"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

04 August 2016


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 directly mentioning 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 tlamatinime [philosophers] suggested that immutable truth is by its nature beyond human experience. On the ever-changing earth, wrote León-Portilla, the Mexican historian, “nothing is ‘true’ in the Nahuatl sense of the word.” Time and again, the tlamatinime wrestled with this dilemma. How can beings of the moment grasp the perduring? It would be like asking a stone to understand mortality.

According to León-Portilla, one exit from this philosophical blind alley was seen by the fifteenth-century poet Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, who described it metaphorically, as poets will, by invoking the coyolli bird, known for its bell-like song:
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?
Ayocuan’s remarks cannot be fully understood out of the Nahuatl context, León-Portilla argued. “Flowers and song” was a standard double epithet for poetry, the highest art; “jade and quetzal feathers” was a synecdoche for great value, in the way that Europeans might refer to “gold and silver.” The song of the bird, spontaneously produced, stands for aesthetic inspiration. Ayocuan was suggesting, León-Portilla said, that there is a time when humankind can touch the enduring truths that underlie our fleeting lives. That time is at the moment of artistic creation. “From whence come the flowers [the artistic creations] that enrapture man?” asks the poet. “The songs that intoxicate, the lovely songs?” And he answers: “Only from His [that is, Ometeotl’s] home do they come, from the innermost part of heaven.” Through art alone, the Mexica said, can human beings approach the real.

Cut short by Cortés, 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 tlamatinime meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. The musings of the tlamatinime occurred in intellectual neighborhoods frequented by philosophers from Brussels to Beijing, but the mix was entirely the Mexica’s own. Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence—and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the distintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole.

Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!

Charles C. Mann, 1491


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