Have you ever imitated a bear? Perhaps not intentionally. Still, if you are typical, you may do so routinely.
And it’s all because of your acnestis.
When I first saw the word, I thought it might be some recently coined term to address a semi-serious subject. But, the word is neither new, nor is the dilemma it describes exaggerated.
From the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary.
That part of the spine in quadrupeds which extends from the metaphrenon, between the shoulder blades, to the loins; which the animal cannot reach to scratch.*
While most human beings may not replicate bears’ behavior with trees, it is not uncommon to seek relief from a handy doorjamb.
Scratching that unreachable epicenter of that infernal itch has motivated the creation of a variety of tools. Yet none of these instruments can match the sheer relief offered by a sturdy doorway. I doubt I am alone, or excessively ursine, for believing that.
It could be worse, of course. At least people (most of them) don’t follow the example of dogs. We’ve all seen how they use the excuse of scratching their backs, to justify picking up unsavory scents while they wriggle around on the ground.
Descending to Subhuman Levels
Emulating animals has implications extending far beyond physical considerations. It is one thing to share a mutual appreciation for scratching one’s acnestis. Quite another to echo their baser natures.
In one of his letters, the Apostle Peter considers the fate of false prophets. After describing the damnation of fallen angels, he writes about those who teach deceitful doctrines. “But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed . . .” (2 Peter 2:12, ESV).
The following passage from the Psalms reveals how even the righteous are not immune to behaving like animals. “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you [God]. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. . . . My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:21-23, 26, ESV).
God’s word is filled with allusions to bestial behaviors. One of the most literal is found in the example of the humiliation of the great King Nebuchadnezzar. You can read it here, from the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel.
What Distinguishes Us from the Beasts?
C.S. Lewis describes how being a true human being differentiates us from animals. We share physical natures and numerous biological similarities. But we are far more. Lewis explores this in The Abolition of Man, which begins with the chapter “Men Without Chests.”
This image of lacking a “chest” actually refers to a classical reference for the part of a person where our character or virtue resides.
The excerpt below addresses how the enlightened or morally educated individual is capable of transcending the slavery of animals to their fleshly nature.
Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.
In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.
We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’
The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.
The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
It is wise, I believe, for every man and woman to devote themselves to the health and of their own heart and purpose—that which makes us human.
In doing so, we will still share some of the basic behaviors of the animal world about us, such as being plagued by our acnestis . . . but the choices that direct the course of our lives will no longer be dictated solely by carnal instincts.
And such growth, my friends, will make us each day, a little bit more human.
* I realize Noah Webster limited his definition to quadrupeds, but today it has been expanded to aptly apply to all of us who suffer from this curse.