Drew G.I. Hart discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s remarkably perceptive insights “On Folly.” And since this passage, in full, is so timely and urgently important right now, I thought I’d just key the whole thing in here.
This is from Bonhoeffer’s 1943 essay “After Ten Years,” which is included in his Letters and Papers From Prison. (I’ve updated some of the gendered language in the translation I copied this from.) Bonhoeffer’s final sentence here may be the best summary you will find of the transition in America that occurred on January 20.
Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied, in fact, they can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make them aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.
If we are to deal adequately with folly, we must understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are people who are mentally agile but foolish, and people who are mentally slow but very far from foolish — a discovery that we make to our surprise as a result of particular situations. We thus get the impression that folly is likely to be, not a congenital defect, but one that is acquired in certain circumstances where people make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We notice further that this defect is less common in the unsociable and solitary than in individuals or groups that are inclined or condemned to sociability. It seems, then, that folly is a sociological rather than a psychological problem, and that it is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances: on people, a psychological by-product of definite external factors.
If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of humanity; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that people are deprived of their independent judgment, and — more or less unconsciously — give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves. The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that they are independent. One feels in fact, when talking to them, that one is dealing, not with the person themselves, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of them. They are under a spell, they are blinded, their very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. Here lies the danger of diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings.
But at this point it is quite clear, too, that folly can be overcome, not by instruction, but only by an act of liberation; and so we have come to terms with the fact that in the great majority of cases inward liberation must be preceded by outward liberation, and that until that has taken place, we may as well abandon all attempts to convince the fool. In this state of affairs we have to realize why it is no use our trying to find out what “the people” really think, and why the question is so superfluous for the person who thinks and acts responsibly — but always given these particular circumstances. The Bible’s words that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10) tell us that a person’s inward liberation to live a responsible life before God is the only real cure for folly.
But there is some consolation in these thoughts on folly: they in no way justify us in thinking that most people are fools in all circumstances. What will really matter is whether those in power expect more from people’s folly than from their wisdom and independence of mind.