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Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Stupidity

“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.

“The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.”

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.

At the heart of the crisis, at the center of every riot over the last few years, is one side convinced they must use any means necessary to remove the things standing between them and the egalitarian paradise. If that means killing those who do not want to go along, they feel completely justified. After all, their objections are a call for violence to stop progress. The guy swinging the skateboard believes he is acting in self-defense, even when the attack is unprovoked.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from ‘After Ten Years’ in Letters and Papers from Prison. Taken from a circular letter, addressing many topics, written to three friends and co-workers in the conspiracy against Hitler, on the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s accession to the chancellorship of Germany. Bonhoeffer was hanged by Adolf Hitler in 1945. See Letters Papers from Prison – by Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Venlet December 4, 2021, 9:58 AM

    Bonhoffer is correct. You cannot fix stupid, especially in the alleged elite.

  • Terry December 4, 2021, 10:49 AM

    We have a man here in Idaho who is running for Governor. His name is Ammon Bundy. Mr. Bundy and his family have been persecuted, jailed and tortured by the “State”. Yes, tortured.

    Ammon Bundy is nothing short of another Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We Patriots, here in Idaho, are behind Ammon Bundy 100%. There are more than too many stupid people in Idaho who have never even heard of the man. However, there are more free thinkers per capita in Idaho than any other state in the USA.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer created the energy of thought to give the German people the will to prevail over evil.

    Think positive.

  • Mike Austin December 4, 2021, 10:54 AM

    The stupid have always walked among us. In the past, they could easily be ignored. But no longer. Emboldened by the power of the State and of the media and of a fake “pandemic” they always are in-your-face, screaming out their slogans and commands. We call some of them “Karens”, but these are just a subset of the stupid.

      Usually the stupid self-identify:

    1. they wear masks while in automobiles;
    2. they appear at rallies with ready-made placards plastered with clichés;
    3. they are vocal about their support of Antifa and BLM;
    4. they boast about getting vaccines and boosters;
    5. they babble about “Russian collusion” and “extremism” and “white supremacy”.

    Many of us know such creatures at work or in our own families. If at work, tread with care while around them, and say little. If a member of your family is one such, prepare yourself for endless hostility, arguments, and slander.

    So what to about the stupid? Outside of smashing a brick in their face—admittedly, my first choice—the solution to their presence is the same solution to the problem of the growing power of the Deep State. Once the “spicy times” arrive, the stupid—like the drug-addicted and the homeless—will be forced into the shadows one way or another, out of sight and out of mind.

  • downeasthillbilly December 4, 2021, 1:24 PM

    “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.” – Freidrich Schiller (h/t to Isaac Asimov)

  • Joe Krill December 4, 2021, 1:35 PM

    My only question is, “If they are so stupid, then why do they appear to be winning?”. They control the House, the Senate, the Oval Office, the alphabet agencies who use coercion against those that love America, the press, tv and radio, the pulpits. The list could go on for some time but the fact is, they appear to be winning.

    • Mike Austin December 4, 2021, 4:05 PM

      In 1860, Southerners controlled the White House, the Senate and the Supreme Court. Dred Scott had made slavery legal in every state and territory. It appeared the South had won. How did that work out again?

      Appearances deceive. Consider the position of the Left in the USA. Now consider our position. Would you trade places? As I write these words the Left is tearing itself apart. Their center cannot hold. They rely upon things ephemeral, tentative, fleeting, impotent. What they need above else—above everything else—is our quiescence, our agreement to their madness. We not only refuse that, we laugh at them: “Let’s Go Brandon!”

      In 612 BC Assyria appeared to be the master of half the world: invincible, undefeated, all-powerful. She was destroyed in two weeks. In 1991 the USSR controlled much of Asia and Europe, a colossus that caused fear and panic in all the West. She was defeated by a bar of soap, and now exists only in the pages of History.

      We won 2000 years ago. Everything since has been a mopping up operation. Be not afraid. Lucifer hates mockery. So laugh at him already.

      • Anonymous December 4, 2021, 5:25 PM

        Mike, You make some great points but, the South did not have a giant panda bear, aka CCP, feeding it. The South was, as best as I can ascertain, on their own. Today, America is brimming with agent provocateurs bought and paid for by our enemies. It has been said that China already has over a million man army on our soil. Our supposed closest ally, Israel, is known for not only their spying on us but selling our military secrets to our enemies. Even Billy Clinton, aka,” depends on the definition of lie”, had to demand that they not sell our AWACS technology to the CCP. We have at a best guesstimate over 30 million illegal aliens within our borders and anus head in the wh wants more. As you know, most of these illegal aliens are not tax paying Americans, they rely on our welfare system to keep them sated and healthy. The CCP not only has Sun Tzu’s Art of War down pat, they practice it daily here in the U.S. They have the best bought and paid for American political system that money our money can buy. Mike, I highly recommend that you view the 60 Minutes video titled “Prepare for Armageddon” I have linked below. I have copied the email I sent out.

        If you are not familiar with the war tactics of Sun Tzu in the book “The Art of War”, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with it so that you better understand the nuances on the words spoken by the Chinese diplomat. What really scares me is that obiden is supposedly in China’s back pocket.

        • Joe Krill December 4, 2021, 5:29 PM

          Anonymous should be Joe Krill.

          • Sisu December 4, 2021, 8:42 PM

            Joe Krill,

            “… feeding it.” Do you not know the difference between “essentials” and “creature comforts” ? …

            In the CCP you see what that “cult” projects – a “shadow”. You accept the “shadow” as ominous and threatening; and, it is. … Yet, if you investigate the source of the “shadow” you will find: 800 + ethnic tribes of indigenous peoples; speaking 800 + languages (surely some might be defined as dialectics; but many of those languages are based on substantively different concepts and semantics). … Yet, all are in survival mode.

            Yes. A problematic system of government based on “fear”, “intimidation”, “suppression”. … We, Americans who are moved by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Pledge of Allegiance, and Pres. George Washington’s rejection of a “crown”, should be able to comprehend that most of the “peoples” of Asia only want to be “free”, to pursue “life, liberty and happiness”. Personally, I cannot believe that the majority want to “fight, conquer and kill” to “take” any more than you or I want that life.

            I will let others (perhaps Gerard) to offer numbers regarding in the World (today) “how many ?”: languages(exclusive of dialects); religions(exclusive of denominations); ethnic groups; borders not drawn by the Brits; “federations of states”; systems of law; …

            A fact to consider is that the world is far more fragmented than our (and western, and UN propagandist) government(s) would ever acknowledge. And, the weapon systems which create (rightfully so) such fear, are temperamental – a great deal of conscientious, knowledgeable, technical expertise is required to make them reliable.

            We are overwhelmed by what we do not know. And, thus unable to resist the “lies” our own government tells, in large part because “those persons” who comprise our government are not the best and the brightest, and thus are even less capable of admitting what they do not know.

            And, we “The People” are yet burdened with earning sufficient to fund our own needs after paying to keep the parasites at bay.

            The leadership of the CCP, the Red Chinese Military and Communist Chinese Central and Provincial Governments are all evil, morally vacuous and worthy of elimination; but I want to believe their victims need our support.

            As to the US Civil War, it is irrelevant. The propaganda machine of Greeley and Lincoln was magnificent; but the conflict was about “federalism” not “slavery”, and the wrong side won. While today the US populous may not be any better educated or informed, the ability to create improvised systems of communication and logistics are vastly different.

            Have Faith. … “they (appear to be) winning” because you (and me) are biased by our own perception of time. … We are here to perpetuate life; not to witness the coming of the Kingdom of G-d.

            • Joe Krill December 5, 2021, 8:44 AM

              Sisu, Essentials versus creature comforts. Sycamore leaf versus Charmin. “We are here to perpetuate life;” I feel that we could agree that the CCP is nothing but a pawn, an evil pawn at that, of a much bigger evil conspiracy. I would like to know what your thoughts are on this life we are here to perpetuate. Are we to become automatons, which seems to be the direction we are headed in, or are we or will we continue in a never ending quest to explore all that there is, to rise and conquer the heavens, to explore dimensions that have not been thought of yet?

        • Mike Austin December 5, 2021, 6:13 AM

          I had not thought about the South that way. I know that she tried to get Britain and France to give her diplomatic recognition, but after Gettysburg such hopes vanished. The North, however, had a near-limitless supply of foreign immigrants—mainly Irish and German—who could be trained and rushed to the front lines in a few months after arrival.

          There is no doubt but that China has a huge number of US politicians on its payroll; perhaps the majority of our ruling “elites” in Washington DC, Big Tech, the media, our universities and NGOs take money from panda faced Xi Jinping—including Biden and McConnell. There is little that can be done about this in the short term. The same is true about illegal immigration.

          And as far as the Jewish state goes, every time I hear the word “Israel” I remember the USS Liberty.

          The video was more “scary China” stuff: China as invincible, China issuing threats all around, footage of Chinese military jumping about, and so on. The name of the video made me cringe: “Prepare for Armageddon: China’s warning to the world.” I have written about such obvious propaganda many times, and I will not repeat myself again. But it needs to be noted that such things never, ever mention any weaknesses China has. It assumes that an omnipotent China need merely make a move and gobble up Taiwan with nary a mention of what the nations on China’s border might do—all of whom hate China’s guts. Always keep in mind that one cruise missile would flatten China’s Three Gorges Dam and put one-third of the nation under water.

          That Chinese diplomat did not speak in nuances. His threats were clear and to the point. The Australian interviewer was quite uncomfortable while listening to him.

          My copy of “The Art of War” was purchased 40 years ago. Like the “Analects” of Confucius and much of Asian philosophy it is composed of axioms that are little more than simple common sense. Since the history of China is one of foreign conquest, invasion, civil wars and slavery, I cannot see in the real world that “The Art of War” did any good for China. (China’s rulers should have listened to Sun Tzu.) Foreign military guys like it though. I prefer Clausewitz and Jomini, but these are difficult, tedious and slow reads—unlike Sun Tzu, who can be read in a few hours and is much more entertaining.

    • Friend of Pacepa December 6, 2021, 5:41 PM

      I refer to Faulker… Quentin’s lead in from the Sound and the Fury –
      “When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

      Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury (Vintage International) (p. 87). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  • Dank in Oregon December 4, 2021, 1:36 PM

    Great essay, thanks for sharing, Gerard. Being a Bonhoeffer fan from way back, the last paragraph reference to a swinging skateboard didn’t sound quite right. Not really a “thing” in Nazi Germany.
    Bonhoeffer is certainly an inspiration for our current time.
    Found the same paragraph in the Zman’s blog from 23 Nov, 2021 (4th from the bottom):

  • Casey Klahn December 4, 2021, 1:51 PM

    Bonhoeffer is Pauline in his prison letters. Plus he’s absolutely right that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. That verse from scripture is the motto of the US Army Chaplain’s Corps.

    Doesn’t it hurt being right a lot? I mean, when you know Covid is an electioneering tool, morphed into a communist take-over. That knowledge, while freeing and independent, is also, when spoken aloud, an oath of office.

  • AbigailAdams December 4, 2021, 6:43 PM

    Golly! The characteristics of a stupid person are exactly the same as those of an habitual drunk.

  • Dirk December 4, 2021, 7:01 PM

    Dammmm, some guy I’ve never heard off, is trying to explain Stupid to me, to us. In my life I’ve learned that Stupid wears an awful lot of hats.

    Just amuses me that someone feels their intellect needs to define others stupid. I guess it takes all kinds.

    Forest Gumption said it best, Stupid is, as stupid does. Don’t get much simpler then that curt definition.


  • Tom Hyland December 5, 2021, 8:00 AM

    “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
    – Albert Einstein

  • Jack December 5, 2021, 8:35 AM

    In the Kipling quote, did I miss something. He says only 4 things are certain but I only counted 3.

    I am old and ill but as for China and the rest of this demonic world, if the SHTF at our doorsteps, then I’m prepared to conger what little mojo I have to terminate the mojo of the idiots who follow the commands of their handlers. I doubt that I’ll miss but two things are certain: I’m not remotely afraid of them and I’ll do all that I can to send them straight to Hell.

  • Andrew X December 5, 2021, 8:51 AM

    Ditto on the three vs. four thing. Is there an edit here, or is Kipling trying to make some sort of point, or what?


  • James ONeil December 5, 2021, 10:23 AM

    I don’t buy it.

    Stupid is just a speed bump, you just drive over it, slow down a bit but drive on. It’ll still be there when you’ve moved on. None the less, you’ve moved on.

    Ignorance is a wall. You can tear it down, you can frame a window or door in it, unlike stupid, you can change it.

    Evil on the other hand: Evil is bumps, bars, walls, razor wire. gallows, racks, stacks of rot that, unless destroyed, will engulf and delimit our very being.

    The question is have we waited too long, treating evil as simply stupidity and ignorance, something we can ignore or correct? Concentration camps in OZ, political prisoners in D.C. jails, position locators in our cell phones, travel restricted, bank accounts monitored, indoctrinated, regulated, subjugated.

    Is there still time brother, or is it far too late?

  • Mike Austin December 5, 2021, 12:42 PM

    The lines are still being drawn, forces are still being marshalled, political calculations are still being made, economic consequences are still being considered, stores are still being acquired, comrades are being marked and enemies noted. We have not yet begun to fight. But blood is inevitable, blood is necessary. The other side wants surrender; our side wants to be left the Hell alone. They are in a hurry; we are not. They issue rule after rule, threat after threat; they scream in protest and send their absurd legions to burn down their own cities. Their media catamites howl out their disparagement every second of every hour of every day. They cannot understand that they preach to their own dammed choir.

    Let’s go Brandon. Let’s get this show on the road. Let’s end this thing. We tire of you and all like you. Come and get us. Or we will come and get you. Same result.

  • Dirk December 6, 2021, 8:19 AM

    Acknowledging “Our Own” stupid, is how we’ve survived past 25. So many levels of stupid. I seem to achieve new levels monthly. Na,,,,,,I seem to invent a new level monthly.