Friday, March 21, 2008

Idiotes and Idiocracy

I recently finished reading Peter Green's The Hellenistic Age: A Short History. Peter is my neighbor, and I could hear his voice as I read. Even though I have little background in ancient history, the book was very accessible, while also providing references to further study. The history of the ancient world post-Alexander and pre-Roman Empire has always been one of those muddled-to-blank spots in my own understanding of the past, which Peter's book helped fill in.

One interesting tidbit I learned is that idiot is derived from the Greek idiotes, which originally referred to a person who did not participate in the political or public life of the polis, or Greek city-state--in other words, someone who lived an individual life, unconcerned with larger affairs. Apparently, the Greeks looked back at the classical era as a golden age in which people were involved in civic affairs, and they viewed the development of the individual as decadent. In The Hellenistic Age, Peter speculates as to a possible link between the development of literature and the development of the individual.

Some time ago, I watched Idiocracy, a movie by Mike Judge. In the movie, the citizens of the United States have devolved into idiocy in the modern sense--the average IQ has plummeted. Perhaps self-referentially, the movie seems to associate this devolution with the rise of interactive, omnipresent, commercial entertainment and its penetration into every aspect of life. In the world of Idiocracy, the citizen is very involved in public life via something like our current representational democracy, unlike the idiote of the Hellenistic Age. But it's a very simple-minded, game show or reality TV type of involvement.

It's an interesting and maybe frightening exercise to compare Idiocracy to the current state of affairs in the U.S., where political talk shows more closely resemble pro-wrestling theatrics than real debate. Every issue is presented in terms of two very simplified, opposing points of view. You simply find out which team supports which point of view, and then you root for your team. News media, entertainment, politics and commercialism all seem to be converging, and I wonder how long it will be before our elected officials wear the labels of their big-money sponsors, like NASCAR drivers.

Ironically, anyone who does not participate in the two-party system is seen as at least eccentric or odd. Independents are fickle, the fans who root for whoever is ahead. Third parties are spoilers, the non-BCS teams in the bowl playoff system of big-time politics. Those who don't vote at all--the majority of the electorate--are lazy, unpatriotic, uncaring--modern-day idiotes. But maybe we're beginning to reach the point where a thoughtful person might suspect that the current two-party, megamoney political bloodsport leaves little room for intelligent participation. Maybe the idiotes of today are not idiots, after all.


jon said...

I found your blog because I was on a search to find the meaning behind that prefix "idio" added onto so many words like Ideosyncrasy or idiomatic or even idiot. I wondered if it had anything to do with Plato's "idea" or the "id" referred to in psychology. Maybe that last one is a stretch, but you get the idea, lol. So an idiot really is someone who prefers to be an individual rather than melt into conformity with everyone else. It's odd how our English language turned that word upside down

Helpless said...

Jon, thanks for the comment.

I'm not a scholar of ancient Greece, but it seems to me that looking at the Greek idea of idiote as a matter of individualism versus conformity would be off the mark. In the view of the ancient Greeks, the ideal life was lived in active involvement in the affairs of the city-state. Citizens were expected to take part in institutions governing public life. In democratic Athens, this would mean participating in public debate and holding public office. Much of Greek life at the time, including art, philosophy and religion, was public, not private.

If I read Peter Green correctly, he seems to be saying that the advent of literature triggered a change in this state of affairs, by making art and philosophy a private matter. Instead of participating in public performance or debate, a person could indulge in private. Thus, people began to withdraw from involvement in public life, a change that traditionalists decried as a decay of the civic ideal.

So to my mind, it's not so much an idea of individualism versus conformity, but an inward-oriented versus outward-oriented life--navel-gazing versus a life of active involvement in the affairs of the community a person lives in. It's more a matter of self-centered political apathy versus participating in political life, at the very least by voting. Similar to the ancient Greeks, modern democracies hold voting as a civic duty.

Unknown said...

Idiotes certainly stems from Greek 'to idion', ones own. In fact an intensive form of ones own. In NT: his own beasts, his own farm, his brother, his own wife. Plato uses it in contrast with Gr. 'koine', the common. Obviously it found its negative meaning idiot, private, in this opposition. The question is intriguing whether it has this meaning in ancient Greek times. Or: in pre-political times.Note that the ancient memebr of to idion did not struggle against society, but 'en tei physei' , in the midst of being.

Rebecca Timson said...

It is inauthentic to presume that, because the Greeks valued active participation in public life, they devalued development of the individual. That is a false dichotomy which is not well-supported by the historical facts of individual Greek scholarship, intensely private (and in many ways oppressive) Greek family life, Greek glorification of individual acts of courage and integrity etc. Even in Greek oppression (e.g. of women, non-citizen residents and slaves), there was a rather grand acknowledgment of male citizens as individuals. It is in no way inconsistent with current values to speak of both rights and responsibilities, tbough a shared definition of either remains aspirational.

As for lack of participation in a 21st century two-party system: Neither Democrats nor Republicans have been with us throughout US history, or even (in their current incarnations) for very long. When parties still proposed their own candidates, it was easier for new parties to emerge. Now, we have new candidates emerging instead of new parties. Either way, there's the possibility of corruption and oppression of dissenting views. Either way, individuals and groups strive to make the polity more inclusive...or not.