Pre-Columbian societies included individuals who reflected systematically upon the nature of reality, human existence, knowledge, proper conduct, and goodness. The Nahuatl-speaking peoples or Nahuas of Central Mexico – including those residing in Mexico-Tenochtitlan known today as the “Aztecs” - were no exception. Aztec tlamatinime (literally, “knowers of things”) i.e., sages or philosophers, sought answers to such questions as “What is the nature of things?”, “What is real?”, “What is good?” “How shall we live?”, and “What can humans know?”.
I focus upon Aztec metaphysics. What is metaphysics? Metaphysics seeks to understand the nature, structure, and constitution of reality at the broadest and most comprehensive level. Questions concerning the nature of existence, causality, time, space, consciousness, body, and the relationship between humans and the cosmos are among the questions traditionally addressed by metaphysicians. Aztec metaphysics thus consists of the Aztecs’ understanding of the nature, structure, and constitution of reality. It served as the foundation of Aztec religious and ritual practice as well as Aztec thought about knowledge, morality, beauty, politics, economics, agriculture, and war.
Aztec metaphysics is defined by four key views: metaphysical monism; constitutional monism; process metaphysics; and horizontal metaphysics. Metaphysical monism claims there exists only one thing. (Monism means “one.”) Aztec metaphysics claims there exists ultimately just one thing: dynamic, vivifying, eternally self-generating and self-regenerating power, force, or energy-in-motion. The Aztecs referred to this as teotl. (You might think of teotl as something like electricity.) All existing things – cosmos, sun, stars, moon, wind, water, rain, sunshine, thunderstorms, mountains, lakes, trees, plants, animals, humans, etc. - are in the final analysis merely aspects of teotl because they are one with teotl. The apparent multiplicity of distinctly existing things is thus illusory, seeing as there exists only one thing: teotl. Lastly, the Aztecs regarded teotl as sacred.
Second, constitutional monism claims that all everything is made up of just one kind of stuff. For the Aztecs, this is teotl (sacred energy). Because teotl consists entirely of energy-in-motion, it follows that all existing things consist of just one kind of stuff: sacred energy. It follows that there is no substantial difference between humans and non-human things, including what we (but not the Aztecs) call “nature” and “the environment.” Although the Aztecs regarded certain aspects of teotl to be invisible to humans, they did not believe these aspects were therefore made up of a different kind of stuff from humans or “nature.”
Third, horizontal metaphysics denies the existence of a hierarchical (vertical) distinction between transcendent and immanent, higher and lower, sacred and profane, or supernatural and natural realms, realities, or kinds of stuff. All things (e.g. cosmos, wind, rain, mountains, trees, humans, and the dead) exist on the same level. All are equally real. (By contrast, the vertical metaphysics of Christianity claims reality is ordered by a hierarchy of transcendent vs. immanent, higher vs. lower, sacred vs. profane, or supernatural vs. natural realms, realities, beings, etc.) Although certain aspects of teotl are invisible to humans, it does not mean that they are superior or higher than humans.
Fourth, process metaphysics maintains that processes (e.g. the changing of the seasons, hurricanes, flowing rivers, ocean waves, and aging humans) rather than perduring substantive objects (e.g., books, tables, trees, and mountains) are the basic components of reality. What we ordinarily think of as perduring objects are in reality processes. This makes sense seeing as everything is identical with teotl, and teotl is never-ending energy-in-motion. Process, becoming, movement, change, and transformation define teotl and hence all of reality. Humans, trees, sun, rivers, mountains, etc. are always changing, always becoming, always in a process of transformation.
Aztec philosophy conceives time and space as a single, seamless unity: what I call time-place. Time-place is a pattern in the modus operandi of teotl’s continual unfolding and becoming. Time-place is how teotl moves; it is not a thing. The three sacred Aztec calendars – the tonalpohualli,xiuhpohualli, and xiuhmolpilli - are patterns in the unfolding of teotl.
Aztec metaphysics is pantheistic, not polytheistic. Polytheism claims that there exist many gods. The various alleged “gods” of the so-called “Aztec pantheon” such as Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, and Huitzilopochtli, are nothing more than kaleidoscopic aspects or facets of teotl. For the Aztecs everything that exists constitutes a single, all-inclusive, and interrelated unity.
This all-encompassing unity is constituted by teotl as well as identical with teotl. The unity is genealogically unified by teotl since it unfolds out of teotl. The cosmos emerges and burgeons from teotl. Teotl is not the “creator” ex nihilo of the cosmos in a theistic sense but rather the immanent engenderer of the cosmos. What’s more, teotl is not a god or deity. So, if we define “theism” as the belief in the existence of a person-like god who is in some sense separate from the world, Aztec metaphysics (and religion) are non-theistic. The history of the cosmos is simply the self-unfolding and self-presenting of teotl. Lastly, this single, all-inclusive unity is sacred because teotl itself is sacred.
Teotl’s ceaseless changing and self-transforming are characterized by what I call agonistic inamic unity. “Inamic” is the Nahuatl term for matched polarities such as male~female, life~death, dry~wet, being~non-being, and order~disorder. (The Aztecs however did not include good and evil among these!) Agonistic inamics represent dual aspects of teotl – not two, metaphysically distinct substances or kinds of stuff. Inamics are mutually arising, interdependent, and complementary as well as mutually competitive.
Take life~death. Life and death are mutually arising, interdependent, complementary, and competing aspects of one and the same process. They are inextricably bound to one another since neither can exist without the other. Life without death is impossible, just as is death without life. Life contains the seed of death; death, the fertile, energizing seed of life. Life feeds off the death of other things, and so has a negative aspect. Death feeds life, and so has a positive aspect. In short, life and death are ambiguous: both positive and negative. The Pre-Columbian artists of Tlatilco and Soyaltepec expressed this relationship by fashioning a split-faced mask: one-half alive, one-half skull-like. The masks are intentionally ambiguous. Skulls simultaneously symbolize death and life, since life springs from the bones of the dead. Flesh simultaneously symbolizes life and death, since death arises from living flesh.
The faces are thus neither-alive-nor-dead yet at the same time both-alive-and-dead. The ceaseless changing of all existing things is characterized by the cyclical, back-and-forth struggle between inamic pairs as well as the alternating dominance of each inamic over its matched polarity. All existing things are constituted by the agonistic unity of inamic polarities and therefore unstable and irreducibly ambiguous (like the life~death masks). Indeed, all reality is at bottom irreducibly ambiguous (like the life~death masks). The cyclical alternation and struggle between inamics is non-ending, non-teleological (not goal-oriented), and non-moral (not a struggle between the forces of good and evil).