golden age as a result of rampant piracy and the looting of Constantinople.
The Aztecs were very fatalistic towards the forces of nature, and the caprice of their gods reflected this. While you would be judged in life by how you lived, you were still going to the afterlife designated for you based off of the method of your death regardless of conscious action. Yet their obsession with self improvement shows that fatalism is not mere passivity. Fatalism can be the call to self-improvement. Being unable to remold the world, one can remold one’s reactions to it. And if enough people do this together- albeit in their own particular ways-this changed response creates its own impetus to not just live life for what its worth, but to contribute to it through the arts. To quote directly from the book’s conclusion:
‘Nahuatl philosophic thought thus resolved about an aesthetic conception of the universe and life, for art, ‘made things divine’ and only the divine was true. To know the truth was to understand the hidden meanings of things through ‘flower and song’, a power emanating from the deified heart.’
Anyway, on the subject of art, have some OC content: