Ain’t that the truth

“From the moment in our lives at which we learn to speak we are taught that what we say must be true. What is meant by “telling the truth”? What does it demand of us?

In the first place it is our parents who regulate our relation to themselves by this demand for truthfulness; but this demand cannot simply be reversed. The life of the small child lies open before the parents, and what the child says should reveal to them everything that is hidden and secret, but in the converse relationship this cannot possibly be the case. In the matter of truthfulness, the parents’ claim on the child is different from the child’s claim on the parents.

From this it emerges that “telling the truth” means something different according to the particular situation in which one stands. Account must be taken of one’s relationships at each particular time. The question must be asked whether and in what way a man is entitled to demand truthful speech in others. Speech between parents and children is, in the nature of the case, different from speech between man and wife, between friends, between teacher and pupil, government and subject, friend and foe.

“Telling the truth,” therefore, is not solely a matter of moral character; it is also a correct appreciation of real situations and of serious reflection upon them. The more complex the actual situations of a man’s life, the more responsible and the more difficult will be his task of “telling the truth.” 

Telling the truth is, therefore, something which must be learnt. This will sound very shocking to anyone who thinks that it must all depend on moral character and that if this is blameless, the rest is child’s play. But the simple fact is that the ethical cannot be detached from reality, and consequently continual progress in learning to appreciate reality is a necessary ingredient in ethical action.

It is only the cynic who claims to “speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way. Every utterance or word lives and has its home in a particular environment. The word in the family is different from the word in business or in public. The word which has come to life in the warmth of personal relationships is frozen to death in the cold air of public existence. The word of command, which has its place in public service, would sever the bonds of mutual confidence if it was spoken in the family. Each word must have its own place and keep to it.”

This final chapter of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (my edits) came as a surprise indeed, given the absolute absolutism of his Christianity. I’d have had him down for advocating eye-watering honesty in every encounter…

But perhaps I shouldn’t have. Throughout the book there are limpid, concise, practical and very worldly takes on ethics; alongside pages and pages of dense, impenetrable and almost ranting theology. 

When it comes to “the truth” this is about the best account I’ve read of how I’ve intuitively ‘felt’ about it for years – with work being the hardest place of all to strike the right balance.

Many people in the public service workplaces I’ve worked in for the last fifteen years feel they are owed – and regularly demand – a full account of everything which is known and under consideration by the senior management. I’ve often felt I couldn’t, in good conscience, give them that. Some truths have to be held tightly to oneself, however uncomfortable that feels.

Bonhoeffer has eloquently put into words for me why.

Concrete or Casuistry?


casuistry (kazjʊɪstri) noun: the resolving of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules.

As I continue my voyage through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, I also continue to be astonished by the man. Limpid paragraphs of dense and pure meaning, sweeping historical context – and tub thumping Christianity. A heady mix.

But the page which stuck with me this week describes the challenges of Christian ethics; but also the constant challenge of modern organisational life:

“The attempt to define that which is good once and for all has always ended in failure. Either the proposition was asserted in such general and formal terms that it retained no significance as regards its contents, or else one tried to include in it and elaborate the whole immense range of conceivable contents, and thus say in advance what would be good in every single case; this led to a casuistic system so unmanageable that it could satisfy the demands neither of general validity nor of concreteness.”

Pretty much every strategy exercise or major organisational change programme I’ve ever worked on has wrestled with this. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the conflict between the ‘good’ and the ‘real’.

Bonhoeffer argues for concrete not casuistry. Not a bad place to go, not least given how bad things were in his times. But I go with Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’; the ‘good’ is always somewhere in the difficult and constantly contested place in between.


The horrors of the 1930s and 40s seem far more than a lifetime away. But they aren’t. Accompanied by the flicker of black and white, the terrifying demagogues of the 20th century now seem like exaggerated fiction. But they weren’t.

In his Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the era:

“Rarely perhaps has any generation shown so little interest in any kind of theoretical or systematic ethics. The academic question of a system of ethics seems to be of all questions the most superfluous. 

The reason for this is not to be sought in any supposed ethical indifference on the part of our period. On the contrary it arises from the fact that our period, more than any earlier period in the history of the west, is oppressed by a superabounding reality of concrete ethical problems. 

It was otherwise when the established orders of life were still so stable as to leave room for no more than minor sins of human weakness, sins which generally remained hidden, and when the criminal was removed as abnormal from the horrified or pitying gaze of society. In these conditions ethics could be an interesting theoretical problem.

Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst.”

But lest we be complacent about a world which seems long gone, a few pages later Bonhoeffer describes the nature of the tyrant:

“For the tyrannical despiser of men, popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. 

In the presence of a 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 favour of those he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.”

Chilling. As it was, so it threatens to be again; history has a bad habit of repeating itself if we don’t learn from it.

Stations on the road to Freedom

I shared Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Stations on the road to freedom” with an old friend this week.

I bought a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Ethicswhen I was searching for a famous quotation – which is actually by Martin Niemöller. Niemöller was arrested in 1937 by the Nazi authorities and survived first Sachsenhausen and then Dachau concentration camps.

Niemöller’s famous statement, reminds us that sometimes if you don’t take a stand, there may be no-one left to stand up for you:

“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” 

Bonhoeffer didn’t survive the war. His ‘Stations on the road to freedom’ were written in Tegel prison before his death at the hands of the Nazis.

His words really speak to me. But they have a few bits where God intervenes as the ultimate answer. Those bits aren’t for me. So with a gentle edit, here is my secular version of Bonhoeffer’s four stations.

Secular “Stations on the Road to Freedom” after Dietrich Bonhoeffer:


If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions and longing may lead you away from the path you should follow. Only through discipline may a man learn to be free.


Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you, valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting – freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing. Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action, trusting in those commandment you faithfully follow; freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.


A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active, are bound; in helplessness now you see your action is ended; you sigh in relief; so now you may rest contented.


Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded. Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed.

As I said in an email to my good friend: 

“I’m doing ok on 1) Discipline and 2) Action, haven’t a huge amount to complain about on 3) Suffering by global standards, and I’m still in the prime of life – albeit number four will get us all in the end.”

“That and the greater number of protons which have cascaded across membranes in my body than there are stars in the observable universe in the time it has taken to write you this, are my thoughts for the day.”

I’m somewhere between half and two thirds down the ‘road to freedom’. Important, amid all the ‘action’ to remember that; and enjoy the ride.


I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a friend the other day. Bonhoeffer stood up to the Nazis and perished for it in a concentration camp. He is celebrated (pictured on the right) as a 20th Century martyr in Westmister Abbey.

A Christian theologian and a man of obvious moral courage, Bonhoeffer argued – like Kierkegaard before him – for a more direct spiritual connection with God. One mediated by fewer trappings of religion.

He believed we have a deep moral sense, beyond the reach of rational thought which is both our guide and goad. He said our conscience comes from a “depth which lies beyond a man’s own will and his own reason and it makes itself heard as the call of human existence to unity with itself.”

For Bonhoeffer, guilt is a warning about our ‘doings’ conflicting with our ‘being’. A guilty conscience arises when we lose the unity – what some people call ‘congruence’. Our conscience is, thus, like an alarm bell, warning us of the risk of damage to ourselves.

I’m not sure I agree with Bonhoeffer that conscience lies beyond the ‘event horizon’ of thought and will. I’m more with Aristotle that we simply ‘are what we repeatedly do’. For me, reason, will, our actions and character all come together in an intertwined person. But the Bonhoeffer quote I read out today is still a powerful one:

The man with a conscience fights a lonely battle against the overwhelming forces of inescapable situations which demand moral decisions despite the likelihood of adverse consequences.

Bonhoeffer found himself up against truly overwhelming forces and a tragically inescapable situation – it cost him his life. He took moral decisions despite the likelihood, entirely realised, of very adverse consequences. Whether he found it in faith or forged it through reason, that is moral courage.

For Aristotle, courage is the ‘mean’ between confidence and fear. To respond to ‘overwhelming forces of inescapable situations’ with the courage of Bonhoeffer requires a strength built within – the confidence in the importance of ‘unity with oneself’ overcoming the fear of ‘adverse consequences’ and considering them a price worth paying.

But what’s the practical day to day application here? Like the other 20th century martyrs in Westminster Abbey, Bonhoeffer faced extraordinary challenges. History has judged him simply and kindly. Most of us live with less extreme, more attritional moral challenges and choices – do I say something or keep quiet, do I stand up for something or let it go, do I join in talking someone down or keep my mouth shut. And implicit in Bonhoeffer’s words are the fact that others won’t always understand and won’t always judge you kindly.

The thought that conscience is a warning that expedient ‘doings’ might undermine my ‘being’ is a valuable one. It’s less about carrying guilt and more about making choices. It achieves some of what Bonhoeffer would no doubt have wished for us; a simple internaliseable test of our actions.

For me, I think it may be this simple: if I can look others in the eye and myself in the mirror – even amidst the adverse consequences of inescapable situations – I know my ‘self’ is in ok shape. If not my ‘doings’ are damaging my ‘being’.