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In the early summer of 1919, American auto magnate Henry Ford was on trial. It was not about his famous car, the Ford Model T, but about an editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. The editors described Ford as an “ignorant idealist” and an “anarchist enemy of the nation”. Ford then sued the newspaper for defamation. Your defense attorney’s task: to prove that Ford was really an ignorant idealist, that you cannot speak of defamation. The matter is easier than expected.

Ford testified to an overwhelming ignorance during the interrogation. He could not say when the American Revolution occurred or what chili con carne is, and he was obviously unfamiliar with the most basic principles of the American government. “I admit that I don’t know anything about most things,” he says finally. The Chicago Tribune’s defense lawyer asks if he agrees to read a short excerpt from a book or if he prefers to leave the impression that he may be illiterate. “Yes, you can leave it at that,” says Ford. He was not a good reader and would ruin everything.

Henry Ford, from whose factory came one of the greatest technological innovations of the modern era, was it stupid? Or was he just incredibly illiterate? His biographers argue about it to this day.

Historiography may basically not care. Fordist mass production prevailed, stupidity. Or not. Still, it’s amazing how little we care about stupidity. Academically educated historians avoid it, for good reason: judging the stupidity of others is a presumptuous and normative effort.

So, where do we get the pattern from?

Popular historiography also prefers to stick to the efforts made by humanity to advance materially and spiritually. When people write their stories, they dismiss stupidity in their writing. A success story is a story of the growing wealth of knowledge, of increased knowledge and experience, of the growth of individual and collective cognitive capacities, of the solutions to problems that we find for existence. We love our geniuses, the intellectual giants of art, science, the heroes of politics – history as literature that builds intelligence and knowledge, not stupidity.

The thought that the way things happen, that everything expensive and important to us can depend on the decisions of stupid people is unbearable for most. All institutions in our modern societies are based on the idea of ​​reason prevailing over stupidity and madness.

In modern democracies, sensible voters vote for sensible projects, at least that’s the theory. Sensible individuals make sensible decisions about production, service, and purchase and, thus, keep the most rational of all economic forms in operation: self-regulated capitalism.

There is general compulsory education, support measures for the gifted, and support classes for the less gifted. The media does educational work. In the criminal area, responsibility is decisive for guilt, non-accountability goes with the individual’s shame. And for the pathological manifestations of stupidity – the real cognitive impairments and madness – different penal / prison institutions are responsible for the punishment.

It seems that we cover the risk of stupidity with comprehensive insurance. Yes, we like to think that we are so sensible that we laugh at our ancestors who were not as intelligent as we are. Those who jumped from church towers with wooden wings during their attempts to fly, following the force of gravity directly to their deaths. Who went to wars desperate with poor equipment. Who thought America was India. Today we know more and better.

A concept through the ages

If we look at the long history of stupidity, however, the presumption of innocence must be applied: In short, according to some hypotheses, stupidity has not increased or decreased over the centuries. Only the terms with which it is referred have changed, the places where it is suspected to be, the measures that have been taken against it. Anyone who wants to write a story of stupidity must abandon any arrogance. It is not necessary to find and describe the stupid people of the past, but how previous societies dealt with stupidity: what terms, procedures, and techniques were used to name, judge, and fight them? When did it become a problem, when was it considered defeat and where did it unexpectedly reappear?

The ancient Greeks did not have a word for what we call “stupid”. They knew of the lack of culture in the school, form, and irrationality in the sense of lack of judgment. Naive and ignorant people were “minors”, “childish”. In the case of the poet Aristophanes, the figure of the mentally weak appears, and in Aristotle a rude and stubborn hillbilly with a tendency to excess. Like today’s farmer, he lived in a place where good manners of the inhabitants of the city. The Athenian despised all these figures, but they were not “stupid” in our modern understanding.

And then the Greeks met the idiots – the idiot. He was not an idiot, the term only had that meaning in the 19th century. It can best be translated as a “self-closed person”. Idiots were excluded from public and political affairs in the city-state and held no office. He lived and worked for himself, in the army he was a simple soldier without authority, in commerce, he was a layman. The term itself was not originally critical. For the Greek writer Plutarch, however, to have a life as an idiot meant social and political inferiority: the idiot was the opposite of the citizen, and in Attic democracy, he was the measure of all things. Below the idiot, there were only women and slaves (Greece, 380 BC, calm down).

Even in the Christian Middle Ages, stupidity was not relevant in the current sense of a lack of intellectual talent. The crucial issue was not one of intelligence and stupidity, but of virtue and vice. God was the measure of all things, his works were unfathomable, but always wise. It was stupid not to live according to God’s command. “See, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, avoiding evil is discernment,” says the Old Testament. The wise man was obedient and God-fearing, the stupid was a sinner. However, not all of them had the same initial conditions: at the beginning of Christianity, the rich and learned were seen as sinners. They would have moved away from simple, primitive life – and therefore from God as well.

Thus, idiots, whom the Greeks despised, became the ideal type of good believer in the Middle Ages. The simple and poorly educated person and the layperson in the canonical sense – they were righteous by nature, believing was easy for them. It is no accident that Jesus came from a family of artisans. He recruited his first disciples among fishermen and tax collectors, they lived with the people, between the poor and the sick.

Knowledge, power, wealth, sin, and stupidity were closely related in the Christian Middle Ages. Nowhere is this more evident than in parody: In the late Middle Ages, stupidity became a festival. The low clergy organized masses and festivals of fools, frivolous parodies of the church’s holy mass. Pagan gambling has become a ritualized escape from the duties of peasant and monastic everyday life.

The hierarchies were reversed, reversing the roles: simple deacons and altar boys assumed the role of bishops and priests, made the rites absurd, played with holy water, and parodied the Holy Scriptures. The donkey fair took place in mid-January each year. Since antiquity, the donkey represents phallus and fertility, donkey fairs were a kind of carnival with erotic elements, during which the clergy wore animal costumes and responded to the bishop’s blessing with animal sounds.

“The Church never approved of this bad habit, on the contrary, as soon as it was recognized that it was causing disorder, the bishops did their best to avoid it,” wrote French scholar Jean Baptiste Lucotte Du Tillot in his 1741 History of the Fools’ Feast (Mémoires pour serve à l’histoire de la fête des foux). With the resolutions of the council, with the prohibition of presentations of jugglers and profane dances, it was tried to get rid of the bustle; vain act.

It was only in the course of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation that this world, from which the poet Rabelais had formed his characters in the early sixteenth century, disappeared – with irony and ambiguity, with satirical blows and burlesque anecdotes, always an effort to do so. in a time of increasing confessional polarization, avoid censorship and punishment. At the beginning of modern times, things started to change. Stupidity was no longer entirely identical with wickedness. And the “fools” running around became a problem.

For the ship of fools and for the royal court

In Europe, wandering lunatics were driven out of cities, among other things, by placing them on ships and sending them downstream. A “critical awareness of madness” developed, as Michel Foucault writes in Madness and Society; “tragic figures” leave society without eliminating them. At the same time, stupidity was recorded. Alsatian lawyer and writer Sebastian Brant is a typical example of this transition. His work The Ship of Fools, published in 1494, was on the one hand still in the Christian tradition of stupidity as an addiction: for him, scholars are arrogant fools who will eventually run into Lucifer’s cauldron.

Heretics, pagans, blasphemers, and murderers are also hopelessly lost. At the same time, Brandt returns to the theme of ship travel as a journey through life; a metaphor for the poet’s self-awareness since ancient times. For him, the path of wisdom no longer passes through piety, but through his Fruitful Virgil, the Roman poet Virgil – that is, by reason.

 The man per he receives the world through his senses (lower circle), forms ideas out of it (intermediate circle), and thus recognizes God.

When human reason appeared on the horizon as a desirable asset, everything changed to stupidity. In the 16th century, a new form of skeptical thinking emerged, which developed an almost friendly relationship with stupidity. It opened up possibilities for subversive autonomy under its cover.

In 1511, Erasmus of Rotterdam published his The Pleasure of the Fool. He allows stupidity to say, “Whatever the big pack says about me,” he says, “I still claim that I can amuse the gods and people alone.” There is a right to be stupid, yes, in many situations in life it is desirable and appropriate. “Is being young something other than being hasty and irrational? Is it not precisely the lack of common sense that is most valued at this age? Doesn’t everyone hate and hate a precocious child like a freak? “(Relax, we talk about the Middle Ages, 1511).

No marriage without haste, no rebirth with its unforgettable pain, no new knowledge without passion. Anyone who claims to act wisely in all things has been exposed as stupid; according to the humanist, he is a morosopher, a “foolish sage”. The only thing you can get is some degree of self-awareness. This is how Michel de Montaigne saw it: “Stupidity is a perverse quality”, he wrote in his essays. “But you can’t bear to be upset and upset about it, it’s a different kind of illness, which doesn’t give in to stupidity and which is so unbearable.”

The crafty fool and the simple-minded sage – became a recurring theme in the era of humanism and the Enlightenment. Whether in Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote (1605–1615), Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719), or Jacques le fataliste et son maître de Denis Diderot (1776): the uneducated and natural man can achieve greater understanding while remaining self-confident towards the lack self-criticism and fail to recognize their own ignorance.

For a long time, court jesters were detained at court because they were by no means stupid, but rather, they raised a mirror for the noble ladies and gentlemen with wit and intelligence. Monarchs could play smart fools because their authority was guaranteed by class order. Only those who do not consider their own power uncontroversial should keep critics at bay.

With the rise of the bourgeoisie, that order began to falter. Besides, the princes were newly wealthy citizens – gentlemen only because of their money. The fool has become dangerous to them: an authority that relies only on wealth and acquired knowledge is vulnerable.

At the same time, 18th-century philosophers shook the dogma of divine wisdom and omnipotence like never before. Atheists were no longer the greatest sinners and fools for them because as a rule, they had ethics; They considered devout and blind God-fearers who denied their own thinking really stupid. Catholic priest Jean Meslier, who secretly wrote his thousand-page memoirs in the 1720s, declared religions and everything in general “that is offered and practiced in the world as worship and devotion” as “error, deception, imagination, and deception”.

The power of the king and the clergy, legitimized by the grace of God, was attacked. Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach wrote in his work Le christianisme dévoilé (Christianity unveiled), published under a pseudonym in 1766: «No good government can be based on a despotic God; it will always turn its representatives into tyrants. “

The common will must judge you. The reason used for this common will, the evaluation must be the technical rationalizations arising from the free thought of the fear of the gods: accounting, auditing, the legal, the forms of rationalization of governmental knowledge, among them, the bio-politics is that they should serve as a ruler of good government. All added together in an idea of ​​truth and a discourse on the truth of the state of the government. And, based on this rationality rationale, there are no truths or points of view, but a single truth, such as that of 2 + 2 = 4.

I say no more.

Raul de Freitas Buchi