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.

Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Idiōtēs

But while these thinkers peddle their observations in outlets such as The American Conservative, Front Porch Republic and Intellectual Takeout, I hesitate to call any of them “conservatives.” In fact, Deneen (a self-described “radical Catholic”) is as critical of conservatism as he is of liberalism, contending that “the basic political division in America merely represents two iterations of [classical] liberalism — the pursuit of individual autonomy in either the social/personal sphere (liberalism) or the economic realm (‘conservatism’ — better designated as market liberalism).”

To understand Deneen’s criticism better, we must look at two foundational works of classical liberalism, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men. Both men posited Man in his primitive or “natural” state as an amoral, self-interested brute — an idiōtēs — who took whatever he desired whenever he desired it, and who had no God, no natural kinship ties, and no social obligations to hold him back.

For Hobbes, society exists only to protect us from each other; government’s sole duty (in theologian Benjamin Wiker’s words) is “merely to reproduce a happier version of the Hobbesian state of nature, where there is a maximum of liberty to pursue one’s personal desires but without the nasty, violent death part” (10 Books that Screwed Up the World, 39). For Rousseau, society is a positive evil brought on by claims of private ownership of property. Where in Hobbes we see the first hints of free-market capitalism and objectivism, in Rousseau we see a preliminary form of communist thought, in which government exists only to protect the rich from the poor. For both men, though, the cure for all social ills was to return so far as possible to our natural state, in which everyone can get everything he wants and is obligated to nobody for anything.

The Idiot as Social Ideal

Of course, both Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s accounts of primitive man are myths, Enlightenment-atheist attempts at a “counter-Genesis” (Wiker) to replace the Biblical account of Adam and Eve. Created before the dawn of scientific archaeology and anthropology, they have no evidential backing, no basis in anything we know or can reasonably guess about prehistoric human society. Nevertheless, classical liberalism in all its descendants carries at its heart the conviction that Homo idioticus — antisocial, self-referential, materialistic, entitled and libidinous — is not only our natural state but the ideal around which our society should be ordered.

Think about that last observation: Society should be ordered around the idiot, for whom society as such is at best a necessary evil and all too often an enslavement. A common set of values must be erected around the idiot, for whom a common morality is an abomination and an oxymoron. This society must give that idiot access to everything he does not possess, even if it requires government intervention, and at the same time keep other idiots from taking his possessions, especially through government intervention. Ironically, the idiot does not perceive how his minimalist idea of justice can require an ever-mounting pile of laws and regulations to enact and an ever-expanding government to enforce.

The miraculous resolution of all these conflicting imperatives becomes possible through the dangerous fantasy of enlightened self-interest: Despite all the detriments associated with society and government, Homo idioticus will make (some) sacrifices voluntarily because society and government will provide them with benefits equal to or surpassing the sacrifices. Just as the classical liberal’s idea of justice — “I won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt me” — is negative and ignoble, enlightened self-interest is devoid of true generosity or magnanimity, limited to merely seeking quid pro quos, “win-win solutions,” and socioeconomic rent.

“Men are Born for the Sake of Men”

But the most relevant observation we can make about any falsehood is that it is false. That we are by nature social, political, and relational is the most profound fact about human existence. We were made not only to live but to live together — in families, in bands, in tribes, in towns. Living together requires not merely refraining from doing harm but actively contributing to the common good; cooperation is more imperative than competition and true generosity more necessary than self-interest. Common justice requires a common moral code by which we not only obligate others but allow ourselves to be obligated.

But since ... we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims a share of our being, and our friends a share; and since ... everything that the earth produces is created for man’s use; and as men, too, are born for the sake of men, that they may be able mutually to help one another; in this direction we ought to follow Nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together, man to man. (Cicero, De Officiis [On Duties, tr. Walter Miller] 1.22)

In the true business of society, the idiot is deadwood, a leech and an obstruction; he wants all the benefits of community life but none of its obligations. He is a “taker,” albeit the kind of “taker” that can be found in any economic stratum, quite frequently at the top, privatizing the rewards while socializing the costs. A healthy, stable society can tolerate a certain number of idiots, but it cannot dedicate itself to catering to their demands and still remain either healthy or stable. Most certainly, a society ought not to be run by idiots.

Where Orwell and Huxley Erred

Yet that is what Corporate America and the academic left, working from their different priorities, have striven in common to produce: a nation of isolated, self-indulgent ninnies mainly incapable of maintaining relationships, scarcely interested in the public good, mostly unwilling to sacrifice for others’ sake. Nu, progress.

Over the last four decades, social critics like Neil Postman and Christopher Hitchens have repeatedly compared American society’s decline to both George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And we can still point to our equivalents of Big Brother and soma, or thoughtcrime and Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. But both Orwell and Huxley, their minds formed in the classical liberal tradition, supposed that when Dystopia came it would be a triumph of the collective, a mistake of prioritizing the community over the individual.

Neither could foresee the triumph of the idiot.