Sunday, January 25, 2015

So I Shut It All Off, I'm a Happy Idiot

Larry Siedentop:

Piety and patriotism were one and the same thing. For the Greeks, to be without patriotism, to be anything less than an active citizen, was to be an 'idiot'. That, indeed, is what the word originally meant, referring to anyone who retreated from the life of the city.

Having just finished a book in which Steven Pinker cautioned the reader against struggling upstream toward the "original intent" of specific words, against the current of popular usage, it is only after judicious deliberation that I hereby proclaim my intent to reclaim this particular term. Like Randal in Clerks 2, I realize that "idiot" is currently classed along with "moron", "retard", "imbecile", "cretin" and "simpleton" as unacceptably "ableist", in the parlance of our times, but such fashions will always come and go, and like the idiots of ancient Greece, true individuals will always pay them no heed. Oh, no, no, it's cool, I'm taking it back.

My own retreat from political dialogue was motivated by sober realism, not by selfishness. Temperamentally averse to any sort of group activity, I'm not the sort to take part in meetings or marches, and I'm incapable of proselytizing for a cause. I make just enough money to get by, not enough to meaningfully contribute to charities and politically-oriented non-profits. I could use my limited spare time in an attempt to thoroughly educate myself about all the issues du jour, but to what end? What would I do with that information? Vote differently? Win arguments on the web? In short, I have no power or influence, and acting or speaking otherwise, even as a quasi-literary character, would be just another attention-seeking, self-flattering conceit.

Life in the modern-day polis has rendered most of our activity as citizens superfluous. Retreating from it isn't a renunciation of obligations so much as an acknowledgement of limitations. Like another ancient Greek who was faulted for a perceived lack of community spirit, I don't know much, but I know that much.