Philosophy 45 - 3.1.4 Mesoamerican Philosophy

Mesoamerican peoples include an array of tribes and cultures, speaking multiple languages, that developed several sophisticated civilizations between 2000 BCE and the arrival of European colonialists in the 1500s CE. This area of the world developed both pictographic/hieroglyphic and alphabetic/phonetic forms of writing that allowed them to record thoughts and ideas, providing modern scholars access to some of the philosophical reflection that occurred within these societies. This section will examine some examples of the thought of Mesoamerican peoples by looking at the preserved writings of the Maya and the Aztec. Though the philosophical thought of each civilization is examined as if it were uniform, note that each encompassed many diverse tribes and cultures with a variety of languages, cultural practices, and religious beliefs.

Map depicting the ranges of the Maya Civilization, circa 900 CE, and the Aztec Empire, circa 1521 CE. The Maya Civilization occupies the entirety of the Yucatán Peninsula in Central America, and includes the cities Copan, Tikal, Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. The Aztec Empire occupies a portion of Central America north of the Yucatan Peninsula, and includes the cities Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan, as well as Lake Texcoco. The two ranges cover approximately equal areas.
Figure 3.4 The Maya and Aztec were powerful civilizations for centuries. The existence of written records from each of these peoples has given contemporary scholars access to their philosophy, spirituality, and scientific advances. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Mayan Writings

The Maya first settled in villages in the area that runs from southern Mexico through Guatemala and northern Belize around 1500 BCE. Between 750 and 500 BCE, large city-states arose and established a trading network. At the height of their civilization, between approximately 250 CE and 900 CE, the Maya possessed a written language that appears to have been a combination of an alphabetic/phonetic language and a pictographic/hieroglyphic language, used not only by the priesthood but also by the urban elite. This writing appears on stone slabs, pottery, and sculptures as well as in books called codices (plural of codex), written on a paper made from tree bark.

The Maya possessed advanced knowledge of mathematics and natural philosophy. However, following the Spanish conquest of this territory, Catholic priests burned almost all of the Maya codices as well as their scientific and technical manuals (Yucatan Times 2019). In the years that followed the conquest, the Maya lost their written language. However, some writings in clay did survive, providing scholars a glimpse into Maya thought. They implemented a numerical system using symbols that allowed for representation of very large numbers, and they may have been the first to use the number 0 in mathematics. This numerical system enabled the Maya to gain insights into arithmetic and geometry that surpassed those of the Egyptians. Their knowledge of astronomy was so advanced that they could correctly predict the timing of solar eclipses. Unlike other early civilizations, the Maya had a highly sophisticated calendar and a unique conception of time.

Four panels of hieroglyphs and images drawn using inks of various colors. The text and illustrations on each panel are divided into two roughly equal sections. The illustrations feature both human and animals figures.
Figure 3.5 This piece of Mayan writing, known as the Dresden Codex because it was found in the city of Dresden, Germany, in the 1700s, is one of the oldest known examples of writing from the Americas. It has been dated to the 11th or 12th century. (credit: “Dresden Codex” by Chris Protopapas/Flickr, Public Domain)

Maya Calendar

The Maya developed a calendar that tracked many cycles simultaneously, including the solar year and the “calendar round,” a period of 52 years. The calendar played a central role in Maya rituals and sacred celebrations. Astronomical events, in particular the position of Venus relative to the sun and moon, have been noted to align with the dates of historical battles, causing some to hypothesize that the Maya may have scheduled battles to coincide with these cycles. The Maya placed great importance on customs and rituals surrounding the solar calendar. Using these calendars, the Maya were able to record complex histories of their civilization.

Maya Concept of Time and Divinity

The Maya had a complex understanding of time. They recognized an experiential or existential aspect of time—for instance, observing that disinterest or concentration can elongate or shorten time. The experience of “awe” was considered particularly important because of its ability to bring a person into the present moment, increasing their awareness of the immediate effect of fundamental forces such as the energy of the sun and making them more capable of clear thinking, decision-making, and understanding.

Although the Maya worshipped an array of gods, they believed in a single godlike force, the sun’s force or energy, called K’in. This force was understood in terms of the position of the sun relative to the planets and the moon during different periods of the calendar. The king served as a conduit through which this divine force, the solar energy, passed to subjects. The Maya also believed that time is the expression of K’in. The ability of rulers and priests to predict natural events, such as an eclipse or the coming of spring, and thus seemingly to control time served to secure the allegiance of their subjects and legitimized their rule.

Aztec Metaphysical Thought

For the Aztecs, the fundamental and total character of the universe was captured by the concept of teotl, a godlike force or energy that is the basis for all reality. They considered this energy to be a sacred source fueling all life, actions, and desires as well as the motion and power of inanimate objects. In this sense, Aztec metaphysics adopted a view of the world that was pantheistic and monist, meaning that it viewed all reality as composed of a single kind of thing and that thing was divine in nature. However, teotl is not an agent or moral force, like the Abrahamic God, but rather a power or energy that is entirely amoral.

Teotl is not a static substance but a process through which nature unfolds. It changes continually and develops through time toward an endpoint or goal, a view that philosophers call teleological. For the Aztecs, time was not linear but rather cyclical. Thus, even though teotl tends toward an end point and there is an end of humanity and Earth as we know it, from the point of view of the universe, this is part of a cycle, just like leaves fall from trees before winter. Moreover, because teotl is both the matter from which everything in the universe is made and the force by which things are created, change, and move, it is an all-encompassing, dynamic, and immanent force within nature (Maffie 2013).

Teotl has three different shapes, aspects, or manifestations, each with different characteristics, including different motions, powers, and goals. These three aspects of teotl have been assigned metaphorical positions related to weaving, aligning an important cultural practice of the Aztecs with their conception of fundamental reality.

Aztec Epistemological Thought

Philosophers use the term epistemology to refer to the study of knowledge involving questions such as how we know what we know, what is the nature of true knowledge, and what are the limits to what humans can know. Aztec epistemology understood the concept of knowledge and truth as “well-rootedness.” To say that someone knows or understands the truth is to say that they are well-grounded or stably founded in reality. The Aztecs understood truth not in reference to some belief or proposition of reality but as a property of one’s character when one is well-grounded. Being well-grounded means understanding the ways reality presents itself and being capable of acting according to what reality dictates. Being well-rooted in reality allows one to grow and develop, following the metaphor of a plant that is able to thrive because of its well-rootedness in the soil. This concept has both an epistemological aspect (relating to knowledge) and an ethical aspect (providing the means by which people may flourish).

In Aztec culture, rooting oneself in the constantly changing and growing power of teotl was considered necessary because existence on Earth was considered to be “slippery,” meaning that it is part of a process of cyclic change that is constantly evolving. The fundamental question for human beings is, How does one maintain balance on the slippery earth? This question motivates the need to develop the type of character that allows one to remain well-rooted and to find stability and balance, given the shifting and changing nature of Earth.

Read Like a Philosopher

In the short article “What the Aztecs Can Teach Us about Happiness and the Good Life”, Sebastian Purcell outlines an Aztec approach to virtue and the good life grounded in the Aztec folk wisdom that “the earth is slippery, slick.” In response to this state of affairs, Aztec thinkers advocated for living a well-rooted life. What does it mean to say that “the earth is slippery”? Do you think this is accurate? What does it mean to live a well-rooted life? What are the levels of well-rootedness? How might well-rootedness facilitate happiness and a good life? Do you think that this accurately describes the way one might achieve happiness? What is missing?

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax