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Aristotle and the Aztecs on Virtue and Happiness
A curious feature about the Aztec language, Nahuatl, is that it has no word for "to be." Neither is this notion implied in the language's syntax. Despite this, the Aztecs did hold to a form of relational metaphysics. The article develops three central features of that metaphysics, and uses Aristotle's substance ontology both as a foil and to test the rational coherence of the Aztec view. It is argued that while initially counter-intuitive for "Westerners," the Aztec view at least enjoys prima facie coherence.
It is a common feature of our lives that we search for apt expression in our actions and thoughts. We say of an outfit that it has too little color, and so is overly somber for an occasion. Or we might remark that a translation is stiff, rendered with too much formality. Of course, what holds in our practical lives generally holds in our ethical lives especially. We wonder whether we have given too little to charity, or whether our criticism of another's action has been too strong. It is this sort of aptness that we can recognize as common to our practical and moral lives. A notable feature about the ethics of the Confucian tradition and the Aztec tlamatinimê (philosophers) is that this concern for aptness plays a capital role. Because it is apt expression that is neither too little nor too much which is at stake, both traditions used a metaphor to express their thoughts on the topic; they called it the "mean" (zhong), or "middle" way (tlanepantla). As the Florentine Codex (6, 231) says: "The mean-good is required". 1 Or, as is written in the Analects 6:29: "Supreme indeed is the mean as virtue". 2 Given the centrality of mean or middling expressions in our lives, and the prominence of the concept in these two ethical traditions, the purpose of this chapter is to take a first step toward a comparative philosophic dialogue on the mean. 3 Ultimately, the Confucian tradition and the Aztec tlamatinimê understand the mean to have three central features that make it ethically significant. First, both take the mean to be a way of conduct that enables an agent to lead the good life. Second, they both maintain that one must distinguish the mean as a sort of state or disposition "internal" to the agent from the realization of that disposition "external" to the agent in real circumstances. Finally, both hold that practical wisdom plays the role of discerning what was in fact the "middle" for a situation, though they differ at this point on the structure of the relation. Given the complexity of the discussion, I begin with a brief review of the good life for both traditions and its relation to virtue.
This article forwards the view that Aztec philosophers, like Aristotle, held to a conception of the good life, and that this good life was achieved by way of enacting virtues of character. Their conception, which they called neltiliztli, or the rooted life, nevertheless differed from Aristotle's eudaimonia insofar as they did not think it to be logically related to pleasure. The comparison thus reveals two different forms of virtue ethics are at work in their thought, and that the Aztec view looks initially more plausible.