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The Ancient Greek Meaning of the Word “Idiot”

Idiot meaning ancient Greeks
Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. Credit: Philipp Foltz, Public domain

An “idiot” who in modern use, is a stupid or foolish person, for ancient Greeks had a different meaning and did not carry the derogatory or insulting sense that it does today.

The ancient Greek understanding of an “idiot” referred to someone who was a private citizen or a person who did not actively participate in public life or politics.

It comes from the Greek noun ἰδιώτης idiōtēs ‘a private person, an individual’ (as opposed to the state), ‘a private citizen’ (as opposed to someone with a political office), or ‘a common man’.

The concept emphasized the importance of active participation in public affairs, and those who did not engage were often viewed as deficient in some regard.

The ancient Greeks were the first to create a democracy. The word “democracy” comes from two Greek words that mean people (demos) and rule (kratos).

Democracy is the idea that the citizens of a country should take an active role in the government of their country and manage it directly or through elected representatives. Thus, a key part of democracy is that the people have a voice.

The first known democracy in the world was in Athens. Athenian democracy developed around the fifth century BC. All adult citizens were required to take an active part in the government.

If they did not fulfill their duty they would be fined and sometimes marked with red paint.

An idiot for ancient Greeks was a person who chose apathy

Therefore, an “idiot” was someone who had chosen to distance themselves from these political responsibilities, failing to contribute to the collective well-being of the city.

It is certainly true that the Greeks valued civic participation and criticized non-participation. Thucydides quotes Pericles‘ Funeral Oration as saying: “[we] regard… him who takes no part in these [public] duties not as unambitious but as useless.”

However, neither he nor any other ancient author uses the word “idiot” to describe non-participants, or in a derogatory sense; its most common use was simply a private citizen or amateur as opposed to a government official, professional, or expert. The derogatory sense came centuries later.

Apathy is one of the key ingredients to being an idiot. Someone who does not vote, does not care about politics and society and lacks the curiosity and desire to learn.

In ancient Greece, the desire to learn was essential for both individual development and society. Therefore, a person who disregarded these intellectual pursuits was labeled as an “idiot” by the ancient Greeks.

By the third century, the word “idiot” had fallen into use in Latin too, where it quickly became synonymous with ignorant, uneducated people. The original political meaning survived for a time, but as the culture and traditions of Ancient Greece faded into history, this newer, more figurative meaning eventually replaced it.

And, borrowed into the language via French, “idiot” cropped up in English for the very first time in c. 1384.

Related: Influence of Ancient Greece on American Founding Fathers

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