Commentary Magazine

From Shakespeare to Existentialism, by Walter Kaufmann

Nietzschean Hardheartedness
From Shakespeare to Existentialism.
by Walter Kaufmann.
Beacon Press. 404 pp. $4.95.


Professor Kaufmann’s new book purports to trace a grand historical development of ideas; actually it is only a collection of scattered essays and reviews, most of them previously published during the last ten years. These papers deal, casually and discursively, with a number of vaguely related historical, philosophical, religious, and aesthetic questions that are raised or prompted by authors widely separated from one another in time, nationality, vocation, style, tradition, and interest. The authors include Shakespeare, Goethe, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Rilke, Jaspers, Heidegger, Freud, and Toynbee—all of whom, in Kaufmann’s mind, have something to do (pro or con) with the evolving Aristotelian-Nie-tzschean ideal of the “great-souled” or “superior” man. According to Kaufmann, this ideal was anticipated in the writings of the greatest Greek philosophers, forgotten by the medievals, recovered and deepened by Shakespeare, provided with an exemplary life in the person and writings of Goethe, systematically misrepresented by the early Romantics and by such essentially Romantic existentialists as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Jaspers, apotheosized by Nietzsche, provided with a certificate of good health by Freud, and, most recently, obfuscated and falsified in the grand manner by Toynbee. The fundamental traducer of this ideal (which also emerges in the 19th century as the ideal of the “good European”) is not Nazism or Communism, but Christianity, which Kaufmann holds responsible not only for the major counter-ideals of otherworldly faith, hope, and charity, but also for proposing a “warped and tendentious view of the present age” and a gargantuan “falsification” of cultural history.

The opening chapter, “Shakespeare: Between Socrates and Existentialism,” sets the tone of the book. Kaufmann approaches Shakespeare primarily as a metaphysician and moralist, but the “truth” which he professes to find in that great “pagan” is rather casually extracted from individual sonnets and speeches. He is, for example, much enamored of the 94th sonnet, which he considers a celebration of the hopeless, faithless, this-worldly individuals “Who, moving others, are themselves as stone, / Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow. . . .” He cites such plays as Timon to demonstrate “Shakespeare’s acid contempt for men and women,” and links this with Aristotle’s “great-souled man,” who is “justified in despising other people—his estimates are correct.” According to Kaufmann, “Shakespeare, like the Greeks before him and Nietzsche after him, believed neither in progress nor in original sin; he believed that most men merited contempt and that a very few were head and shoulders above the rest of mankind and that these few, more often than not, meet with ‘base infection’ and do not herald progress.” The prerogative of these few, he says, is tragedy. The tragic world view, we are told, “involves an ethic of character, not, like the Gospels, an ethic of otherworldly prudence.” “The tragic hero has no reward.” “The tragic view knows, as Christianity does not, genuine self-sacrifice.”

Kaufmann holds, with Aristotle, that only heroes are capable of tragic action and suffering. Yet tragedy, in Shakespeare as well as in much modern literature, is an inclusive concept which can embrace not only kings and princes, but also the lives of fools, courtiers, confidants, and innocent bystanders who “merely swell a scene or two.” Shakespeare, as many have pointed out, could put himself in the place of almost any human being. He can as powerfully represent the faith that there is a “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (with its unmistakeable allusion to Matthew 10:29) as Macbeth’s supposedly “great insight” that “Life’s but a . . . tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

It seems to me that the facts of suffering—lost opportunity, defeated hopes, and, generally, wasted good—constitute the stuff of tragedy, rather than the height from which the individual falls, his lordly capacity for contempt, or his lack of prudence. Nor is Christianity notable among the world religions for its celebration of prudence; I associate that virtue with the secular utilitarian ethics of Bentham, Hobbes, and even Aristotle himself. And for that matter, why is it not possible to view the Christ story, like the myth of Prometheus, as tragic? Nothing in Aristotle, at least, precludes the possibility that tragedy should be accompanied by redemption. I fail to see Why the concept of the tragedy of human existence should be the exclusive prerogative of the Nietzscheans. In fact, all this talk of tragedy is fatiguing. What is so wrong with, say, Mill’s or Dewey’s temperate faith in progress or their generous hopes, not only for themselves, but for the ruck of mankind? “Ripeness” is by no means all, save for those who have only their ripeness to cling to.



The next four essays deal with various aspects of Goethe’s work, life, and influence. In Faust, according to Kaufmann, Goethe failed to create a “titan” of Hamlet’s heroic stature. Faust’s practice of magic “does not serve to elevate him to superhuman stature; the word Ubermensch (superman) is actually used mockingly by the Earth Spirit, whose sight Faust cannot bear.” Because Faust is in the end incapable of titanic, tragic action, because he is “merely human,” Kaufmann is forced to distinguish the portrait of Faust from the Olympian image of Goethe himself. Goethe is represented in his ripe old age as being, along with Hegel and Nietzsche, the great opponent of romanticism. His life and art are made to stand as permanent rebukes to those sick romantic souls who turned their backs upon the Enlightenment and sought spiritual peace and intellectual stability in medievalism.

When Kaufmann comes to another of his anti-romantic heroes, Hegel, he represents him as a writer whose intellectual life was virtually split in two. The early Hegel, whose anti-romantic opposition to Christianity and its fruits was blemished only by an unaccountable anti-Semitism, is presented for our approval as an admirer of Goethe, and as an exponent of the ancient pagans who “are our models today in all that is great, beautiful, noble, and free.” The mature Hegel, on the other hand, wasted his time as a philosopher of history trying to find “the epitome of reason in his Christian heritage and . . . his own philosophy implicit in the ancient dogmas.”

Laudably, Mr. Kaufmann has added his bit toward the restoration of Hegel’s reputation as a “good European,” rebuking those critics, like Karl Popper, who find in his writings merely a paradigm of irrationalism and totalitarianism. Though not an original commentator on the “Hegel myth,” Kaufmann makes a fair case of showing that even Hegel’s mature ethical and social philosophy is by no means an uncritical defense of statism, militarism, or racism. Hegel is not, of course, an individualist, but neither does he hold that the state, even in his own idealistic sense of the term, has any right simply to dictate what men are to believe or do. And if foe sometimes sentimentalizes the state in his attempt to view it as the historical embodiment of an underlying spiritual goal, this weakness may serve to offset the countervailing error of those English and American political philosophers who view the state as completely unspiritual, a necessary evil at best, and who regard the arts of government and politics, in Santayana’s phrase, as “servile arts,” unworthy of the efforts of talented and civilized men.

On this level, Kaufmann undoubtedly helps set the record straight. But when it comes to the more technical aspects of Hegel’s philosophy, he is given to sweeping critical judgments which involve him in contradictions. Consider, for instance, the celebrated Hegelian dialectic. Kaufmann tells us that “The triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is encountered in Kant, Fichte, and Schelling but mentioned only once in the twenty volumes of Hegel’s works.” This stunning point of fact serves to distract us from more exigent questions concerning the real nature and merit, if any, of the Hegelian dialectic or logic. On these questions, Kaufmann has little more to say than that “. . . Hegel’s contribution consists in his transformation of Fichte’s and Schelling’s arid dialectic into a logic of passion (of. Chapter 8, section 16)—a stroke of genius, though the transformation was unfortunately only half accomplished by him and was not completed by any of his successors.” When we turn to Chapter 8, section 16, what we find is not a detailed explication of Hegel’s alleged stroke of genius, but six short paragraphs that inform us, in a summary of Hegel’s opinions concerning Christianity, that “Instead of achieving a crowning synthesis, he unwittingly illustrated his own dialectic by overreacting against the views of his youth, and by going to the opposite extreme.” In the next chapter, we are startled to find that one of Hegel’s great faults is “the pseudo-precision of his dialectic.” Hegel’s “imposing deductions are not compelling,” says Kaufmann, for “Hegel failed to distinguish between giving some reasons for a development and demonstrating its necessity.” Kaufmann never explains Hegel’s “stroke of genius” and why or how he improved upon the allegedly arid dialectics of his predecessors. His vindication of Hegel against Popper includes no reply to Popper’s important criticisms of the incompetence of Hegel’s discussions of natural science and its methods. From Kaufmann’s standpoint, what matters is that Hegel “always remained the heir of the Enlightenment, opposed to romanticisms and theology alike, insofar as he maintained until the end that there is one pursuit that is far superior to art and religion: philosophy.”



And so it goes. As one continues, page after tendentious, score-keeping page, through the endless defenses of Nietzsche and Freud and the attacks on Kierkegaard, the German existentialists, and Toynbee, it becomes increasingly clear that what Kaufmann has really given us is a kind of anti-morality play whose pagan heroes are crucified by a horde of Christian-romantic pharisees. While I agree with some of his appraisals of Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Heidegger, his eleventh chapter, “How Nietzsche Revolutionized Ethics,” seems to me slight and unconvincing, and his chapter on Freud misses much of the complexity of Freud’s views concerning ethics and religion. Did Freud unambiguously oppose all traditional moral codes and precepts? And did he unambiguously celebrate the virtues of the “healthy” un-neurotic soul? I do not myself believe that he did.

In his “Dialogue with a Critic,” Kaufmann’s Author concludes by saying, “Being right matters less than making people think for themselves. And there is no better way of doing that than being provocative.” Well, in a way, Kaufmann has succeeded, for he has made me see how little I aspire to be, on his terms, an enlightened, “healthy soul” who views moral codes as mere “symptoms of imperfect health and self-deception.” Although I myself have been known to admire some of the ideals which Mr. Kaufmann advocates, or at least the abstract nouns which he uses in referring to them, his advocacy has served rather to chill than to warm my heart toward them. And although I have been, within certain well-defined limits, an admirer of the writings of Nietzsche, Freud, and even Hegel, his presentation of their virtues has tended, if anything, to diminish my regard for and even my interest in them. How much more attractive is the plain-spoken urbanity, the perhaps uninspired but livable utilitarianism, and the unobtrusive good will and veracity of the British Empiricists, Locke, Hume, and Mill, to the fire-eating, chest-thumping doubletalk and egoism of their 19th-and 20th-century German opponents. I share Kaufmann’s admiration for the great tragedians, ancient and modern; yet his unfeeling disdain for lost souls who hope without hope and have faith in what they themselves admit to be “absurd,” makes me see how easy it is to pass by degrees from a noble and tragic philosophy to a Goethean and Nietzschean hardheartedness which I, at least, find repellent. All unwittingly, Kaufmann has taught me to understand the courage and wisdom of those exponents of the lost generation who openly pitied themselves, and he has made me see that he who has no pity for himself is likely to have no true compassion for others.



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