CulturePolitics and Current Events

“Apocalypto” and the Exhaustion of a Culture

A few weeks ago, my wife and I sat down on a Friday night to watch Mel Gibson’s 2006 action flick Apocalypto. I hadn’t seen the film since college, and back then I was far more interested in chase scenes through the Yucatán jungle and brutal battles with snarling jaguars. What struck me upon revisiting the movie, though, was something quite different.

About halfway through the film, our hero—a hunter peacefully dwelling on the edge of the Mayan empire—is captured and dragged in chains to the heart of the Mayans’ capital city. As he is marched from his secluded village back to the Mayan capital, the land around him changes: the lush greenery of the deep forest gives way to sterile white limestone quarries, dusty streets, and massively deforested clearings. To make matters worse, plague stalks the populace.

At the center of the Mayan city is a massive pyramid temple, and our hero is promptly forced up the temple steps for sacrifice. At the apex of the temple, prisoner after prisoner has his heart torn out and held up for the sun god’s pleasure. Then the prisoners’ heads are struck off with an axe, making a hideous thud-thud-thud sound as, one after another, they roll down the steps of the pyramid. What makes the scene truly haunting is the sense that the sacrificial ritual has already been going on for quite some time—that there’s no real plan or purpose behind the violence, and that our hero has simply been dragged into a ritual of slaughter that never ends.

Historically speaking, of course, there was a grim logic to this practice: in Mesoamerican religious culture, a steady supply of human sacrifice was necessary to sustain the life of the sun—and without this mass death, the whole world would cease to be. But nevertheless, the overwhelming sense of late Mayan society that pervades the film is one of cultural exhaustion—the sense that its glory days are long behind it, that it has few conceptual resources with which to advance, and that it has become obsessed with its own perpetuation above all else. Put another way, the Mayan regime Apocalypto depicts is characterized by the absence of what political philosophers Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister would call the “extrinsic common good” of a given political order—that ultimate destination toward which human striving, both individually and communally, is directed. 

In pondering the implications of this idea, I found myself revisiting a particularly memorable line from David Bentley Hart’s contentious book That All Shall Be Saved. In a throwaway aside, Hart decries the tendency of some people to engage in hyparxeology—a neologism referring to the worship of mere bare subsistence, rather than the pursuit of well-being in the fulsome sense. When I first read this, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The convertibility of being and goodness is, after all, an axiom of classical Christian thought—as Hart is well aware.

 But I think when contemplated in conjunction with Apocalypto’s grim vision of Mayan life, a clearer sense of the concept begins to emerge. To speak of the “sin of hyparxeolatry” is simply to acknowledge that nothing can long thrive once it turns its attention to perpetuating itself and lacks any larger purpose. Doing so, after all, is equivalent to asserting that one is essentially perfect as is.

 Change and transformation, of course, are painful things. But to truly seek God is to seek ever-greater union with Him—even when that union means we cannot keep going on as we are, and must instead become who we are intended to be. Simple subsistence on our own terms is never enough—and demanding that right is how individuals and cultures end up incurvatus in se, nihilistically turned in on themselves. And this is a hard—yet, it seems to me, essential—truth.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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