Idiots, Tribesmen & Citizens: Between Ancient Greeks And Modern Day Nigerians – By Victor Anazonwu


Ancient Greeks, the people who gave the world the concept and practice of democracy, believed there were three kinds of people in society.

The first were the “Idiots.” The label wasn’t intended as an insult. It simply described those who lived for themselves only. They were congenitally incapable of group thought and civic responsibility. They were unable to understand the nexus between individual good and common good. They were thus utterly selfish and without character, seeking only their own wellbeing (or their household’s) to the detriment of society. You could say they were socially challenged.

Idiots are not just lowly people living on the fringes of society. They also include “highly successful” people in private and public life. Among them must be listed politicians, civil servants and sundry professionals whose only purpose in life is to get ahead of others. They endlessly seek and keep office, not for the purpose of public service but solely for living at public expense and polishing their egos with the paraphernalia of power. They would readily pervert the system to get into coveted positions, but after years in office there is no evidence of progress for society. They are the only ones “growing” – if growth is measured by the size of their bank balances and appetite for vanity. They are intrepid parasites.

The second kind of people in society, according to the Greeks, were the “Tribesmen.” This was not a reference to jungle-dwelling, scantily clad men and women running around with bows and arrows. Rather, it described people with a narrow and clannish state of mind. They were one step away from the Idiots because they had a wider group consciousness beyond self and family. But they could never see beyond their “tribe.” The term tribe is used by the Greeks to describe people living in closed, smaller human communities characterized by common ethnicity, language, color, religion or political ideology. So, Tribesmen are persons who nurse such narrow mindsets. They perceive other groups to be less worthy and to be in an existential struggle with theirs. Tribesmen are instinctively suspicious of anyone who is not like them and immediately seek their exclusion.

The third kind of people in society, according to the Greeks, were the Citizens. Citizens had mindsets and skill sets to live public lives. They were inclusive, selfless and imbued with a sense of the common good. They understood that there was a connection between individual and collective interests; that unbridled seeking of individual or small group interests was ultimately harmful to self and society. So they were willing to make sacrifices in exchange for a bigger and better world for all. They knew that rights came with responsibilities and embraced both. They were the ideal members of society, according the Greeks.

The Greeks rightly surmised that the direction in which any society travels (towards progress or backwardness) is determined by the number of people in each group within such a society. If the number of idiots and tribesmen outstrips the number of citizens, for instance, society witnesses stagnation and decline. Conversely, if the number of citizens surpasses the number of tribesmen and idiots, society thrives.

It is a glowing tribute to the Ancient Greeks that this political philosophy has endured, almost untouched, through the crucible of time.

Don’t ask me to estimate or even contemplate the number of Nigerians who fall into each of the three groups of people. Suffice it to say that seeing the path our country has travelled these past years, we do not have the luxury of so many true citizens.

Now, with the benefit of recent political developments in Nigeria, especially leading up to the general elections in 2023, I am tempted to think that the classic Greek categorization may be inadequate, particularly for Nigerians, and it may be necessary to add one more group.

I propose a fourth group, for instance, to be called the Cynics. These are neither Idiots nor Tribesmen. They are perfectly capable of Group think on a scale that clearly surpasses the Tribesmen. So they cannot be said to suffer from congenital socialization myopia. But they fall short of the lofty attributes of Citizens. Unlike the Citizens, Cynics appear to have evolved towards a state of lethargy or perpetual pessimism about the fate of human communities. And they have no faith in the pursuit of the common good.

It is possible that they are conditioned by serial disappointments and failures of society. It is also possible that there is something deeper within their personalities which predisposes them to cynicism. Whatever it is, they lack the vision and courage to see a better tomorrow for their society, even when today offers no joys or presents an opportunity for positive change.

In Nigeria today. the Cynics are the ones who say that “the owners of the country” would not allow for free and fair elections in 2023. They say promising presidential candidates would go nowhere because they do not have “the structures” to win elections. They say no matter how good or suitable some candidates are, as long as they come from certain ethnic or regional groups, “they will never be allowed” to produce the president. They say “it is not yet time” for certain regions to produce the leader; they must wait for a future time to be considered. They say outside the two “big” political parties (APC & PDP) no other parties can win the Nigerian presidency…

They see all the valleys, cliffs and mountains on the way. They see nothing of the pleasant possibilities of smooth plains right ahead. They take pride in anticipating disaster. They prefer to say, “I know it won’t work” or “I told you it would fail” than to say, “How can we make it work?” or “I hope it works.” Cynics thrive in persuading other members of society that there is no hope. Sometimes this group includes the silent who are muted in the face of so much evil.

In summary, I propose that unlike Ancient Greece there are four groups of people in modern day Nigeria – The Idiots, The Tribesmen, The Cynics and The Citizens; Three vicious groups and one virtuous group. Little wonder the forces of evil always seem to dominate the forces of good. Each individual must ask himself, in all honesty, to which group he belongs.

Between the three vicious groups, it is hard to tell which is the most obnoxious My pick would be the Cynics. My reasons are simple: They are toxic in a way that fools the senses. Wittingly or unwittingly, they sabotage the worthy exertions of Citizens and facilitate the evil enterprise of Idiots and Tribesmen. They rob society of the most vital ingredients of progress – motivation and hope. They seek to make us all losers – just so they can say in the end, “I told you so.”

– Victor Anazonwu, an author and trainer, is Chief Ideation Officer at The Elipses Ideation Company (TEIC).

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