Is America Raising a Generation of Idiots?

“I hate everyone who doesn’t like me,” says little Anthony Fremont, who has held the whole town of Peaksville in terror. That is because he has a power to read minds—at least, to read any intentions that anybody has which may oppose his own, including any disapproval of himself and what he has done—and a power to make things and destroy them. The things he makes, though, are those to the taste of a small boy who delights in what is hideous and cruel. He kills the neighbor’s dog because the animal barked at him. He kills another neighbor’s children because they didn’t want to play the way he did, wishing them “into the cornfield,” as he says. And he is not troubled by the least glint of a conscience. He is an utterly innocent sociopathic monster.

Even his father, who comes as close as possible to expressing some degree of disapproval, is reduced to pretense, to agreeing with him lest the fury come down upon him. That includes when Anthony makes it snow in the summer, ruining the crops. “But it’s a good thing you did, Anthony,” he says, backing up, with a tremor in his voice. Everyone has to say so.

Our readers may recognize the setup here of the famous 1961 episode, “It’s a Good Life,” in the old “Twilight Zone” series. Of course, no one among us would accept the principles—if we can call them by that name—that animate little Anthony. Or would we? He pursues what he wants, regardless of what anybody else wants. He makes “television” for everybody—a movie about monsters fighting each other to the death—and he assumes that everybody will enjoy it as much as he does, or rather they had better enjoy it, because if they do not, that means that they disapprove of him, which means they don’t like him, and, of course, he responds with the monstrous equation above, dealing out justice. 

“You’re a bad man,” he cries, at the climax of the episode, when one of the guests at the Fremont house, a bit drunk, tries to concentrate the boy’s attention so that someone will kill him from behind. “You’re a very bad man!” And he turns him into a jack-in-the-box—Anthony, of course, is quite the moralist—and no one has gotten up the courage to swing a shovel at the back of the boy’s head.

We might say that the episode is about original sin. Give unlimited powers to any human being, and we should expect cruelty and horror. But here I would like to add another consideration, one that corroborates our sense that man is radically flawed, and prone to wickedness when there are no checks on him. It is the Greek notion of the idiot.

Anthony Fremont, for all his power and his considerable intelligence, is an idiot, like the Cyclops in his cave. Polyphemus and his one-eyed fellows, says Homer in the Odyssey, raise no crops, tend no vines, build no buildings, and never meet in assemblies; all they do is herd their sheep and goats, live in their caves, deal with their wives and offspring, and every Cyclops family ignores its neighbors. 

To be an idiot, literally, is to be all taken up with your own—you do not consider the common good. You want what you want, and that’s it. Notice that farming, viticulture, building, and political assembly all require a going-out of yourself, a deferral of gratification, a far-sighted plan for good things beyond the needs of the day and beyond the desires of the individual. The principle of the idiot is self-sufficiency, self-ownership. The motive force is self-will.

Are we raising idiots in America? Well, as soon as you say that in any single realm of human action each person may possess his own moral vision, as if he were the god of his little Peaksville, you have sought out your cave, and only your physical limitations, the civil law (sometimes), some fear of vengeance from your victims, and some residual non-idiocy from the religious traditions of what used to be your culture will keep you from being Anthony Fremont as far as you can be.

It is the property of the idiot to refuse to look beyond himself or the small group of like-selved people. He may trick up his insistence with the frills of an argument, but all it is, in the end, is a stamp of the foot and a shout, “I wanna!” 

Say to the idiot, “If we accept that unmarried men and women should be able to live together without social disapproval, the effects upon the family, long-range, will be calamitous,” the idiot will say that that is no concern of his. 

Say to the idiot, “The child in the womb is a human life, innocent, and his mother and father are responsible for his existence, and should at least do him no harm until he is born,” and the idiot says, “That is just what you happen to think,” not addressing the question of truth, and not bothering to consider the long-range effects of the principle that some human lives may be tossed aside in the trash.

The idiot has a radically foreshortened field of thought. Anthony Fremont does not care what is going on beyond Peaksville. It doesn’t matter. It is easy to say, “Whatever it is, it’s not as good as here, because here I get what I want.” Just as the idiot does not consider the common good, so too the idiot is unimpressed by the past. He acknowledges no debt of gratitude to those who came before. To his own forebears, he cries, “You were bad men! You were very bad men!” And he wishes them into a cornfield of ignorance, distortions, and outright lies. For you can be a Cyclops in time as in space, if every generation ignores the generations past, or, in the playing-out of the premises of their actions, the generations to come.

The idiot, like the Cyclops, produces no great art, because that would require self-denial, self-sacrifice, giving yourself over to what transcends your person; it is not simply absurd that the Greeks attributed poetic inspiration to the Muses. The idiot’s mind does not go roving through the vast fields of our heritage of literature, art, music, and intellectual endeavor, because to do that, you must make yourself small, a receiver, a grateful heart. You must submit, you must obey in the old sense of the word: you must hear, you must take heed. “I’m one who takes the pen,” says the pilgrim Dante, when a fellow poet in Purgatory asks him to identify himself as the progenitor of the sweet new style, “when Love breathes wisdom into me, and go / finding the signs for what he speaks within.” The results speak for themselves. 

Men of the Middle Ages, who revered the great poets and thinkers of the ancient world, both Christian and pagan, invented new forms of art everywhere we turn, and sometimes in their literature produced works that are quite incomparable: nothing is like Dante’s Commedia, though Dante does not take two steps without thinking of Virgil or Aristotle or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Scripture; and nothing is like what the (anonymous!) author of the poem Pearl accomplishes, he who read Dante’s Paradiso in turn. But the idiot does not see his work in that humbling and instructive light. Therefore, his art is self-absorbed, self-expressive, the grunts and shrieks of self-will, or a presentation of self as the ultimate good. Do I need to say that that ends up making everyone sound the same? One woman’s feminist shriek is much like another’s, and one man’s brute grunt is much like another’s, too.

The idiot is irreligious—I am not saying that all irreligious people are idiots—because the self-enclosure that characterizes idiocy is too narrow, too small-minded, to admit what might strike the soul with awe. Zeus protects beggars and strangers, but the Cyclops doesn’t care about that, and makes bold to say so.

How often must I say, to people who believe they are progressive, and even sometimes to people who believe they are conservative, that we are not islands unto ourselves? Come out of the caves. Stop saying, “This is what I want, and I should get it because I want it, because that’s what this nation was founded on.” No, our founders were not idiots. Don’t be an idiot anymore. Aim instead for the “glorious liberty of the children of God”—but that is another conversation.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. You can click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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