How a Jesuit Rebel Priest Unearthed Aztec Secrets

Jesuit rebel priest Clavijero resurrected Mexico's past, defying dogma with Aztec language, science, and a dash of wit. His “Ancient History” and Baja California tales ignited debates and opened doors to understanding a lost world, proving history's magic lies beyond dusty dates.

How a Jesuit Rebel Priest Unearthed Aztec Secrets
Beyond dusty dates, Clavijero's “Ancient History” maps the vibrant tapestry of Aztec life, language, and science.

Francisco Javier Clavijero was born in 1731 and died in exile in Bologna in 1787; The obligations of his father, who was a civil servant, took him to Oaxaca where he began his dealings with the Mixtec Indians; He studied in Puebla with the Jesuits, and entered the Society of Jesus there in 1748. Thanks to his biographer Maneiro, we know that his favorite authors included Quevedo, Cervantes, Sor Juana, and Feijóo.

Since his youth, he had a vocation for languages (Náhuatl, among other indigenous languages, Greek, Hebrew, French, Portuguese, some English and German). He was an important disciple of the Jesuit José Rafael Campo, who introduced him to the documents of Sigúenza and Góngora that were in the College of San Pedro and San Pablo — where he learned to decipher codices — and to some modern philosophers: Descartes, Leibnitz, Franklin, from whom Clavijero extracted what he believed to be fair. He studied physical, natural and mathematical sciences all his life.

In the silent academic struggle between the Mexican Jesuits themselves, which only ended with the common exile, Clavijero took the side of the reformers, and in that sense it can be said that he was almost self-taught, since the knowledge that mattered to him, as well as the methods and the sources were not traditional. From a very young age, he had academic problems with his superiors, not because of his orthodoxy — his perfect Catholicism is beyond doubt — but because of his good judgment, which made him conclude that scholasticism had degenerated. Being prefect of studies at the San Ildefonso seminary, he addressed the provincial to request permission to introduce methodological and didactic reforms. The latter, educated in Italy, rejected his proposal.

The work that would give Clavijero universal fame was the Ancient History of Mexico; He composed it in Spanish and he himself translated it into Italian. Storia Antica del Messico appeared in Cedena, in 1780–1782, and it is this version that became known throughout the world; It was possible to read it in Spanish only through a translation made by José Joaquín Mora (London, 1826), until Father Mariano Cuevas found the original and had it published in Mexico in 1945.

The “Dissertations”—integrated into the Ancient History of Mexico—are the most controversial part, and in them the most debated points are discussed: the origin of the population of America, the geographical particularities of Mexico, the cultural and religious institutions of the Mexicans. , the physical and moral aspects of his race (in this text he refutes that syphilis comes from America), the Mexica chronology and its correspondence with the Christian one; the climate, the quality of the land, the animals; the language and laws of the Mexicans; the shortcomings of Aztec culture in relation to European culture: large ships, iron, gunpowder, minted currency, alphabet, scarcity of architectural elements such as bridges. In addition, it organizes a dictionary or catalog of European and Christian authors who have written Christian moral doctrine in indigenous languages.

Ancient History is an exposition and systematization. It provides information about all the historians and sources on which it is based, and deals especially with the Mexica people: natural history, precursor or predecessor peoples of the Mexica, pilgrimage from Aztlán to the founding of Francisco Javier Clavijero México and the division between Tenochcas and tlatelolcas; the Aztec kings, the events of their allies in Tlacopan and Texcoco; the figure and time of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin; religion, education, laws, institutions, the economy, the army, wars, diplomacy and communications; agriculture, livestock, commerce; literature, music, entertainment and sports, sculpture and painting, architecture, crafts, herbalism, medicine, and finally, the calendar, before the arrival of the Spanish. It concludes with the descendants of Montezuma.

Posthumously, his Historia de la Antigua Baja California (1789) appeared, also in Italian (the original text in Spanish has not been found), which was translated into Spanish in 1852. It is divided into four books. The first describes the Californian nature and the lifestyles of its ancient inhabitants; The second tells of Cortés' attempts to discover California, the entry of the Jesuits and the missions until the death of Father Kino in 1711. The third book talks about other missions. The fourth book includes the praise of some worthy men of California and the state of that Christendom on the eve of the expulsion of the Jesuits.

Challenging dogma with quill and wit, Clavijero's “Dissertations” sparked intellectual fireworks across the Atlantic.
Challenging dogma with quill and wit, Clavijero's “Dissertations” sparked intellectual fireworks across the Atlantic. Credit: Wikipedia

Exaltation and Defense of America

Clavijero, as a man of the eighteenth century, has awakened his conscience as an inhabitant of New Spain and as an American at the same time. The Jesuit gives arguments in which he proposes human equality. He starts from the idea that equality has nothing to do with the physical structure of a human being, but that it is a creation of our spirit, a value. He explains that the situation in Europe is different because of the difference in its physical conditions. He does this based on an argument against the proposals of Pauw, of whom he first presented a summary of his thesis:

Pauw wants to persuade the world that in America nature has degenerated entirely in the elements, in plants, animals and men. […] All of America's own are smaller, more deformed and weaker, more cowardly and more stupid than those of the Old World, and those who moved there from elsewhere, immediately degenerated, as well as all the plants of Europe transplanted to America.
The men […] are brutish and weak and subject to many extravagant diseases, caused by the unhealthy climate. But even if their bodies are so, their souls are even more imperfect. They lack memory […] they do not know how to reflect or order their ideas […] Their moral vices correspond to these physical defects. Drunkenness, lying and sodomy were common […] They lived without laws. The few arts they knew were very coarse. Agriculture was among them entirely abandoned […] In all the New World there were only two cities: Cuzco […] and Mexico […] and these two were but two miserable villages.

Clavijero attacks these arguments about the degeneration of America:

[…] he has collected all the filth, that is, the errors of all the others. If my expressions seem a little strong, it is because there is no need to be gentle with a man who insults the whole New World and the most respectable people of the Old World.

Furthermore, Clavijero demonstrates that the Indians are exactly equal to the whites in intelligence, and even surpass by far the European thinkers of his time, and he does not fail to note the humiliations, servitude, oppression, contempt, mistreatment, discomfort, misery, to which the Indians have been reduced. José Joaquín Blanco notes the “enlightened” mechanisms of European justification to subjugate America and Clavijero's position in the face of these ideas:

Natural history occupies a role as important as human history, because if once the rapture of a continent was justified with theological reasons, now illustrated justifications were invented, starting with Bufón; an infantile territory, barely emerged from the waters and still with a tropic more aquatic than terrestrial. Clavijero insists on the uniformity of the human race and the weighted rank of nature: if in America there were no horses, neither in Europe did Asian nor African elephants proliferate; if here there was no wheat, there was no corn […] Clavijero also, with his own work, refutes the false historiography […] with which officially the Spaniards and Novo-Hispanics explained and justified the conquest, the dominion over almost the entire continent and its policies, through miraculous fables [...] and heroic encomiums like chivalric novels. In the face of the books of American history published until then in Spain, the incredulity and sarcasm of the foreign scholars, who began to question everything and to answer speculatively, since there was no empirical data […] Clavijero was rightly indignant that the non-Spanish scholars wrote about what they did not know, were justified.

In the Ancient History of Mexico, Clavijero describes the laws, customs, politics, economy, sciences and arts of the Mexicans to show us a nation that had reached a high degree of civilization. It was more so in the long pages he devoted to studying the religion of the Mexicans in which he showed that their worship, myths and gods revealed the advanced state of that civilization. In this fundamental aspect of his work, Clavijero had a more modern anthropological vision of past cultures than his Spanish contemporaries, for whom the religious myths of the peoples they had conquered were only an indication of a primitive and backward, if not demonic, mentality. On the other hand, for our Jesuit -as for Vico- the mythology of a people, even if it was condemnable for its idolatrous abominations, was an invaluable source to know the stages they had gone through towards the universal divine truth.

Clavijero does not stop and describes the religious rituals of the Mexicans with all crudeness; he also points out that they already possessed an idea of the Supreme God that, although imperfect, had brought them little by little closer to the truth. This achievement of their culture made them equal and even superior to the ancient peoples of the Old Continent who had also had religious ceremonies as inhuman as those of the Mexicans, but whose gods, on the other hand, were characterized by that accumulation of “astonishing perversities” that did not exist among the Mexican divinities, who “honored virtues, not vices”. His conclusion is surprising:

If one compares […] the religion of the Mexicans with that of the Greeks and Romans, one will find that the latter is more superstitious and ridiculous; the former more barbaric and bloodthirsty. Those famous nations of ancient Europe multiplied their gods excessively because of the disadvantageous idea they had of their power; they reduced their empire to narrow limits; they attributed to them the most atrocious crimes and solemnized their cult with execrable impurities that the fathers of Christianity rightly censured.

We thus see that Clavijero compares the ancient religions and their rites with that of the Mexicans, which is nothing new, since Las Casas and Sahagún had already done so; Clavijero is heir to Las Casas and Sahagún in the defense of America against the exterminating culture of Europe. If before the pretext for conquest and exploitation had been the Gospel, now it was the “enlightenment”; if the American sins of the XVI century were idolatry and anthropophagy, now it was “Spanish obscurantism” and “indigenous savagery”. The good savage only meant an infantile animal that had to be used as a beast of burden.

For Clavijero all men are equal, and only education and injustice separate them; the indigenous culture was grandiose and superior to the Mediterranean ones in its first epochs: a different civilization because of its own natural and human traits, not because of demonic invention; but they are not inferior to Europeans; the ancient religion of the Indians was not entirely diabolical, although it was idolatrous, the climate, nature, animals, minerals, the Indian landscape is different (in that the four seasons are not distinguished in Mexico, for example).

In addition, the Jesuit turns his eyes towards his homeland and devotes himself to the task of investigating it scientifically. He does not need much effort to discover that his homeland is rich in natural resources and that it is distinguished by its beauty, which has nothing to envy the Old World.

On the other hand, Clavijero becomes nationally conscious by reviving the pre-Hispanic past, and rehabilitating the personality of the indigenous and mestizo population from the infamous slanders directed against them. Even, as a basic factor of Mexican nationalism, one can observe in the historian a denial of Spain which is clearly noticeable in the aspect of religion. Clavijero goes back to the writings of Sigúenza and his affirmations that Quetzalcoatl was the apostle Saint Thomas “who preached the gospel in those countries”. About this, Clavijero says:

Many writers of the things of Mexico have believed that some centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards the Gospel had been preached in America. This is based on the codices found in different places and times before the arrival of the conquistadors […],

and ends prudently, without affirming, but neither denying these opinions:

I have never been of such an opinion, but the examination of this point requires a very different work from the present one.

In addition to denying the Spanish, Clavijero attacks European enlightenment ideas because, as we know, the “century of lights” was profoundly racist, European-centric and anti-humanist. Clavijero fights against an enlightenment that is the pretext to subjugate America. He demonstrates the ignorance and obscurantism in many aspects of the European enlightenment. And in his dissertations he writes:

[…] How many, on reading, for example, the researches of Mr. Pauw, will not fill their heads with absurd ideas contrary to what I say in my History? That writer is a fashionable philosopher; a learned man in certain matters in which it is better for him to be ignorant, or at least to be silent, he enhances his discussions with buffoonery and maledictions, ridiculing everything and biting all those who come before him, without any respect for innocence and truth; they decide frankly, and in a masterly tone […].

In Clavijero's time, science and its methods were like universal postulates. But it is precisely this universal presupposition that is unbalanced in its dominance in the face of adversity or similarities that accentuate the differences between the New and the Old World. The universal, proposed as such from the European localism, clashes with the American local, which is irreducible. It is at this point that the battle is gestated. This is the background of Clavijero's reaction: the modern European enlightened and encyclopedic scholars have erected their theoretical postulates as archetypes to which even the American reality must be adjusted. If the reality of the New World did not match such postulates, so much the worse for that reality.

In Clavijero the European incomprehension is established and, in the face of his partial view, he shows that the indigenous and the American have their own rationality. That is to say, he presents the indigenous as different from the European. To this, we must add that Clavijero discovers, or rather, rediscovers his past. Thanks to his developed historical knowledge, he has a deep concern for preserving the manifestations of the past as an important element of the present. It is necessary to know and understand this past and not allow it to be forgotten.

I would now like to complain amicably to the individuals of this body about the neglect of our ancestors regarding the history of our country. It is true that there were very worthy men who worked hard to illustrate Mexican antiquity and left us precious writings about it. It is also true that there was in that University a professor of antiquities in charge of explaining the characters and figures of the Mexican paintings because it was so significant to decide in the courts the lawsuits about the ownership of lands and about the nobility of some Indian families; but from this, my complaints arise. Why has that chair not been preserved […] I hope that […] you will try to preserve the remains of the antiquity of our country, […].

A constantly recurring theme is the praise of the Indians. By Pauw's accusations, there was a need to emphasize the splendor of the Indians before the Conquest, to affirm the full value of those of the time. If such a glorious past could be proved, it would come to refute the calumnies against the Indians in the present. Clavijero presents enthusiastic descriptions of the ancient Indians, their character, their education and their love of the fine arts.

The state of culture in which the Spaniards found the Mexicans far exceeds that of the Spaniards themselves when they were known to the Greeks, the Romans, the Ger-Mans and the Bretons!

The use of the attribute “Mexican” when referring to the pre-Hispanic nations is remarkable. It reflects the author's sense of self-identification with those peoples. References to the perfection and beauty of the “Mexican language” abound. He emphasizes its richness, its flexibility and ease “because it depended on fixed and easy rules, in terms that I do not believe there is one that exceeds it in method and regularity.” All this praise of the language served to refute the irrationality of the Indian, especially by demonstrating that his language has abstract expressions.

What the Jesuit could neither tolerate nor justify were human sacrifices. Nevertheless, he did not repudiate them unconditionally, but tried to understand and explain them by comparing them with other ancient peoples.

To conclude, we can affirm that in Francisco Javier Clavijero we find that the past was solidly affirmed within a consciousness of Mexicanity and an affirmation of the present through the past. The polemics in which he stands up against the European slanders about the inferiority of the New Continent and its inhabitants contributed to the awakening of the historian's conscience as an American, which coincides with the germination of the Mexican conscience.

Full Citation: Blanca E. Sanz Martín, Clavijero: exaltación y defensa de América, Correo del Maestro. No. 53, 47-52.