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. The Aztecs had a saying: ‘The earth is slippery, slick,’ which was as common to them as a contemporary aphorism such as ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ is to us What they meant is that the Earth is a place where humans are prone to error, where our plans are likely to fail, and friendships are often betrayed. Good things only come mingled with something undesired.
Is this all sounding a little bleak? Perhaps. But most of us can recognise some disagreeable truths. What the Aztec philosophers really wanted to know was: how is one supposed to live, given that pain and transience are inescapable features of our condition?
The answer is that we should strive to lead a rooted, or worthwhile life. The word the Aztecs used is neltiliztli. It literally means ‘rootedness’, but also ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ more broadly. They believed that the true life was the good one, the highest humans could aim for in our deliberate actions. This resonates with the views of their classical ‘Western’ counterparts, but diverges on two other fronts. First, the Aztecs held that this sort of life would not lead to ‘happiness’, except by luck. Second, the rooted life had to be achieved at four separate levels, a more encompassing method than that of the Greeks.
The first level concerns character. Most basically, rootedness begins with one’s body – something often overlooked in the European tradition, preoccupied as it is with reason and the mind. The Aztecs grounded themselves in the body with a regimen of daily exercises, somewhat like yoga (we have recovered figurines of the various postures, some of which are surprisingly similar to yoga poses such as the lotus position).
Next, we are to be rooted in our psyches. The aim was to achieve a sort of balance between our ‘heart’, the seat of our desire, and our ‘face’, the seat of judgment. The virtuous qualities of character made this balancing possible.
At a third level, one found rootedness in the community, by playing a social role. These social expectations connect us to each other and enabled the community to function. When you think about it, most obligations are the result of these roles. Today, we try to be good mechanics, lawyers, entrepreneurs, political activists, fathers, mothers and so on. For the Aztecs, such roles were connected to a calendar of festivals, with shadings of denial and excess akin to Lent and Mardi Gras. These rites were a form of moral education, training or habituating people to the virtues needed to lead a rooted life.
Finally, one was to seek rootedness in teotl, the divine and single being of existence. The Aztecs believed that ‘god’ was simply nature, an entity of both genders whose presence was manifest in different forms. Rootedness in teotl was mostly achieved obliquely, via the three levels above. But a few select activities, such as the composition of philosophic poetry, offered a more direct connection.
A life led in this way would harmonise body, mind, social purpose and wonder at nature. Such a life, for the Aztecs, amounted to a kind of careful dance, one that took account of the treacherous terrain of the slippery earth, and in which pleasure was little more than an incidental feature. This vision stands in sharp relief to the Greeks’ idea of happiness, where reason and pleasure are intrinsic to the best performance of our life’s act on the world’s stage. Aztec philosophy encourages us to question this received ‘Western’ wisdom about the good life – and to seriously consider the sobering notion that doing something worthwhile is more important than enjoying it.”