Saturday, June 18, 2011

Montaigne and Moctezuma

It occurred to me by some untraceable set of associations that the erudite, reasonable, Michael Montaigne, a man who influenced such figures as Descartes on the one hand and Isaac Asimov on the other, coincided on the map of time with the Aztec Empire more or less—roughly as my life coincided with that of Victorian England: as one disappeared the other began. In 1519, fourteen years before Montaigne saw sunlight, Hernándo Cortés arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan; a year later, with his allies, the Tlaxcala Confederacy, he conquered the city. Twenty-five years later, when Montaigne was twelve (1545), the second wave of smallpox began the process of destroying the Aztec population in earnest. Such are the gifts of higher civilization to the lower as they roll benevolently across the world. The Aztecs are remembered chiefly for emperor Moctezuma and practicing human sacrifice—the Spanish for “discovering America,” the Inquisition, and that famous Spanish fly. Fate’s whip bestows its cruel blows on collective reputations without mercy, as it were. The destruction of enemy armies by ritual methods, as the Aztecs practiced it, is shameful; we assign the functionally identical activity, when it takes place as collateral damage, to the fog of war and glitches in technology.  

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