The nature of tyranny

The nature of tyranny

Dietrich Bonhoeffer started his work on Ethics in 1939. Due to World War II and Hitler’s pursuit of Bonhoeffer and his thought and writings, he was never able to finish the work. The following excerpt is relevant for us today. As much as anything, it shows that the human heart really doesn’t change very much. 

The news that God has become man strikes at the very heart of an age in which both the good and the wicked regard either scorn for man or the idolization of man as the highest attainable wisdom. The weaknesses of human nature are displayed more clearly in a time of storm that in the smooth course of more peaceful periods. In the face of totally unexpected threats and opportunities it is fear, desire, irresolution, and brutality which reveal themselves as the motives for the actions of the overwhelming majority.

At such a time as this, it is easy for the tyrannical despiser of men to exploit the baseness of the human heart, nurturing it and calling it by other names. Fear he calls responsibility. Desire he calls keenness. Irresolution becomes solidarity. Brutality becomes masterfulness. Human weaknesses are played upon with unchaste seductiveness, so that meanness and baseness are reproduced and multiplied ever anew. The vilest contempt for mankind goes about its sinister business with the holiest of protestations of devotion to the human cause.

And, as the base grows baser, he becomes an ever more willing and adaptable tool in the hand of the tyrant. The small band of the upright are reviled. Their bravery is called insubordination; their self-control is called pharisaism; their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance.

For the tyrannical despiser of men, popularity is the token of the highest love for mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. In the presence of the crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. He thinks people stupid, and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal, and they become criminal. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favor of those whom he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob. Contempt for man and idolization of man are close neighbors.

But the good man too, no less than the wicked, succumbs to the same temptation to be a despiser of mankind if he sees through all this and withdraws in disgust, leaving his fellow-men to their own devices, and if he prefers to mind his own business rather than to debase himself in public life. Of course, his contempt for mankind is more respectable and upright, but it is also more barren and ineffectual.

In the face of God’s becoming man, the good man’s contemptuous attitude cannot be maintained any more than can the tyrant’s. The despiser of men despises what God has loved. Indeed he despises even the figure of the God who has become man.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Ethics



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