Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue, 1300–1521 CE. Labrets were the visual markers of the eloquent, truthful speech expected of royalty and the nobility in Aztec culture. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Life on the slippery Earth

Aztec moral philosophy has profound differences from the Greek tradition, not least its acceptance that nobody is perfect

by Sebastian Purcell + BIO

Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue, 1300–1521 CE. Labrets were the visual markers of the eloquent, truthful speech expected of royalty and the nobility in Aztec culture. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When Halloween rolled around last year, my wife and I were prepared to be greeted by scores of eager trick-or-treaters. Guided by the thought that too much candy was better than too little, we bought entirely too much, and simply poured the excess on to a platter in our living room. The problem is: I have a sweet-tooth. ‘I can’t stop eating these!’ I said to my wife, peevishly, a few days later. Nearly every time I passed the coffee table, I succumbed to my cravings for a sugar rush, and then I’d feel frustrated and irritated.

When I returned from work that evening, I noticed the platter was empty. ‘Oh, I just took it to work and gave it away to the students,’ my wife said, when I asked. Just like that, my cycle of transgression and guilt was broken.

This little episode illustrates two aspects of Aztec virtue ethics that distinguish it from ‘Western’ forms, such as Plato’s or Aristotle’s. The first is that I did not overcome my vice so much as manage it. The second is that I didn’t manage it on my own, but rather did so (almost entirely) with the help of another person.

While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.

This distinction bears on an important question: just how bad are good people allowed to be? Must good people be moral saints, or can ordinary folk be good if we have the right kind of support? This matters for fallible creatures, like me, who try to be good but often run into problems. Yet it also matters for questions of inclusivity. If being good requires exceptional traits, such as practical intelligence, then many people would be excluded – such as those with cognitive disabilities. That does not seem right. One of the advantages of the Aztec view, then, is that it avoids this outcome by casting virtue as a cooperative, rather than an individual, endeavour.

At its core, Aztec virtue ethics has three main elements. One is a conception of the good life as the ‘rooted’ or worthwhile life. Second is the idea of right action as the mean or middle way. Third and final is the belief that virtue is a quality that’s fostered socially.

When I speak about the Aztecs – the people dominant in large parts of central America prior to the 16th-century Spanish conquest – even professional philosophers are often surprised to learn that the Aztecs were a philosophical culture. They’re even more startled to hear that we have (many volumes of) their texts recorded in their native language, Nahuatl. While a few of the pre-colonial hieroglyphic-type books survived the Spanish bonfires, our main sources of knowledge derive from records made by Catholic priests, up to the early 17th century. Using the Latin alphabet, these texts record the statements of tlamatinime, the indigenous philosophers, on matters as diverse as bird-flight patterns, moral virtue, and the structure of the cosmos.

To explain the Aztec conception of the good life, it’s helpful to begin in the sixth volume of a book called the Florentine Codex, compiled by Father Bernardino of Sahagún. Most of the text contains edifying discourses called huehuetlatolli, the elders’ discourses. This particular section records the speeches following the appointment of a new king, when the noblemen appear to compete for the most eloquent articulation of what an ideal monarch should be and do. The result is a succession of speeches like those in Plato’s Symposium, wherein each member tries to produce the most moving expression of praise.

‘Perhaps at one time, one was of good life; later, he fell into some wrong, as if he had slipped in the mud’

At the end of the noblemen’s speeches, the king himself turns to address his people. He tries to articulate the character of excellent men and women, the standard he expects from his subjects. Of men, he says:

And he is revered; in truth [nelli], he is taken to be a defender and sustainer. He becomes like the silk cotton tree, like the cypress tree, by which everywhere people take refuge … [Yet] this same [virtuous] one weeps and sorrows. Is there anyone who does not wish for happiness? [Translations my own.]

The passage is striking because it highlights a fundamental difference between the Ancient Greek and the Aztec approaches to the good life – namely, that the Aztecs did not believe there was any conceptual link between leading our best lives on the one hand, and experiencing pleasure or ‘happiness’ on the other. This image of the virtuous man finds its closest Greek analogue in the Iliad’s Hector, the person to whom everyone flocked for refuge, the one who supported his whole house, but was nevertheless undone by Achilles.

A common saying among the Aztecs was that ‘the earth [tlalticpac] is slippery, slick’. Elsewhere, the meaning is clarified: ‘Perhaps at one time, one was of good life; later, he fell into some wrong, as if he had slipped in the mud.’ The Aztecs held, in short, that it’s unrealistic to think that anyone can lead a perfectly good life, one in which you never slip up. A better goal, then, is to try to lead a rooted life, which they called neltiliztli: literally, rootedness. In this kind of life, one is able to manage the mistakes and slip-ups well, rather than avoid them altogether. The reward is not happiness necessarily, but the promise of a worthwhile life.

If we’re convinced by this line of reasoning – that the good life consists in doing what is worthwhile, regardless of whether it makes us happy – the next question becomes: what does it take to lead a rooted life?

For the Aztecs, a rooted life is one that is lived well, with excellence. The traditional word used for this concept in English is ‘virtue’. Our word finds its origin in the Latin virtu, a metonymic expression that aims to capture what is best about a man (vir) – manliness, in brief. The Aztecs also used a poetic expression for virtue: in qualli in yectli, meaning ‘the good and the straight’. For example, in the confessional rite, which is also recorded as an edifying discourse in the sixth volume of the Florentine Codex, the confessor tells the penitent that before committing wrongs:

You were excellent [ca ti-qualli, ca ti-yectli] when you were sent here … You were cast, perforated like a precious green stone, a bracelet, a precious turquoise.

The idea itself is clear: before vicious actions, one is virtuous, one is like the most precious of things, turquoise and jade. Afterwards, the confessor tells the penitent, one is unbalanced, filthy. Thus, when one’s actions are virtuous, one maintains balance, is rooted like the tree to whom others flock for cover. These virtues include: moderation, justice, prudence and courage.

For nobles, the penalty for public drunkenness was death. But at a wedding, the elderly were expected to get drunk

What the list of virtues doesn’t answer is: just what is it that makes an act courageous rather than rash? Why would my own inability to control my craving for sugar be considered immoderate? The Aztec’s answer is that virtuous actions follow the middle path, they strike the mean. In an edifying discourse, a mother tells her daughter about the difficulties of living on the earth (tlalticpac):

On earth we live, we travel along mountain peaks. 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 [tlanepantla] doth one go, doth one live. Place this word, my daughter, dove, little one, well within the chambers of thy heart.

As the passage suggests, the mean or middle way (tlanepantla) is not so much an exact middle of something as it is a metaphor for the apt expression of a choice, action or feeling. In other passages, the middle choice is the one that represents the right form of dress, with clothes that are neither too shabby, nor too formal. For example, the text presents as bad the case of an overly carnal woman, who conducts and presents herself sexually even when shopping in the marketplace.

Our actions are virtuous, then, when they are aptly expressed. This aptness of expression turns on the circumstances (eg, how formally we should dress), our social position (eg, male or female, commoner or noble), our social role (eg, warrior or physician), and whether we are performing a rite of a specific sort. A memorable example of this last kind concerns drunkenness. Public drunkenness was severely punished in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire; for nobles, the penalty was death. But the elderly at a wedding were not only permitted, but expected to become drunk.

There was, then, no formal test for the apt expression of an action, but one could learn to develop a sense for it in the way that we might speak today of a person’s aesthetic sensibilities. Just as we might say that our co-worker’s sense of style is impeccable, we also know of some people who are just good at understanding human relations in a nuanced way, who always seem to know what to do. How we develop this understanding of virtuous action leads us to the final pillar of Aztec ethics.

Recall that for the Aztecs, our lives are led on the slippery earth. Moral education, then, is not something that one completes in childhood or adolescence. Rather, it is something that’s needed throughout life. This is why even the king is admonished by the old, and the elderly admonish each other. The virtues, as a result, are sustained and retrained throughout life.

This training can occur in at least three ways. The first of these is a sort of moral education that parallels what happens in Plato’s Republic (books 3-4) or Aristotle’s Politics (book 8). In the third volume of the Florentine Codex, for example, there’s a detailed set of passages that address education among the young and adolescents. Early in life, up to about the age of six, children are taught at home by their parents, and are to be given a practical education as well as instruction on basic moral teachings. When the children go off to school, they’re divided into two groups: those who go to learn a specific trade or become warriors, and those who would go to learn the arts suitable to the noble courts, such as law, astronomy, history, philosophy and religious matters.

Of those students who pursued a ‘noble’ education, the development of virtues was a primary focus. The reasoning was that a greater level of virtue, especially of moderation, would be required if they ever became a lord. The students would thus have to get up very early in the morning to perform tasks, to gather items in thorn bushes, to sleep in the cold, and to go on fasts. All of these practices, and others, were set up to enable the students to practise and habituate to moderation in its various forms. Comparatively, one priest remarks, ‘the manner of life of the [other] youths was not very good’, since they were not held to the same standards of excellence.

After this schooling, virtues were fostered via rites that weren’t strictly religious – what might best be called social rituals. For example, when merchants were preparing to travel to another city, they made special preparations. An auspicious day would be selected by a day-sign reader, and the merchants would make a burnt offering to the appropriate divinities the night before. Then, on the dawn of the day of departure, they would ask the leaders of their neighbourhood to appear. Seated in a circle that reflected their stature, they would describe the details of their travel, and the leaders would respond with advice about the journey, contingency plans, and urge certain moral virtues so as not to offend others in foreign lands.

Rather than weigh all advice evenly, the Aztecs gave greater weight to those with most practical experience

While this was a ritualised matter, the practice allowed merchants to put their affairs in order before undertaking what was often a dangerous exercise. This risk explains why they wanted to make their peace with the divine and their community before venturing out. Yet the practice also provided a socially acceptable means to exchange relevant information about the journey, as well as urge certain virtues of character, including moderation and circumspection. It served, in short, as a sort of ‘refresher course’ in moral virtue.

Yet the groups themselves were arranged in ways that enabled the merchants to support each other. Mothers and fathers would arrange for their children to travel with others, reasoning that ‘perhaps, with their help, he will become prudent, mature, understanding’. The young, however, carried no heavy merchandise (the Aztecs did not have horses, and so carried much of the burden themselves). The most experienced would lead the group, the others would carry what was appropriate, and each encouraged the others so that they could remain moderate and circumspect.

Finally, the merchant ritual highlights something that has been implicit in my argument so far: namely that the excellence of practical reason or prudence (Greek: phronēsis) was not primarily a quality that individuals possessed. For Aristotle, for example, the phronimos is a rare person who could discern the right means of achieving ends. This explains why Aristotle thought that the best society was a monarchy that was ruled by a single and most wise man. The Aztecs, by contrast, thought that practical reason was best exercised in groups – and one finds evidence for this everywhere, from the merchant rites, to the choice of school for children, to the decisions of the king himself. Moreover, the Aztecs weren’t democratic about the matter. Rather than weigh all advice evenly, they gave greater weight in the deliberative process to those with the most practical experience (ixtlamatiliztli), who were often the elderly. This explains why the leader of the merchants asks the elderly men and women for advice, even though he is thought to be the principle trainer of the young.

Virtue is thus fostered socially among the Aztecs throughout life. This begins in one’s early childhood, continues through formal education, advances in one’s profession where one is ‘refreshed’ by one’s peers, and is sustained by social rituals. Even the assessment of ‘the middle way’ remains a collective rather than personal effort, since it was believed that practical wisdom worked best in groups that placed a high value on the opinions of the most experienced members. The Aztecs thought all this because they believed that we humans lead lives on the slippery earth (tlaticpac). The best guard we have against this eventuality, then, is each other.

Plato’s Republic ends with the myth of Er, a warrior who dies and returns to Earth to tell others about the afterlife. Like many of the myths in the Platonic corpus, this one expresses not something that Plato holds, but something for which we might hope. In Er’s transcendent experience, he sees that in the afterlife the virtuous are rewarded and the bad are punished for 1,000 years. After this term, they draw lots to determine how they will be reincarnated, and their choices are informed by the states of their character (that is, whether they are virtuous or vicious). Odysseus has bad luck and is given the last pick of lives, after everyone else has been able to go in front of him. Yet he chooses the same life he would have picked if he’d been given first choice. The Republic thus ends with a message: if you are virtuous, not only will you be rewarded in the afterlife, but above all, you can beat chance itself.

The Aztecs would never have written such a story. Plato, of course, is replacing the heroic warrior Achilles with the thinking man Odysseus. We saw above that the Aztecs would likely have preferred Hector – the supporting beam for the house of Troy, despite being on the losing side. But this preference suggests a stronger disagreement, since the Aztecs would have held that it is an error to think that virtue can save one from the vicissitudes of chance. No matter how virtuous you are, there’s always a possibility that a younger, more skilled, and more impetuous man with a sword will strike you down. And we ourselves are always prone to slipping up, despite our better upbringing. Wisdom in human affairs consists in the recognition that the best that we can do is to learn to stand with the help of others, to alter our circumstances for the better, and to clasp hands so that we can pull ourselves back up when we fall. This is the fundamental insight behind the social dimension of Aztec ethics. As challenging as it seems to ‘Western’ sensibilities, perhaps there’s enough that’s right about it to help us lead better, more worthwhile and rooted lives.

This Essay was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon magazine from Templeton Religion Trust. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton Religion Trust.

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