Alienation, Alienation From Self, Authoritarianism, Bad Ideas, Belief, Freedom, Freedom and Liberty, Fundamentalism, Human Nature, Ideologies, Oppression, Quality of Life, Self-determination, Society, Truth, Village Idiots

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on “Stupid People”

(About a 6 minute read; reading full quote extends post to about 11 minutes)

Please note: Bonhoeffer was a brilliant and compassionate German theologian. He was among the few Germans with the courage to openly and publicly oppose the Nazis after they had consolidated their hold over the nation. He was hanged for it.  This post is about his sharp insights into the mentality of Hitler’s followers — insights that I believe are especially relevant today. 

In an earlier post today, I defended stupid people from our cultural tendency to attack and debase them.  The post prompted one of Café Philos’ readers, Galtz, to respond with a long quote of Bonhoeffer’s that seemingly analyses “stupid people”.  But please don’t be misguided by Bonhoeffer’s and mine use of the same word, “stupid”, to describe a certain type or class of persons.  We are not using the word to mean the same thing at all.

What Bonhoeffer means by “stupid”, I mean by “willfully stupid”.  In turn, what he means by “dull” is what I mean  by “stupid”.  Once that is seen, I believe it becomes clear to any reader of both posts that Bonhoeffer and I are in complete agreement.

Now, let’s take a look at Bonhoeffer’s views. He begins by noting that “against stupidity we are defenseless”.  This is because stupid people cannot be reasoned with: “reasons fall on deaf ears” — an insight that he drives home in brilliant detail.

First, the stupid person simply does not feel any need to believe facts that contradict his or her assumptions.  Even if the facts are irrefutable, the stupid person simply pushes them aside as inconsequential, as incidental.

Moreover, the stupid person shows no signs of possessing an intellectual conscience about his behavior: He feels no shame or guilt for what he does.  Instead, he is likely to feel smug and self-satisfied, and then to go on the attack, becoming critical of the views presented to him. Because of that he becomes dangerous for his attacks might involve violence.

Based on all my experience of people, Bonhoeffer is spot on here. Stupid people behave precisely as he says they do.  They did in his age, and they still do today, a fact that indicates this sort of stupidity — which I myself call “willful ignorance” — most likely has its roots in our DNA, and can be considered part of human nature.

So how do we “get the better of this stupidity?  The question is as urgent today as it was then.  But if we wish to combat it, we must first understand it.  There very first thing to notice is that this kind of stupidity is not really a matter of intelligence.  “There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid.”

So if it is not really a matter of intelligence, then what on earth is it?

To answer that question, Bonhoeffer first observes that people either choose to be stupid or that it somehow happens to them that they become stupid.  He next observes that people who live solitary lives seem to be somewhat immune to this kind of stupidity, and that gives him the clue he needs to conclude that the problem is not a psychological problem, but a sociological issue — or at least a bit of both.

Bonhoeffer now insightfully turns his attention to the relationship between stupidity and political power, brilliantly observing that, by nature, humans become stupid under the impact on them of power, because being controlled and directed by others is incompatible with self-control and self-direction:

“…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 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 abused in his very being.”

I think Bonhoeffer is not at all exaggerating when he says the stupid person behaves as if he is under a “spell”.  A man or woman who has lost their intellectual autonomy to a powerful figure or to an elite class, has lost it entirely.  There is no hint left of their thinking for themselves.

Until reading Bonhoeffer earlier today, I thought the tendency of so many people these days to mimic or parrot political catch-phrases and talking points was more or less skin deep.  They were doing it simply because mimicry was so much easier than coming up with their own words to describe what they thought and felt.

But now, I suspect it goes much deeper than that.  I suspect if you could open up their heads for examination, you’d find they had no other thoughts in them on certain subjects other than those put there by their pundits, politicians, preachers, etc.

“…the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”  One he has been taken over by the spell of the powerful group or figure, the stupid person becomes capable of even the most heinous crimes — there is no limit to the evil he or she will do.

Which puts me in mind of Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”  That’s quite a frightening — and sad — take on human nature, but it’s perfectly true.  There is no mistake on the part of either Bonhoeffer nor Voltaire.  They are spot on.

Bonhoeffer now states his firm belief that only an “act of liberation” can free the stupid person from his or her stupidity.  Moreover, the stupid person cannot liberate him or herself.  The act must come from without.  That is, it is entirely up to other people to perform it.

For all the darkness of his views up until now, Bonhoeffer offers two rays of hope.  The first ray is his faith that stupid people can be liberated or redeemed, they need not remain stupid forever.  The second is his observation that power is not always wielded in ways that stupefy people, but can also be wielded in ways compatible with people’s “inner independence and wisdom.”

To me, a key question here is exactly what techniques and methods would work best to liberate stupid people?  We know reasoning with them will do nothing.  But what, if anything, will work?

Aside from the suggestion that the same methods as enslaved them might be used to liberate them, I have no other suggestions.

Questions? Comments?


Here, now, is the full quote:

“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 when dealing with a stupid person 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 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 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 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 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 peoples’ stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters From Prison

9 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer on “Stupid People””

  1. That was quite enlightening! Thank you for sharing your thoughts as well as Bonhoeffer’s, i enjoyed reading about the psychology of the wilfully stupid. 🙂

      1. Depressing? Well, it’s terribly unfortunate that these people are being controlled by political influences, i have accepted that human nature has many cracks in it that make it exploitable. Internal liberation is also an uncommon thing to realise, but it can happen, which means “stupid people” are not stupid forever. As long as there are people combating this i remain hopeful 🙂

  2. Have you ever read up on the Third Wave experiment or the Stanford Prison Experiment? People are capable of doing terrible things due to social pressures, when 1) they join a group with similar values 2) they allow themselves to demonize others in order to feel closer to their own group 3) the leaders of the group demand or sanction the terrible thing

  3. Actually, FH, I’ve got some bad news. The Stanford Experiment has been reviewed and called into serious question. This is all recent — within the last six months. It’s quite shocking, because the Experiment has been the cornerstone for so many decades of so much “knowledge”. Now all called into question.

    But I do think that Bonhoeffer’s analysis of stupid people is still spot on.

  4. You are right in writing that nowadays Bonhoeffer’s writing bear a striking actuality. Especially nowadays in Germany people seem to lose their minds (and memories) on a daily basis, following people that I’m considering mentally unstable, to say the least. One of the leaders of the new right party AfD, which is constantly attacking immigrants or gay people (using the propaganda term “gender ideology”, is an openly lesbian woman. It seems really hard to me to grasp how one could split up parts of their identity to fit the context.

    And especially being a member of a marginalized group you should know better than to follow false prophets and ludicrous demagogues. But it seems too easy to swallow the simple “truths”.

    Unfortunately I have no idea how to de-stupidify said people. I wish I could wave a magic wand, but all I can do is write poems. It is hard to fight against such deeply ingrained ideas/ignorance. But I think you still need to try, even if you don’t know how. Educating people, one at a time. I’m really having some hopes for the next generations. They still have the potential to think freely and out-of-the-box while many of the older generations probably won’t even be able to switch their mental gears anymore, I’m afraid.

  5. If an act of liberation is the only likely remedy to being willfully stupid, and if the most likely cause of such stupidity is an upsurge of power that robs people of their intellectual autonomy, then the only plausible solution I see is to empower these “stupid” people. By that I don’t mean to put them into power positions, but rather to help them regain their intellectual autonomy. How? By truly listening to how they were disempowered in the first place…

    Instead of arguing politics, social justice/responsibility, or opinions, perhaps we should gently turn the conversation back to the individual and let them express their personal needs and concerns. When the slogans and stereotypes arise, we gently redirect them, asking for PERSONAL examples of their experience with these slogans and stereotypes. Then we address THOSE examples only, looking for ways to re-empower the individual.

    Example: a person complains that “immigrants are stealing our jobs!” Rather than argue facts and statistics, ask them if they know anyone personally who has lost a job to an immigrant. If so, get the story, empathize, personalize the feelings, so that the person remains fixed on the single personal example, and validate that. If they have more than one, work it back to the one most personal, and validate those feelings of powerlessness…

    If no such example exists in their personal experience, then suggest perhaps there is nothing here worth discussing at all, since they have no personal knowledge of this “great big problem.” And move the conversation to the next hot topic button, looking for personal connections.

    Would such an approach work? I have no idea. Lol! I haven’t tried it myself. But this article has given me the idea that perhaps it’s an approach worth trying, since nothing else seems to work… 😀

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