Idiocy and Democracy


Some time back I wrote some posts on Oscar Wilde’s view of sin as “stupidity,” contrasting that with Emerson’s view of it as “limitation.”  Now comes news from the NY Times that in a Quinnipiac University poll, the term most often used to describe President Trump is “idiot.”  It’s an interesting article, and the one by Walter Parker quoted in it is also interesting, taking us back to the original Greek words for “idiotes,” “polites,” and others.  I’m not going to get into the current events aspect of it, but I think Anthamatten’s duality between “idiotes” (bad) and “polites” (good), is really too simplistic, and I’d like to drill down into it some more.

The Greek word “idiotes” as the article points out means “selfish, as opposed to the group,” or “polis.”  This is what Aristotle had in mind when he said his Politics, “Man is a political animal,” (ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον).  A better translation would be “Man is an animal of the polis.”  He is saying that the polis, or city-state is what make us human, able to work together as citizens (“polites”) for a common good beyond our own self-interest.  Otherwise we would be like Homer’s “clanless, lawless, hearthless man that loveth dread strife among his own folk.”  (Iliad 9:64)

But if the opposite of idiotes is the good citizen, always looking out for the common good, s/he has the potential for becoming a socialist, giving up one’s own freedom for the good of the state, a slippery slope indeed.  It’s been known for a while that turning over your freedom to the state usually results in tyranny, which is what happens to a democracy if its citizens are not ever-vigilant.  (Okay, I’ll bite: this may be what’s happening in our country now.)  So it is important that we stand our ground and assert our independence.  We need to find something deeper in ourselves than our costume–our collection of physical attributes–race, gender, etc., and act from that.  To look below the surface and find our common humanity.

The writers in the Ideal tradition have always been known as an individualistic lot, none more so than Emerson.   “Insist on yourself; never imitate.”  This because he knew that at heart we are all expressions of the One, and the One is always true and loves to observe the game it has set up.  Emerson knew that we honor the One when we play our part completely, when we do not let our costume dictate the part, but rather let our part determine the costume.  And I think he was fully prepared to be called an idiot, although like Socrates he was doing it for the ultimate good of the state and of the citizens.

So I think that it’s not a simple choice of A or B.  There has to be a third point of view, something that is different from either the idiotes or the polites.  It is the point that can unify them both, see that they are two sides of the same coin, and enjoy it as it is flipped over and over, watching as it lands.