Misunderstanding v. Stupidity

Detail from Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther

In 1980 a Mr. Hanlon wrote, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

“Stupidity” is such a modern and offensive term. As I dug into the history of Hanlon’s Razor (as it is now called), I tumbled across a much earlier version, written by Goethe in 1774:

Misunderstandings and lethargy 1 perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774). Die Leiden des jungen Werthers or The Sufferings of Young Werther (in eng). Translated 1907 by Bayard Quincy Morgan. p. 14.

Do we give each other the benefit of the doubt, allowing that there might be a mere misunderstanding rather than intentional malice? Are we too lazy to find out the underlying details?

This matters to me because I care about Joseph Smith. I find that the root of today’s “faith crisis” fad within the Church of Jesus Christ can be found in what people think about Joseph Smith. In my view, these sufferors and those wishing to minister to them fundamentally misunderstand what happened in Nauvoo in the 1840s and they don’t bother trying to really find out the details. Using a facile and unchallenged version of Church history, then, many attribute malice and deceit to Joseph Smith.

I assert that when one understands the full history of Nauvoo, it is impossible to see Joseph Smith as either malicious or deceitful.

Returning to Hanlon’s Razor, it is widely accepted that “you can’t fix stupid.” When we are guided by Hanlon, we are led to depair when seemingly malicious incidents occur. But if we are guided by Goethe, misunderstandings can yield to information. In Goethe’s world It becomes possible to exert oneself and overcome lethargy or sloth.

We can fix the wrongs of the world. It isn’t easy. But it can be done. So whether your challenge involves misunderstanding regarding the restored gospel, disagreements over climate change, or inability to speak civilly about anything with family at the holiday table, we can change this world from a cesspool of hate and anger towards a concensus of understanding and love.

As an aside, Goethe’s career-making novelette about Werther depicted a young man tormented by love for the unattainable Charlotte. At the end of the novelette Werther commits suicide, having determined either he, Charlotte, or Charlotte’s husband would have to die to resolve Werther’s pain. Goethe’s fiction wasn’t particularly fictional. He himself was tormented by love for his own Charlotte, who married Goethe’s friend Kestner. Real life included a suicide as well. Goethe’s friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem shot himself with a gun borrowed from the same Kestner who married Goethe’s beloved.

People today think that they invented the idea of committing suicide because they despair over matters relating to love. But Goethe was writting before the first shot was ever fired in Lexington. The fashions worn by the fictional Werther became a symbol of tragic youth. Suicide became a “thing,” with the decedent often clad as young Werther, complete with a copy of Goethe’s book near at hand. Though it is impossible from a distance of over 200 years to prove there was a rash of copycat suicides, the city of Leipzig was sufficiently alarmed that officials banned Goethe’s book and Werther-styled clothing in 1775, the year after Young Werther was published.

Though few doubt Goethe’s intense distress over his impossible love for Charlotte, Goethe did not take his own life. In time Goethe came to resent the emotional excess of his youth, immortalized in Young Werther. Goethe lived for nearly 60 years after publishing Young Werther and found it galling that after that long and accomplished life the work for which he was arguably most well-known was the Sturm und Drang romance novel he’d written in his youth.

[This knowledge about Goethe and Young Werther is now mine because the original Goethe quote on Wikipedia was an awkward jumble apparently translated from the German by the author of that section of the article. I couldn’t find that phrase or even the words in that translation anywhere in Goethe’s many translations into English. Nor was I convinced the translations in English and French that I eventually did find represented what Goethe intended. I was not satisfied until I had found the original in German, identified the key word as Trägheit, and determined the etymology of that German word. All of which says something about how I relate to this world I share with you.]


  1. The German term in the original is Trägheit, meaning “possessing the property of being slow.” I think a better word in the translation would have been sloth.
This entry was posted in General by Meg Stout. Bookmark the permalink.

About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

7 thoughts on “Misunderstanding v. Stupidity

  1. “I find that the root of today’s ‘faith crisis’ fad within the Church of Jesus Christ can be found in what people think about Joseph Smith.”

    Yep I lost my faith in the religion I grew up in and had to deal with the resulting fallout all because I wanted to be part of a cool new fad. Thanks for not being dismissive or anything…

  2. Fad, zeitgeist, whatever you wish to call it. Feel free to prove to me that your reason for losing your faith had nothing to do with what the Book of Mormon parable calls the mockers in the “great and spacious building.”

    When I lost my faith in the Church back in 1978, God spoke to my heart and told me to stop kicking against the pricks. That and many subsequent experiences inform my confidence that your loss of faith says more about you than it says about the thing in which you have lost faith.

    I am amused that your very response betrays a decision to impute malice to my essay.

    For what it’s worth, my scores on the Five Personality Types evaluation indicate that I am high in compassion but low on politeness. So I’m certain if we had a chance to do more than spar on the internet, you would know of my concern for you.

  3. Meg,
    Copycat actions to mimic a fad are all around us all the time. Tide pods, anyone? But it is especially concerning when people jump on the bandwagon of something so drastic and destructive as suicide. From earlier this year we read a report from CBS News regarding the effect of a TV Series about teen suicide:

    “New research finds a sharp rise in suicide rates among children and teens in the month after the release of Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” The series follows the story of a suburban teen who dies by suicide and leaves behind 13 recordings explaining the reasons she killed herself. Some parents and teachers have worried about the possibility of copycat behavior in vulnerable teens.”

    Ideation has consequences.

    As for the overall theme of “Misunderstanding v. Stupidity”, I feel obliged to share the famous quote attributed to Brigham Young: “He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.” I feel like a great percentage of conflict in the world could be avoided if everyone took this approach.

    I experience an increase in personal inner peace when I assume a lack of malicious intent when someone uses hurtful actions or words toward myself and others close to me. It saves me a lot of grief and worry and has increased my esteem of my fellow man/woman. This should not be mistaken for apathy, however. The charge to us as disciples of Christ remains to care deeply, but realize we cannot control others’ choices and the subsequent outcomes.


  4. Maybe I jumped too fast into imputing malice to your characterization of peoples faith crises being something related to a fad.  My faith crisis came about as a result of trying to investigate and research as much as possible to preserve my faith.  Some people come out of it with faith still intact.  I did not.  I’m not sure what you’re trying to imply by suggesting that says more about me than about the Church.  Some weakness on my part? Seems pretty condescending.  Some people come to different conclusions.  Some people can make it work.  I couldn’t.  But you don’t get to decide that that’s because of some failing on my part.  You have no idea who I am. 

    I’m not sure what you mean when you ask about whether my loss of faith had anything to do with mockers in the “Great and Spacious Building”.  From what I can tell, apologetics on the subject of Joseph Smith’s polygamy seems to be something you focus a lot on.  Ok, fine even disregarding that as an issue, that still wouldn’t solve issues for me around gender inequality in the Church, the priesthood and temple ban for black members of the Church, persecution of the LGBT community, as well as a whole host of other historical issues outside of the early practice of polygamy.  
    Framing people who leave as being weak, or wanting to mock, or wanting to sin seems to be a way that a lot of members are trying resolve their cognitive dissonance around why so many people are leaving.  But it’s not going to change the fact that there are real substantive reasons why people are leaving, and faithful members should find a better way of dealing with that than just imputing that to weaknesses on the part of those who leave.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    First, I’m glad you’re visiting us at M*.

    Recall what I said about my own loss of faith? I know there are reasons people feel like they are justified in leaving. I am just suggesting that the reasons to stay are more powerful than the reasons you feel have forced you to leave.

    If I am right, there will be a time after this life when you and all others will have a chance to consider things in light of much more information than you currently have. And whatever decision you come to in that time of greater information, you will be granted the paradise or peace that you ultimately demonstrate you desire.

    I adore the vision/dream Church leaders asked Heber Q. Hale to recount in 1920, where he saw the intense effort on the other side to persuade God’s children. One of the things I particularly appreciate about that vision was the picture of a future where all who have loved live in fellowship with one another, a commingling of kingdoms that is far more complex than the simplistic diagrams most use to teach about eternity.

    I hope when the final judgement occurs, you will have found peace and will be willing to embrace the highest dreams you ever had. But if in that day you decide you can’t understand and are unwilling to bestir yourself to love the fallen
    (if often repentant) individuals whose errors caused your pain, I will still love you. As will thousands of others, who will surround you with care and joy.

    [And you might find, in that light, that some things you embraced in mortality as good were not quite as brightly right as you supposed. But there are centuries here and there for you to decide whether you agree.]

  6. D&c 132
    49 For I am the Lord thy God, and will be with thee even unto the end of the world, and through all eternity; for verily I seal upon you your exaltation, and prepare a throne for you in the kingdom of my Father, with Abraham your father.

Comments are closed.