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.

One of the best, most important, most useful videos ever published!

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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

Dig deeper!

Classroom exercise

According to Bonhoeffer, debate can’t convince a stupid person to drop their stupid view.

What do you think could have been done differently back in the late 1930s to stop Adolf Hitler from spreading his dangerous ideas and liberating the people of their own stupidity

And what about today. What can we do to avoid the dangers of stupidity in today’s modern society? What makes our modern communities smarter and what makes each individual be less defensive and more open to ideas?

Discuss with your class and let us know in the comments below what they think.

30 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.

  5. I totally agree with this Essay. The Global South especially Africa is hypothetically led with Political and Religious Leaders who may have been schooled in Europe and America, and have been taught the Theory of Stupidy.

    I no longer have doubt in my mind that they are utilizing it to their advantages.
    I come from a Geographical State where Politicians coin slogans according to election cycle. You hears slogans like ‘only God’ ‘that same God’ ‘Amazing Grace’ ‘God’s grace’ ‘hand of God’ ‘what God cannot do does not exist’ etc to promote another four years of poverty, poor public finance management and aid-dependence that would service the critical sectors
    The religious leaders are more hilagious even in their approaches too.
    Infact, the theory is observable across spectrum of professionalism. Is like a bystander effect.
    Is like the minds of Professionals are conditioned with the tendency to exploit and cash out from the broken system, even where human lives are involved.
    Corelating this to Cipolla’s graphs, politicians and professionals are hybrid of ‘Bandits and Stupid’

  6. At the end of the article there is a classroom exercise to debate if abortion is right or wrong, and then rate how strong your convictions are on the topic. According to Bonhoeffer, debate can’t convince a stupid person to drop their stupid views. Do the makers of this website even understand what Bonhoeffer said? The last sentence is, “Did maybe their own stupidity and group-think just grew?” That sounds stupid.

  7. I suspect the classroom exercises will have better results by asking the question, “what makes communities be smarter?” As for individuals, I suggest asking, “what makes people be less defensive [open to ideas]?”

  8. The five laws of stupidity, according to Carlo Cipolla, are very closely related to this subject. He defines stupidity as causing a loss to others without a gain for self, or worse, at a loss to self. Thus, intelligent people gain from an interaction, while simultaneously ensuring a gain for the other person. He too, noticed that no amount of reason would reach a stupid person.

  9. What about the end whereby liberation occurs? Does that mean “freedom?” I am trying to apply that to a real world example and struggling.

  10. Carlo Cipolla was on the money. If you act in a way that damages not only yourself but also the wider society around you then you are the stupidest of the stupid. An example here would be a mask wearer. He/she not only damages him/herself by ingesting dangerous fibres in to the lungs but also by restricting oxygen and increasing the carbon monoxide fed back in to the lungs. The greater damage to the society is the environmental catastrophe that is caused by the vast numbers of non-biodegradable masks that end up in the worlds oceans causing death and misery to countless marine life.
    All this for a virus that does not exist. You really cannot get more stupid than this.

  11. It seems to me that it should’ve been called the Theory Of Ignorance, rather than the Theory Of Stupidity, because truly stupid people can never learn!

  12. You state [from a Bonn quote, while admittedly not explicitly quoting him] that “this much is certain, stupidity is in essence not an intellectual defect but a MORAL one.”
    While your source text for Bonn is “this much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a HUMAN one.”

    Could you please explain the deviation? I am genuinely curious to know, since there are nuances in meaning between the two words. My own internet search has not yielded an answer so far and thought it might be best to ask the source.

    Thank you

  13. Mr. King, I appreciate how you summarize your comment in the last line “You really cannot get more stupid than this.”. Thank you!

    1. Pardon the vehemence of my reply but Mr. King’s reply to the article exemplifies the Bonhoeffer effect by repeating the absurd end of the propaganda spread by the fearmongers. As a defense of my statement, I approach the wearing of a mask – with the idea of hindering the spread of disease – from an aerodynamic standpoint. Even a cheap mask disrupts the airflow from and into human air passages to a degree that it can’t help but limit the transmission of infectious particles. You can see this graphically in the numerous studies using Schlieren photographic images of wearing a mask vs not wearing a mask, covering a cough, etc. The airflow patterns shown back up my view. Another angle is the argument that the masks are only minimally effective in preventing the spread of the disease (let’s not get into the STUPID argument that the disease doesn’t exist…). OK. Wearing a mask has a minimal effect on spreading disease. Not wearing a mask has NO effect on spreading disease. Minimal effect would be better than No effect, wouldn’t it? Some of the reasons given by Mr. King are as far-fetched as the articles I’ve seen talking about the various diseases supposedly found on masks – including genetically communicated diseases and diseases that are only transmitted via blood. I will agree about the many discarded masks causing ecological problems. But this problem is created by stupid people, not the practice of wearing masks. I ask, would Mr. King allow surgery to be performed by a surgeon who subscribed to Mr. King’s opinion? I doubt it.

  14. Leadership who are evil but not stupid uses their control of the stupid to amass wealth & power, which harms even the stupid. Only in defeating Evil people can we liberate the stupid. We can protest evil, it can be exposed & prevented by force or vote.

  15. “Children were humiliated”?
    JEWISH people were stripped of basic human rights like freedom of work and movement, worked to death, tortured, forced famine to death and systematically murdered.

    You Slightly forgot this emphasis

  16. “Children and inncent man were humiliated”?
    JEWISH people were stripped of basic human rights like freedom of work and movement, worked to death, tortured, forced famine to death and systematically murdered.

    There’s an emphasis on antisemitism which you omitted

  17. The brave new world order of the revolutionary wokeness where slavery is freedom, ignorance is knowledge, black is white, male us female, etc. induces what I call a state of artificially-induced stupidity.

    I was looking for references to see if anyone else promotes that idea which led me to Bonhoeffer today.

  18. Thanks for the fascinating illustration of Bonhoeffer’s “Theory of Stupidity.” As I think about it, let me start by saying that a common definition of stupidity is: “behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment.” Secondary definitions impute a lack of intelligence, but most attribute stupidity to actions that are not well thought out.

    I was especially intrigued by one of the concluding sentences in your piece: “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.” But just exactly what is external liberation? I would posit that it is the physical removal of the individual from the influence of “group think,” defined as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”

    Groupthink is primarily a result of intellectual laziness. Seeing and seeking safety in numbers, the individual succumbing to it is inclined to go with the crowd, the herd, the flock. Any disparity between reality and groupthink is suppressed through the wonders of cognitive dissonance, a prime illustration being the folktale of the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”

    To many, groupthink is easier and seemingly safer than independent thinking. It is reinforced by looking at facts from just one perspective, in many cases the perspective of the demagogue. And what better tool for the demagogue than communications and events such as rallies that seemingly demonstrate that his “truth” is widely accepted?

    Yes, as Bonnhoefer says, “a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it.” In other words, the “ditto-head” must first be rescued and separated from his echo chamber before asking him to think for himself.

  19. [Here’s an updated version of my previous comment.]

    Thanks for the fascinating illustration of Bonhoeffer’s “Theory of Stupidity.” As I think about it, let me start by saying that a common definition of stupidity is: “behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment.” Secondary definitions impute a lack of intelligence, but most attribute stupidity to actions that are not well thought out.

    I was especially intrigued by one of the concluding sentences in your piece: “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.” But just exactly what is external liberation? I would posit that it is the physical removal of the individual from the influence of “group think,” defined as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”

    Groupthink is primarily a result of intellectual laziness. Seeing and seeking safety in numbers, the individual succumbing to it is inclined to go with the crowd, the herd, the flock. Any disparity between reality and groupthink is suppressed through the wonders of cognitive dissonance, a prime illustration being the folktale of the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”

    To many, groupthink is easier and seemingly safer than independent thinking, which requires a degree of moral courage for its public defense. It is reinforced by looking at facts from just one perspective, in many cases the perspective of the demagogue. And what better tool for the demagogue than communications and events such as rallies that seemingly demonstrate that his “truth” is widely accepted?

    Yes, as Bonhoeffer says, “a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it.” In other words, the “ditto-head” must first be rescued and separated from his echo chamber before asking him to think for himself.

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