Lynn Sebastian Purcell is the winner of the American Philosophical Association’s 2016 Essay Prize in Latin American Thought. This post is adapted from the work for which he won, “Neltilitztli and the Good Life: On Aztec Ethics.”
By Lynn Sebastian Purcell
There is a scene in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus makes what would appear to be an odd choice. It comes after Odysseus has been living on an island paradise with a goddess, Calypso, for seven years. Hermes appears and informs Calypso that the gods have taken pity on Odysseus and demand that she release him. Calypso accepts on one condition: that Odysseus must chose to go willingly. We next witness Odysseus seated across from Calypso and she offers him what anyone would seemingly want: immortality, agelessness, and a leisured existence on an island paradise with a beautiful goddess, provided he stays with her. He turns her down. Instead he chooses to venture onto the open waters on a rickety ship in search of his wife and child.
When I teach this passage, I ask my students whether they would have chosen something similar. “How many of you,” I venture, “would turn down ageless immortality, and a leisured, pleasurable existence on the condition that you would be unable to return to see your family and those you most cared about?” I’ve never once had anyone disagree with Odysseus’ choice.
The result is an important one for moral philosophers: we humans don’t seem to want pleasurable or “happy” lives. Instead, we want worthwhile ones. This insight, at base, is the one which informed the whole ethical outlook of the pre-Columbian Aztecs. What we are searching for, they held, is a “rooted” or worthwhile existence.
Although long overlooked by “Western” philosophy, we have ample textual evidence of what the Aztecs thought. The reason is that in the middle of the 16th century, Spanish clergymen hurried about collecting and preserving as much as they could of a culture that was quickly being extinguished. The result is that we have now volumes and volumes of the recorded thoughts of Aztec philosophers compiled in codices, in the original Nahuatl: from common sayings, to moral exhortations, to philosophic poetry, to dialogues.
What one finds is that their philosophers maintained that humans faced a basic existential problem. It was captured in a common saying: “Slippery, slick is the earth.” What they meant is that despite our best intentions, our life on earth is one where people are prone to error, prone to fail in their goals, and so prone to “fall,” as if into the mud. Moreover, this earth is a place where joys only come mingled with pain and set back. In a passage where elders are admonishing their (grand) daughter, we read the following.
Hear well, O my daughter, O my child, the earth is not a good place. It is not a place of joy, it is not a place of contentment. It is merely said it is a place of joy with fatigue, of joy with pain on earth.
Finally, as we all recognize, the Aztec philosophers maintained that our lives here are brief ones. All that we love will too soon turn to dust and ash.
These observations were not, the Aztecs held, reasons for despair. Rather they set the conditions for leading a worthwhile existence. The solution, they urged, was to achieve rootedness, or “neltiliztli.” The world is an abstract form of “nelli” and can also mean “truth.” The basic metaphor, however, is that of taking root, as a tree does, so that one can avoid sliding about on the earth. Such a life is a “true” one, and, because it is the highest end we seek, a reasonable candidate for what in the “West” we call the good life.
In looking over the Aztec texts and archaeological evidence, one finds that one was to take root in one’s body, one’s psyche, in society, and in teotl—the Aztec understanding of god as nature. From a number of collected figurines and textual descriptions of the body, we know that the Aztecs urged a daily regimen of bodily activities that closely resemble yoga practices: stretching and strengthening exercises. This was one of the ways, at least, that one was to take root in one’s body.
In one’s psyche, one’s personality, one was to become rooted by seeking to balance the relation between one’s “heart,” the seat of one’s longings and desires, and one’s “face,” or the seat of judgment. One accomplished this, they held, by cultivating virtues which enabled one to act at the mean. What follows is a mother’s exhortation to her daughter:
On earth it is a time for care, it is a place for caution. Behold the word; heed and guard it, and with it take your way of life, your works. On earth we live, we travel along a mountain peak. Over here there is an abyss, over there is an abyss. If thou goest over here, or if thou goest over there, thou wilt fall in. Only in the middle doth one go, doth one live.
A person with a balanced face and heart, a virtuous person, is one who is able to act at the mean. Rootedness in one’s person, then, enables one to lead a life by the middle way.
The Aztecs were, as anthropologists have noted, a sociocentric culture. Taking root by way of one’s involvement in society, then, was a central focus for the philosopher’s descriptions of good and bad actions. Specifically one takes root in society in two ways. The first was through one’s participation in social rites, which were not only a source of social cohesion, but were also a way to train one’s character. The second was through the execution of one’s social role: as a father, mother, feather worker, philosopher, king, warrior, and so on. Successful performance of these roles was a source of praise, failure a source of blame.
Finally, the Aztec philosophers seemed to hold that one could take root in the way things “are,” in teotl, who was the single and only being of existence. I write “are” in quotations because Nahuatl is an omnipredicative language, so that everything is a predicate, a “verb.” All reality was in process, and so to take root in teotl is to take root in the way that things change into each other. This was done primarily through the above three mentioned ways. But the Aztec philosophers also seemed to hold that there were other ways as well. One of them was by the composition of philosophic poetry, the beauty of which was thought to outlast most of the transient creations on our earth. These “direct” paths, then, complemented the other more indirect ways.
Lives rooted in these four ways, in one’s body, psyche, society and in nature were thought to be lives worth leading, worth sacrificing for, if necessary. “Happiness,” or pleasurable conscious states, could not qualify as a goal able to organize our lives on earth. Had the Aztecs known about Odysseus’ choice, like my students, they would have agreed. For Odysseus lacked on the island the specific social relations that made his life worthwhile, and he recognized this. If the study of ethics is for the sake of living better lives, then perhaps the Aztec approach might also help us to recognize the framework for making such insights in our own lives.
Lynn Sebastian Purcell is an Assistant Philosophy Professor at SUNY Cortland, where he specializes in Ancient Philosophy, Ethics, and Latin American Philosophy. He is also the Co-coordinator for Latino Latin-American Studies (LLAS) and the Treasurer for the Center for Ethics Peace and Social Justice. He received his PhD in philosophy from Boston College in 2011.