Your RDA of Irony

The Candidate and the Idiot

The candidate has always been conscious of his image. In the days of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.-27 B.C.), long before there were press releases, the aspiring politician announced his campaign for public office by putting on his very best-whitest-toga and proclaiming his virtues in the Forum. There was a term for this spectacle, “candidatus” meaning clothed in white. Unfortunately, Roman politics were so tumultuous that “candidates” increasingly found it safer to wear armor than togas. Indeed, by 100 B.C. and for the remaining five centuries of Rome’s dominion, civil war was the most common method of election. By the Middle Ages, the idea of a “candidate” had lapsed into Latin obscurity.

Seventeenth century England revived the idea.  The growing power of Parliament attracted ambitious men. Many were tantalized by the prospects for social-climbing and the opportunities for graft. The Puritans wanted to impose their principles on everyone else. All of these aspiring megalomaniacs were vying for seats in Parliament. Whether this new occupation was a career or an affliction, it still required a name.

Fortunately, the Renaissance had revived literacy, and some English scholars remembered the term “candidatus.” Of course, the term was not meant literally. At the time, the only white clothing would have been shirts, which also served men as their pajamas and underwear. (The Roman practice of hygiene had yet to be revived.) The idea of publicly parading in only a shirt would have disqualified the Puritan politicians. Candidate now was a generic term.

The scholars had also revived the Roman word for white: candidus. People like John Milton always flaunted their erudition, and so they would speak of a candid cloud. Ironically, “candid” soon began its evolution, first mixing with other synonyms for white and then acquiring its distinct definition. To phrase it as etymological formula: Candid=white=shining=clear=open=frank. This evolution proved surprisingly quick. By the end of the 17th century, candid had assumed its current meaning. So, the similarity between the words “candid” and “candidate” is not an accident: it just is an oxymoron.

The voter was not always treated like an idiot.  On the contrary, in Ancient Greece the epithet was applied to those who didn’t vote. Idiot is derived from the Greek word, idiotes, meaning private citizen. In its broadest and snobbiest definition, it applied to any citizen not in the ruling class. Of course, in a democracy-like Athens– every citizen was in the ruling class. (However, not everyone was a citizen: the women and slaves learned that.) From the Athenian perspective, an idiot was that myopic, apathetic soul who did not participate in the city’s democracy.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone who could witness the birth of Democracy and yet be oblivious to it. There was as much drama in Greek politics as in any amphitheater. Combining politics and theater, the Greeks had created the art of rhetoric. Pericles and Demosthenes treated the public like an audience, flattering, moving and dazzling the citizens. And the citizens were expected to argue back and debate the issues. Think of the topics that those Athenians decided: building a fleet, the construction of the Parthenon, war with Sparta. (The latter was not Athen’s most brilliant decision: imagine Meryl Streep starting a fist fight with Vin Diesel.) Yes, the Athenian citizens probably discussed zoning ordinances for chariots, too. Even classical Athens had its mundane matters.

Anyone so indifferent to this vital and dramatic process deserved contempt. The apathetic citizens were neglecting their rights and self-interest, abandoning their role in the democratic state. The word idiot became their stigma. Twenty-five centuries have broaden the word’s application but not improved its meaning. Of course, democracy and idiots are the not our only political legacy from Greece. We also have inherited a term for anyone whose politics differed from yours. The Greek word for fool is moron.

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    Thus, by extension, if the Americans act like idiots and don’t vote this November, there is a distinct possibility that the Congress will continue to be held in the throes of the Morons.

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