Please Be Kind to Idiots, for I Am an Idiot

I suffer the twin curses of the autodidact: patchy, unorganized knowledge and the great gnawing fear that everyone else is comfortably in possession of some Big Idea whose very existence has thus far eluded me.

Given that I was spelunking my way through Plato’s Timaeus at the time, I was certainly feeling the second curse, and specifically the feeling of intellectual isolation it produces, when I ran across Peter Kalkavage’s explanation of the Greek word idiotês: “An idiotês lacks a specialized know-how that connects him with other human beings and thus remains idios (on his own or private).”1

This notion of apart-ness or alone-ness is preserved in such English words as idiom and idiosyncratic, but what a different sense of the word idiot this is, at least relative to any sense I have ever encountered it as sender or receiver.

Several thoughts spring to mind, regarding both the contemporary English-language sense of idiot and the original Greek sense embodied in idiotês:

First, recognizing that feeling of isolation felt by every idiot/idiotês, I might in the future, possibly, maybe, in selected cases, leaven my assessment with a trace of compassion when I am tempted to apply the label to someone.

Second, in the original Greek sense, we are all idiots about a great many subjects and fields of endeavor—more so than not, by a considerable margin.

Third, again using the original sense that leans more toward ignorance than stupidity, idiocy becomes, at least to some degree, a solvable problem.

One can hope, yes?


1. Peter Kalkavage, Plato’s Timaeus (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2001), 133.

Best Footnote Ever

After 30 years as a professional writer in various contexts, always endeavoring to make life easier for readers, I admit to a devilish little laugh courtesy of the British science writer Jim Baggott. On page 37 of A Beginner’s Guide to Reality, he provides a long list of things that have been used as money by various cultures over the centuries. The list ends with ” . . . vodka, wampum, yarns and zappozats.5

Curious to know just what a zappozat is, I scanned down to the footnote, which reads as follows:

5. Look it up, like I had to.

This might be the influence of my bratty inner eight-year-old, but I found this to be exceedingly funny. (Baggott does credit the source he used for the list, Glyn Davies’ A History of Money, but defining “zappozat” is an exercise left to the reader.)


p.s. In case you’re curious, a zappozat is a type of