How the structure of Aztec thought and religion underpinned human sacrifice and warfare
This was deeply fascinating. Bravo.
What kept striking me throughout was the similarity between Aztec metaphysics, which conceptualize the world as energy and motion with no moral dimension, and contemporary physics which at the most basic level shares this outlook on the world. That such a subtle and sophisticated worldview could spiral off into institutionalized ritual torture and mass human sacrifice is a cautionary example of what can happen when the conception of fundamental reality is separated from morality. As indeed we see unfolding around us in our own world in its own way.
An interesting aspect of this, which can be highlighted via comparative study, is how Aztec metaphysics affected Aztec warfare. European warfare generally aimed to kill enemies on the battlefield in order to force submission and thereby take territory or achieve other political ends. Aztec warfare by contrast was aimed primarily at taking captives for torture and sacrifice. This proved to be an advantage to the conquistadores, who faced opponents who were not accustomed to battlefield slaughter, and who were therefore using tactics optimized for capture rather than killing. It's an interesting example that, contra Clausewitz, warfare is not the extension of politics, but the extension of culture; warfare as a primarily political tool is rather a reflection of European culture.
Impressive synthesis. Will take me another reading to complete. Thank you very much for doing this.
I'd never thought about non-newtonian (maybe non-western is more accurate) philosophical conceptions of motion. Though it's obvious in retrospect, your framing of Aztec philosophy has cracked my brain a bit, in a good way. Realised how much of my perception is constrained by western schema. The basic building blocks of how I make sense of things. Something about meso-american culture seems especially alien to my priors. Going to sit and think about some of these implications. Opened up new avenues for thought.
Incredible work. I’ve been wondering about Aztec philosophy/theology for some time now, and I’m glad to have this essay as both an introduction and a reference for which sources to read once I fond the time.
As a small point, however, I’m fascinating by the apparent similarities between Nahau ‘teotl’ and Schopenhauer’s ‘will’. Obviously, Schopenhauer is influenced more by questionable translations of Zen Buddhism than by any New World philosophy, and thus his concept of will as a the animating force of reality carries the same baggage of mind-over-body as those traditions, as well as of Western/Christian dualism. However, when Schopenhauer’s ideas are to some extent taken up by Nietzsche, Nietzsche affirms the universality of will while decrying the over-emphasis of the mind. For Nietzsche, philosophy is about the body, and all of society is about power. He too, has a deeply anxious and unstable view of the future.
Perhaps, given Nietzsche’s self-title as the “the antiChrist,” the horror of Europeans at Aztec society becomes more apparent. There does seem to be a sense in which this philosophy is more diametrically opposed to Christian teachings than any philosophy or religion of the Old World.
Fascinating. When the word hierarchal appeared in the essay I immediately thought those at the top produced the system to keep their humans in line, serving them, in siphoning the surplus of nature. Being an enemy of those in power, or someone within who wouldn't comply, would be sacrificed as a show of force. Anyone seeing and understanding their position in the hierarchy would be drawn closer into the hierarchal net for less risk.
Might even be an element of those at the top understood carrying capacity with these schemes lowering the population.
Nothing new here, people fighting to be at the top, and staying there even to risk total collapse of their system. Everything moves except them, until their system collapses because of them! Hahahaha!
Fascinating stuff. Some of your bibliography has been on my “to read” list for a while and I will move them up. Clearly such a complex belief system as you describe didn't just fall out of the sky but evolved, my guess is probably in tandem with the process of human sacrifice, both providing justification for it and creating demand for further sacrifices, and it would be interesting to be able to trace it backwards but I don't know if that's possible without a large corpus of literature to examine. If you do your piece on animism, do you plan to include Shinto? I would be interested in seeing that.
Energy, frequency, consciousness - same thing.
And the concepts are akin to the etymological definition of Sin - an archery term for 'missing the mark'or being off-balance, out of sync, disordered.
And any reading of mythology makes it clear that at source, these stories and beliefs are human and not the specific of any culture or people.
A fascinating article. Many thanks.
Teotl is almost identical to Schopenhauer's notion of will - a blind, purposeless, striving, which lies noumenally behind all the phenomena of the world.
It would be interesting if you commented on how accurate the events in Gary Jennings’s historical novel “Aztec” might have been.
I wonder whether the alienness commenters here attribute to Aztec thought relates to the very reluctant acceptance of evolutionary theory in the West - an acceptance even today characterized by numerous misunderstandings. (For example "survival of the fittest" does not mean strongest, nor is survival per se what is selected; rather alleles which are a good fit for their environment survive and spread.)
Deep down, ordinary Westerners think of a McDonalds as artificial, but a beehive as natural. They allow killing in the animal kingdom or in wartime but agonize about abortion and the death penalty. They struggle philosophically to find the source of human rights, to choose between moral systems, or to reconcile political platforms of all kinds - Libertarianism, Meritocracy, Democracy, Equity, and so forth - with the basic fact that they all began life as children and must produce children for their society to continue. This is a mode of existence I understand well; even atheists seem somehow caught up in its stickiness.
But since becoming an evolutionist some decades ago I found my entire worldview radically shifting. At first my understanding of a dualistic universe filled with categories, judgment, and intelligence as the source of order, shifted into a worldview characterized by attention to variation and situation, where a surprising richness of complexity arises spontaneously, without regard to human appraisal of its seemingly opposite qualities: Flowers, maggots, dolphins, altriusm, parasitism, sight, pain, consciousness - all things flowing from a single, unitary Mother whose Divine Essence is Mutation and Selection.
Great and enriching read. Thank you!
How similar was teol to the Egyptian concept of maat?
Your essay inspired me to post on my Substack a revised version of a paper on the social utility of ritual I presented to the Melbourne University Medieval Roundtable. The paper discusses the dynamics of ritual in general and why mass human sacrifice was such a feature of Mesoamerican urban civilisation and how ritual was used to enable the eating of other humans in way that, far from corroding the social order, helped support it. https://lorenzofromoz.substack.com/p/why-ritual?sd=pf