the american nightmare

Blanca Alaníz, series Velos de color sobre el commerce, digitalized analog photography, Mexico City, 2020


The colonization of the Americas and the Myth of Modernity made the native guilty and the colonizer innocent.

There were seven months of Spanish presence in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan[I], when in May 1520 the messengers of the captive Emperor Montezuma reported the arrival of a new Hispanic armada on the coast, containing about 1.200 soldiers. The news did not please Hernán Cortés, leader of the conquering enterprise, who knew he was being pursued for insubordination (his expedition to the Aztec Empire had been revoked days after his departure), and precisely for that reason it caught the attention of Montezuma, who saw in that window an opportunity to save your city.

The last six months before this event had been marked by an atmosphere of increasing tension between the natives and the invaders. Initially curious, they became increasingly disconcerted by each other.

The Aztecs, before the arrival of Hernán Cortés, believed they were living at the end of the so-called “Fifth Sun”, one of their eras, each one marked by its own sun. In this context, they faced a clash between (i) the sacrificial myth, characterized by militaristic and expansionist domination that positioned them as the largest urban civilization in America north of the Equator; and (ii) the protophilosophy of the tlamantini intellectuals, who were taking big steps towards a highly conceptual and abstract rationalization of reality.[ii] Together with the latter, the Emperor Montezuma, notably a spiritual man, was aligned with greater force.

There was a belief for the Aztecs that the end of Quinto Sol would come with the arrival of the god Quetzalcoatl, an entity represented by a serpent with feathers or a man with beards. From this point of view, the arrival of Hernán Cortés at the gates of the city caused a real shock to the empire, which was seen by many as a sign of bad omen, being himself a man with a beard.

Montezuma, at first, believed that Hernán Cortés would be the god Quetzalcoatl and offered the newcomer nothing less than his throne, his government and his city. Cortés did not understand and did not accept any of this, so that the emperor felt great anguish.[iii]. If they offered food with blood, Cortes refused. If gold ornaments were offered, he destroyed the ornaments, leaving only the precious metal.

This led Montezuma to believe that Cortés was not the god. But could it be some kind of representative? What would that mean? If they were human, was their life at risk? There were a lot of choices to make and little room to maneuver. When he was taken captive in his palace, Montezuma turned his efforts to the preservation of his city.[iv].

In light of this, when word spread that there was a new armada anchored off the coast, the Aztec chief became fully aware that the Spaniards were human.[v]. He was aware for the first time that there were others like Cortés and he saw in this gap an opportunity to save his people. If Hernán left with his peers, everything would end well, and this invitation was extended.

When Montezuma politely suggested that Hernán Cortés leave his palace and his city, he realized in the face of the Spaniard's refusal that the situation was about to become a nightmare.

Not only did Cortés leave Lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado in charge of the city, who carried out a massacre against the most distressed Aztec elite, but also a month later the conqueror returned triumphant against his pursuers and with his army reinforced.

These events proved Montezuma wrong and tipped the Aztec scales towards the military side: they should resist the invasion with all available weapons. But it was too late, the resistance did not work and little more than a year later the city fell to the siege of Hernán Cortés. The collision between the worlds sealed the fate of the entire American continent, thus beginning the modernizing nightmare marked by a Myth of Rationality, in the words of the Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel: bloodthirsty, irrational, violent and covering up everything else that was not European, including European descendants born in America.

And what do we Americans, half a millennium after this historic event, need to understand about this meeting?

Before delving into the question posed, it is necessary to consider Hegel's dialectic and phenomenology, essential as a theoretical instrument used to answer it in this essay.

Thus, firstly, in opposition to Kant's transcendental notion of criticism, which saw it as a reflection on the limits and conditions of possibility for any experience, Hegel formulated a different set of ideas. For him, criticism means understanding the genesis of what appears to be endowed with validity. That is: what appears to us as something established, a way of knowing, acting or judging, must be analyzed in its genesis.

Hegel opposed the transcendental thought that there would be primary conditions for any experience, to the extent that whoever speaks of a transcendental condition, speaks of an “ahistorical” condition, that is, something that will always be the same, in which there will be no time, there will be no time. historicity.

Hegelian thought, in turn, has as its most notable contribution the insistence that any and all normativity that is presented to us as “necessary” has a “genesis”, which not only justifies the need for this validity, but a genesis that makes explicit what normativity seeks to imply. By emphasizing this insistence and presenting the search for the genesis, a critique is made of what is presented to us as absolutely evident, necessary and, in short, “natural”. Moreover, it is impossible to get away from the historicity that marks the succession of events.

Added to this, in order to operationalize this investigation of the genesis and significant evolution, Hegel recovered the Greek concept of dialectic, modifying it in a decisive way. His philosophy can be understood as the realization of the concept of dialectic in its movement from the “concept” to culminating in the “idea”, recovering the historicity of events. This development even has a specific geographical direction, it goes from East to West.[vi]

It explains itself.

Historically, dialectics is associated with the history of philosophy in Greece. It comes from the Greek term that talks about the art of dialoguing with reason. It is present in the Socratic maieutics, as a way of entering the other's thought and making him enter into contradiction within his own reasoning, reducing it to absurdity, and it is also defined by Plato as: “This one who knows how to interrogate and answer even achieve clarification of general principles.

Plato points out that dialectics as a process serves to destroy hypotheses until we reach a principle. For all these reasons, dialectics was associated, even in the medieval experience, much more with the idea of ​​rhetoric than logic, linked to the art of reasoning. Able to reach apparently right conclusions, although not truly connected to logic.

Hegel recovers the concept of dialectic in a suggestive and peculiar way. Not just from the medieval principles of “thesis, antithesis and synthesis”, but as spirit of contradiction. Thus, the Hegelian dialectic is the spirit of organized contradiction, that is, a way of thinking in which contradiction is the engine of thought.

This is counterintuitive to us, because in common sense contradiction is precisely what stops and interrupts thought. Hegel, in turn, brought contradiction to the level of “thought in motion”. This movement is based on the following process: first, it produces something that destroys the very concept of what one thinks; then the destruction, then, causes a second movement that is the “return to oneself”, thus integrating the concept to another plateau.

The movement, therefore, is horizontal, going to extremes, but also ascending, in the formation of a new concept marked by an increase in the degree of complexity after self-denial. In a model: you can imagine an upward spiral.

Thus, Hegel's "experience" is the process through which something alienates itself, places itself in what would be its negative, and then returns from that alienation with a new meaning. Without a defined temporality, there is no historical criterion for the duration of this process.

And this is the true movement that determines the invasion of America in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, which still lacks understanding about the genesis that is actually absorbed by current societies, beyond the apparent.

Just as Hegel had his own understanding enlightened when he witnessed the invasion of Napoleon's troops into the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, bringing with it the Enlightenment, three hundred years earlier, in 1492, another invasion forever determined the fate of America and Europe. , as well as triggering the construction of the European ego and the American mindset. And it is about it that we still need to reflect dialectically.

At this point, the Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel[vii] is one of the most important voices in the movement to understand what this meeting meant.

What Dussel sought to demonstrate in his book “1492: from the concealment of the other to the origin of the myth of modernity” is that, although Europeans theorized on a large scale that the origin of modernity occurred with the (i) Protestant Reformation, (ii) the Enlightenment and (iii) the French Revolution; in fact there was another event much more decisive for this creation: the conquest of America.

In this way, it starts from an intense dialogue with the Mexican historian O'Gorman[viii], to explore the different existential experiences of the praxis of the European invasion of America and the consequent physical colonization of bodies and spiritual colonization of minds. In summary, both agree that the understanding that a new continent had been discovered in 1507 projected the European ego towards this huge and new portion of land with a covering and Eurocentric force.

From this analysis, Dussel fixed what he called the Myth of Modernity, which is characterized by a gigantic inversion, namely: the innocent victim of the conquest (the natives) and colonization is transformed into a culprit, while the victimizer is transformed in innocent.

From the justification that modernity would be emancipatory, two foundations were founded that supported the action[ix] of the conquerors in America, namely: (i) European culture is more developed than other cultures; (ii) other cultures emerging from their underdevelopment is a good thing for them, and should be promoted by those who are more developed.

From this understanding, the basis for three achievements was removed: European domination as a pedagogical action, with necessary violence (just war) and justifiable; conquest is an innocent act that deserves laurels; and the conquered and colonized victims being the ones to blame for their conquest and for the violence exercised against them, since they could have “come out of barbarism” by themselves, but they didn't.

In this idea, modernity, which in its rational core is the emancipation of humanity from its state of cultural and civilizing immaturity, was replaced by a Myth that, on a global horizon, annihilated men and women from the peripheral and colonial world. Victimization was covered up with the argument that sacrifice would be the cost of modernization.

The Myth of Modernity, in short, is marked by extreme irrationality and justification for all kinds of crimes. Therefore, it is up to us, descendants of these lands, to make the dialectical interpretation of the original event of what exists here today to delimit the horizon that should serve us to transcend an act of liberation and example to the rest of societies.

When there is a meeting of worlds, the result can no longer be one or the other. We are something else, a new level of complexity constructed dialectically by history. We, descendants in this land, from different places, from the events that took place here, from this historical process, are, after understanding the villainy of the Myth of Modernity, the possibility of reconfiguration of the meaning of human development as the maximum congregation among peoples.

We are not Europe, and we are not the America of the natives either, so the search for answers exclusively focused on one of these ancient extremes of contradiction will not achieve good results. We are the possibility, now, of denying everything that represents the genesis of the myth of modernity in its implicit meanings.

Where there was massacre, it is necessary to sow tolerance. When carnage has been allowed, dialogue must be incorporated. For when annihilation and slavery were justified, it is necessary to respond with dignity and freedom. While this does not happen in full, we will continue living within the American nightmare that started with Montezuma and Cortés.

*Vitor Piazzarollo Loureiro is a master's student at the Department of Philosophy and General Theory of Law at FD-USP.


HEGEL, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by AV Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. (Part BB. Spirit, pp. 266-409).

HEGEL, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Philosophy of law. Translation by Paulo Meneses et. al. São Leopoldo: Editora Unisinos, 2010 (Second Part, pp. 129-166; and Third Part, Third Section, pp. 229-314).

DUSSEL, Enrique. 1492: El Encubrimiento del Otro: hacia el origen del “mito de la Modernidad”. La Paz: Plural, 1994.

LEVINAS, Emmanuel. Between us: essays on otherness. Translation by Pergentino Stefano Pivitto et. al. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 1997 (Essays Philosophy, justice and love; Unintentional consciousness; From one to the other, transcendence and time; Human rights and good will; Dialogue on thinking-in-the-other; On the idea of ​​infinity in us; The other, utopia and justice).


Schematic model of Tenochtitlan.



[I] Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec Empire where Mexico City is today. It was one of the most impressive cities of that period, with an estimated 200 to 300 inhabitants, second only to Constantinople in Europe.

[ii] For example, for the Tlamantini the absolute and eternal origin of humanity was not “one”, but rather “dual”. In the origin, there was divine-duality. For them, the origin was metaphorically co-determined by a “men-woman” entity. Something that was not created by anything, but invented itself. There was, moreover, a tragic thinking of the story, with little freedom for randomness. In their thinking, all human events would be predetermined in advance. The consequence of this was the scheduling and organization of a rhythm for life, but also the possibility of ensuring the foundation of its existence.

[iii] The Mexican historian O'Gorman even mentions that according to historical sources Hernán Cortés considered the Aztec emissaries too effeminate.

[iv] Hernán Cortés came to govern the city through the use of Montezuma as his puppet. This deeply irritated the Aztec elite, who were restrained by the emperor in their militaristic desires and promoted friction in relations.

[v] The fleet mentioned here was commanded by Pánfilo de Narváez, at the behest of the governor of Cuba Diego Velazquez de Cuellar with the aim of interrupting Cortés' invasion. Although he outnumbered Cortés 3 to 1, Pánfilo was defeated and taken prisoner.

[vi] Although it is not really the scope of this essay, it is important to mention that different important authors disagree with this view formulated by Hegel that there would necessarily be a path of history. Including this author.

[vii] Enrique Dussel is an Argentine philosopher based in Mexico whose contribution is the thought around the creation of a philosophy of alterity, that is, a philosophy based on truly understanding the neighbor as a being different from us, in a way that interacts and includes others. respecting their subjectivity.

[viii] This, in turn, of intense Heideggerian inclination.

[ix] which later pervaded most of the major European schools of thought.

See this link for all articles