An apology to ...Re history of word "idiot"

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Wed Oct 14 08:41:08 PDT 1998

Doyle Saylor wrote:

> an epithet aimed at a person as an insult
> with close ties to anti-disabled sentiments. Morons, and idiots. All
> are about disability. I point at the bigotry that is there, because
> disability has far less public awareness about the bias aimed at it in
> everyday thought.

I don't have the patience right now to look up the exact history of the term *idiot*, but I know it in general. In Greek *idiotes* (sp?) meant something like a private person, a person who did not take part in the collective (political) life of the *polis* and was therefore (as we can see from Arisotle's use of *political* [I forget the Greek]) "not all there, not fully human, incomplete." Some writers who quote Aristotle's definition of "man" (human), "man is a political animal" [one who lives in cities], argue that that it should be translated "social" rather than "political." True, by "political" Aristotle did not mean voting in elections (which he would have regarded as private rather than political) or having opinions on state policy or even campaigning for office. The last is not political in Aristotle's sense because in it speech is one-way, it does not involve the absolute necessity of listening to the speech of those one speaks to, while the politics more or less explicit in Aristotle's definition meant direct participation in the deliberations of the state Athens being what is now called "direct democracy," a definition which continually reproduces the ideological illusion that electoral politics are "democratic." (Marx was being quite Aristotelian when he coined the phrase "parliamentary cretinism.")

So while I agree with Doyle in connecting the everyday use of "moron" and "idiot" with the social treatment of disability, I would suggest that if one attends to the history of "idiot," one could justify Carl using that term in reference to Max, for Max's fundamental principle, as exemplified in his posts on this list, is his refusal to subordinate the pseudo-politics of representative "democracy" to the discourse of public action grounded in public discourse among the *demos*. Of course Carl used *moron* (as had Max), and I know of no justification, historical or otherwise, for the use of that term.


[Max, there is no insult here, or there is only if you confuse my specific and historically grounded use of "idiot" with any of the popular or current usages of the term.]

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