Culture & Conversation


What is an idiot? For Patrick McDonagh, idiots are “a resilient contrast group, a category of people against whom we rational modern (and post-modern) folk can identify ourselves, to affirm our intelligence and to assert our claims to respect and justice.”Though the term is no longer formally used to describe those mentally unfit to function independently within society, this study of its history in Western culture nonetheless reveals much about society’s shifting definitions of normalcy.

McDonagh’s Idiocy: a Cultural History traces the role played by the mentally disabled in the development of the West, starting when the concept first takes on psychological dimensions, and sheds its associations with property. “Idiot” in Pericles’ time, and up until the 16th century, had been a catch-all definition for those with no property, and therefore no public influence. Mental infirmity was then mainly an issue in questions of patrimony and taxation. The 18th-century emergence of the Wild Boy of Aveyron and other feral children linked idiocy to a developmental state. Similarities are immediately drawn to Rousseau’s “child of nature,” i.e. innocents uncorrupted by civilization. Educators, in their eagerness to mold the wild boy to Enlightenment ideals, neglected even to consider whether feral children were abandoned because they were disabled rather than vice versa. So began a long line of educated elites who seem to draw their conclusions before seeking evidence. Because their concerns were often socially based, these “thinkers” rarely paid attention to the history of mental treatment itself. Instead the mentally disabled were used to help justify all the worst crimes perpetrated by society, such as slavery, eugenics, and genocide.
While the clerical, medical, and political communities ultimately fail to either cure or eradicate the idiots of reality, in the world of literature they are easily adapted to various authorial visions. Idiots take on symbolic value as overgrown innocents, divine punishments, evolutionary degenerates, and inbred aristocrats. Taken together, idiocy as portrayed in both fictional and non-fictional sources serve as a useful examination of the evolution of our views on a wide range of subjects, from gender roles to morality.
Because the concept of the idiot has always been unstable and will continue to shift, and because idiots, by their very definition, are people incapable of representing themselves, any attempt at constructing a narrative for them must be subjective and hierarchical. McDonagh acknowledges that it has been difficult for him to nail down precisely what an idiot is. As a result, criticisms that the book is too encompassing or restrictive in its coverage may be leveled at it.
Nonetheless, Idiocy is a necessary read because attempts to inform our stereotypes of idiots are so scarce. What is an idiot? Anybody who has been deemed unfit to speak for him/herself. The term’s amorphousness is precisely what has allowed its use in justifying the worst treatment by society of its weakest members. In reading Idiocy we may realize just how vulnerable our own claims to rights of dignity and self-government truly are.

Richard Tseng is a freelance copywriter, designer and cartoonist. He maintains a blog at, can be found on twitter @richardtseng, and is currently attending Humber College in Toronto for Advertising.

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