The science of Idiotism was introduced to the Western world more than 90 years ago, in 1922, by the famous philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff. At first, according to his students, it seemed to be simply an amusing mealtime entertainment, resulting in a cosmic degree of drunkenness. But soon it became “perhaps his strangest and most innovative method of teaching.”
Gurdjieff taught that eating with others was a fundamental key to evolution, a sacrament and a life-affirming ritual never to be given short shrift or hurried up.* At his daily multi-course dinners, toasts were drunk to successive categories of “idiot,” always illuminating the specific idiocy of the person at table being toasted. All guests were obliged to drink the toast in Armagnac or vodka.
Gurdjieff’s use of ‘idiot’ had complex meanings that blended that of the ancient sages — ‘be oneself’ ( the Greek root, ‘idios’, means “one’s own”) — with the slightly perjorative use we commonly know.
The ritual, Gurdjieff explained, was drawn from an ancient esoteric practice. It vivified a teaching handed down from antiquity which consisted in tracing the path of man’s evolution from a state of nature to the realization of his spiritual potential. In other words, there are twenty- one gradations of reason from that of the ordinary person to that of, as Gurdjieff called it, Our Endlessness, that is, God. In this hierarchy even God is an idiot, albeit the “Unique Idiot” at level 21.
To begin, each person would choose, via intuition, which idiot he or she is from the first twelve:
1. ordinary idiot
2. super idiot
3. arch idiot
4. hopeless idiot
5. compassionate idiot
6. squirming idiot
7. square idiot
8. round idiot
9. zigzag idiot
10. enlightened idiot
11. doubting idiot
12. swaggering idiot
13. born idiot
14. patented idiot
15. psychopathic idiot
16. polyhedral idiot
Idiots 17-21 constituted a spiritual hierarchy, reflecting progressive gradations of objective reason. Gurdjieff placed himself at Idiot #17.
Idiot 18 presented the highest development which a human being could reach, but in order to attain it, he had first voluntarily to descend again from 17 back to 1, the ordinary idiot.
Idiots 19 and 20 were reserved for the sons of God.
21 – The Unique Idiot, God Himself.
Within each category there were several subcategories. For example, there are three kinds of Compassionate Idiot: The first sees a man in need of help and immediately helps him, even giving him his own shirt. The second does exactly the same, but only because his fianceé’s father is observing. The third kind, says Gurdjieff, “So-so- so, sometimes he gives and sometimes not, depending on many things, perhaps even the weather.”
The Toast to the Idiots was discontinued on Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. His followers felt that without his decisive presence it risked becoming an empty form, without content. Yet even these crumbs from his table continue to feed us, generations later. It is at once humbling and affirming to toast the idiot in ourselves…
Which idiot are you?
*You have to love a philospher whose private office was in his larder…
Sources: Idiots in Paris, by J. G and Elizabeth Bennett, Weiser, 1991 Teachings of Gurdjieff, by C. S. Nott, Arkana, 1961 Gurdjieff, A Biography, by James Moore, Element, 1991