Friday, December 8, 2017

The Triumph of the Idiot

Thomas Hobbes. (Image source:
The word idiot, I am reliably informed, comes from the ancient Greek ἰδιώτης idiōtēs, via the Latin transliteration idiota. On the face of it, an idiōtēs was merely a private individual, as opposed to a government minister or military officer. However, among the Athenians, it was a derisive term applied to anyone who declined to take an active role in civic affairs, or who cut themselves off from the community in pursuit of their own interests. This pejorative application became associated with a person of low intelligence or skill, who could contribute little to the polis.

Res Idiotica

America is becoming (or has become) a nation of idiots, according to writers and thinkers who deliberately reference this half-forgotten sense of idiōtēs. That’s to say, we are becoming increasingly self-absorbed and disconnected, isolated not only from each other but from any sense of community or history. Their critique of millennials has gone beyond sneering at “snowflakes” and hooting over participation trophies. Instead, their concern is for the disturbing number of twenty-somethings checking out of adult social interaction and the burgeoning industry of “self-care” products.

Writes philosopher Michael Liccione, “It’s as if real relationships and real community engagement are all just too much for many people, who prefer to define and live in their own little worlds, insulated as much as possible from the pain and inconvenience of regular involvement with the big bad world.” Another philosopher, Reilly Smethurst, reminds us that St. Augustine “famously associated idiocy with ostentatious self-authorization. In his Confessions, Augustine referred critically to his younger self as ‘a prisoner, trying to simulate a crippled sort of freedom.’ The specter comforting America is that of the juvenile Augustine — free to enjoy its own vacuity, empowered ironically by crippledom.”

The best use of this equation between self-absorption and idiocy came from Notre Dame professor Patrick J. Deneen’s critique of the education system:

Above all, the one overarching lesson that students receive is to understand themselves to be radically autonomous selves within a comprehensive global system with a common commitment to mutual indifference. Our commitment to mutual indifference is what binds us together as a global people. ... Ancient philosophy and practice heaped praise upon res publica — a devotion to public things, things we share together. We have instead created the world’s first res idiotica .... Our education system excels at producing solipsistic, self-contained selves whose only public commitment is an absence of commitment to a public, a common culture, a shared history.