Aztec Aesthetics?

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Reply Wed 5 Aug, 2009 08:21 am
I was recently reading 1491 by Charles Mann when I came across this interesting section dealing with what appears to be a developing form of philosophy in the Aztec Empire. Not only that, but it seems to be suggesting a wholly new idea in philosophy: that artistic inspiration is truth.
C. Mann, '1491,' pp. 191-3 wrote:

The Nahuatl word tlamatini (literally, 'he who knows things') meant something akin to 'thinker-teacher'-a philosopher, if you will. The tlamatini, who 'himself was writing and wisdom,' was expected to write and maintain the codices and live in a way that set a moral example. 'He puts a mirror before others,' the Mexica said. In what may have been the first large-scale compulsory education program in history, every male citizen of the Triple Alliance, no matter what his social class, had to attend one sort of school or another until he was sixteen. Many tlamatine (the plural form of the word) taught at elite academiesthat trained the next generation of priests, teachers, and high administrators.

Like Greek philosophy, the teachings of the tlamatineBut the tlamatine shared the religion's sense of the evanescence of existence. 'Truly do we live on Earth?' asked a poemtlatoani [one of the leaders] of Texcoco, one of the other two members of the Triple Alliance. His lyric, among the most famous in the Nahuatl canon, answers its own question:

[quote]Not forever on earth; only a little while here.
Be it jade, it shatters.
Be it gold, it breaks.
Be it a quetzal feather, it tears apart.
Not forever on earth; only a little while here.

[quote]Like a painting, we will be erased.
Like a flower, we will dry up here on earth.
Like plumed vestments of the precious bird,
That precious bird with the agile neck,
We will come to an end.[/quote]

tlamatine saw existence as Nabokov feared: 'a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.'

In Nahuatl rhetoric, things were frequently represented by the unusual device of naming two of their elements-a kind of doubled Homeric epithet. Instead of referring directly to his body, a poet might refer to 'my hand, my foot' (noma nocxi), which the savvy listener would know was a synecdoche, in the same way that readers of English know that writers who mention 'the crown' are actually talking about the entire monarch, and not just the headgear. Similarly, the poet's speech would be 'his word, his breath' (itlatol ihiyo). A double-barreled term for 'truth' is neltilitztli tzintliztli, which means something like 'fundamental truth, true basic principle.' In Nahuatl, the words almost shimmer with connotation: what was true was well grounded, stable and immutable, enduring above all.

Because we human beings are transitory, our lives as ephemeral as dreams, the tlamatine suggested that immutable truth is by its nature beyond human experience.tlamatine wrestled with this dilemma. How can beings of the moment grasp the perduring? It would be like asking a stone to understand mortality.

coyolli bird, known for its bell-like song:

[quote]He goes his way singing, offering flowers.
And his words rain down
Like jade and quetzal plumes.
Is this what pleases the Giver of Life?
Is that the only truth on earth?[/quote]

is a time when humankind can touch the enduring truths that underlie our fleeting lives. That time is at the moment of artistic inspiration.Through art alone, the Mexica said, can human beings approach the real.

Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatine meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophers and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. Their [sic] musings of the tlamatine
Reply Wed 5 Aug, 2009 10:41 am

It is an interesting viewpoint. I never much studies Aztec society but then again I haven't touched the Egyptian much either.

But the nice thing is that old ideas tend to be re-discovered, since they are all based upon observation of life and the universe - which changes but still seems to manifest from the same source.

Jung would use the Mandela as a source for inspiration in the discovery of Self.

d'Espagnat remarked that some part of the Veiled Reality can be seen by artists.

As for me, I take a much more egalitarian view of life. I think that it is all there to see, but it takes time to become aware of it. It reminds me of the old game show Camouflage, where a contestant had to find the tracing of a figure that is buried within a camouflage of random lines that were hiding it. It's like Where's Waldo? He is there, but it takes a while to see it.

Maybe artists are simply more evolved and more sensitive to the outlines of the puzzle. I am open to the possibility.

Reply Fri 9 Oct, 2009 07:41 am
A few quick notes: the Aztecs/Mexica definitely had some kind of complex set of ways to evaluate things "aesthetically"...what exactly it might have been is hard to figure out since everybody tends to focus on that Philosopher King of Texcoco (Nezahualcoyotl) and the thrust of his work might have been more a matter of revising things after the conquest to make the descendents of the ruling house of Texcoco look better or at least proto-Christian. As far as I know, all the post-conquest semi-official Nahuatl histories and texts stem from the relatively peripheral Kingdom of Texcoco and not from whoever was running things at the Imperial center of Tenochitlan.

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