Health

Bonhoeffer on Stupidity 

I came across this short essay by German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an opponent of National Socialism who was executed in 1945. He was explaining how Nazi evil became acceptable to many.

In 2021, we see strange people in BC — humans I suspect Bonhoeffer would categorize as stupid — mobbing to prey on politicians, healthcare workers, hospital patients and now school children. For thousands, the restraints of decency are lost. Bonhoeffer’s words might help to explain the behaviour.

The opinions were republished by Averett Jones in 2019 on a site based in a small Virginia town.


(This week’s editorial is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of my personal heroes.)

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease.

Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental.

In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

‘If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid.

We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.

It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.

The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person.

This state of affairs explains why in such circumstances our attempts to know what ‘the people’ really think are in vain and why, under these circumstances, this question is so irrelevant for the person who is thinking and acting responsibly. The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.

But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from people’s stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.’

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from ‘After Ten Years’ in Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works/English, vol. 8) Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010. 

Categories: Health, Justice

5 replies »

  1. George Carlin had this all figured out.

    “Think about how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of ’em are stupider than that.”

    “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • A good politician (not to be confused with a good person) knows how to exploit stupid to obtain the votes and money needed to get elected. The very good one knows how to keep stupid out of the machinery needed to stay there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A number of years ago I met a fella who had just moved to the Island from Vancouver. He worked there for 30 plus years at a high paying job (with annual bonuses) with a family and lived in the Dunbar area. Living the good life. He said that all his life he had been told that he was smart. From his childhood and on he was always told he was smart. He said that he got to believe it too. Hey, look at his job, look where he lives, look at his life style; he must be smart. In the early 2000’s his life started to unravel. His job (position) started to get uninteresting. His wife left him. In ’08/’09 most of his investments went sideways and lost most (not all) of them. He said his problem was with him cuzz he said that he thought that he was smart. He said that his purpose in life now was to become not so stupid and don’t believe people when they tell him that he’s smart. I think he’s a smart fella but I don;t want to tell him that cuzz I don’t want it to go to his head.

    Like

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