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.