An Idiot and His Companions

Many years ago I wrote a book entitled, An Idiot and His Companions. It was compilation of essays about people and experiences that had a profound influence on my life. The book never saw the light of day in terms of publication, but the sentiment still influences my writing. My dreamwork mentor Robert A. Johnson read it and gave me a good review. He indicated the word idiot had an interesting history.

I find studying the etymology of words often brings awareness to the way societies shift meanings to suit cultural conventions. For instance, the word idiot is etymologically derived from the Greek word idiṓtēs, which literally means “a private person,” or “a person who does not take part in the affairs of the polis.” It is derived from the word ídios, meaning “of one’s own,” which is also the root of our English word idiosyncratic. 

The word idiṓtēs originally had no bearing whatsoever on the intelligence of a person. It merely indicated that they did not take part in public affairs. In other words, a person who went their own way. This did not sit well with ancient Athenians who thought it was a civic duty to be involved in the political arena. It was actually a requirement, and a person could be fined for not participating. So, the word idiṓtēs began to take on a negative connotation

In later times, the word idiṓtēs passed on into Latin as idiota. In Latin, the word acquired strongly unfavorable connotations and became synonymous with “ignorant person.” Eventually, the word passed from Latin into French as idiote and from French into Middle English as idiot. It was in Middle English that the word finally fully acquired the meaning it has today.

I think any of us sincerely interested in following the Buddhist path, especially in the West, has to be an idiot in the original sense of the word. We are going our own way, often without the understanding of our families and friends. A true spiritual practitioner often appears the fool for the sake of their highest aspirations.

In many ancient societies, the village idiot was highly regarded as one who called into question societal norms. Sometime in the ninth century, Padamasambhava prophesied that during future times truly sane people would be considered insane and insane people would be in charge. Maybe the world could do with a few more sane idiots—a few more buddhas.

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