Introductory Materials

These are articles written for popular audiences that presuppose no knowledge of either the Aztecs or philosophy. See the following:

For a slightly longer and more metaphysically focused introduction on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, see James Maffie’s general overview of “Aztec Philosophy”.

There are also some useful introductory videos.

Here is my talk on “Anxiety and Happiness in Aztec Philosophy”

For the playlist of introductory videos, please visit my YouTube Channel.

Primary Sources for Aztec Philosophy

These come in two forms: those collected in the decades after the conquest, and those that either survived the Spanish bonfires or were indigenous productions continuous with pre-conquest tradition.

For the philosopher, the sources collected in the Post-Conquest era, which were transcribed in Nahuatl with Latin letters, are by far the most useful. The problem with the precontact amoxtli (painting books) is that they don’t have sentences and statements that philosophers need for evaluating the quality of claims.

Another difficulty is that none of these have been translated into any modern language with philosophical purposes in mind…I’m working on a translation project, but it’ll be some years yet. At the present, just tread carefully, as anthropologists don’t distinguish between “good” and “virtue,” or between “prudence” and “modesty.” The list goes on … but it’s the best we’ve got at present.

Post-Contact Sources

Florentine Codex (FC)

  • This is the highest quality source we have available on Aztec philosophy. It was recorded from 1545 to 1575 by Fr. Bernadino de Sahagún, and it attempts to catalogue the entire Aztec worldview.
  • It is 12 volumes, but the English standard edition starts with a 13th separate introductory volume.
  • The most important volumes for philosophers are clearly volume six, Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy and volume ten, The People.

I’m comfortable with claiming that volume six, Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy, is the Nicomachean Ethics of the Aztec world. It is not exactly easy reading, but it was recorded the earliest of all the volumes (making it the most reliable pre-contact representation of Aztec philosophy) and it really covers everything.

Huehuetlatolli, recorded by Andres de Olmos

  • This is the best introduction to Aztec ethical philosophy available. It is much easier to understand than FC 6.
  • It was recorded later than the Florentine Codex, and so suffers some Christian interpolation at the end.
  • It is also really hard to find (I got my copy from a large bookstore in Guadalajara, Mexico).
  • Oh yea, it’s also only in Spanish and Nahuatl.

Huehuetlatolli, recorded by Gorges Baudot.

  • This is in Spanish and Nahuatl, quite short, and recorded at a later date. It is still a very nice introduction to Aztec ethical philosophy.

15 Poets of the Aztec World

  • This contains translations from Nahuatl into English, directly, because Miguel León-Portilla was dissatisfied with the translations available.
  • The translations are good, but more recent scholarship has made it completely implausible to think that these poems were in fact written by the authors to whom they are attributed.
  • The Spanish edition is a better modern language translation.

Cantares Mexicanos

  • This is the edition of early pre-conquest type “philosophical poetry” translated by Johnathan Beirhorst. His translation has been universally panned as inaccurate, but his compilation and transcription of the works proves invaluable for scholars.
  • Not only is it very hard to find, beginners should just use the 15 Poets of the Aztec World, even if it also has drawbacks.

Romances de los Señores de Nueva España

  • This is a better translation of Aztec philosophical poetry. It’s also not without its problems, as Beirhorst did this one as well. Again, beginners would find 15 Poets of the Aztec World a more profitable use of their time.

Codex Chimalpopoca

  • This is actually two codices in one volume. You’ll find here the Legend of the Five Suns myth along with the creation of the humans and many other important myths.
  • Bierhorst also has a separate volume for the Nahuatl.

Pre-Contact Amoxtli

Scholarship on Aztec Philosophy

Miguel León-Portilla

  • Aztec Thought and Culture
    • This is still the best general overview of Aztec philosophy.
    • Just before he passed León-Portilla put a revised version of this in Spanish up on the UNAM website for free. It also has a long new appendix replying to more recent scholarship.
    • It’s completely free (if you can read Spanish).
  • Los Antiguos Mexicanos
    • Though it is available in Spanish only, it is a fantastic introductory work on Aztec history, culture and philosophy.

Maffie, James 

Lopez Austin, Alfredo

  • Lopez Austin is more a historian than philosopher, but his work is often quite philosophical. One caveat about his approach ought to be born in mind, however, namely that he tends to approach the Aztecs from a general Mesoamerican lens, blending all the views recorded. He spells out his reasons most clearly in the introduction to this edited volume: Cosmovisión Mesoamericana.
  • Cuerpo Humano e Ideología
    • This is Lopez-Austin’s most philosophical work. It is also massive (at 2 volumes). It is the best source of our understanding for Aztec moral psychology.
    • A version is available in English as Human Body and Ideology.
  • Las Razones del Mito
    • This is his more recent introductory work to Mesoamerican cosmology.
  • “Cuerpos y Rostros
    • This is a crucially important piece summarizing the debate on how to understand and translate the Aztec idea of a human personality or character.