Practical Nahua Philosophy

Being a student of Philosophy myself, I have no doubt whatsoever, that philosophy has been around in any time or area of mankind. And so it was in MesoAmerica. Unlike the Philosophy how we understand it nowadays, Philosophy in MesoAmerica was mainly a practical way of living on this earth.

I was intrigued by the fascinating ideas of Nahua Philosophy, that was spread far by the Aztec Empire, formed by Tlacaelel – and I want to cover a very short overview of it in today’s post.

Philosophy in the Aztec empire, that was established until the Conquista, was very practically orientated. The people asked for pragmatic answers, which help them to live their lifes in balance. I already pointed this out in our Codex-Day article about Medicine. The need for that balance was often symbolized by polar opposites like day/night, black/white, and so on. However, we have to understand, that those opposite weren’t seen as heterogenic, but in fact complementary to each other, which allows the balancing in the middle of them.


The word Nahuatl word Teotl stands for a principle, that could be translated with god, but in fact it’s much more. It’s the essence and the way of this world. The whole world is Teotl, and so is the way we should live our lives, if it were after the Nahua philosophy. You can find forms of the word Teotl in several other words: Teocalli (“teotl-house”, how the temples are called), Teopixqui (“Teotl-guard”, a priest), many Aztec gods like Tlazolteotl or Centeotl. The word also has the meaning of perfect, fine, blessed, strong when used in combinations. Gold was called teocuitlatl, meaning literally “excrements of god”, for example.

Teotl was the principle of wholeness, that everyone wanted to achieve. Practical Philosophy was however limited to the higher ranks of the society, since only they had the time to deal with such things. This was in the end another way to stabilize the caste system in the Aztec Empire.


The state-sanctioned religion was meant to present the practical philosophic principles in a system of belief. In it, the gods had different qualities, but duality was always present. While religious aspects of the Aztecs are still a topic of strong debate, due to the often false translations and the wide need for interpretation, some theories interpret the duality in the god Ometeotl. Ome is a well known word for those who can do basic counting in Nahuatl. Ce, Ome, Yei, Nahui,… Ome simply means Two. Ometeotl therefore is the Two-God, being both female and male, unifying the opposing principles. Another expression to call him/her was in Tonan, in Tota, Huehueteotl, literally our Mother, our Father, the Old God.


The answers for practical philosophy were given by the Tlamatinime. Tlamatini, which is the singular form means literally a person who is characterized by knowing something. You could say that they were the philosophers, not comparable to our understanding of a philosopher, though. They gave advice for everyday life, according to the theory for the right living.

Practical living

The Nahua saw the earth as a slippery path, on which one could easily fall. This falling is comparable with doing wrong moral things. There is an Aztec saying: Tlaalahui, tlapetzcahui in tlalticpac. This means: it is slippery, it is slick on the earth and was used to refer to a person, that, after living a life full of honor and moral, later went to a more dark path of immoral behaviour. The ideal way was the one in balance, exactly in the middle of both dualities, where it’s not that slippery.

This meant, that everything that promotes balance and purity was considered morally good, especially when it was promoted in a field or an occasion, where one could recognize signs of imbalance and impurity. This also was shown by the limitation of behaviour in any way. Sleeping, eating, celebrating, bathing, working, all the practical things were supposed to not take too long. In the pragmatic consequence, one who slept long one night worked longer the next day, to neutralize the sleep and maintain a proper balance: the middle path between the two extremes. Another Aztec saying states: tlacoqualli in monequi, english the center good is required.

In ethics, whenever an action caused another being to lose balance, it was considered malpractice. Losing the balance meant in the end to suffer decay, randomness and corruption. The corruption in a human caused physical or psychologic sicknesses. With a matter of this action, one didn’t just harm only himself, but also others. This and political considerations led to a law system with severe punishments, which will be the topic of another post.

This-worldly philosophy

The Nahua philosophy was totally this-worldly. Even though there were considerations of an afterlife, nobody connected the actions of people on this world to the afterlife itself. There was no reward or punishment in the other world. Consequences of action had to be taken immediately. After all, the philosophy was a pragmatic approach and so was the religion.

Because of that the advises were of course very pragmatic. If you live according to the advises, you get reward. Rewards are:
conversation, health, laughter, sleep, strength, sexual pleasure, honor, longevity and respect for morally appropriate behaviour;
hunger, pain, sorrow, insanity, physical deformity and disease for morally inappropriate behaviour;

Which side do you choose?

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