Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Idiot as an Existential Category

The word "idiot" comes from the ancient Greek word "idiotes," which was used to refer to those people who were not socially engaged, but were rather solely concerned with themselves. Socrates referred to himself as an idiotes, as any true philosopher is. After all, "philosophy" comes from the Greek words philos, so, and phos -- love, inner, and light, respectively -- meaning philosophy is love of the inner light. Philosophy is self-regarding.

I start with a positive example because we are all familiar with the negative connotations of the word "idiot," to which I plan to contribute. Certainly, most people not socially engaged are not philosophers. Like "philosopher," "idiotes" is a composite Greek word. "Id" means "I" and "iota" means "one." An idiot is thus an I-one, a person entirely focused on his or herself at the expense of society.

The modern world seems full of idiots. Anyone who says, "You cannot possibly understand/sympathize with what I am going through" is an idiot. No one is terminally unique. More, neuroscientists have shown that when we witness someone in pain, our brains light up the same location and with almost the same intensity as when we actually experience the pain ourselves. Empathy -- "to suffer in" -- and sympathy -- "to suffer with" -- are real.

Another kind of idiot are those incapable of considering anyone's position but their own. I've tried to have discussions with people who won't consider a single fact that goes against what they believe (or even try to reinterpret the fact to support their position) or who do not read or hear what you actually wrote or said, but only respond to what they expect you to write or say. Such people are not even arguing with you -- you don't exist; you don't even matter; only their preconceived notions and rigid categories matter. Only they themselves matter. People who engage in such arguments are idiots.

Our schools have been turning out armies of idiots. We have a generation who have been taught to feel good about what they know, although they don't actually know anything; they've been taught to feel good about themselves, although they have been deprived of the necessary life lessons needed to have and develop a self. We have a generation who break down over the least bit of criticism. We have a generation of narcissists and idiots.

Actually, several generations now. The Baby Boomers were the first generation of idiots -- though for different reasons than subsequent generations (though still caused by those same Boomers). Existentialism argued for the alienated, angst-ridden idiot. Postmodernism is idiotic to its core. If I were to be optimistic, I'd say there were a half-dozen members of Congress who weren't idiots. Power-seekers are all idiots.

An idiot is self-regarding to the point that (s)he harms others, either directly or indirectly. The answer to idiocy is not the subordination of the individual to society or government, as power-seeking idiots would have you believe. The answer is to be socially engaged, not completely dissolved in the social until you lose your identity. To be socially engaged is to acknowledge your position within society, that you are a member of a social species and of a social body. Engagement means treating people in their full complexity and not ignoring their good aspects (or their bad ones). It means giving what someone says full consideration and trying to learn why they are saying what they are saying. It means being skeptical enough to be open to the possibility of being wrong, but not so skeptical as to not believe in truth at all (both extremes are idiotic). It means thinking of someone other than yourself (which is why we have such high divorce rates, as we have high idiocy rates as well).
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