What does it take to lead a rooted life?
January 13, 2019 9:11 AM   Subscribe

"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." Life on the slippery Earth by Sebastian Purcell
posted by lazuli (20 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting! I just finished The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction, which is quite good, if you want to quickly get the basics of Aztec history, life, and religion/philosophy.
posted by bouvin at 10:26 AM on January 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


seems kind of like a straw man take on Aristotle's ethics
posted by thelonius at 10:30 AM on January 13, 2019 [9 favorites]


I really like this approach. I think you see it reflected in a lot of extended family-centric cultures from Indian to Chinese to Jewish to (interestingly, given the ancient philosiphy) Mediterranean European.

It's completely antithetical to US culture and values, which is entirely about individualism and nuclear families. I think it was one of the survivors of the Sikh Temple shooting that pointed out that Americans don't feel much connection to their neighbors, and he believed that this was a major reason people were able to psychologically break and commit mass violence against civilians. It's always stuck with me.

I really like how cleverly this article illustrates the myth of self-centered virtue.
Wicked cool.
posted by es_de_bah at 11:17 AM on January 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


Teamwork, as they say, makes the dream work.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:35 AM on January 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


I repeatedly felt while reading this that it might have originally been written as a discussion of the similarities between Aztec and Greek philosophy and culture but then some editor said “No, we get more clicks from contrast! And make the Aztecs more exotic!”

In particular:
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.
and then the author (edited by Sally Davies! Syndicate this Essay! Support Aeon Donate now!) refrains from mentioning the golden mean of Greek and other Old World philosophical traditions, despite actually using the phrase “mean or middle way” to characterize tlanepantla.

Similarity in philosophies would fit the similarity of circumstances... the Aztecs, after all, weren't a civilization that had achieved some stable sustainable social harmony and lived in balance with nature or anything like that, nor what Classical Greeks and their forbears would have called autochthonic: they were an expanding imperial power like the Hellenics of Aristotle's time, or even the preceding Greeks who had for almost a millenium been celebrating their colonial success in Asia Minor through endlessly retelling the Iliad and other tales of the prowess of the black-hulled ships of the Achaeans.
posted by XMLicious at 1:01 PM on January 13, 2019 [20 favorites]


I like the article. The one thing I'd take issue with is that perhaps focusing on whether one ethics or moral philosophy is "right" or not is... not the best approach, or even a very good approach when evaluating a totally distinct philosophical tradition.

Arguing whether the Greeks or Aztecs were more "right", in the sense of "objectively correct", seems like a fruitless argument. But there is really no reason to put them at odds with each other in some sort of intellectual Thunderdome.

What is of interest to me is whether a philosophy is useful; that is, does it tell us something or otherwise guide us in a way that's beneficial? Where "beneficial" is entirely dependent on what you think is going to produce happiness, rather than some objective standard.

When I was younger, I spent a bunch of time reading Aurelius and some of the other Stoics (and couldn't help but think that there are some similarities between the Stoics and the Aztec emphasis on moderation); it was informative then, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to someone at a similar stage of their life. But now its focus on individual self-improvement—rather than relationship-building—seems to fall a little flat for me, personally. It no longer seems to have the... potential that it did when I first encountered it. But that's not to say that it's "wrong" and some other philosophy is "right"; it's just less relevant, perhaps, to my current circumstances.

It's entirely possible that what happened to me on a micro scale might happen to an entire population on a macro scale, I suppose. Perhaps as a society we are starting to feel, consciously or unconsciously, the diminishing returns from individualist philosophies and starting to look for something else. And as a result, Aztec philosophy might have something to offer us, broadly. But I think framing it as discovering that one is more "right" than another is needlessly narrow.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:20 PM on January 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


...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.

Erm, isn’t that the gist of Stoicism, too? I don’t know, don’t ask me, let’s ask an expert on the topic...

It does seem like an interesting read (and I’m only halfway through it) but yeah it also gives me the impression they’re forcing some kind of contrast with Greek philosophy even where it doesn’t make sense (and does a wide comparison like that even make sense at all? not least because we’re talking completely different eras).
posted by bitteschoen at 1:23 PM on January 13, 2019 [5 favorites]


What person with even a slight familiarity with Aristotle especially could think he was "optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices", let alone too optimistic? Not only is a substantial section of the Nicomachean Ethics devoted to the kind of friendship characteristic of the virtuous, Aristotle is the (literal!) locus classicus for the importance of being brought up into good habits, precisely because of the weight he places on character and the formation of character: correcting that shit as an adult is a dicey proposition at best. You might even say that Aristotle believes that virtue is a quality that's fostered socially. (As for the "middle way" bit, XMLicious is already on it.)

And no one who says something like "pleasure or 'happiness'", just like that, should be relied on at all to be giving a good picture of Hellenic or Hellenistic philosophy.

People! You can just talk about Aztec ethics and conceptions of the good life. If you can't give an honest contrast with Greek (or some other non-Aztec) system of thought, don't give a dishonest one!
posted by kenko at 3:59 PM on January 13, 2019 [9 favorites]


Since the article is heavily based on James Maffie's work, interested readers might want to peruse his article on Aztec Philosophy . Very interested readers might want to pick up his book Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion.

The article does probably play up the difference between Nahua and Greek philosophies, but it's still fascinating to see how systems of moral philosophy literally separated by thousands of miles and years compare and contrast.
posted by Panjandrum at 3:59 PM on January 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's completely antithetical to US culture and values, which is entirely about individualism and nuclear families. I think it was one of the survivors of the Sikh Temple shooting that pointed out that Americans don't feel much connection to their neighbors, and he believed that this was a major reason people were able to psychologically break and commit mass violence against civilians. It's always stuck with me.

It's worth noting that the article is all about Aztec philosophy as recorded in their literature (or in Catholic post-conquest literature, after conversations with surviving Aztec tlamatinime), and you're comparing that with the real lived experience of a different society. Ancient Greece wasn't Plato's Republic, and the Aztec Empire was probably no more like the Florentine Codex.

It certainly wasn't a place where "mass violence against civilians" was unknown. Nor is that true of many other societies in the modern world that are more communualistic than the United States.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the article - but it's an article about how one society's literate elites chose to represent themselves and the society they led, first to themselves and then later to foreign conquerors against whose arrogance and condescension they had every reason to paint a defensively idealized portrait. Not necessarily about what happened on the ground, day-to-day.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:29 PM on January 13, 2019 [11 favorites]


As a neo-Aristotelian I agree that it's frustrating to see Aristotle misrepresented (he's not individualist, he sees humans as being social animals like bees, finding happiness only in relation with each other in a good society) but let's not get too derailed.

Aztek virtue ethics? Aztek dialogues? That's fascinating!

The emphasis on rites and rituals suggests that the most relevant comparison will be to Confucian virtue ethics, but I guess I'll need to find a copy of the Florentine Codex to know for sure.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:58 PM on January 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


XMLicious, what struck me about that passage was not that the statements were strange, but that the words were addressed by a woman to a girl. In Athens, what women were told was to "not to become worse than your innate nature, and hers is the great reputation whose fame, whether for excellence or blame, is spread least among the males."*

I was struck by the contrast between in qualli in yectli, "the good and the straight," and the Greek kalos k'agathos, "the good and the beautiful." I wonder whether the Aztecs found as much intrinsic meaning in physical beauty and symmetry as the Greeks did.

All in all, I enjoyed this article, but if it were up to me, I would have not used the words "slippery Earth" in a headline about Aztecs. What I immediately thought was, yeah, I bet it was mighty slippery.

-----
* This was from Pericles, who was devoted to the famously brilliant, beautiful Aspasia, a heteira (elite sex worker). Pericles's wife's name is not recorded.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:21 PM on January 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


I was led to believe that the elite Aztek warriors lounged about at an exclusive private club house at the top of the pyramids, where they drank bitter dark chocolate, and composed existential poetry about the meaningless of life.
posted by ovvl at 6:25 PM on January 13, 2019


erratum: hetaira, dang
posted by Countess Elena at 6:27 PM on January 13, 2019


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow, Book 6 of the General History of the Things of New Spain (i.e., the Florentine Codex) covers "rhetoric and moral philosophy."

Countess Elena, Nahuas absolutely placed a premium on physical beauty and connected physical flaws to moral failings. Sahagun literally records a page and a half list of ideal physical traits for the young man who would impersonate the good Tezcatlipoca for a year before his sacrifice. This included everything from unblemished skin to good teeth to being neither too tall nor too short.

Other writings also make a clear connection between moral and physical health. Pride in appearance was not mere vanity, but a way of showing the individual practiced discipline and self-control.

For the specific topic of moral expectations for girls, I wrote a bit about that on another website. See particularly the follow up response.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:35 PM on January 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


Panjandrum, those comments are fascinating. Thank you for sharing them!
posted by lazuli at 6:03 AM on January 14, 2019


Arguing whether the Greeks or Aztecs were more "right", in the sense of "objectively correct", seems like a fruitless argument. But there is really no reason to put them at odds with each other in some sort of intellectual Thunderdome.

What is of interest to me is whether a philosophy is useful; that is, does it tell us something or otherwise guide us in a way that's beneficial? Where "beneficial" is entirely dependent on what you think is going to produce happiness, rather than some objective standard.


I believe what you are arguing for here is functionally equivalent to utilitarianism: what is moral is what effectuates the greatest happiness. Utilitarianism then becomes the objectively right ethical system by definition.
posted by vorpal bunny at 6:36 AM on January 14, 2019


I realize it's early days, but I would like to nominate this for post of the month, if not the year. It reminds me (and don't take this as gushing) why I like finding interesting stuff on the MF: along with the interesting point, I tend to get at least two or three interesting viewpoints that riff on the original FPP. This conversation got me thinking about the metaphor of the "social fabric" - perhaps as soon as the social fabric, the interwoven network of interpersonal relationships that holds human nature together needs to be displayed or supported by ritual and instruction, that is already an indication that it is breaking down. Hence the appearance of those things in the temporally and spatially distant ethical discourses of two unstable empires. As long as the "social fabric" is strong enough, functional enough, there's little need to discuss it.
posted by holist at 1:11 PM on January 14, 2019


This post got me very interested in Aztec philosophy, particularly the stuff by James Maffie that Panjandrum commented about. I know little about philosophy, but reading the introductory text made me wonder, "how much of this is a construction of James Maffie's through a western perspective? Did the Aztecs conceive of philosophy as distinct thing?" It lead me to this interview with him that discusses the problems with western philosophers treating all non-western philosophy as not real philosophy. There's a view that non-western cultures can "have a philosophy," but no one there really "does a philosophy." Maffie rejects the notion that European philosophy is more real in the interview:
I submit Mexica and Anglo-European along with African, East and South Asian philosophies represent alternative philosophical orientations and trajectories rooted in alternative forms of life or ways of being human in the world. Mexica. East Asian, or African philosophy need not ape Anglo-European philosophy in order to count as ‘real’ philosophy. There is no law of reason, thought, or culture requiring that all peoples think alike or follow the same path of philosophical development. As John Dewey once remarked, “Seen in the long perspective of the future, the whole of western European philosophy is a provincial episode.” If we agree, and I think we should, then we must acknowledge the fact that the philosophical orientation, aims, questions, style of reasoning, and concepts of European philosophy are provincial.
While I don't "do philosophy" in the sense that I study it or know its terminology, of course my questions are rooted in western ways of thinking. Maybe they don't really make sense in the context of Aztec philosophy, but I guess asking them has led me to better understanding. I've started reading the texts Maffie bases his work on. I've started reading Corn is our blood : culture and ethnic identity in a contemporary Aztec Indian village which can be found on archive.org. It describes life in Amatlan (pseudonym), a Nahua village during the 1980s as observed long-term by Alan R. Sandstrom.

I'm also looking at the parts of English translation of General history of the things of New Spain that the Hathi Trust has available. Unfortunately, book 6 isn't available there. The world library has digital scans of an original copy from the period. I'm of Filipino/Mexican heritage. Seeing the Spanish and Nahuatl side by side made the conquest a lot more real.
posted by Mister Cheese at 10:18 AM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


Correction for my comment above: Corn is our blood comes from 1970s observation.
posted by Mister Cheese at 10:17 PM on January 24, 2019


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