J. Kelly Robison
Leòn-Portilla, Miguel. Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind. Translated by Jack Emory Davis. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
In this ambitious work, Leòn-Portilla endeavors to ascertain the existence of a class of philosophers in Aztec society. If philosophy, and not merely religion, was present in Nahuatl culture, what did these philosophers attempt to accomplish? Through a study of Nahuatl texts and post-Conquest records, Leòn-Portilla examines the manifestations of rational thought and inquiry in Mexico prior to the Conquest.
The Nahuatls developed a philosopher class that differed in purpose from the more rigidly religious objectives of the priestly class. These men, akin in style and intentions to the early poet-philosophers of Greece, probed the most profound questions of the human existence. The tlamatinime, as they were called, recognized no difference between "the formal objectives of philosophy,"(xxiii) religion, scientific knowledge, or art. These men thought more deeply about life and the universe than the common people and questioned what was for the commoner truth handed down from generation through generation by the priests in the form of myths and legends.
Leòn-Portilla bases his investigations and conclusions on detailed examinations of the records left by the early missionaries to the newly conquered territories of Mexico and on an in-depth analysis of the surviving Nahuatl texts, including poetry. In these accounts, he finds evidence of a deeply philosophical people. But these men, the tlamatinime, differed from the warrior class or the common people in that they sought to "discover the meaning of life on an intellectual plane."(177) The warriors were content to accept traditional religious dogma and use it as the basis for expansion, while the commoners simply accepted it.
The tlamatinime, or wise men, first studied the codices and legends and attempted to interpret them. But their studies produced questions as to the meaning of life and the universe. The wise men first perceived that life was fleeting and fragile, dream-like. If this was so, then the question arose of whether anything was worth doing. A second question arose as well, can there be Truth if life is dream-life? The reason for man's existence or purpose deeply troubled the tlamatinime.
The wise men recognized the differences between concepts based on magic and superstition and those based on observation and experience. But, if everything on earth was temporary, then truth cannot be found here. Truth must be found somewhere beyond the earthly domain, in those regions where the gods live. But how to get to these regions remained a problem.
Some of the wise men declared that since higher truth cannot be found, one must live life to the fullest and enjoy the time one has one earth. Others did not despair so easily. Intuition became the key to truth for these men. Occasionally, one will pronounce the Truth through the medium of poetry and the arts. This inspiration could allow men to glimpse the truth, reveal the universe, however briefly, and let him express that truth through the arts and, especially, poetry.
Ometèotl, the dual god, was the "supreme metaphor." He was the supreme creator, the cause and effect, and gave men the ability to see beyond the natural world. Along the path of the arts, given to men by Ometèotl, men could find truth. The wise men meditated, thought. They contemplated the heavens and the earth seeking knowledge. They admired and wrought paintings, sculpture and poetry. Each of these endeavors was a meaning and an end. Through the arts the wise men could find truth and they expressed truth through the arts.
Thus "Nahuatl philosophic thought...revolved about an aesthetic conception of the universe and life, for art 'made things divine,' and only the divine was true."(182) The wise men based their way of life upon this world view thay they could still not precisely explain. The tlamatinime contemplated, wrote, wrought and observed, unlike their brethren who thought little about the deeper meanings of life.
Leòn-Portilla reveals a deep knowledge and understanding of the pre-Conquest Nahuatl mind and philosophical thought in this book. His work is ambitious in that it seeks to explain some of the most intangible elements of the human existence using only sources provided by the conquerors of the Aztecs and the remaining poems of the conquered people. From these few fragments, the author pieces together the world view of a segment of a vanished civilization.
The author's writing is eloquent yet understandable. He uses translations of the original texts liberally to illustrate his contentions, thereby providing a balanced, well-documented work whose thesis could be arrived at by others through the use of the texts supplied.
Organization is the one problem with the work. However, this weakness is outweighed by the work's strengths. Although Leòn-Portilla does divide the work into chapters based, for the most part, on the theoretical constructions of the tlamatinime, he could have done a better job of it.