American Philosophy – The Mayas

Miguel Leon Portilla Aztec Thought and Culture

The Greek philosophers were known for wisdom, for questioning the ways that individuals and societies can have knowledge, beliefs and answers. Were the Greeks the first or only ancient people to have philosophers? In Miguel Leon-Pontilla’s book Aztec Thought and Culture, he argues that the Aztec and Mayan poets questioned their societies and systems of knowledge, asking open ended questions such as “Do we know the gods exist?”, “Is there an afterlife, like the ancestors said there is?”, and “Can we ever know these things?”. Indeed, when we look at ancient cultures we find both questioning and answering, knowledge as well as wisdom, in ancient Greece and ancient everywhere else. No society would survive without pushing in both directions.  Systems of thought are always sites of disagreement as much as they are of agreement.

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Only a few years ago, the Attorney General of Arizona crafted legislation against teachers who provide programs celebrating Latino culture as they are dangerously “anti-Western”, and pointed specifically to teaching that Aztecs and Mayans had philosophers as Leon-Portilla argues.  Apparently, it is biased and thus un-Western to teach that concepts such as, “You are my other self” (much like Confucius, who we will study) and “Continue to investigate things endlessly” (much like Heraclitus, who we will study) is evidence that the Aztecs and Mayans had philosophy.  It is perceived as a threat to American culture to equate the ancient Mayans with the ancient Greeks.  It is not just the Attorney General who thinks this, but academics with PhDs who continue to provide the ground for this belief in their publications.

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