The word “idiot” is enjoying something of a renaissance. Searching “Donald Trump idiot” on Google yields nearly 10 million results, and the epithet has become a regular feature in the national media. A recent New York Times op-ed blasted Trump’s “agents of idiocracy,” while a headline from Salon asked, “Who are these idiot Donald Trump supporters?” Celebrities from Judd Apatow to Cher have denounced Trump as an idiot, and even data from polls have been used to claim that his supporters are idiotic.
It’s absolutely true that America is full of idiots — but not in the usual sense of the word.
The term “idiot” derives from the ancient Greek “idios” — an adjective often translated as “personal” or “private.” The earliest recorded use of the word dates to Homer’s “Odyssey.” When Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, meets the old warrior Nestor, he says that he has come on a private matter — to seek information about his father — and not with a purpose that concerns the people of Ithaca, his home. The distinction is important enough that he clarifies the nature of his visit right away.
As the Persian army invaded Greece in 490 BC, they besieged the small city of Eritrea on the island of Euboea. In exchange for “private advantages,” a small group of nobles betrayed the city to the Persians. The word that the Greek historian Herodotus uses to modify advantages is “idios.” The prospect of private enrichment prompts a subset of already wealthy citizens to accept Persian bribes and undermine their own city’s defense. The siege was broken, the city plundered and the population enslaved.
The original meaning located a position on the private-to-public spectrum, not a ranking on a scale of intelligence. In fact, as the story from Herodotus suggests, those who prioritize the private can be quite shrewd.
The term “idios” also appears at a climactic moment of Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War.” As the Athenian statesman Pericles delivers his funeral oration at the common grave of Athenian soldiers killed fighting the Spartans, he exhorts his audience to cease grieving for “private afflictions” and turn instead to the safety of the community. Here, private sorrow rather than private gain threatens the welfare of the broader group, but the passage again highlights a political meaning of idiocy as a force that threatens the common good.
Plato and other ancient authors used the word “idios” to distinguish between the knowledge levels of laymen and experts. Its meaning eventually changed from a neutral designation of a private individual unskilled in a particular domain — such as medicine or warfare — to a general condemnation of an individual’s intelligence.
A spiteful focus on the absence of intelligence now defines both the English word “idiot” and many recent characterizations of vast sectors of the American public. But imagine a term that instead designates people who are overly committed to their own private advantages. The map of American idiocy would shift dramatically.
A first group of idiots would comprise those who did not vote. This category cuts across the political spectrum — people of all political persuasions rejected the archetypal gesture of public engagement. The consequences of this myopic private focus may not seem as dire as those in Herodotus, but the ancient historian suggests the right evaluative framework — not voting is a moral choice to privilege the private over the public. It a way of doing harm to a broader group.
A second set of idiots are those who voted based on narrow, sectarian interests. This group also scrambles the standard categories: At least some of the supporters of Trump and Hillary Clinton were motivated to support their candidate by the hope of some particular benefit to a small category with which they identify — a tax bracket, an industry, a religious or ideological group. It’s worth asking whether more supporters of one candidate or the other fit this class of idiots, but it includes supporters of both major parties.
A third sort of idiots are those who use a public office for private gain. Trump and many of his appointees show every indication of belonging to this group. Some estimates have placed the combined net worth of Trump’s cabinet at about $35 billion. This suggests a group of people who have spent their lives in wildly successful idiocy. One problem with Trump’s extensive international business interests is that he can’t easily clarify, as Telemachus does, the nature of his meetings with foreign leaders.
The final category of idiots includes potentially everyone. The ancient origins of the word highlight the fact that humans are imperfect political actors, frequently torn between the competing lures of private and public goods. It also reminds us that political survival depends on successfully calibrating the balance of public and private interests. The 21st century threats of climate change, global inequality and extremism, combined with the instantaneous rippling of impacts across countries, ecosystems and financial markets, makes provincial self-interest less tenable than ever before. There are many ways to avoid the pull of the parochial: donate time and money to worthy charities; organize and lobby elected officials at all levels of government; subscribe to a newspaper; urge your employers to make ethical corporate decisions. But to hunker down, to ignore the public sphere, to move to Canada — this is idiocy in every sense of the word.