Idiot. The Greek root of the word is idiotes, ‘belonging to oneself’ or ‘one’s own.’ Idiote continues to bear traces of its root in a word like ‘idiosyncrasy’ (particular traits of one individual or group). The word ‘idiom’ also originally referred to figures of speech that were limited to ‘one’s own’ people or community.
Calling somebody an idiotes in Greek had a different connotation than calling them an idiot in English. Instead of referring to stupidity or dull wittedness, calling somebody ‘one’s own’ was to charge them of being a private person who was disengaged from the concerns of their community. (To be sure, the word still carried a stab of insult, since Greek society praised the educated, and prized engagement with public affairs, while discriminating against lowly tradespeople who were only concerned with ‘one’s own’ life and work.)
It is tempting to be an idiote. It’s not that we’re stupid, it’s just that we think we have more ‘important’ things to do than worry about the nuts and bolts of our community’s civic life. After all, who cares about your city’s waste management systems? Your tax dollars are spent to hire people to worry about that, right? Who has time to think about roads, traffic, and municipal transportation strategies? We’re quite happy and content to outsource the task of planning for fire stations, lobbying for hospitals, and designing our cities — along with everything else a metropolis must do — to bureaucrats we’ve never met and elected officials we can’t even name. In the end, grocery stores get built, clean water, gas, and electricity come in, garbage and waste magically vanish down drains, and we can gleefully go about our supposedly important lives of worrying about seemingly more important things.
In fact, the whole setup works so well that a majority of us do not even consider it worth our time and effort to help elect people to oversee the system. Apparently, we have convinced ourselves that being ‘modern citizens’ means not caring about citizenship at all. Our lives can now be exclusively concerned with our own affairs — we are idiotes.
I have often wondered what moves someone from being a passive and aloof (if not grumpy) tax-payer to being an engaged advocate for their community. Over the last few years, I’ve increasingly come to believe that ‘civic engagement’ — or, we could say, ‘non-idiocy’ — has its origins in something much deeper than a cursory interest in politics or even buying into an ideological campaign. The people I see involved with the issues of their community are first and foremost people who care about their community. If you don’t care about your neighbourhood and the people who live in it, why would you get involved? If you say you care, how could you not be involved?
I am not suggesting that you don’t care about your community unless you join a committee at City Hall. There are innumerable ways to help build your city (talking to your neighbours is a good place to start). However, I would like to leave you with a question this morning: if you do care about your community, what are you doing to champion, advocate, grow, and protect it? We may easily give lip service to the idea of community, but until we actually engage with it, we are nothing but idiotes.