Excerpt…When I teach my class, the only thing students tend to know about the Aztecs is that they engaged in human sacrifice. But before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Aztecs had a philosophically rich culture, with people they called ‘philosophers’, and their specious counterparts the ‘sophists’. We have volumes and volumes of Aztec thought recorded by Christian clergymen in codices. Some of the philosophic work is in poetic form, some is presented as a series of exhortations and some, even, in dialogue form.
These points invite comparisons with the philosophers of classical Greek antiquity, especially Plato and Aristotle. These men argued that happiness comes naturally when we cultivate qualities such as self-discipline or courage. Of course, different things make different people happy. But Aristotle believed that the universality of ‘reason’ was the key to a sort of objective definition of happiness, when it was supported by the virtues of our character.
Like the Greeks, the Aztecs were interested in how to lead a good life. But unlike Aristotle, they did not start with the human ability to reason. Rather, they looked outward, to our circumstances on Earth.
Sebastian Purcell is assistant professor of philosophy at SUNY-Cortland in New York, where he researches history, social conditions, globalisation, concepts of justice, and Latin American philosophy.