Bonhoeffer’s Theory of Stupidity

Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that stupid people are more dangerous than evil ones. This is because while we can protest against or fight evil people, against stupid ones we are defenseless — reasons fall on deaf ears. Bonhoeffer’s famous text, which we slightly edited for this video, serves any free society as a warning of what can happen when certain people gain too much power.

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The Full story

In the darkest chapter of German history, during a time when incited mobs threw stones into the windows of innocent shop owners and women and children were cruelly humiliated in the open; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young pastor, began to speak publicly against the atrocities.

stupidity

After years of trying to change people’s minds, Bonhoeffer came home one evening and his own father had to tell him that two men were waiting in his room to take him away. 

In prison, Bonhoeffer began to reflect on how his country of poets and thinkers had turned into a collective of cowards, crooks and criminals. Eventually he concluded that the root of the problem was not malice, but stupidity. 

Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison

In his famous letters from prison, Bonhoeffer argued that stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice, because while “one may protest against evil; it can be exposed and prevented by the use of force, against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here. Reasons fall on deaf ears.”

aggressive stupid

Facts that contradict a stupid person’s prejudgment simply need not be believed and when they are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this, the stupid person is self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.

For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature.

This much is certain, stupidity is in essence not an intellectual defect but a moral one. There are human beings who are remarkably agile intellectually yet stupid, and others who are intellectually dull yet anything but stupid.

The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or rather, they allow this to happen to them.

stupid happens

People who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals in groups. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.

It becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power, be it of a political or religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. Almost as if this is a sociological-psychological law where the power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.

The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, such as intellect, suddenly 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 an autonomous position.

leadership

The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us from the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. 

He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and is abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil – incapable of seeing that it is evil.

liberation from stupidity

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.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer died in KZ

Bonhoeffer died due to his involvement in a plot against Adolf Hitler at dawn on 9 April 1945 at Flossenbürg concentration camp just two weeks before soldiers from the United States liberated the camp.

“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility. The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” Bonhoeffer once said. 

Check the sources below to read Bonhoeffer’s original text, “After Ten Years”

Sources

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Classroom exercise

How would you define Bonhoeffer’s version of stupidity? What qualities must someone possess, or lack thereof, to be considered stupid as Bonhoeffer describes it? In what type of situation would crowds display stupidity? Work together as a class to devise a definition and a solution to ensure something like Nazi Germany cannot repeat itself.

If you want to take it a step further, divide the class into two groups based on a chosen ideology: pro-life vs pro-abortion for example. Ideally let each student rate how strong they feel about the topic, say from a scale of 1-10. Then let each group articulate arguments why the others are stupid. After they presented their arguments, let them rate the strength of their convictions once again. Lastly, take control of the situation and let the students reflect upon what just happened. Did maybe their own stupidity and group-think just grew?

7 Replies to “Bonhoeffer’s Theory of Stupidity”

  1. The first theme in The Wealth of Nations is that regulations on commerce are ill-founded and counter-productive. The prevailing view was that gold and silver was wealth, and that countries should boost exports and resist imports in order to maximize this metal wealth. Smith’s radical insight was that a nation’s wealth is really the stream of goods and services that it creates. Today, we would call it gross national product. And the way to maximise it, he argued, was not to restrict the nation’s productive capacity, but to set it free.

  2. Bonhoeffer describes one side of the possible “stupidity” that may -in times of crisis- be used as a tool to destroy the existing system in order to establish a new corrupted structure with less freedom and human rights; or to protect an existing totalitarian regime (as what happened in Arab countries after Arab spring)
    Another side of “stupidity”, we see now adays, is taking place in countries with the maximum freedom, welfare, and scientific development in human history. The rise of extreme right in the West used the “stupidity” and the tendency to “post-truth”.
    However, I prefer to call it, as it was indirectly said in the video, “forced stupidity” rather than “stupidity”.

  3. Am I stupid, huh? Sometimes. I thought at first that in pictures Orange people have an “open” mind. And drawn as a single. Now, we need to make a definition of what “Open” mind means? Mine is not a sponge…

  4. once a indian journalist said ” the biggest duty of any citizen is to ask question” now i understood its significance that it had the potential to pervent the world war.

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