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With great power comes great stupidity

Published Friday, February 10, 2023 @ 12:34 PM EST
Feb 10 2023

(Read the original article here. BigThink publishes some wonderful stuff. You can subscribe to their newsletters here).

There's an internet adage that goes, "Debating an idiot is like trying to play chess with a pigeon- it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory." It's funny and astute. It's also deeply, depressingly worrying. Although we'd never say so, we all have people in our lives we think of as a bit dim- not necessarily about everything, but certainly about some things.

Most of the time, we laugh this off. After all, stupidity can be pretty funny. When my friend asked a group of us recently what Hitler's last name was, we laughed. When my brother learned only last month that reindeer are real animals- well, that's funny. Good-natured ribbing about a person's ignorance is an everyday part of life.

Stupidity, though, has its dark side. For theologian and philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the stupid person is often more dangerous than the evil one.

The enemy within
In comic books and action movies, we know who the villain is. They wear dark clothes, kill on a whim, and cackle madly at their diabolical scheme. In life, too, we have obvious villains- the dictators who violate human rights or serial killers and violent criminals. As evil as these people are, they are not the biggest threat, since they are known. Once something is a known evil, the good of the world can rally to defend and fight against it. As Bonhoeffer puts it, "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."

Stupidity, though, is a different problem altogether. We cannot so easily fight stupidity for two reasons. First, we are collectively much more tolerant of it. Unlike evil, stupidity is not a vice most of us take seriously. We do not lambast others for ignorance. We do not scream down people for not knowing things. Second, the stupid person is a slippery opponent. They will not be beaten by debate or open to reason. What's more, when the stupid person has their back against the wall- when they're confronted with facts that cannot be refuted- they snap and lash out. Bonhoeffer puts it like this:

"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."

With great power comes great stupidity
Stupidity, like evil, is no threat as long as it hasn't got power. We laugh at things when they are harmless- such as my brother's ignorance of reindeer. This won't cause me any pain. Therefore it's funny.

The problem with stupidity, though, is that it often goes hand-in-hand with power. Bonhoeffer writes, "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."

This works in two ways. The first is that stupidity does not disbar you from holding office or authority. History and politics are swimming with examples of when the stupid have risen to the top (and where the smart are excluded or killed). Second, the nature of power requires that people surrender certain faculties necessary for intelligent thought- faculties like independence, critical thinking, and reflection.

Bonhoeffer's argument is that the more someone becomes part of the establishment, the less an individual they become. A charismatic, exciting outsider, bursting with intelligence and sensible policies, becomes imbecilic the moment he takes office. It's as if, "slogans, catchwords and the like... have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being."

Power turns people into automatons. Intelligent, critical thinkers now have a script to read. They'll engage their smiles rather than their brains. When people join a political party, it seems like most choose to follow suit rather than think things through. Power drains the intelligence from a person, leaving them akin to an animated mannequin.

Theory of stupidity
Bonhoeffer's argument, then, is that stupidity should be viewed as worse than evil. Stupidity has far greater potential to damage our lives. More harm is done by one powerful idiot than a gang of Machiavellian schemers. We know when there's evil, and we can deny it power. With the corrupt, oppressive, and sadistic, we know where we stand. You know how to take a stand.

But stupidity is much harder to weed out. That's why it's a dangerous weapon: Because evil people find it hard to take power, they need stupid people to do their work. Like sheep in a field, a stupid person can be guided, steered, and manipulated to do any number of things. Evil is a puppet master, and it loves nothing so much as the mindless puppets who enable it- be they in the general public or inside the corridors of power.

The lesson from Bonhoeffer is to laugh at those daft, silly moments when in close company. But, we should get angry and scared when stupidity takes reign.


Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

Categories: Big Think, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Evil, Stupidity


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Bonhoeffer's Theory of Stupidity is still valid

Published Wednesday, May 04, 2022 @ 3:07 PM EDT
May 04 2022

As I've aged, I've come to feel that people are getting more stupid. Just watch the current crop of political advertising, and you'll understand what I mean. Some of these commercials are so stupid, you wonder at whom they're aimed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered a convincing explanation. The fact this is not a new phenomena is not comforting- especially since it has a disturbing record of success.

"If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience."
--George Bernard Shaw


No conservative judicial nominee repeated Bork's mistake:


"It reveals a rip in the culture of the Court that we've not seen."


Why are gas prices so high? These obscure traders are partly to blame. "Nobody with power is looking at what they’re doing," but they're helping to drive soaring gas prices despite increased oil production.


66 possibly ethical but probably illegal things.


The perfect passive-agressive Mother's Day gift.


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Categories: Abortion, Dave Brubeck, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Drought, Ethics, Gas Prices, Las Vegas, Mother's Day, Star Wars, Stupidity, Supreme Court, Weird Al Yankovic


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Published Wednesday, June 08, 2016 @ 8:18 AM EDT
Jun 08 2016

Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend in vain.
-Friedrich von Schiller

Age does not bring wisdom. Often it merely changes simple stupidity into arrogant conceit.
-Robert A. Heinlein

Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.
-Variously attributed

Brilliance is typically the act of an individual, but incredible stupidity can usually be traced to an organization.
-Jon Bentley

Creativity is the sudden cessation of stupidity.
-Edwin H. Land

Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity.
-Frank Leahy

From stupidity there is always something to be learned, but it's always the same thing: don't be stupid.
-Robert M. Adams

Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.
-Elbert Hubbard

I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.
-Edith Sitwell

If we're looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.
-P.J. O'Rourke

Ignorance is not stupidity, but it might as well be.
-Lois McMaster Bujold

In nature, stupidity gets you killed. In the workplace, it gets you fired. In politics, it gets you re-elected.
-Bill VanRemmen

In view of the fact that God limited the intelligence of man, it seems unfair that He did not also limit his stupidity.
-Konrad Adenauer

It is an obvious and blatant stupidity beyond my ability to articulate how dumb it is for us not to teach our children how to run the government.
-Richard Dreyfuss

It seems to me certain that more people are killed out of righteous stupidity than out of wickedness.
-Karl Popper

It's too bad that stupidity isn't painful.
-Anton Szandor LaVey

Let us say that I despise stupidity. Especially when it masquerades as virtue.
-Miguel de Cervantes

My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
-Vladimir Nabokov

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. But remember, any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.
-Variously attributed

Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. Don't assign to stupidity what might be due to ignorance. And try not to assume your opponent is the ignorant one- until you can show it isn't you.
-M.N. Plano

Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.
-Robert A. Heinlein

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
-Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain't nothing can beat teamwork.
-Edward Abbey

Optimism and stupidity are nearly synonymous.
-Hyman Rickover

Public opinion reigns in society because stupidity reigns amongst the stupid.
-Nicolas Chamfort

Strange as it seems, no amount of learning can cure stupidity, and higher education positively fortifies it.
-Stephen Vizinczey

Stupidity always accompanies evil. Or evil, stupidity.
-Louise Bogan

Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation.
-Robert A. Heinlein

Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.
-Albert Camus

Stupidity is also a gift of God, but one mustn't misuse it.
-Pope John Paul II

Stupidity is always a capital crime.
-Larry Niven

Stupidity is like nuclear power, it can be used for good or evil. But you still don't want to get any on you.
-Scott Adams

Stupidity is not a handicap. Park elsewhere.
-Variously attributed

Stupidity is the only universal capital crime; the sentence is death, there is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.
-Robert A. Heinlein

Stupidity often saves a man from going mad.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Stupidity's the deliberate cultivation of ignorance.
-William Gaddis

The American people are a very generous people and will forgive almost any weakness, with the possible exception of stupidity.
-Will Rogers

The probability of someone watching you is proportional to the stupidity of your action.
-A. Kindsvater

The problem with America is stupidity. I'm not saying there should be a capital punishment for stupidity, but why don't we just take the safety labels off of everything and let the problem solve itself?
-Variously attributed

The simplest form of stupidity- the mumbling, nose-picking, stolid incomprehension- can be detected by anyone. But the stupidity which disguises itself as thought, and which talks so glibly and eloquently, indeed never stops talking, in every walk of life is not so easy to identify, because it marches under a formidable name, which few dare attack. It is called Popular Opinion.
-Robertson Davies

The stupidity of the average man will permit the oligarch, whether economic or political, to hide his real purposes from the scrutiny of his fellows and to withdraw his activities from effective control.
-Reinhold Neibuhr

The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.
-Harlan Ellison

The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen, and quotes about hydrogen and stupidity.
-John Alejandro King (The Covert Comic)

The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.
-Gustave Flaubert

The world is just filling up with more and more idiots! And the computer is giving them access to the world! They're spreading their stupidity! At least they were contained before- now they're on the loose everywhere!
-Harlan Ellison

There are only two ways by which to rise in this world, either by one's own industry or by the stupidity of others.
-Jean de la Bruyere

There is no force more potent in the modern world than stupidity fueled by greed.
-Edward Abbey

There is no limit to stupidity. Space itself is said to be bounded by its own curvature, but stupidity continues beyond infinity.
-Gene Wolfe

There is no sin except stupidity.
-Oscar Wilde

There's much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.
-William Gaddis

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.
-Gustave Flaubert

To be wicked is never excusable, but there is some merit in knowing that you are; the most irreparable of vices is to do evil from stupidity.
-Charles Baudelaire

With stupidity and sound digestion man may front much.
-Thomas Carlyle

You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.
-Robert A. Heinlein

Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, drunkenness sobered, but stupidity lasts forever.

Categories: Quotes on a topic, Stupidity


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