The Bigot and the Beast
“We shall acquiesce in no state of affairs in which the bigot is on top” – Nietzsche, on being a revolutionary, Ecce Homo.
You only have to spend a little time on some of the public discussion forums to come to the distressing conclusion that decades, even generations, of public education have done little to redeem some people from bigotry — from unreasonableness or from bigoted attitudes. It’s even more distressing to realise that, on the contrary, public education seems rather to have empowered the bigoted mind with new tools for focussing, justifying, and rationalising bigotry.
The bigoted mind is the self-righteous mind. Although the origins of the word “bigot” are somewhat obscure, it is thought by some to derive from the name “Visigoth”, or the Western Goths – one of the Germanic tribes that overran the Roman Empire (the other branch of the Goths being the “Ostrogoths” or Eastern Goths). Given what we know of Visigoth attitudes towards themselves (self-aggrandising — as being “the good” or “the noble” ones) and, conversely, to the peoples they subjugated (as generally fit only for slavery), it seems a reasonable conjecture that their haughty attitudes made an impression, and that the word “bigot” would not only be derived from “Visigoth”, but that something of that self-aggrandising attitude during the centuries of Visigoth rule was passed on historically from generation to generation, for there is something of the older Visigoth conceit in the Nazis’ master-race doctrines.
“Visi” or “Wesi” could mean “west,” or it could mean also “the noble”, “the better”, “the worthy”, “the excellent”, so that eventually the two meanings of “West” and “best” seem to have become conflated. But whatever the actual line of transmission and descent, Visigoth self-aggrandising and bigoted attitudes – maybe “vanity” or “conceit” are the equally appropriate terms – still seem to inform the attitudes of large segments of contemporary Western opinion (I have in mind, here, the neo-conservative and neo-imperialist historian Niall Ferguson, or the unregenerate cultural Cold Warrior Samuel Huntington, he of “the clash of civilisations” notoriety). And when the Visigoths converted to Christianity, they simply transposed their sense of their own innate superiority as “the better” into “the righteous”.
So, it seems reasonable to me that the word “bigot” might be derived from “Visigoth”.
That there is something here, moreover, of the general human condition of narcissism seems evident. The Greeks also considered themselves the noble ones, and considered anyone who didn’t speak Greek as being barbaroi — barbarians or babblers or, as “hairy” ones, as “those who babble through their beards” (the word is connected to our “barber”. The Biblical Esau is also known as “the hairy one”, and a tradition of Biblical exegesis has it that “Esau” – the “Red Head” – and “Edom” are really a symbol of the European barbarian).
For such reasons, I have heard people insist that “bigotry is natural”, even if it appears in the form of the self-righteous mind. But regardless of whether bigotry or self-righteousness is “natural” or not, that doesn’t make it reasonable. Here again, in suggesting that bigotry is natural, we meet that distressing reductionist tendency to collapse the meaning of “reasonable” into the meaning “natural”, giving credence to “the naked ape” view of human nature, this conflation reflecting Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism – “all higher values devalue themselves”. The reasonable demoted to the natural makes of the human just a caricature of an ape.
Something of that constant reductionism and nihilism creeps, often unobserved, into everyday, ordinary conversation. Here, for example, is Mouse commenting to Neo in a scene from The Matrix,
Mouse: The woman in the red dress. I designed her. She, ah, she doesn’t talk very much, but, if you’d like to meet her, I can arrange a much more personal milieu.
Switch: The digital pimp, hard at work.
Mouse: Pay no attention to these hypocrites, Neo. To deny our own impulses is to deny the very things that make us human.
Denying our impulses, so Mouse avers, becomes equivalent to denying our humanity. This seemingly innocent remark actually masks a deep confusion about “the naked ape” and what it means to be human, for it assumes that the very things that make an ape an ape (acting impulsively), are also the very same things that make a human human, too. There’s an assumption of equivalence. Implicit in Mouse’s remark is the very assumption that the reasonable and the natural are completely identical, and this has become an exceedingly dangerous dogma.
“He who plays the angel plays the beast”, noted Pascal in a critique of the righteous mind and the bigot, testifying in that statement to what Carl Jung, following Heraclitus, was later to call “enantiodromia” or reversal of fortune at the extremity. (Enantiodromia or reversal at the extremity: that is also the meaning of many of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” –, eg “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise”).
And insofar as the mind, affecting angelic virtues, had become dissociated and estranged from the body (and therewith, nature and the processes of life also), the “naked ape” thesis is quite serviceable and sobering to remind us again of our shared creaturehood and embodiedness, and as an antidote to excessive self-regard. And perhaps it was necessary to carry it to such reductionist extremes in order to make an impression at all on minds that had become far too “angelic” as it were, far too “moralising”, far too righteous, far too smug, far too bigoted, far too abstracted and distracted, and far too alienated and dis-identified from their own rich life process as a consequence.
But in the extremity it has also itself become just another form of self-estrangement and dissociation. Mouse has it precisely wrong. His assumption is that the recovery of our true humanity – and lost “innocence” — comes from becoming more ape-like, more “natural”, more impulsive, but consequently less reasonable, less disciplined, less responsible, less conscious.
Angel or Beast, both are sterile. Both end in stagnation.
The interesting thing is, no one in the film rises to object to Mouse’s philosophy. It’s almost accepted as the “common sense”. But, in the end, his own lack of wisdom and insight into what really makes us human makes him a dispensable character in the narrative. His very name, “Mouse”, and his own shy and nervous demeanour, his adolescence and very lack of a real human maturity, demonstrates that his ‘naked ape’ philosophy has done him no good whatsoever, but has, in fact, crippled him for any kind of further spiritual growth. He remains the puer aeternas – the eternal boy.
So, it’s exit, stage right for Mouse: or into what is called “the dustbin of history”. He was not the type to inherit the earth and redeem it from mechanism, and so he was (quite literally) written out of the Book of Life – (or at least out of the script). Mouse demonstrates only that the “naked ape” thesis is inadequate, and although revealing of man’s biological heritage and infancy in the womb of nature, is nonetheless ultimately a dead end — sterile and fruitless.
If the intent of the naked ape (and the Freudian) thesis was to humble man’s over-exaggerated estimate of his own importance and value in the universe – the narcissism of righteousness — it has also diminished with that his own sense of responsibility, and consequently, equally blocked his pathway to a fuller human maturity and spiritual development.
The zig-zag path between vain self-regard and the naked ape is the path of dualistic thinking and its tedious pendulum of history. It is not yet that straight path that Buddhism calls “the Middle Way”.