A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 20, 2014 edition of Festiva Magazine, the weekly entertainment insert of The Monitor
Nikos KazantzA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the June 20, 2014 edition of Festiva Magazine, the weekly entertainment insert of The Monitor
Nikos Kazantzakis is primarily known to the US public through the film adaptations of his novels Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation. The Cretan-born philosopher and writer was the author and translator of dozens of other works, however, including a sequel to the Greek epic The Odyssey, which he considered to be his greatest achievement.
In 1957, after being nominated for the Nobel Prize, Kazantzakis lost by a single vote to Albert Camus. A few months later, returning from a tour of Asia, the writer finally succumbed to the leukemia he’d been struggling with for years. His tombstone reads, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
That fearlessness was the end result of a life-long spiritual quest poignantly detailed in Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, translated into English by Kimon Friar. In the pages of this small book, using a heightened tone of sacred worship and ecstasy, Kazantzakis distilled the philosophy that underpins all of his writing: the universe is evolving toward something greater than mere matter, plants, animals, humanity. We have, he insisted, a special duty to this future being now rising through us.
He made the highly controversial choice of calling the end product of that evolution “God.” It’s a small wonder the Greek Orthodox Church anathematized him just two years before his death.
Saviors of God consists of five parts. In “The Preparation,” Kazantzakis spells out three human duties: to recognize the limitations that separate us from one another, to rebel against those limitations and unite to become the mind of the world, and to struggle for freedom through our collective evolution even while admitting that the universe has no inherent purpose.
In “The March,” Kazantzakis presents his vision of the individual contribution to the evolution of God, first by identifying with and then rejecting the ego, allowing the Combatant (our collective drive for freedom and complexity) to flow through and destroy the self; then by gradual identification with and transcendence of one’s culture, of humanity, of the very earth.
“The Vision” gives us a glimpse at the gradually evolving hope and freedom that the author calls God, the eventual transmutation of our material selves into “spirit” or “spark,” a virtual being that encompasses the universe with absolute liberty. “The Action” meditates on the need for each person to dedicate him or herself to the advancement of our collective knowledge, freedom and compassion (given that “God” is not all-powerful and must be “saved”).
Finally, in “The Silence,” the philosopher reflects on how the spark of each individual mind commingles in the abyss that predates existence, united within the future deity. But he turns this vision on its head with the final, paradoxical axiom: “even this one does not exist!”
While likely frustrating to adherents to the big three monotheist religions, this work spoke to me as few other philosophical essays have done. Inspiring and humbling, Saviors of God is made for would-be rational mystics....more
Fantastic. Sahagún preserved key elements of Aztec rhetoric and ethical framework. I'd love a more modern translation (and a regularized transcriptionFantastic. Sahagún preserved key elements of Aztec rhetoric and ethical framework. I'd love a more modern translation (and a regularized transcription of the Nahuatl), but this is quite good. ...more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in The Monitor on May 2, 2013
Discovering Aztec Philosophy
In 1963 noted scholar Miguel León-Portilla publishedA TOP SHELF review, originally published in The Monitor on May 2, 2013
Discovering Aztec Philosophy
In 1963 noted scholar Miguel León-Portilla published Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, an amplification (with assistance from translator Jack Emory Davis) of several previous works of his, including his ground-breaking doctoral thesis. The thrust of León-Portilla’s research is that the Nahuas, that group of Mesoamerican peoples called Aztecs in modern times, were not simply a polytheistic, warlike culture: they had developed a distinctive, refined philosophy on a level with that of the ancient Greeks.
Drawing from diverse sources, including the corpus of Nahuatl poetry and the massive colonial ethnography known as the Florentine Codex, León-Portilla demonstrates the existence of a class of philosophers in the Aztec Triple Alliance known as tlamatinimeh or sages. Differently from the popular religion, in which a complex pantheon of deities controlled the natural world and human blood had to be spilled to ensure the sun’s survival, these sages reduced the divine to a single dual generative force and recognized life to be ephemeral, fragile, and uncertain. The vanity of humanity’s efforts, argues the author, and the impossibility of knowing the truth led these wise men to conclude that human existence on earth is essentially a dream. For some, that conclusion led to a hedonistic path, a lifestyle that encouraged an enjoyment of the flowers and friends of the moment. For others, however, belief in that primordial creative energy suggested a purpose: craftwork and artistic endeavors, none more important than the development of an īxtli, a face or persona that best reflected the soul. And the soul, León-Portilla proposes, was seen by the tlamatinimeh as a place for the divine to take up residence, drawn into the human heart by flower and song, a classic Nahuatl difrasismo (kenning) for poetry or song.
Though this work is extremely important, it only scratches the surface of Nahua philosophy. León-Portilla largely ignores Nahua theology, so intent is he on demonstrating a supposed tension between the state religion and the emerging intellectual current. This is because he forces parallels with Greek, Roman and Christian philosophical trends. To my mind, Nahua thought more closely resembles the schools of thought in Hindui philosophy that similarly moved away from a polytheistic Weltanschauung to belief in a single ground to existence, a sacred force that unfolds into multiple forms in the physical universe. The root or balance of the cosmos the author sees in the Nahuatl term teōtl corresponds interestingly to Brahman, and as a result, the reduction by León-Portillo of this amorphous philosophical movement in pre-Colombian Mexico to a single “school” of thought that embraces Ometeōtl, the dual god, as the source of all strikes me as premature. Rather, I suspect that different schools may have considered one god or another as the most perfect mask of the divine source, perhaps embracing Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl or even Tonantzin as the supreme iteration (much like Krishna-, Vishnu- or Shiva-centered varieties of Hinduism).
Research into Nahua philosophy is, of course, ongoing, and I want to stress León-Portilla's important role in promoting the field of study. ...more