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In the famous phrase from Friedrich Schiller's Die Jungfrau von Orleans,

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

how is "Dummheit" typically understood? I understand that the usual English translation is

Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.

but I'm trying to get a better sense of how "stupidity" should be interpreted here.

Particularly, is it an "external" or an "internal" stupidity? That is, should the phrase be understood more as "Even the (smart) gods are powerless against the stupidity of other people" or as "Even gods are powerless against their own stupidity".

I'd be interested both in how the phrase was used in the original play, as well as how it's understood in modern German (or as a loan-phrase in English).

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    That's stupidity as a concept, i.e. no one's special stupiditiy, – tofro Nov 2 '17 at 19:56
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    @tofro Okay, but then I don't really understand how kämpfen comes into it. How does one "fight" against stupidity as an abstract concept? – R.M. Nov 2 '17 at 20:46
  • @R.M.: By doing something that is in opposition to an action driven by stupidity. The phrase says that even for gods, such an endeavour is poised to fail, though. – O. R. Mapper Nov 2 '17 at 20:52
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    This is similar to Einstein's alleged quote "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." It's about human stupidity in general. – RHa Nov 3 '17 at 7:38
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If you add the suffix »∙heit« or »∙keit« to an adjective, you create a noun from that adjective (which btw. always is female):

dunkel → die Dunkelheit
fröhlich → die Fröhlichkeit

This is the same what you do with »∙ness« in English:

dark → the darkness
happy → the happiness

The noun you create this way is the name of the uncountable and universal concept of being dark/happy or whatever.

Der Mann im grauen Umhang verschwand lautlos in der Dunkelheit.
The man in the gray cloak disappeared silently into the darkness.

Sandra verbreitete Fröhlichkeit, wo immer sie auftauchte.
Sandra spread happiness wherever she appeared.

And in German, the noun Dummheit exactly fits into this scheme. So, a better translation of Dummheit might probably be stupidness:

dumm → die Dummheit
stupid → the stupidness

So, the sentence you quoted might be translated as:

Even gods fight in vain with stupidness.

Google told me, that this word exists, but it is rare. You more often use stupidity in English:

Even gods fight in vain with stupidity.

And the meaning of this sentence is:

The universal concept of being stupid, that manifests in many people, is so strong and indomitable, that even gods have no power over it. (In the sense of: Stupidity is such an indomitable power, that nobody has a chance against it.)

You can interpret this sentence in two ways (in German as well as in English):

  1. Gods can be stupid.
    (Everybody can be stupid.)
  2. Gods are at the mercy of other people's stupidity.
    (Everybody is at the mercy of other people's stupidity.)

Its the context that makes clear which one makes sense. I think, that it is #2 in Die Jungfrau von Orleans.


Addendum

I read in your comment, that you also have troubles to understand the verb kämpfen (to fight). It is the same fight, that you use in

Walter is fighting fatigue.
Walter kämpft gegen die Müdigkeit.

If you watch Walter, you won't see any fight. He is just close to fall asleep, although he wants to say awake.

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    Just a comment on the English choice of words - When fighting a concept you'd rather use "against" or no preposition at all, but better not "with" - "We fight terrorism" or "fight against terrorism" – tofro Nov 3 '17 at 7:51
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Here is the context:

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.
Erhabene Vernunft, lichthelle Tochter
Des göttlichen Hauptes, weise Gründerin
Des Weltgebäudes, Führerin der Sterne,
Wer bist du denn, wenn du dem tollen Roß
Des Aberwitzes an den Schweif gebunden,
Ohnmächtig rufend, mit dem Trunkenen
Dich sehend in den Abgrund stürzen mußt!
Verflucht sei, wer sein Leben an das Große
Und Würdge wendet und bedachte Plane
Mit weisem Geist entwirft! Dem Narrenkönig
Gehört die Welt –

He is saying that the world is ruled by stupidity. No one can defeat it. Not even gods.

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thanks for the context. Personally, I think a much better translation of this single phrase is: Even gods fight ignorance to no avail. This version is much more in tune with English syntax and the use of English information structure for emphasis. The context tells us the poet's position, that the world is ruled by idiots to such an extent that no matter how much enlightened people devote themselves to greatness and dignity and attempt to stamp out ignorance they are cursed to fail, as even the enlightenment and work of gods has no impact on the (widespread, persistent, and resistant) ignorance, absurdity, madness of humankind.

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Here is another possible (although admittedly off-mainstream) interpretation of Schiller's

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

As Tofro mentioned in a comment, in English it would rather be "fight against", not "fight with". In German "mit" (but in a sense of "against") is an accepted expression, however, it allows also for a different interpretation:

Being stupid as they are, even gods fight in vain.

Well, of course it is out of context and not what Schiller wanted to say (I suppose). Still the sentence as such would allow this interpretation. All the more if you put stress on "der":

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

(= Given that stupidity of theirs even gods fight in vain.)

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  • Note both in English and German "fight with" can possibly mean two things: using something (like "fight with a sword") and fighting something (like "fight with each other"). It's, however, a bit unlikely that gods use stupidity as a weapon. – tofro Nov 3 '17 at 11:30
  • As gods are unlikely existing anyway, wouldn't that relativize the unlikeliness of their using stupidity as a weapon? – Christian Geiselmann Nov 3 '17 at 11:52
  • isn't "Gegen der Dummheit ... "auch richtig? – Abel Tom Nov 3 '17 at 12:57
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    @AbelTom "Gegen die Dummheit .." or simply "Gegen Dummheit.." mit requires dative, but gegen requires accusative – Chieron Nov 3 '17 at 15:49

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