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Let’s not be a nation of idiots

May 25, 2014


One of the advantages of having a classical education is having some insight into the origins of words in our own language.  The term “idiot” is an interesting case in point which originates from the Greek word for “private citizen.”  In its linguistic journey to modern English it has acquired the meaning of somebody who is stupid and uneducated.  It’s worth dwelling though for a moment on the insights provided by the original Greek meaning.

Despite its different meaning the ancient Greeks, and especially the democrats of ancient Athens, were no greater lovers of idiots than we are today.  In his famous funeral oration for the first victims of the Peloponnesian War, and still one of the best bits of political oratory you can read, the Athenian statesman Pericles says:

“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business, we say he has no business here at all.”

For the first democrats the active participation of citizens (or at least male citizens – a whole other story there!) as equals in the business of the state was an essential characteristic of the model of government they had created.  

The Athenian democracy was not a perfect institution and, as in all cases of human behaviour, some of its fine words were followed more in the breach than in the observance.  However this vision of active citizenship still has a resonance today. I would like to use this blog to set out 5 characteristics which set us apart as active citizens and not idiots:


At the heart of our democracy is our right to use the ballot box to elect those who govern us.  While having sympathy for the frustrations which many have with conventional politics we cannot expect more of politicians if we cannot be bothered to vote.  A turnout of 36% in this year’s local elections or even the 65% at the last General Election shames us.  The ability to change the Government through the use of the ballot box, rather than at the point of a gun, is aspect of civilised life which many brave people have given their lives for in the past and which some parts of the world still do not enjoy today.   Think of the Suffragettes or of the queues patiently waiting in South Africa in 1994 to cast their ballot for the first time.

 Informed debate

A healthy democracy is distinguished by an informed debate of the issues of the day in which citizens themselves are able and have bothered to participate.  Not everything has gone backwards, but it is disappointing to see how often it is portrayed as a virtue not to be interested in politics and how trivialised aspects of public debate have become.  Television has a lot to answer for but I would also point a finger to a general shift in our values and, in particular, the values of our educational system which increasingly stress economic usefulness over the skills which contribute to the active citizen.    The Internet and social media with their democratisation of debate offer a chance to redress the balance and give ordinary people a vehicle to influence debate and decisions.  Of course with debate comes the need for tolerance.  At times we need to remember the words of Voltaire:

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”


 Meeting our obligations

In the Funeral Oration Pericles also says:

We are free and tolerant in our private lives but in public affairs we keep to the law”

At its best Britain lives up to this adage but there are also many worrying signs of the idiotic tendency to look after own interests above any respect for the common good.  Whether it is cyclists jumping lights, MPs and expenses or rich people and corporations looking at how they can avoid taxes there are growing areas of life where the bonds of common life are undermined by a sense that it is justifiable to see “what we can get away with”.  In a democracy it is possible to have a debate about what laws we are governed by and what level of financial contribution we are asked to make.  Once made as active citizens we should respect the laws or campaign for their change.

Making a difference

The same spirit of participation in Pericles’ eyes also stretches to private relationships between citizens.

We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them.”

Beyond public debate active citizens can also find ways to make a difference directly.  It is definitely one of the positive things about this country that it has such a rich tradition of charitable and other kinds of voluntary endeavour.  Charity should not be an alternative to what the state should provide but it is a powerful channel for those who believe that the best way to change the world is to do something about it yourself, today.  For a more eloquent account of what I mean, look at the Independent on Sunday’s  List of  100 Happy People published today.   


My final plug for the active citizen relates to good old fashioned qualities of courtesy and friendliness.  If we find the energy (yes London I am talking about you) to recognise each other as human beings rather than irritating obstacles in the way of us achieving our next personal objective then that will be one small step to making the world less idiotic.  

For the full text of Pericles Funeral Oration look up Book 2 of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War

Picture courtesy of @journodave

For the link to the Independent on Sunday’s  2014 Happy List:



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