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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.
Hispanic/Latino Issues
in Philosophy
NEWSLETTER | The American Philosophical Association
Carlos Alberto Sánchez
José-Antonio Orosco
The Solace of Mexican Philosophy in the Age of Trump
Susana Nuccetelli
Repealing Obamacare: An Injustice to Hispanics
José Jorge Mendoza
Latinx and the Future of Whiteness in American Democracy
L. Sebastian Purcell
Winner, APA Prize in Latin American Thought: Eudaimonia and Neltiliztli: Aristotle
and the Aztecs on the Good Life
Manuel Bolom Pale, edited and translated by Carlos Alberto Sánchez
Tsotsil Epistemology: An Intangible Inheritance
Mario Teodoro Ramírez, translated by Carlos Alberto Sánchez
Luis Villoro: Universal Mexican Philosopher
Django Runyan
In Search of the Philosophical Impulse: Zea and the Greeks
The result was that by 1950, American whiteness was no
longer what it had been in 1850. If whiteness had not
undergone this change, America would have already
been considered a minority-majority country. In fact, this
is what gets covered over in the assimilationist claim that
America has always been a “nation of immigrants.” A claim
that for most of its history was, in fact, used as a derisive
slur about oncoming demographic changes.15 The fact is
that American whiteness changed and while this change
had dramatic effects that reshuffled the electoral map, the
basic structure of American democracy—where a sizable
majority of the white majority was sufficient to carry the
day—remained the same. In a way, Latinx might today be
playing a similar role as Southern and Eastern Europeans
did in the early part of the twentieth century. Even as their
continued migration is currently decried, thirty years from
now certain segments of the Latinx population might
seamlessly come to be seen as just another part of the
white melting pot.
In short, it’s not clear that changing demographics alone
will be enough to sever the link between white supremacy
and American democracy. White supremacy has shown that
it is not only willing to resort to the elimination and isolation
of nonwhites, but that it is also willing to expand and recruit
from certain segments of the non-white population if that
is what is necessary for it to maintain its dominant position.
By doing so it will ensure that political decisions continue
to be made by a significant majority of the majority and,
even more troubling, that dog-whistle politics will remain
an effective political tool for the foreseeable future.
1. Pew Research Center, “Projected U.S. Population by Race and
Hispanic Origin, 2015–2065, with and without Immigrants
Entering 2015–2065” September 24, 2015, accessed December
26, 2016,
2. See, for example, Linda Martín Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness
(Malden, MA: Polity, 2015).
3. Jens Manuel Krogstad and Antonio Flores, “Unlike Other Latinos,
About Half of Cuban Voters in Florida Backed Trump,” Pew Research
Center, November 16, 2015, accessed December 26, 2016, http://
4. Ian Haney López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals
Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (New
York: Oxford University Press; 2014).
5. Quoted in Andrew Rosenthal, “Lee Atwater’s ‘Southern
Strategy’ Interview” New York Times, November 14, 2012,
accessed November 25, 2016, http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.
6. For example, see Ann Coulter, Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to
Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole (Washington, DC:
Regnery Publishing, 2015).
7. For example, see Peter Beinart, “The Republican Party’s White
Strategy: Embracing White Nativism in the 1990s Turned the
California GOP into a Permanent Minority. The Same Story May
Now Be Repeating Itself Nationally,” The Atlantic July/August
2016, accessed December 26, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.
8. For example, see Ellen Carmichael, “Minority Outreach: The
GOP Must Do Better,” National Review, February 10, 2016,
accessed January 19, 2017,
9. As an aside, there are disturbingly few philosophers who take
the work of Derrick Bell as seriously as it deserves to be taken up.
One notable exception is Tommy J. Curry. See Tommy J. Curry,
“Saved By the Bell: Derrick Bell’s Racial Realism as Pedagogy,”
Ohio Valley Philosophical Studies in Education 39 (2008): 35–46;
and “From Rousseau’s Theory of Natural Equality to Firmin’s
Resistance to the Historical Inequality of Races,” CLR James
Journal 15, no. 1 (2009): 135–63.
10. Derrick Bell, “The Space Traders,” in Faces at the Bottom of the
Well: The Permanence of Racism, 158–200 (New York: Basic
Books, 1993).
11. For example, see Alexia Fernández Campbell, “One Reason the
Rust Belt Turned Red: A Republican-Led Battle to Weaken Labor
Unions May Have Helped Trump Win in Several Democratic
Bastions in the Midwest,” The Atlantic, November 14, 2016,
accessed January 19, 2017,
12. For a satirical parallel, see George Samuel Schuyler, Black No
More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings
of Science in the Land of the Free, A. D. 1933–1940 (New York:
The Macaulay Company, 1931).
13. Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race: The Racial Basis of
European History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922).
14. Khaled A. Beydoun, “Boxed In: Reclassification of Arab Americans
on the U.S. Census as Progress or Peril?” Loyola University
Chicago Law Journal 47, no. 693 (2016): 706–08.
15. See Donna R. Gabaccia, “Nations of Immigrants: Do Words
Matter?” The Pluralist 5, no. 3 (2010): 5–31.
Eudaimonia and Neltiliztli: Aristotle and
the Aztecs on the Good Life1
L. Sebastian Purcell
How shall we live? What sort of life would it be best to
lead? Does that life entail obligations to other people? If
so, which? These, briefly, are the questions at the heart of
ethical philosophy. The first two, concerning the best sort of
life, address the topic of the good. The latter, concerning our
obligations to others, address the right. Among many of the
philosophers of classical Greek antiquity, including Plato and
Aristotle, questions concerning the good were understood
to be conceptually prior to those of the right. They held, in
short, that one needed to know what kind of life one sought
to lead before one could raise questions about what sorts
of obligations followed. The best life, they maintained, was
the happy or flourishing one—a life of eudaimonia.2 They
considered, moreover, the skillful leading of such a life to be
a virtuous one, and that is why this form of ethics has been
called a eudaemonist virtue ethics.
What the present essay argues is that the pre-Columbian
Aztecs, or more properly the Nahuas, the people who spoke
Nahuatl in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, held a view about
ethical philosophy that is similar to Aristotle’s. They held to
a conception of the good life, which they called neltiliztli,
and they maintained that understanding its character was
conceptually prior to questions about rightness. What this
thesis suggests is that they also held to a form of virtue
ethics, though one different from the eudaemonist sort
that Aristotle and Plato championed. Since neltiliztli means
rootedness, one might call it a rooted virtue ethics.
One consequence of this thesis is that it articulates an
alternative understanding of the good life which, while
similar to Aristotle’s eudaimonia in the way it guides our
thinking about right action, raises a new problem for ethical
philosophy: Just how closely linked is pleasure (hēdonē) to
the good life? There is a similarity here with the fundamental
ethical problem of classical antiquity, which asked whether
virtue was sufficient for happiness (eudaimonia). Yet the
focus of the present problem centers not on virtue’s relation
to the good life, but on just what counts as a good life in
the first place. Can one really have a conception of the good
life that does not have any internal relation to elevated or
positive emotional states (hēdonē)? The Nahuas would have
us believe that we can and must, at least for any life led on
what they called our “slippery” earth.
A second consequence is that this essay makes some strides
in filling a gap in comparative philosophy. The Nahuas are
finally beginning to receive philosophic attention among
Anglophone scholars, but this work has so far tended to
focus on their metaphysical views.3 This is generally true
even among Spanish-speaking scholars, who have been
better in addressing the Nahuas philosophically.4 The
present essay, then, moves some direction in developing
our understanding of Nahua philosophy by articulating their
conception of the good life.5 Since the matter at hand is
rather complicated, I begin with the features of eudaimonia
and neltiliztli as the highest end.
There are two key features of the good life which have
a reasonable parallel in Aztec and Aristotelian thought,
namely, that the good life is the highest end of action, and
that this highest end may be spelled out by its relation to
the human condition. On this last point, however, Aristotle
differs somewhat from the Aztec approach since he relates
eudaimonia to the human function (ergon), while the Aztecs
draw their reasoning from a wider characterization of what
life is like on our earth, on what they called tlalticpac.
Aristotle begins the Nicomachean Ethics (N.E.) rather (in)
famously by making a case for the good as the highest or
ultimate aim of our actions as follows:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly, every
action [praxis] and every decision [proairēsis] is
thought to aim at some good; hence men have
expressed themselves well in declaring the good
to be that at which all things aim. But there appears
to be a difference among the ends; for some are
activities, others are products apart from [the
activities which produce] them.6
The quality of the reasoning at stake in this passage has
been the source of scholarly controversy. Just because
every inquiry, action, and decision aim at some good, it
does not follow that the good is that at which all things
aim. This would be a little like arguing that all roads lead
somewhere, so all roads lead to the same place. Piecing
together what Aristotle intended, then, has occupied
scholars for some time.
With respect to the controversy, briefly, it seems that two
points clarify what Aristotle had in mind. First, recall that
Aristotle’s method for ethics is to find “a view [that] will
be most in harmony with the phenomena.”7 To do this, he
begins from a piece of reputable wisdom, an endoxa,8 and
then proceeds to tease through possible implications to
arrive at a better statement.9 In this case the endoxa is the
statement: “hence men have expressed themselves well
in declaring the good to be that at which all things aim.”
What the rest of the passage is meant to do, even if it is
not fully complete, is to bridge the gap between the first
observation, as a premise, and the endoxa, as a conclusion.
In brief, the argument he develops runs thus:
[1] If the goods of each (inquiry, action, etc.) are
hierarchically ordered (and they are),
[2] And if goods do not go on to infinity (which would
be absurd),
[3] Then there is a highest good.
The conclusion, [3], is the highest good at which “all” things
aim in the opening line.10
Since Aristotle, a little later, identifies the highest good with
eudaimonia, what the opening argument suggests is that
the good life is that sense of happiness that emerges when
one considers one’s life as a whole, when one considers
the ordered relation among one’s goals and hierarchizes
them.11 While a variety of commentators have noted that
Aristotle does not quite complete this argument in the
opening passages of the N.E., they tend to agree that this
is the sort of argument he intends to make.12 If that is so,
the real difficulty is not the quality of the inference from
the premises to the conclusion but the soundness of [1]. It
is not clear that all of our goods are hierarchically ordered.
Aristotle makes his argument by analogy to the sciences,
and while it is true that they may be hierarchized, individual
human aims often are not. Aristotle even acknowledges this
much in accounting for the different sorts of pleasures that
are sought.13 It turns out, then, that some sort of skill will
be necessary to manage this relation—and this, in brief,
is the purpose of the virtues: those excellent qualities of
character than enable a person to live her life well.
Still, there is disagreement concerning just what that
highest end should be, and in the first book of the N.E.,
Aristotle proposes to settle the matter by appealing to the
proper activity or function (ergon) of human beings. He
If, indeed, the function of humans is the soul’s
performance according to reason, or not without
reason, and if we acknowledge that the function
of an individual is also that of a good individual
in a generic way, just as is the case with a lyre
player and a good lyre player, and so on for all the
others without qualification . . . if it is thus, then
the human good would be the soul’s performance
according to virtue, and if there are many virtues,
according to the best and most complete.14
Given the way that Aristotle loads in premises to his
argument, mostly here marked by ellipses, it is not
surprising that the grounds for his claim have also been
the subject of some rather intense philosophic scrutiny.
The core of his reasoning, without addressing much of the
metaphysical backdrop behind it, appears to turn on the
thesis that to be is to be good. Expressed differently, he
holds that to be a thing of a certain kind, say a lyre player
or a bicycle, or whatever else, is to be a good lyre player,
or a good bicycle, or a good anything else.15 For example,
if my bicycle were to be damaged, so that its wheel were
bent slightly, it would ride poorly. As a result, it would be
a worse bicycle. If the bicycle were to lose its chain, then
it would resemble something closer to a scooter. Were it
to lose its wheels altogether, then it would cease to be a
bicycle and would, rather, be only a bicycle frame. What
goes for bicycles, other objects, and practices also goes
for humans. The human function is to make use of reason,
understood in a broad sense (i.e., as logos). Activities,
insofar as they are properly human, thus make use of logos.
To be a good human, by the same reasoning, is thus to
be one who leads a life by means of logos, or at least not
without it. To the extent that one fails to use logos, one
leads a bad or vicious human life.
In sum, the good human life is the one which exhibits human
excellences or virtues. The bad one is that which exhibits
human vices. Since this understanding articulates (some
of) what it means to lead a human life at all, it establishes
a basic set of conditions for our highest human aim, for
eudaimonia. We are obligated to pursue it, if we should
seek to lead a human life at all. This argument settles the
dispute concerning happiness by establishing objective
conditions for all human pursuits. Finally, and to connect
these points to one of Aristotle’s arguments in Book 10 of
the N.E., it is only by pursuing this sort of life that we can
enjoy human pleasures at all.
For the Nahuas, just as for Aristotle, it is the human
condition that limits and enables one to pursue the
best sort of life. Unlike Aristotle, for the Nahuas it is the
character of our circumstances as humans on earth that
primarily determines this condition, not a property of what
we are as animal beings, like logos. For the Nahuas, our
lives are ones led on earth, on tlalticpac. This place has
three pertinent characteristics which set the conditions
for the sort of life that we can hope to lead. It is, first of
all, a slippery place. This point is amply recorded in extant
Nahua texts. For example, the sixth volume of Florentine
Codex (F.C.) has a catalogue of common sayings. There we
read the following one:
Slippery, slick is the earth.
It is the same as the one mentioned
Perhaps at one time one was of good
life; later he fell into some wrong, as if
he had slipped in the mud.16
The “one mentioned” is the saying which is listed just
above in the codex, which reads:
How is this? Look well to thyself, thou fish of gold.
It is said at this time: if one some
time ago lived a good life [and] later
fell onto some [other one]—perhaps he took
a paramour, or he knocked someone
down so that he took sick or even died;
and for that he was thrust into jail:
so at that time it is said: “How is this?
Look well to thyself, thou fish of gold.”17
A few observations are in order. A first is that the range
of things that are slippery (tlaalahui) includes the sorts of
actions that we might commonly include in the ethical,
because they are under our volition, and those that
are not, because we have little or no control over them.
We would say that taking a paramour is a choice, while
knocking someone over, by tripping for example, is a bad
outcome, but pardonable because out of our control. Yet
these are descriptions of our condition on earth, and their
point seems to be that regardless of individual choice,
this is just the sort of place where we can expect these
lapses. We may have to go to jail as a result, so that appeal
to the condition of tlalticpac is not exculpatory, but it is
descriptive of the general character of our human lives. A
second point is that the slipperiness of tlalticpac, then, is
not something that one can hope to avoid by reasoning
well. One does not slip through an Aristotelian hamartia, an
error in the practical syllogism of one’s reasoning.18 Rather,
this is just the sort of place in which one is prone to slip,
where lapses in judgment will occur. The ideal for one’s
life, as a result (and third), cannot be one that includes no
errors, no lapses in judgment. Purity in this place cannot
be the goal after which we strive asymptotically. Rather, it
must be the sort of ideal that recognizes that these slips
occur, and yet manages them as well as possible.
A second feature of our human condition, life on tlalticpac, is
that it is transitory. Again, this point of view is well attested in
extant texts, yet no one is a better spokesman on this point
than Nezahualcoyotl. In a work of poetic philosophy entitled
Ma zan moquetzacan, nicnihuan! / My friends, stand up!” he
writes the following (this is the piece in its entirety).
My friends, stand up!
The princes have become destitute,
I am Nezahualcoyotl,
I am a Singer,
head of macaw.
Grasp your flowers and your fan.
With them go out to dance!
You are my child,
you are Yoyontzin.
Take your chocolate,
flower of the cacao tree,
may you drink all of it!
Do the dance,
do the song!
Not here is our house,
not here do we live,
you also will have to go away.19
The character of this piece cannot but strike one as of a
similar character as 1 Corinthians 15:32, “Let us eat and
drink, for tomorrow we die.” Still, the context is much
wider in Nahua thought. For Nezahualcoyotl, in fact, this
is the basic problem of our existence (and not merely the
slipperiness of our lives). For not only is it true that our
lives are ephemeral, but it is also the case that even the
structure of the cosmos is ephemeral in character. The fifth
age, the one with a sun of motion, is one which, like the
previous four, will sometime pass.
These considerations lead one to the third feature of life
on tlalticpac, namely, that it is far from clear that it is a
happy place. As part of an extended poem, Nezahualcoyotl
Is it true that we are happy,
that we live on earth?
It is not certain that we live
and have come on earth to be happy.
We are all sorely lacking.
Is there any who does not suffer
here, next to the people?20
For Nezahualcoyotl’s own work these considerations led
him to seek the only sort of stability and eternity for which
one can hope, namely, that to be found in philosophical-
poetic reflection, in the composition of “flower and song.”
For the Nahua’s broader ethical outlook (more below),
these reflections supply the reason why the pursuit of
happiness is not something that they thought could be a
suitable objective for one’s life’s plan. The transitory and
slippery character of life on tlalticpac would make elevated
emotional states, i.e., “happiness,” a foolhardy goal.
The general aim of Nahua ethics, then, is not happiness
but to achieve rootedness (neltilitztli) on tlalticpac. To
support the idea textually, it will be helpful to have in mind
a linguistic point. Should one like to form a new word in
Nahuatl, the language is well equipped with the capacity
for compounding, much as ancient Greek was. Yet one may
also make use of what Angel Maria Garibay has called a
difrasismo,” which is the expression of one idea in two
words.21 Examples in English might be “with blood and
fire,” or “against wind and tide.” This sort of expression was
extremely common in Nahuatl, and one must be careful
to catch the metaphorical meaning at work. For if taken
literally, the meaning of a difrasismo is almost totally lost.
One of the commonest of these in a philosophic context
is the phrase in xochi in cuicatl, which, translated literally,
means “with flower and song,” but taken metaphorically
means something like “poetry.”
Returning to the discussion of rootedness, I would like to
examine the short piece “Flower and Song / Xochi Cuicatl,”
found in the Cantares Mexicanos, which was composed
and recited before a meeting of wise men and poets in
the house of Tecayehautzin. The question at stake in the
piece is how to achieve some sort of permanence. Lord
Ayocuan is said to be acquainted with Life Giver, one of the
names for the single being of existence, teotl. Invoking and
recalling the lord, the suggestion of the piece is that it is by
creating “flower and song” that one finds this permanence.
We read the author’s realization that this (poetic creation)
must be the answer to the transitoriness of life on tlalticpac
in the following lines:
So this is how that lord, the vaunted one,
comes creating them. Yes, with plume like
bracelet beads he pleases the only-being.
Is that what pleases the Life Giver?
Is that the only truth [nelli] on earth [tlalticpac]?22
So the author comes to the conclusion that by writing
flower-song, especially the type that addresses the greater
problems of our human existence, one is best able to find
“truth” on the slippery earth.23
What matters for ethical purposes is obscured in the
English translation. The phrase “aço tle nelli in tlalticpac” is
best translated as “Is that the only truth on earth?” But the
word nelli is related to nelhuáyotl, which is a root or base.24
The metaphorical idea behind the Nahua understanding
of “truth,” then, is that it is a matter of being rooted like
a tree, as opposed to sliding about on our slippery earth.
The goal, the solution to our human problems, then, is to
find rootedness, which as an abstract substantive would be
expressed in Nahuatl as neltiliztli.
An important point here is that the context of the poem
makes clear that one is to find rootedness in the only being
of existence, in teotl. Just as is the case with Aristotle’s
function argument, there is equally a metaphysical backdrop
to the Nahua account of the good life. The Nahuas were
pantheists of a sort and took our world to be an expression
of the single fundamental being of existence. A rooted
life, then, is not only our highest end, but carries a similar
normative force. One ought to seek rootedness not only
on prudential grounds, but because rootedness is the way
that one truly is given our circumstances.
The philosophic poem “Flower and Song” provides one
source of evidence for the normative similarity between
Aristotle and the Nahua understanding of the good life.
For additional textual evidence, one might turn to the tenth
volume of the F.C., which addresses “the people” of the
Nahua culture. There one finds descriptions of persons
at work in socially recognized roles. The codex author
Bernadino de Sahagún is responsible for asking what the
good and bad forms of each is, e.g., asking, What is a good
feather worker? What is a bad one? So one cannot say that
the Nahuas would have formulated the matters explicitly
in terms of good and bad. What one can note is that in
their responses, one finds their general understanding of
how approval and disapprobation were allotted in each
case, and how they reasoned about what ought to be. In
describing an adult nobleman, we read the following:
The good [qualli] middle-aged man is a doer, a
worker [who is] agile, active, solicitous.
The bad [tlaueliloc] middle-aged man is lazy,
negligent, slothful, indolent, sluggish, idle,
languid, a lump of flesh [quitlatzcopic], a lump of
flesh with two eyes [cuitlatzcocopictli], a thief.25
Similar statements are found throughout the F.C. so that
one can be certain that this sort of language is not isolated.
The suggestion is double. First, good adult men are those
who perform their duties and roles well, while the bad ones
are indolent. Second, bad adult men hardly resemble men
at all. They become, rather, mere lumps of flesh. Stated
otherwise, there are conditions for leading a life in a human
community, and should one not observe them, one tends
towards not leading a human life at all.
To bring all these points together, one might write that
Aristotle and the Aztecs both held to a conception of the good
life as one that is the highest aim one could have, or, more
aptly, live out. They differed in the grounds they provided
for their views. Aristotle’s argument turns on a thesis about
the function (ergon) of a human being, while the Nahuas
held that one should aim for rootedness as (i) a reasonable
response to our circumstances on earth, and as (ii) a basic
condition for leading a life in the human community as part
of teotl. What needs to be clarified now is how exactly this
understanding of the good life could guide our actions.
To spell out how their accounts are action guiding, one
must broach two questions. First, Aristotle’s eudaimonia is
clearly linked to his discussion of excellence, arētē, but this
close link between neltiliztli and excellence has not been
shown for the Nahuas. While the above shows that they
had an understanding of the human good which supports
this line of reasoning, is there a Nahuatl word or phrase that
serves roughly the same role as arētē, and is it connected to
an account of rootedness? Second, even though the above
shows that the Nahuas had a conception of the good life, it
does not show that neltiliztli functioned in the way required.
Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill both had conceptions
of the good life, but neither was a virtue ethicist. How do
we know that neltiliztli functions like Aristotle’s eudaimonia
and not the summum bonum for Kant and Mill?
I begin with the matter of “virtue.” In some ways the topic
is difficult because of the abundance of possible terms
available. One should recall that arētē in Greek is derived
from the god Ares, and in Homeric times the word meant
primarily nobility and strength on the battlefield. Over the
following several hundred years of recorded Greek texts, one
finds the term slowly changing from a quality of character
primarily focused on competitive activities to one focused
on cooperative ones—ones that foster life in the city state
(polis). Plato and Aristotle, moreover, played a significant
role in this change, rather willfully adapting common terms
to their purposes.26 “Virtue” or “human excellence,” in short,
did not spring from Zeus’ head fully armored, but was a
concept developed over the course of several centuries
among the Greeks. One should be wary, then, of finding
an exact equivalent in other cultures. Additionally, one
should not expect the Nahuas to have only one such term
just because Hellenistic philosophers ultimately settled on
one. In the Confucian tradition, for example, one finds two
words used for “virtue,” namely, de and ren.27 It might turn
out that the Nahuas had more than one term. The proposal
that I venture here is that there is one broad phrase for
excellence, and that there may be further, more specific
terms for excellence available in other ways, just as de is the
broad term for virtue in the Confucian tradition, and ren the
more specific term focused on human relations.28
To begin, in Nahuatl, as in Greek, there are several words
for the good, the noble, and the beautiful. Generally, the
most broadly used term for “good” is “qualli,” and I have
indicated it in brackets in above quoted texts.29 The root
of the word derives from the verb qua, which means to
eat. The general idea indicated, then, is that something
is good because assimilable, edible in a way that will
aid in one’s flourishing. Another common word is yectli,
which is something good because it is straight. Likely the
best translation for yectli, then, is rectitude. The Nahuas
also made use of a difrasismo with these two words as
components: in qualli in yectli, meaning, too literally, “with
goodness and straightness.”30 My suggestion is that this
is the Nahua way of expressing “excellence.” In the tenth
volume of the F.C., for example, one finds a description
of the “good” daughter which reads: ichpuchtli in iectli in
qualli, in qualli ichpuchtli, which might be translated as
“the excellent daughter, the good daughter.”31
In this passage, one also finds an explicit connection
between excellence, so understood, and the good life as
rootedness. Since the matter is critical, I provide a word-by-
word translation and commentary in the table below.
yn tecuheuh yn ichpuchtli One’s daughter [who is] This is a phrase indicating the whole idea of a daughter in
her relation both to a male and female speaker.
quiztica, macitica, vel, unspoiled, perfect, good, These terms are all difficult to translate, because Christianity
had already influenced the meaning of the words. Yet,
none of them in Nahuatl have a fundamental connection to
Christian understanding of virginity.
nelli, rooted, Dibble and Anderson omit this word in translation, as it fits
poorly with the Christianized interpretation of the Nahuatl
description.32 It is the root of neltiliztli.
ichpuchtli in iectli in qualli, [who is] the excellent
There is no sentence break in the Nahuatl, so the idea is
continued: the rooted daughter is the excellent one …
in qualli ichpuchtli . . .33 the good daughter … the good one, et cetera.
One here finds a description of the “good” daughter as one
who is rooted, who is leading the best life possible, and one
who is excellent in doing so. The passage is a difficult one
to analyze and translate because some Christian influence
was present at the time that it was recorded, but it does
indicate that the Nahuas thought to connect virtue (in yectli
in qualli) and rootedness (neltiliztli). The best life available
on earth, in short, is one that is performed excellently.
I turn now to the question whether the Nahuas understood
the good life in the way required for a virtue ethics.
One may begin by recalling what is distinctive about
eudaimonia as it functions for action-guiding purposes.
For eudaimonists generally, action guidance follows from
the priority of the good to the right. This is to say that in
the order of justification, one appeals to a conception
of the good first, and then concludes to a judgment of
right action. A eudaemonist, then, might argue that one
ought not cheat on one’s partner, or that cheating on
one’s partner is morally wrong, because it harms her by
inhibiting her flourishing. For a modern philosopher who
holds to the priority of the right to the good, as Kantian
deontologists do, moral wrongness functions in a premise
to one’s conclusion. One ought not cheat on one’s partner
because it is morally wrong, and one can discern this moral
wrongness by appeal to an independent test, like the
categorical imperative procedure.34
If this difference in the order of justification is what
distinguishes Aristotle from Kant on the good, then what
distinguishes Aristotle from Mill on the good? Utilitarian
consequentialists also appeal to a conception of the good,
say, a maximum of average utility, in order to determine
whether an action is right. How is Aristotle, or the
eudaemonist generally, different?
To answer this question, one is returned to an untranslatable
point in the second line of the N.E., since it is there where
Aristotle introduces an important qualification about
the character of the highest good as an end. He writes:
“But there appears to be a difference among the ends;
for some are activities, others are products apart from
[the activities which produce] them.”35 In writing this,
Aristotle distinguishes between two sorts of activities:
ta erga (productions) and hai energeiai (performances/
activities).36 Productive actions are of the sort that yield
a product apart from the action, such as a potter’s vase.
Performance actions are those that are actions (erga) in
(en) themselves; the doing constitutes what they are. They
are like a dance or a jazz solo. Importantly for Aristotle, the
highest end, eudaimonia, is a performance. This means
that he is thinking of it in a fundamentally different way
than a utilitarian would. To clarify, in the opening lines of
Utilitarianism Mill writes: “All action is for the sake of some
end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must
take their whole character and color from the end to which
they are subservient.”37 Happiness, as Mill understands it,
then, is the product of acting in such a way as to promote
the happiness of the greatest number. For Aristotle, by
contrast, eudaimonia is not conceived of as a product, the
end result of action, but the performance of living one’s
own life well. It is your life performed well, not a set of
mental states. As a result, it would be incoherent to speak
of maximizing this sort of happiness, apart from living it
better—with more virtue.
Did the Nahuas think of neltiliztli as Aristotle thought of
eudaimonia? One may answer in the affirmative for two
reasons. First, in no extant literature is there a discussion
of an independent test for assessing right action, so they
did not think of it in the way that Kant does. Second, if
one looks to their analysis of good and bad performance
of social roles, one sees that they justify assessment by
appealing to a harm or help rendered. For example, here is
how the philosopher, or tlamatini, is described in volume
ten of the F.C.:
The good [qualli] tlamatini is a physician, a person
of trust, a counselor; an instructor worthy of
confidence, deserving of credibility, deserving
of faith; a teacher. He is an advisor, a counselor,
a good example; a teacher of prudence, of
discretion; a light, a guide who lays out one’s path,
who goes accompanying one. . . . The bad [amo
qualli] tlamatini is a stupid physician, silly, decrepit,
pretending to be a person of trust, a counselor,
advised. . . . [He is] a soothsayer, a deluder, he
deceives, confounds, causes ills, leads into evil.38
What one notes in this description is the way in which
a person performs her social role, the quality of her
contribution to the community, is the source of praise or
blame. The bad [amo qualli] philosopher specifically causes
ill, both to the person counseled, and to the community at
large. The good [qualli] philosopher is he who is a light and
a mirror for his patients and the community. Assessments
of right action, then, follow from an understanding of what
it means to lead a good human and communal life. I think it
clear, then, that the Nahuas reasoned about the good and
the right in the same sort of way as eudaemonists do.
At this point one might have some further pertinent
questions. Aristotle’s understanding of eudaimonia is
connected to a way of life, the contemplative, and a
program for general living. To what extent is something like
this present in the Nahuatl understanding of neltiliztli? The
answer, I think, distances the Nahuas from Aristotle, since
the Nahuas do advocate for two (or more) approaches to
rootedness, but they have no notion that is like the Greek
Beginning with Aristotle, much of the picture for his
understanding of eudaimonia emerges from the foregoing.
Each of us leads her life by organizing and deliberating
about her ends. This is not something that happens easily,
and so it requires skill, virtue (arētē), to perform such
organizing well. Moreover, Aristotle tells us that the way
that we lead our lives as humans, the way that we enjoy
human Eudaimonia, is to employ logos, to employ reason
broadly understood.39 The special virtue of logos for ethics
is, of course, prudence, phronēsis. And it is phronēsis which
acts in consort with the other virtues to enable each of us
to live well, to lead a eudaimon life. None of this, however,
tells us what sits at the top of the telic hierarchy. Is it just
anything we could choose?
Aristotle’s answer is somewhat elliptical, but it looks as
though he suggests that what sits at the top of the telic
hierarchy is a way of life, a bios. He writes:
For three ways of life stand out most; the one just
mentioned [i.e., of pleasure], the political, and
third, the theoretical [theōrētikos]. The many appear
to be quite slavish in deciding [proairoumenoi]
on a way of life [bion] fit for livestock, but their
argument has support on account of the many of
means who share the sentiments of Sardanapalus.
The refined, on the other hand, and those of action
decide on a life of honor; for the life [biou] of
politics has nearly this end [telos].40
In this passage Aristotle gives a few brief rebuttals to
the life of pleasure, and that aimed at honor, though
he waits until book 10 to provide a full defense of the
life of contemplation. What matters for the present is
what Aristotle’s comments suggest for the structure of
eudaimonia, namely, that a bios is decided on as an end
(telos). This is not the same, however, as choosing a
particular outcome, or set of outcomes. For a way of life is
a characteristic way of choosing and ordering one’s ends
so that their performance is of a typical kind. At the top of
our telic hierarchy, then, is not a final goal, but a way of
life.41 And Aristotle later argues (in book 10) that only one
such way of life, that typified by theoretical contemplation,
is suitable to humans as a complete goal.42
There is an additional point which proves helpful for a
comparison with the Nahua conception of the good life.
One of the reasons Aristotle so hastily dismisses the life
of pleasure is that he identifies it with one that is fit for
livestock, boskēmatōn—literally for fattened animals.
Implicit in Aristotle’s language is a distinction between
a way of life, bios, and mere life, zoē. In the opening
passages of his Politics,43 Aristotle distinguishes between a
natural tendency, like procreation, which he does not think
is the result of a decision (proairēsis), a natural union, like
a household, which is an association to meet the needs
of daily life, and a state, which “exists for the sake of
living well.”44 While humans also lead a life of zoē, one of
satisfying those necessities like eating, we also decide on
certain goals for the sake of living well. When we engage in
activities or practices (like music and dance) for these latter
ends, we are leading a way of life, a bios. This is why it is
a sort of category error, for Aristotle, to decide on a way of
life that would be co-extensive with the activities needed
for mere survival. It also means that eudaimonia ultimately
concerns the performance of one’s life by organizing ends
that are chosen above and beyond necessities.
The specification of which way of life is best for Aristotle
has been a source of controversy, not because it is unclear,
but because scholars have been puzzled in trying to
explain the compatibility of the intellectualist account of
eudaimonia, in book 10, with the comprehensive account
that is articulated in the rest of the N.E.45 I shall not here
try to provide my own sense of the compatibility of these
two accounts in Aristotle. Rather, I would like to note that
the Nahuas also seem to give an account of the good life
that is in some ways split between a comprehensive and
an intellectualist approach. Yet, because they do not make
use of anything like bios as a concept, they do not have a
similar tension.
To understand why the Nahuas may have this advantage,
it might be helpful to recall that neltiliztli is recommended
both on prudential grounds and on the grounds that one
takes root in teotl, the way things are. So that if one is to
lead a life in a human community, one must lead a rooted
life. Surveying the existing literature and anthropological
record, one finds that for the Nahuas one’s life appears
to take root at four related levels: in one’s body, in one’s
psyche, in one’s community by social rites and role, and
in teotl.
Rootedness in one’s body was made possible by
participating in a number of practices. The Nahuas held
that the body serves as a temporary location for three
forces which animate us: tonalli, which resides in the head
and provides the energy needed for growth; teyolia, which
resides in the heart and provides memory, emotion, and
knowledge; and ihiyotl, which resides in the liver and
provides passion, bravery, hatred, and love, among others.46
Anthropologists have recovered many figurines posed in
ways that look like yoga poses; they include, for example,
a position almost exactly similar to the lotus position. From
the description of the body and its movements, one gathers
that a regular practice of yoga-like movements was thought
to help balance or root some of our bodily energies.
An additional way in which one sought a rooted life was
in one’s psyche—bearing in mind that the difference
between psyche and body was not nearly as sharp as our
current understanding. The point in this regard is that if one
learns to assume an identity, a certain kind of personhood,
one gains rootedness. For example, in the Hueheutlatolli,
the Discourses of the Elders, one finds a congratulatory
speech in which the elders discourse with the new bride
and groom, new owners of a face and heart. The groom, for
example, responds to the elders, stating,
Ye have shown me favor, ye have inclined your
hearts [amoiollotzin]; on my behalf ye have
suffered affliction. I shall inflict sickness on you,
on your face [temuxtli].47
In this case the face (ixtli) and heart (yollotl) together
indicate the whole person, one’s character. The groom’s
responses address both facets of the elder’s personality.
In marriage, likewise, the elders bind the couple together
as a new identity, by tying the man’s cape to the woman’s
skirt, and speak both to their faces and their hearts. The
suggestion is that in such a way they gain personhood, a
way by which they will stand here on the slippery place.
Character virtues, then, primarily find their place at this
level in facilitating the acquisition and maintenance of
one’s “face and heart,” one’s character.
Yet, these points already slide over into rootedness in the
community, the third level of rootedness. For the bride and
groom are not only bound together, but bound within and
before the community. Participation in one’s community,
then, was carried out in festivals and social rites of various
sorts. In the marriage ceremony described, for example,
the fathers, mothers, grandparents, and related family
members all have specific roles to play. It was, moreover,
the role of the tlamatinimê, the philosophers, to foster the
acquisition of a face through counseling, and the goal of
education to teach young Nahua children the dispositions
that would sustain healthy judgment. One’s character, then,
enabled one to execute the offices of one’s social role well,
but these not only had more specific demands, they also
served the purpose of training or habituating one into that
A final way to achieve rootedness was in teotl directly.
The three dimensions of rootedness just discussed are, of
course, ways to be rooted in teotl, but in an indirect sort
of way. The Nahuas appeared to have held that there were
also a few other, more direct, ways to be rooted in teotl.
In the above quoted passage from “Flower and Song,” the
specific answer given to achieve rootedness is to compose
philosophic poetry. This is not too distant from Aristotle’s
insistence on the life of the mind. In some of the more
mystical passages, it appears that some thought the use of
hallucinogenic substances was perhaps another way. Any
of these ways, though, were thought to be ways to make
something of beauty of our short time on tlalticpac.
At this point, one might wonder how the Nahuas are not
saddled with the same sort of difficulty that faces Aristotle.
Rootedness appears to have both a comprehensive
meaning, and an intellectualist one, reserved for those
who can compose flower and song. In response, I think the
problem is at least not so acute among the Nahuas. A bios, to
recall, has two important features. First, it is a characteristic
way of choosing among our goals and ordering them in
the telic hierarchy of our life’s plan. This is the sense in
which it sits atop that hierarchy. Second, it is a form of life
that is chosen above and beyond the necessities of zoē.
While the Nahuas did have various social roles, which in
the case of a philosopher, or physician, might be counted
as a characteristic way of choosing among ends, they did
not distinguish such ways as something distinct from the
necessities of mere living. All people, then, were to aim for
rootedness at the levels of mind, psyche, and community.
It just turns out that for some people, participation in
the community also afforded the possibility for a more
direct rootedness. The philosophers, for example, found
rootedness in their communities, in part, by composing
“flower and song,” which just happened to be a direct
way of finding rootedness on tlalticpac. The ways are
complementary among the Nahuas, then, rather than
exclusionary, as they appear to be in Aristotle.
While the discussion concerning ways of life (bioi) highlights
one difference between Aristotle and the Nahuas on the
good life that might count in favor of the Nahuas’ view,
another related topic might pose a challenge for it. That
topic concerns the role of pleasure, hēdonē, or elevated
emotional states for the good life. The specific difficulty is
that by retaining a connection between pleasure and the
good life, Aristotle also solves an important problem for
moral motivation. To the question, why should we be good?
Aristotle can answer: because it is more enjoyable than not
being good. If the Nahuas do not retain this connection,
then it would appear that they lose this advantage.
In response, one might begin by recalling the grounds for
Aristotle’s argument in the N.E.48 For Aristotle, pleasure
perfects, in the sense of completes, the performance of
eudaimonia as an “end which supervenes like the bloom
of youth to those in the prime of their lives.”49 If it is not a
constitutive or essential component of eudaimonia, then it
is internally related as its completed form. The reason for
this is that eudaimonia spells out what it means to lead a
life as a human, as opposed to the life of a beast or angel.
This life must make use of logos in some way, and it is
ultimately led in the company of others (as the arguments
in Aristotle’s Politics makes clear). The pleasure that follows
for this life, as a result, is a properly human pleasure, and
this is the only way to achieve it. While misfortune may
intervene, as Aristotle’s discussion of Priam suggests,
even in those tragic cases “the beautiful shines through.”50
Only by living well could Priam have had human happiness
anyway. Should fortune favor us, moreover, then our lives
enjoy not only happiness, eudaimonia, but blessedness,
For the Nahuas, life of tlalticpac has no similar perfection.
The good life, understood as neltilitztli, bears only an
accidental relation to elevated emotional states, to one
sense of hēdonē. Composing flower-song, or uniting one’s
face and heart, makes for a better and more beautiful, if
still transient existence. It is better and more beautiful,
finally, because it is ultimately one rooted in teotl, in the
way things are through their changes.
While it is too much for the Nahuas to think that pleasure is
more than an incidental feature of our life’s performance,
one nevertheless has reasons to act for it that are distinct
from prudential or dutiful considerations. This is why the
rooted life ought to be considered a conception of “the good
life,” and why the Nahuas do not face a problem concerning
moral motivation. The argument so far has reviewed some
of the many roles and rites at work in Nahua culture. What
one sees in these descriptions is that the feather-worker
acts out of a passion for his craft. The philosopher acts
for a love of wisdom. And mothers and fathers act out of
love for their children. These reasons—namely, passions
and loves—are neither prudential nor dutiful, and yet they
provide us with reasons for acting. They are, moreover,
some of the more common motivations that we have for
undertaking action. Seeking to leading a rooted life, then,
ultimately means that one is seeking to lead a worthwhile
life. Even if pleasure is incidental to this way of life, one still
has the greater bulk of reasons to pursue it.
The present argument has so far established a number
of points of agreement and noted a few differences
between Aristotle’s conception of the good life and that
of the Nahuas. Yet, I must now pause to clarify two points
regarding the analysis of Nahua understanding of neltiliztli
specifically. I pose these points as objections and supply
responses in order to clarify the nature of the claims so far
A first concern might run as follows. Does the present
analysis of neltiliztli cohere with broader Nahua
conceptions? For example, in the popular religious beliefs
of the Nahuas, mothers who died in childbirth went to the
heavens of the afterlife. Their understanding of rewards
and punishments, then, seems to be rather fatalistic. How
is this religious understanding compatible with the account
so far outlined, in which deliberation about ends, or at least
highest ends, seems to play so central a role?
Two distinctions could aid in answering this question.
One concerns the difference between neltiliztli, which is a
conception of the good life here on tlalticpac, and whatever
rewards were thought to follow in the afterlife. It is true that
in common religious belief, warriors who fell in battle (in
specific ways) and women who died in childbirth were both
thought to go to Tamoanchan. But they would not, then, be
leading lives on tlalticpac. There is nothing incompatible
between the idea of leading a rooted life on tlalticpac, and
that of receiving rewards in the afterlife on account of a
very specific occurrence. What seems to be at stake in the
question is a broader sense of justice that would obtain
between actions performed in this life and rewards in
the afterlife. Yet it is not clear to me that the Nahuas held
to such a (Christian) view. In broaching religious beliefs,
however, one is led to a second pertinent distinction.
The second distinction concerns the character of the
present study. My goal, unlike that of anthropologists,
has not been to reconstruct the general understanding
of the good life among ordinary Nahuas. Philosophers of
classical antiquity look to understand specific philosophic
claims among the Greeks and Romans, and so they do not
try to make their arguments consistent with wider cultural
notions like miasmic contamination. I do likewise here, and
so have prescinded from a consideration of the broader
Nahua understanding of tlazolli, which is remarkably like
the Greek miasma in certain respects.
We have evidence that the elders and tlamatinimê (plural
of tlamatini, i.e., “philosopher”) often did break with
ordinary understandings. Nezahualcoyotl, for example,
openly wonders whether there is an afterlife, or if it is only
a comforting fable. In a philosophic poem entitled “I Am
Sad,” he writes:
I am sad, I grieve
I, lord Nezahualcoyotl.
With flowers and with songs
I remember the princes,
Those who went away,
Tezozomoctzin, and that one Cuacuahtzin.
Do they truly live,
There Where-in-Someway-One-Exists?52
Nezahualcoyotl is in these lines clearly expressing doubt
about life in a place after death. It must be a place where
one in some, non-fleshy way exists? This doubt in the
afterlife, further, explains Nezahualcoyotl’s ongoing
preoccupation with death, since he is little comforted by
the ordinary stories. In brief, the philosophers and elders53
broke with established religious beliefs in their recorded
writings, and so it would seem unreasonable to criticize
the present philosophic study for not conforming to the
religious beliefs of other segments of the population.
An additional concern is that in presenting neltiliztli in
relation to Aristotelian eudaimonism, I have shaped the
Nahua claims in a way that is too “individualist,” especially
in my focus on action guidance and the search for the
good life. How does that square with the broader, more
sociocentric, understanding of the Nahua culture that
anthropologists have described?
In response, one notes that “individualism” and
“sociocentrism” are slippery terms. What I hope to have
shown is that the Nahuas were in two specific ways more
“sociocentric” than Aristotle. This is the case, first, in the
multi-leveled way in which one achieves rootedness.
While I believe that Aristotle is often misunderstood in
contemporary scholarship as focusing exclusively on the
individual pursuit of happiness, the Nahua emphasis on
finding rootedness through one’s specific social role in the
community adds a social dimension that is not present in
Aristotle’s account. Indeed, a greater part of action guidance
for the Nahuas turns on how well one executes the offices
of one’s social role, and this is strikingly different from
Aristotle’s focus on excellences that any human should
develop. Second, the way that social rites and practices
were thought to be an essential part of character formation
finds no parallel in Aristotle. He nowhere discusses
character formation by way of participating in social rites,
but the Nahuas do often rather elaborately. The above
excerpts are taken from exhortations by elders for youths
engaged in just these rites. In these two ways, then, I
believe that the Nahuas were more community oriented, or
“sociocentric,” than was Aristotle.
There is another sense, however, in which it might be
thought that the Nahuas were more “sociocentric” than
Aristotle. They might be thought to have held to a sense of
ethical life that is socio-holist. On such an understanding,
the Nahuas would have held that the fundamental unit of
moral concern was the community and not the individual.
If this is right, then the present development of neltiliztli,
especially in those sections concerning action guidance,
would be true, but rather misleading.
In response, I do not think it accurate to claim that the
Nahuas held that the fundamental unit of moral concern
was the community, rather than the individual. In the texts
reviewed above, various agents are criticized for harming
other people directly, and not for harming the community
by way of harming individual people. The texts themselves,
then, conflict with this interpretation. Moreover, socio-
holism is problematic from a philosophic point of view,54
and so I think it counts toward the greater cogency of their
position that the tlamatinimê were not inclined to support
The present essay hopes to have taken a first step toward
serious philosophic reflection on the ethical understanding
of the good life, neltiliztli, among the Nahuas. Their
conception is in many ways like Aristotle’s understanding of
eudaimonia. What one seeks in life, they held, is a response
to the basic conditions of life on tlalticpac is rootedness.
What one seeks in choosing ends that are above mere
necessities, Aristotle held, is eudaimonia. For the Nahuas
philosophical poetry provides the best kind of answer,
the best rootedness, in response to the slipperiness of
tlalticpac, since flower and song outlast and are more
beautiful than other transient creations. For Aristotle, the
life of theoretical contemplation is that which is best suited
to an animal which leads its life by means of logos. For
both, however, this best way of life is related to the broader
aim of living well in other activities, which require excellent
qualities of character (i.e., virtues) to achieve. Finally,
in both cases, right action is assessed by appealing to a
conception of what is good, how one flourishes, which is
thus justificationally prior to a conception of the right.
At the end of these reflections, then, one is presented
with two different articulations of the good life. Most of
us, I would venture, would like to believe that pleasure is
somehow internally connected to the best performance of
our life’s act on the world’s stage. Yet we also recognize
that perhaps this may be but much hopeful thinking. Nor
is it clear, moreover, that this sort of difference is one that
can be resolved simply by an analysis of concepts. Aristotle
and the Aztecs each have a different preferred sense of
“pleasure,” and so different understandings of its relation
to the good life. Which sense is better for ethical purposes
is not a matter which could be resolved only by looking to
the meanings of the terms under consideration. Rather, it
must take its measure from the broader coherence of the
ethical theories as a whole, and their respective abilities
to illuminate our moral lives. The present reflection on the
Aztecs, as a result, highlights less a problem for resolution
than a problem of the human condition. It challenges us,
moreover, to question the received (Western) wisdom
about the good life. And we should be better for it, whether,
as Aristotle contends, because it will bring us pleasure in
perfecting our activities as beings possessing logos, or
whether, as the Nahuas held, that it makes a more beautiful
pattern of our activities on the slippery earth.
Versions of this essay were presented at the Trans-American Experience
conference at the University of Oregon in Eugene (2015), and the Latinx
Philosophy conference at Columbia University in New York City (2016).
I would like to thank many members of both audiences, as well as the
anonymous reviewers for the Newsletter on Hispanic/Latino Issues in
Philosophy, for the helpful feedback on the ideas developed here.
1. Winner of the 2016 APA Prize in Latin American Thought. Versions
of this essay were presented at the Trans-American Experience
conference at the University of Oregon in Eugene (2015), and
the Latinx Philosophy conference at Columbia University in New
York City (2016). I would like to thank many members of both
audiences, as well as the anonymous reviewers for the Newsletter
on Hispanic/Latino Issues in Philosophy, for the helpful feedback
on the ideas developed here.
2. Aristotle identifies eudaimonia, or “happiness,” with the highest
aim in The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, rev. ed., Loeb
Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934), at
1095a15–20. As a note, translations of Aristotle are my own.
3. I have in mind especially James Maffie’s Aztec Philosophy:
Understanding a World in Motion (Boulder: Colorado University
Press, 2014). Maffie has, in his entry “Aztec Philosophy” for the
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
aztec/ (last accessed September 30, 2016), provided what is
likely the most philosophic overview of Aztec ethics. His purpose
there, however, was much broader.
4. In this respect, I have in mind especially Miguel León-Portilla’s
La filosofía náhuatl: Estudiada en sus fuentes con un nuevo
apéndice, new ed., prologue by Angel María Garibay K. (Mexico
City: UNAM, 2001 [1956]). The present essay is much indebted
to some of the remarks León-Portilla makes in this book. I have
also profited greatly from his Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study
of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, trans. Jack Emory Davis (Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).
5. Of course, anthropologists and art historians have long been
interested in Nahuatl ethics, but their concern is rather with
what might be called an analysis of cultural mores. Two pieces
in English that have been particularly influential for the present
essay are Louise M. Burkhart’s The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian
Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Tuscon: University
of Arizona Press, 1989) and Pete Sigal’s The Flower and the
Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture (Durham and
London: Duke University Press, 2011). In the former case, one
learns to be cautious of Castilian influences and interpolations,
even in the construction of Sahagun’s Florentine Codex, on
which much of the present essay relies. In the latter, one comes
to recognize the rather tendentious approach to (especially)
sexual ethics one finds presented in almost any recorded work,
including the Florentine Codex. Alfredo López Austin’s Cuerpo
humano e ideología: Las concepciones de los antiguos Nahuas,
2nd ed., 2 vols. (Mexico City, UNAM, 1984), has also proven
helpful for understanding the general Nahua worldview, though
the implications of his study are more immediate, I think, for
Nahua metaphysics.
6. N.E., 1094a.
7. Ibid., 1235b.
8. Ibid., 1145b.
9. Richard Kraut has a fine review and assessment of Aristotle’s
method in ethics in “How to Justify Ethical Propositions: Aristotle’s
Method,” in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,
ed. Richard Kraut, 76–95 (New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).
10. Technically, it cannot be that at which all things aim, since
inanimate things do not aim at anything. The sense seems to be
restricted to human agents. This portion of the argument is taken
from (and developed) in my essay “Natural Goodness and the
Normativity Challenge: Happiness Across Cultures,” American
Catholic Philosophical Association 87 (2013): 183–94.
11. N.E., 1095a.
12. C.D.C. Reeve, for example, has a line-by-line analysis of the
opening passages of the N.E. and comes to just this conclusion.
See especially chapter seven of his Action, Contemplation, and
Happiness: An Essay on Aristotle (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2012). Daniel Russell comes to a similar conclusion in his
Happiness for Humans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
13. N.E., 1099a.
14. Ibid., 1098a.
15. I have explored this metaphysical backdrop at length in my
“Natural Goodness and the Normativity Challenge: Happiness
Across Cultures.”
16. Bernadino de Sahagún, The Florentine Codex: General History of
the Things of New Spain, ed. and trans. Charles E. Dibble and
Arthur J. O. Anderson, 12 vols. (New Mexico: University of Santa
Fe, 1969), Vol. 6, 228. Translation modified.
17. Ibid., Vol. 6, 228.
18. For a fuller development of the practical syllogism for Aristotle,
see Paula Gottleib’s “The Practical Syllogism,” in The Blackwell
Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Richard Kraut, 218–
33 (New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2006).
19. One may find the Nahuatl transcription in Ballads of the Lords
of New Spain: The Codex Romances de los señores de Nueva
España, transcription and translation by John Bierhorst (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 2009), fols. 3v.-4r. The translation
quoted, however, is Miguel León-Portilla’s in Fifteen Poets of the
Aztec World (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 92.
León-Portilla’s text also includes the Nahuatl to accompany each
translation. Bierhorst’s interpretation of Aztec culture is rather
widely disputed, and his translations tendentiously support his
position, so that I have entirely avoided using his translations and,
when necessary, have translated the texts myself. For a review
of the difficulties with Bierhorst’s “ghost songs” hypothesis, see
León-Portilla’s response in the “Introduction” to his Fifteen Poets
of the Aztec World, especially pages 41–44.
20. For the Nahuatl transcription, see Ballads of the Lords of New
Spain, fols. 21 r.—22 v. The translation is from Fifteen Poets of the
Aztec World, 91.
21. Angel María Garibay, Llave del Náhuatl, Colección de Torzos
Clásicos con Gramática y Vocabulario, para utilidad de los
Principiantes (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Press, 1981), 112.
22. One may find the original Nahuatl in Cantares Mexicanos: Songs
of the Aztecs, transcription and translation by John Bierhorst
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), fol. 9v. The translation,
for the above noted reason, is substantially modified.
23. An important implication of this point, but which I cannot develop
at length here, is that the Nahuatl sense of “truth” is rather
different from a correspondence theory of truth—something
which I’ve often thought to be Aristotle’s stance on truth. For
the Nahuas, one not only comes to know the truth, but most
fundamentally comes to live the truth.
24. Rémi Siméon’s Diccionario de lengua Nahuatl o Mexicana, 2nd
ed., trans. Josefina Oliva De Coll (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno,
1981) reads: “nelhuayo adj. Provisto de raíces, que tiene raíces.
R. nelhuayotl.”
25. Florentine Codex, vol. 10, 11. Translation modified.
26. This topic has long been the subject of study among classicists.
While Werner Jaeger develops this thesis to some extent, I have
in mind the patient argument which A. W. H. Adkins develops in
his Moral Values and Political Behaviour in Ancient Greece: From
Homer to the End of the Fifth Century (New York: W. W. Norton
and Co., 1972). The whole of the book is devoted to supporting
the points just made.
27. For the specifics on the Confucian tradition on virtue as de and
ren, see chapter one of Jiyuan Yu’s The Ethics of Confucius and
Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue (New York: Routledge Press, 2007).
28. Following Lopez Austin, in The Human Body and Ideology:
Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas, trans B. Ortiz de Montellano
and T. Ortiz de Montellano (Salt Lake City: University of Utah
Press, 1988), 189, another possible candidate would be the
“upright man,” tlacamelahuac. This term derives from tlacatl,
meaning human, and melauacayotl, meaning rectitude or
making something straight. The term, however, likely had a more
specific sense. I tend to think it a closer candidate for Aristotle’s
phronimos. Another possible candidate is tlaçoyotl, which is
sometimes translated as “excellence.” Yet this term derives from
tlaçotli, which means valuable or expensive, and so is more likely
a term for inherent worth, or (better) highest worth.
29. In what follows, it may be helpful to bear in mind that Nahuatl
does not have a standard orthography, though current
scholarship tends to use a modified Franciscan lexigraphy. The
F.C. in particular tends to make non-standard use even from
one line to the next. One should bear in mind, then, that “i” and
“y” are often substitutes, and “j” and “i” are as well. In the F.C.,
the existence of glottal stops and breathers is most commonly
indicated with an “h.”
30. In fact, the “-ness,” indicating an abstractive substantive in
English, is not present in the Nahuatl. I added it for the purposes
of readability.
31. Florentine Codex, vol. 10, 2. These translations are my own.
Dibble and Anderson render the entire phrase as “the good
32. To be fair to Dibble and Anderson, one purpose of their translation
was to stay in contact with the insights that informed the Spanish
which Sahagun rendered in his original transcription, but without
translating through Spanish to English. If Sahagún interpreted
the Nahuatl in a specific way, then their task was to make that
known in English as well. My goals are different ones.
33. Florentine Codex, vol. 10, 2. Translation is my own.
34. Of all the authors that make this contrast, John Rawls is likely the
clearest. For his account of the categorical imperative procedure
and its difference from the categorical imperative itself, see
his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, ed. Barbara
Herman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), especially
chapter ten on the categorical imperative. He makes the contrast
between orders of justification in A Theory of Justice, rev. ed.,
24–30 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
35. N.E., 1094a.
36. “ta men gar eisin energiai, ta de par’ autas erga tina” (1094a2-3).
37. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ed. George Sher (New York:
Hackett Press, 2001), 2.
38. Florentine Codex, vol. 10, 29-30. Translation modified.
39. N.E., 1098a.
40. Ibid., 1095b.
41. This approach to the organization of our preferences, so that
(1) eudaimonia is the skillful (i.e., excellent) management of
our telic hierarchy, and (2) a way of life is what sits atop the
hierarchy would appear to enable Aristotle to avoid the sorts
of concern Larry Temkin raises in Rethinking the Good: Moral
Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reason (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2012). A key objection Temkin raises is that our
preferences cannot be demonstrated to be strictly transitive, so
that preference orders (and so equivalence relations) cannot
be said to obtain for our preferences. This spells trouble for
informed preference consequentialists and anyone who agrees
broadly with John Rawls’ descriptive account of the good in part
three of A Theory of Justice. Aristotle’s conception of the good,
if the above is correct, would appear to allow him to avoid this
sort of concern, since a bios requires only a characteristic way of
putting goals in relation to each other, and not anything like even
a partial preference order. The matter, clearly, is more complex
than can be addressed here, but I thought it worth noting that
Aristotle’s approach may avoid a number of modern headaches
concerning the good.
42. This is Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a10-
43. Aristotle, Aristotelis Politica, ed. W. D. Ross (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1957).
44. Ibid., 1252b.
45. For a taste of the controversy, see Thomas Nagel’s criticism in
“Aristotle on Eudaimonia,” in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed.
Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, 7–14 (Berkely: University of California
Press, 1980), and J. L. Ackrill’s tentative reply in “Aristotle on
Eudaimonia” in the same volume Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics,
46. These points have been made at length in Lopez Austin’s work as
well as David Carrasco’s Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmivision
and Ceremonial Centers (San Francisco: Harper and Row
Publishers, 1990).
47. Florentine Codex, vol. 6, 127. Translation modified. Incidentally,
this phrase, which looks to be an insult, is a compliment in
Nahua culture. One “balances” one’s wishes of good fortune
with bad fortune in order to wish another well. The section ends,
for example, by welcoming the new couple into the society by
telling them that they are abandoned. The statements read: “for
it is our way of doing things on earth (in tlalticpac); for no one
is concerned with anyone; for we have already abandoned thee.
Take heed of this,” 132–33. Translation modified.
48. The present discussion makes use of points that Aristotle
develops in books 1 and 10 of the N.E., but for the sake of clarity,
I have omitted Aristotle’s distinct discussion of pleasure in book
7. I do not think the present argument turns on the difference
between pleasure understood as an uninterrupted activity, as
one largely finds it in book 7, and pleasure as a sort of perfection
of our other activities. See Julia Annas’ essay, “Aristotle on
Pleasure and Goodness,” in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed.
Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1980), 285–99 for an account that reconciles Aristotle’s various
statements on this topic.
49. N.E., 1174b.
50. Ibid., 1100b.
51. Ibid., 1099b.
52. Cantares Mexicanos, fols. 25r and v. Translation is slightly
modified for readability from Miguel León-Portilla’s in Fifteen
Poets of the Aztec World, 93.
53. I write “philosophers and elders” to indicate the possibility that
these were distinct groups, though they likely were not.
54. I think the problems are well-known. Yet, to be a little more
specific, a principle problem facing any morally “holist” account
of action guidance is that forms of fascism come to be readily
supportable. If the community is the ultimate unit of moral
concern, then the sacrifice of an individual is of no more
consequence than the sacrifice of a gangrenous finger to save
the life of the individual (maybe even less so).
Tsotsil Epistemology: An Intangible
Manuel Bolom Pale
Edited and translated by Carlos Alberto
When we think that reality is constructed, what
we are doing is considering a space needing of
–Hugo Zemelman
In what follows, I will reflect on originary peoples [pueblos
originarios]. Specifically, my reflections will focus on the
thought, cosmovision, and philosophy of the Tsotsil peoples
of Huixtán, Chiapas. The main objective of this work is to
propose arguments that will allow us to better understand
the postures and forms of resistance that characterize
the thought of these people, as well as their communal
practices, their principles, enunciations, and sayings, so as
to open up the possibility of reconsidering our own reality,
especially in the realm of education.
Authors such as Leopoldo Zea, Enrique Dussel, Walter
Mignolo, Anibal Quijano, Arturo Escobar, Edgardo Lander,
Francisco López Segrera, Hugo Zemelman, Boaventura
Sousa Santos y Daniel Carlos Gutiérrez Rohán share as
a common theme the advent of a new Latin American
thinking; however, it is not my objective to take up the
critical apparatus of these authors, but rather, what interests
us here is to show that there are other forms of thinking
and other points of departure that can be found outside
[established] theory and external to academic philosophies,
namely, the philosophical practices of originary peoples.
In our study, we have decided to look at thought,
experience, and knowledge from the standpoint of the
specific philosophical practices of the Tsotsil, risking, of
course, that we have involuntarily situated ourselves in the
myopic vision of our own perspective. Affirming “our own
perspective” means that we also accept the existence of
“other” perspectives; even if it is just in the act of indicating
this or that, we present ourselves with every judgment of
comparison, and we make distinctions because there are
certainly things about us that we recognize but would
rather not. For this reason, we must distinguish, in the
construction of knowledge, between thought and practice.
The study of thought requires vigilance and, simultaneously,
the capacity to admire. Thus, we are allowed to contemplate
the otherness of the indigenous given that the myth
of homogeneity has been, finally, demolished. This is
significant since in the past the problem has always been
the negation of indigenous knowledge, brought about by
the need to legitimate the paradigms of the great theorists,
and has also made it so that other, more urgent things in
relation to thought have to be kept out of consideration.
Thus, in what follows we aim to see past a fissure, with
critical eyes, toward the thought of originary peoples,
namely, the thought of the Tsotsil.
With the Tsotsil, knowledge is constructed in accordance
with certain categories that point to the profundity of their
historical thinking in relation to practice. This means that
practice has a lot to do with the construction of subjects;
as such, the objective of this text will be to undertake
an approximation of a Tsotsil philosophy in order to
reflect on the different perspectives that this philosophy
takes and, thus, broaden our own sociocultural historical
horizon. For this reason, and as we go, we will introduce
certain concepts that will allow us to reflect on diverse
philosophical categories, such as p’ij, p’ij o’ntonal, pasel,
ich’el ta muk’ o na’el.
The concept of p’ij has several layers. We’ll mention just
a few in what follows. To begin with, we should mention
that p’ij refers to something that is found in its fullness,
complete, and mature [íntegro, completo y maduro]. In one
linguistic variation, the peoples of San Juan Chamula call
it bij; however, both roots can be traced specifically to a
numerical root in the tsetsal language referring to things
or objects which are circular. Moreover, bij is the capacity
of the subject to fulfill himself as subject, or a subject that
has the necessary qualities to live in the community.1 This
implies a moment in which the subject becomes complete,
something that may not have much to do with the way in
which this completeness comes about, but which is, rather,
about an analogy between knowledge and the capacities
of the subject, for instance, with dialogue, which has its
beginning and its end, slikeb and slajeb,2 referring to a
circling around a conversation. These two elements have
to do with Mayan numbering practices. Furthermore, the
person who is p’ij has knowledge, is wise, manages wisdom
[sabiduría]; we could say that this person is a person who
knows about life, a person with common knowledge.
Outlines of what will eventually become knowledge are
manifested in dreams (vaech); dreamers then project
these outlines in conversation [plática] and coexistence as
a form of sharing. Much of what these outlines become,
these knowledges, are not going to be written in texts,
but will remain at the level of dialogue, in the construction
of possible worlds, in which dreams constitute a pre-
comprehension and pre-construction of reality and of
the world; moreover, this is knowledge that must be put
into practice—elders say that words have ch’ulel, they
contribute to the constitution of subjectivity.
Concepts for reality and constitution are but schemas
or frameworks that subjects construct on an individual,
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This special issue composed of essays that brainstorm the triadic relationship between Covid-19, Race and the Markets, addresses the fundamentals of a world economic system that embeds market values within social and cultural lifeways. It penetrates deep into the insecurities and inequalities that have endured for several centuries, through liberalism for sure, and compounded ineluctably into these contemporary times. Market fundamentalism is thoroughly complicit with biopolitical sovereignty-its racializing socioeconomic projects, cheapens life given its obsessive focus on high growth, by any means necessary. If such precarity seemed normal even opaque to those privileged enough to reap the largess of capitalism and its political correlates, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic with its infliction of sickness and death has exposed the social and economic dehiscence undergirding wealth in the U.S. especially, and the world at large. The essays remind us of these fissures, offering ways to unthink this devastating spiral of growth, and embrace an unadulterated care centered system; one that offers a more open and relational approach to life with the planet. Care, then becomes the pursuit of a re-existence without domination, and the general toxicity that has accompanied a regimen of high growth. The contributors to this volume, join the growing global appeal to turn back from this disaster, and rethink how we relate to ourselves, to our neighbors here and abroad, and to the non-humans in order to dwell harmoniously within socionature.
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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.
Maffie has, in his entry
I have in mind especially James Maffie's Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion (Boulder: Colorado University Press, 2014). Maffie has, in his entry "Aztec Philosophy" for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, aztec/ (last accessed September 30, 2016), provided what is likely the most philosophic overview of Aztec ethics. His purpose there, however, was much broader.
Technically, it cannot be that at which all things aim, since inanimate things do not aim at anything. The sense seems to be restricted to human agents. This portion of the argument is taken from (and developed) in my essay "Natural Goodness and the Normativity Challenge: Happiness Across Cultures
Technically, it cannot be that at which all things aim, since inanimate things do not aim at anything. The sense seems to be restricted to human agents. This portion of the argument is taken from (and developed) in my essay "Natural Goodness and the Normativity Challenge: Happiness Across Cultures," American Catholic Philosophical Association 87 (2013): 183-94.
for example, has a line-by-line analysis of the opening passages of the N.E. and comes to just this conclusion. See especially chapter seven of his Action, Contemplation, and Happiness: An Essay on Aristotle
  • C D C Reeve
C.D.C. Reeve, for example, has a line-by-line analysis of the opening passages of the N.E. and comes to just this conclusion. See especially chapter seven of his Action, Contemplation, and Happiness: An Essay on Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Daniel Russell comes to a similar conclusion in his Happiness for Humans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1989) and Pete Sigal's The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture
  • London Durham
Of course, anthropologists and art historians have long been interested in Nahuatl ethics, but their concern is rather with what might be called an analysis of cultural mores. Two pieces in English that have been particularly influential for the present essay are Louise M. Burkhart's The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1989) and Pete Sigal's The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011). In the former case, one learns to be cautious of Castilian influences and interpolations, even in the construction of Sahagun's Florentine Codex, on which much of the present essay relies. In the latter, one comes to recognize the rather tendentious approach to (especially) sexual ethics one finds presented in almost any recorded work, including the Florentine Codex. Alfredo López Austin's Cuerpo humano e ideología: Las concepciones de los antiguos Nahuas, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Mexico City, UNAM, 1984), has also proven helpful for understanding the general Nahua worldview, though the implications of his study are more immediate, I think, for Nahua metaphysics.