Philosophy by the Nahua («Aztecs») and Maya in Mexico and Guatemala: New books on Mesoamerica

On January 9 2020, the Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA) published the text «The Mesoamerican Philosophy Renaissance» by global historian of ideas Dag Herbjørnsrud (founder of SGOKI).

Intro: «500 years after the conquistadors began burning books written by the original philosophers of Mexico and Guatemala, America’s classical thinking now rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Nahua and Maya philosophy hand us a mirror for our era


On Portilla and recent resarch:

«On October 1st, the renowned emeritus professor Miguel León-Portilla (1926–2019) passed away in Tenochtitlan, better known today as Mexico City. The impact of León-Portilla’s work during the past six decades, can hardly be overstated. He is the pioneer scholar credited with unearthing the largely overlooked philosophy of the original inhabitants of Mesoamerica: the Nahuatl-speaking Nahuas (also known as Mexicas or “Aztecs”, of the High Central Plateau of Mexico) and the Maya (who live in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and parts of Mexico).

At the age of 87, León-Portilla was awarded the “Living Legend Award” by the Library of Congress. Recently, his works on the philosophy of the Mesoamerican peoples have been vital for such scholarly books as James Maffie’s Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion (2014) and Alexus McLeod’s Philosophy of the Ancient Maya (2018) – both focusing on the original metaphysics of the continent’s first residents.

Now, Cambridge University Press has decided to publish an introductory volume of Mesoamerican philosophy as part of its series “Cambridge Introductions to Philosophy.” In this volume, McLeod will also cover the philosophical traditions of the Zapotec and Mixtec – who developed their own writing systems – and other Mesoamerican peoples. So finally, the classical philosophy of the Americas is about to be accepted into at least parts of the philosophical canon. The ideas of the Nahuas and the Mayas are being restored.»

On Sahagún in the 16th century:

Already in the 1530s, the Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún learned that the societies of the Nahuatl-speaking Nahuas (Aztecs) had their own devoted scholars (tlamatinime) a gender-neutral term meaning “knowers of things”, “the wise”, or “philosophers.” These philosophers were dedicated to writing, preserving the Nahua classics, and teaching both girls and boys from the age of eight about the world’s existential questions. Several of them were women, and they had been educated for years in calmecacs – the Nahuas’ institutions for higher learning. The philosophers took care of and wrote the contents in the books; the memory banks of society. The Nahuas looked to these tlamatinime, who also included poets and historians, for intellectual and moral leadership.

When Sahagún realized – with the help of indigenous collaborators like Antonio Valeriano – the depth of the thinking of the elderly Nahua informants, he wrote admirably about their “wise men or philosophers” (sabios o philosophos). Thus, one century before the advent of Descartes and modern European philosophy, Sahagún noted that like the “Greeks, Romans”  it “was also the custom in this Indian nation” to hold “the wise, eloquent, virtuous, and courageous” in “high esteem.”

Accordingly, Lynn Sebastian Purcell argued in a 2016 paper that received the APA prize in Latin American thought, the Nahua argument for a “rooted life”, neltiliztli, “functions for ethical purposes in a way that is like Aristotle’s eudaimonia.” Purcell compares this Greek perspective to the Nahua philosophers’ conception of the virtues (“the good, noble”: qualli, yectli). Hence, the Nahua “held a view about ethical philosophy that is similar to Aristotle’s.”

On agnosticism & Sophists:

Purcell also stresses that Nahua philosophers “often did break with ordinary understandings” in their society. For example, the Nahua philosopher Nezahualcoyotl (1402–1472, his name translates as a “Coyote who fasts”) is “clearly expressing doubt about life in a place after death.”

Agnosticism was present among the first nations of America, in addition to its widespread pantheism. There were discussions, disagreements. And Sophists. Sahagún’s informants complained about the “false wise man, like an ignorant physician, a man without understanding.” Such a Sophist “leads the people astray; he causes others to lose their faces.”»

On the Mayas and Popol Vuh:

«Luckily, not all the Mesoamerican manuscripts were lost in the Spanish colonizers’ lootings and book burnings. Thousands of pages were copied and preserved. And now they are slowly coming to life through deciphering, translations, and new studies.

The most famous Maya text is the Popol Vuh (“Council Book” or “Book of the Community”), written down in the middle of the 16th century north of Guatemala City. This “Council Book” describes the origins and histories of the Mayan K’iché people, who now number more than 1.5 million people in Guatemala. And it gives voice to the women; “grandmothers” are referred to more than twice as often as “grandfathers.”»

On Nezahualcoyotl:

But when it came to philosophy itself, Nezahualcoyotl never gave any clear answers to his questions and riddles. Rather, this Nahua thinker ponders our general lack of knowledge, as “we are mortal, humans through and through.”

Nezahualcoyotl worries: “I am intoxicated, I weep, I grieve, I think, I speak, within myself I discover this (…)” He asks his readers and listeners existential questions as such: “What does your mind seek? Where is your heart? (…) Can anything be found on earth?”

Poised on the brink of a new decade, such fundamental questions seem more pertinent than ever if we are to obtain a “global 2020 vision.” The United Nations Climate Change Summit, and activists like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who challenge short-sighted politicians to face a climate crisis, have brought the global calls for collaborative action to the world’s attention.

Possibly, a greater awareness will arise when it comes to similar global challenges. In that case, Americans need not look across the ocean, or to Scandinavians, to seek philosophical inspiration with which to face the existential threats of the 21st century.»

«The role of a Nahua philosopher was that she or he “puts a mirror before others”. The philosophers should make people “cautious”, to cause “a face (a personality) to appear in them.” Because we are on earth only in passing: “Here, we only come to know ourselves”. The skepticism among the leading Mesoamerican thinkers is reminiscent of the rational inquiries of Socrates.

On women thinkers:

Among the Nahua, women were regarded as important philosophers, as we learn from the written narratives of the indigenous people in the 16th century. One chronicler reported that “Lady of Tula” had philosophical discussions with the enlightened and elected Texcoco ruler Nezahualpilli (1464–1515) – the son of the aforementioned Nezahualcoyotl. He debated with the Lady of Tula, who was described like this: “She was so wise that she could discuss with the ruler and the wisest men in his kingdom and was very gifted in poetry.”

A discussion between three Nahua noble women. Illustration from book X of the Florentine Codex, 16th century. Original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence. Ill: Scanned from a copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

Another intellectual woman was Macuilxochitl (b. 1435), who wrote an assertive poem about how women saved an enemy ruler in 1476. Thus she begins her poem: “I raise my songs, I Macuilxochitl, with these I gladden the Giver of Life, may the dance begin!”

After all, as Caroline Dodds Pennock explained in 2018: “While Christian Europe punished women’s sinful nature through the pain of childbirth, indigenous Mexicans valued female fertility as a direct link to nature and the earth (…)”»

On climate change:

At times, scientists’ warnings about human-fueled climate changes in the 21st century seem to echo parts of Maya philosophy and its “Council Book”, Popol Vuh. Now, maybe more than ever, it seems relevant to regard our planet as continually created.

Perhaps we are not merely living in a formerly created world, or on a planet formed four billion years ago. We might also regard ourselves, and our actions, our every breath, as part of the Earth’s ongoing creation – as the Mayas might say. In this way, we could perceive ourselves as co-creators, who help mold the globe of tomorrow.

How better can we rise to the challenges of our global climate crisis than to see that we are all in this together? That we only “come to light in unity” – that we “all have but one dawn”?

If we add to this the Nahua philosophy of “understanding a world in motion,” ever cautious of not tripping into the abyss as we balance on a mountain ridge on this “slippery earth,” we might, just might, envision a new dawn – philosophically speaking.»

For more such articles/info, see the English page of SGOKI.