By Danny Mayer
The term idiot derives from the Greek idiotes (“person lacking professional skill,” “a private citizen,” “individual”) and the emphatic adjective idios (“uniquely one’s own”). Idiots referred to a large segment of a small slice of male residents, wealthy all, granted the right to vote in the Greek city-state Athens. As a class of moneyed men expressing neither interest nor aptitude in public affairs, the idiotai were considered worse than useless, the antithesis of a good citizen.
Though we understand the word today as a simple descriptor for someone who lacks an education (“a dumbass”), idiotes were not stupid. In a society that excluded over 90% of the population from voting, Greek idiots comprised much of the upper crust leisure class of enfranchised citizens. Economically, culturally and politically, they were the chosen ones. Nor were idiots incapable of formulating and advancing coherent positions to an audience of inquiring peers. According to Josiah Ober, scholar of Greek political thought and Athenian democracy, land-owning idiotes rarely participated in public civic debates, but they were common fixtures in “the law court, in the course of defending or prosecuting a private lawsuit (dike).”