What does it say about me that I didn’t know what ‘idiot’ meant?

idiot word cloud

I love discovering things about words. I love it the way… well, probably the way some of y’all like football. I get a rush out of it, and I can’t stop talking about it.

The discovery I made this morning is a big one, full of meaning, a discovery that sends tentacles of understanding into a lot of things that matter to me. It ranks up there among my most exciting word finds ever, right alongside when I learned the word “esoteric” in high school. (For years I had wanted a word for that concept, and I finally had one. I confess I overused it for some time after that.)

This morning, I learned what “idiot” means. Or rather, what it meant originally, which for me tends to be the same thing.

I can’t believe I didn’t know this before. I feel like such an… well, you know….

I learned it from TV, of all places. At the very end of the fourth and last installment of the documentary mini-series “Bobby Kennedy for President,” which I was watching while working out on the elliptical this morning. At the very end, Kennedy aide William J. Arnone says:

One thing that Robert Kennedy taught me, Robert Kennedy would say, ‘The word, “idiot” in Greek, you know what it means? “One who is not involved in politics.”‘ But he instilled in me that you must be involved in politics. Must, must, must. You cannot be on the sidelines.

I thought, wow — that’s just too good to be true. But it isn’t. That’s what it meant to the ancient Athenians. A person who wrapped himself in the personal, the private, and turned his back on politics and the community was called an “idiot.” Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Idiot is a word derived from the Greek ἰδιώτηςidiōtēs (“person lacking professional skill”, “a private citizen”, “individual”), from ἴδιοςidios (“private”, “one’s own”).[1] In ancient Greece, people who were not capable of engaging in the public sphere were considered “idiotes”, in contrast to the public citizen, or “polites”[2]. In Latin the word idiota (“ordinary person, layman”) preceded the Late Latin meaning “uneducated or ignorant person”.[3] Its modern meaning and form dates back to Middle English around the year 1300, from the Old French idiote (“uneducated or ignorant person”). The related word idiocy dates to 1487 and may have been analogously modeled on the words prophet[4] and prophecy.[5][6] The word has cognates in many other languages.

An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs.[7] Idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education.[7] In Athenian democracy, idiots were born and citizens were made through education (although citizenship was also largely hereditary). “Idiot” originally referred to a “layman, person lacking professional skill”. Declining to take part in public life, such as democratic government of the polis (city state), was considered dishonorable. “Idiots” were seen as having bad judgment in public and political matters. Over time, the term “idiot” shifted away from its original connotation of selfishness and came to refer to individuals with overall bad judgment–individuals who are “stupid“. According to the Bauer-Danker Lexicon, the noun ίδιωτής in ancient Greek meant “civilian” (ref Josephus Bell 2 178), “private citizen” (ref sb 3924 9 25), “private soldier as opposed to officer,” (Polybius 1.69), “relatively unskilled, not clever,” (Herodotus 2,81 and 7 199).[8] The military connotation in Bauer’s definition stems from the fact that ancient Greek armies in the time of total war mobilized all male citizens (to the age of 50) to fight, and many of these citizens tended to fight poorly and ignorantly.

Wow. My whole life, I have tried to learn and become one of the polites, and to urge others to do the same — with mixed success on both counts. Often I’ve done so overtly, such as when I set out my dichotomy about the contrast between people who see themselves as consumers and those who see themselves as citizens. Sometimes it’s less overt, but I’m always arguing that one of the first things a person must learn as a member of a community is how we are all inescapably connected. (Not that we should be, but that we are. And politics is what we do in light of that fact.) To me, becoming a fully realized, worthwhile human being is to a great extent about understanding and embracing that connection, becoming a fully mature member of a community and seeking ways to make community interactions more positively effective.

All this time, all these words, and I didn’t know until today that a person who pursued the opposite of that was, from the dawn of Western civilization, called an “idiot.” Right up until the late 19th century, when it started to mean a person of very low intelligence.

By the way, in researching this, I found this piece, which led this way:

In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, respondents were asked what word immediately came to mind when they thought of Donald Trump: The No. 1 response was “idiot.” This was followed by “incompetent,” “liar,” “leader,” “unqualified,” and finally, in sixth place, “president.” Superlatives like “great” and a few unprintable descriptives came further down on the list. But let us focus on the first.

Contemporary uses of the word “idiot” usually highlight a subject’s lack of intelligence, ignorance, foolishness or buffoonery. The word’s etymological roots, however, going back to ancient Greece, suggest that, in the case of the president, it may be even more apropos than it might first seem….

And of course, the original sense of the word speaks to the objection I have to Trump. He is a man who spent the first 70 years of his life pursuing his own private interests and satisfying his own appetites. Almost everything about the ways he violates presidential, political and moral norms arises from that utter inexperience in, and disdain for, civic life. He has shown a sort of idiot savant (to use the word a different way) flair for a certain kind of politics, but it arises from a lifetime of avid self-promotion, and therefore arises from his pursuit of private rather than public benefit. (In Star Wars terms, you might say the Dark Side of politics is strong with this one.)

This is fascinating. So much more can be said about it, but I’ll stop now and share this much with you…

9 thoughts on “What does it say about me that I didn’t know what ‘idiot’ meant?

  1. bud

    Sure words are interesting and fun. Who doesn’t like a good crossword puzzle? But I find numbers much, much more interesting and useful for making decisions.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Numbers can’t tell you that Trump is an idiot, either in the ancient or modern senses of the term. It requires a solid understanding of both written and spoken words…

      1. Juan Caruso

        At minimum such a political slight should require a test of relativity. For instance, if Trump were really an idiot what does that make the career politicians (mostly Republichan and Democrahtic lawyers) who for decades have appeased North Korea as it became a nuclear power?

        The legal definition of idiot seems to apply more to the latter, in my opinion:
        ” A person who has been without understanding from his nativity, and whom the law, therefore, presumes never likely to attain any.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I like this part: “…and whom the law, therefore, presumes never likely to attain any.”

          Remember how, when it looked like Trump might win the nomination, people thought at some point he’d wise up and start acting like a normal grownup? But then, eventually, everyone had to admit that he would never learn and would never be normal. This is just the way he is…

  2. Stavros Macrakis

    Sorry, the old story that the ancient Greeks used “idiot” as a derogatory word for people who didn’t participate in politics is incorrect. I have updated the Wikipedia article with good sources that demonstrate this.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, you certainly eviscerated the entry.

      But it seems to me that the one source you cite that clearly makes your argument leaves room for the interpretation I set out. It argues with it, and scorns it, but not to the extent of eliminating that as A way of understanding it.

      Now that you’ve removed all that material, I can no longer find the sources for it, for the sake of comparison. How can I know that those sources weren’t as sound and convincing as yours — which, as I say, does not read to me as absolutely ruling out RFK’s interpretation?

      Far be it from me to argue Greek with a guy named Stavros Macrakis — I don’t pretend to have any Greek at all; my two years of high school Latin was as far as I got into the classics. Call me Casca. But I’m not seeing sufficient reason to believe you have completely succeeded in proving your negative. I don’t see it based on what you’ve posted.

      I have picked up on this, though: It seems to be fashionable among some Greek scholars to mock the interpretation I wrote about, to sneer at those who are proud to think they’ve learned something useful to know — which I confess I was. Delighted, in fact — particularly because it caused a number of things I’ve thought about all my life to come into somewhat clearer focus. That’s the way I read this piece you cited, anyway. This brings to mind another word, but I’d probably use “hubris” incorrectly as well…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Excuse me, I see now that you did not eliminate source number 7. It works from your new text; it just doesn’t work from the link in what I had quoted before.

        So let me ask you this: Now, the text says “Many political commentators have interpreted the word “idiot” as reflecting the Ancient Greeks’ attitudes to civic participation and private life…”

        I want to make sure I understand you. You’re arguing with “idiot” having meaning in that context, but are you also arguing that the Ancient Greeks didn’t prize civic participation more highly than being occupied with “one’s own?”

        I’m trying to understand you here, as well as I can without a classical education…

        And this is an extremely important point, dealing with some of the biggest questions about competing world views in our own time — as well as in ancient Athens, or so I had been led to believe (and so I would imagine, people being people)…

  3. Stavros Macrakis

    The Greeks certainly DID prize civic participation.
    However, “idiotes” did not mean “non-participant” or “selfish”, and it was not derogatory.
    In fact, Lycurgus (390-324 BC) says τρία γάρ ἐστιν ἐξ ὧν ἡ πολιτεία συνέστηκεν, ὁ ἄρχων, ὁ δικαστής, ὁ ἰδιώτης (Lyc. 1.79), that is, “there are three things of which the state is built up: the archon, the juryman (dikastes) and the private citizen (idiotes).”
    All it meant was “a private citizen” as opposed to an official or a professional politician (rhetor) — that is, citizens who were ordinary members of the Assembly (Ekklesia) as opposed to officials.

    The word was generalized to mean a layman or non-expert in other fields as well, but again was not derogatory. Quite late, in Latin, it came to mean uneducated or illiterate, but with no connection to the duties of a citizen.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But… and see how I cling to my epiphany, which means more to me than you might imagine…

      If “idios” meant “one’s own,” then the root seemed perfect for forming a word that WOULD say “selfish,” or at least “inward-focused.” At least in connotation. In other words, it doesn’t seem like a stretch, but then I have NO basis for understanding denotation in Greek, much less connotation…

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