Walter Kaufmann: The Man Who Saved Heresy

Dale DeBakcsy

By 1950, American freethought lay in shambles. To declare oneself an atheist was to be, in the public perception, a freedom-hating Soviet and a Nietzsche-spouting Nazi, somehow simultaneously. Its guiding lights wildly misappropriated by totalitarian charlatans, and even its most levelheaded assertions seized upon by a repressive academic and political structure, skepticism stumbled under the almighty eye of McCarthy and the wrath of the neighborhood PTA. Atheism, even when not directly illegal, was intellectually disrespectable. And though the salvation of philosophical atheism was a hard-won group effort, I think it safe to say that it would not have happened so quickly or completely without the efforts of one man: Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann.

Kaufmann was a titan of an academic, the man America sought to explain the battle between Continental existentialism and British positivism as we tentatively found our intellectual feet again amidst the empty clang of Eisenhower prosperity. His translations of Nietzsche, Goethe, and Buber are the standard editions still, a half-century after their publication. And his 1958 Critique of Religion and Philosophy was, for skeptics, the hefty, rigorously philosophical masterwork that filled the lean years between Russell and the New Atheism, the academic tour de force that would serve as inspiration for a new, humanity-oriented but analytically sharp generation of freethinkers.


Upbringing does not always shape the thinker, but it’s hard to escape that conclusion in Kaufmann’s case. Born in 1921 to a Jewish family that converted to Lutheranism, he found by age eleven that he could not believe the tenets of Christianity. Walter was a serious child who brooked no temporizing when he found the fatal flaw at the heart of something significant and made the decision, against his family’s advice (this was 1930s Germany, bear in mind), to convert to the Judaism of his forefathers.

Fleeing Nazi persecution, Kaufmann arrived in America in 1939, where he began to study philosophy and religion before volunteering for military service in the Second World War. European philosophy was, at the time, caught between the fine linguistic parsings of the British school and the flights of psychological pondering of the Continental existentialists. It would be Kaufmann’s lot to unify these two groups, bringing their best tools to bear upon the purpose of dissecting the hazy, opportunistic malice at the heart of modern religion.

Returning from war, Kaufmann found an intellectual atmosphere that cowered before the most dearly gained insights of its own tradition. Nietzsche, whom he regarded as the greatest, most freeing mind of modern times, was commonly regarded as a jackbooted thug, a raving anti-Semite whose only supporters were ice-hearted Übermensch worshippers of the Rand stripe. And heresy, which he defined as the drive to investigate one’s assumptions against all claims of tradition and propriety, was in worse shape still, deemed subversive and amoral in the blandly (if fictitiously) wholesome America of the postwar years.

A prudent man would have noted the scent in the air and switched specialties to something innocuous, such as Renaissance studies or linguistic theory. But Kaufmann’s watchword was honesty—his 1961 Faith of a Heretic begins with an accounting of honesty as the philosophical virtue par excellence—and he could do no less than throw every pound of scholarship he had into redeeming his beloved intellectual tradition from the gross misconceptions of a blithe political culture. And so, his first book, written in 1950, was a full-length study of Friedrich Nietzsche: Nietzsche: Philosopher. Psychologist. Antichrist. In it, he salvaged the original Nietzsche from his overzealous followers, crafting a stunning philosophical portrait that has remained with us ever since: Nietzsche the psychological poet, the laughing Dionysian who pushes us to dig into the content of our motivations until it hurts. It was Kaufmann who showed us the gross fascist misappropriations of Nietzsche’s very human and humane ideas: the will to power, so tempting a rallying cry for reckless aggression, in reality a plea for mature self-mastery. The Superman, so popularly equated with the worst excesses of Hitler, a creature instead of pure personal creativity, utterly free from resentment and the need to punish.

More than the book that saved Nietzsche’s reputation, it was the proving ground for Kaufmann’s sustained critique of the Christian tradition. Nietzsche’s cutting recognition of the psychological morbidity of Christianity marched in step with Kaufmann’s own feelings—which had been so potent already at the age of eleven—that something was deadly wrong at the core of Christianity and religion generally.

And so, for his third major work, he wrote A Critique of Religion and Philosophy, a sustained attack on the pomposities of modern philosophy and the heartless meaninglessness of twentieth-century theology. Theology, Kaufmann theorized, must ever kill what it caresses. No sooner does it start weaving a belief than its living content is lost forever. St. Paul, in telling us what Jesus is, made dogmatic acceptance of an interpretation more important to religious practice than the living of a socially moral life. Inquiry and play disappear, to be replaced by the insubstantial stuff of correct belief.

Christianity does not make good people, Kaufmann dared say in the face of suburban ideals. It makes calculating, vengeful people—and none were so full of both those vices as the supposed greatest of men, Jesus Christ. Kaufmann pulled back the veil on a Jesus who, like a mob lieutenant, couldn’t talk enough about having the ear of the Big Man and about how he would use that connection to promote his goons while offing his enemies. That twisted Roman logic, by which a chain of God’s intermediaries (you to a saint to Mary to Jesus to God) would intercede for you, for an intellectual price, was laid out in these pages with all of its dark consequences. Christianity became the religion of self-interested prudence driven by a pathological streak of bitter vengeance. Torment was the just reward of false belief; inquiry was the serpent of righteous faith: these form the very center of Jesus’s supposedly moral outlook, and to suggest otherwise is to allow theology another day in the dim sun of its world-negating musings.

In this book, Kaufmann is truly a man between traditions, employing the best of both to lay bare the worst of the world’s philosophical chicanery. From the positivists, he takes a keen interest in analytic depth in insisting that, when doing philosophy, one must know what one means and that statements that do not mean anything (for example, “God exists”) must be held accountable. Likewise, from the existentialists he borrows a way of examining the boundary between desire and dread as they are experienced psychologically by actual people. Both of these approaches to thought and life are necessary, and no religion yet conceived offers them united. Only a new way, a steady devotion to the intellectual demands and poetic possibilities of thoroughgoing heresy, will suit the purpose; the elaborating of that position would consume Kaufmann’s work throughout the sixties and seventies.

Kaufmann’s works awoke this country’s academic establishment from its collective catatonia. In a short decade, his articles on the German intellectual tradition and the vacuity of American liberal theology made skepticism not only acceptable but emotionally compelling in a way that it hadn’t been since the nineteenth century. We learned to laugh with Nietzsche, to laugh at Jung and Heidegger, and to arch an eyebrow at any philosophy or religion that considered itself too solemn
ly final to permit any manner of mirth. We found ourselves caring about poetry more and self-serving epistemology less. And we discovered a new respect for ancient religions as works of men desperately striving to articulate the paradoxes of thought, existence, and feeling, even as we said goodbye to them as offering any possible way forward for a person of moderate moral and intellectual conscience. We linger still in the shadows of his intellectual edifice, grateful and grounded, and when we get it in our heads to at last move on, we shall always be able to look back upon his works as the place where we found our feet—and our voice.


Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the author of The Cartoon History of Humanism, Volume One (The Humanist Press, 2016). He is a frequent contributor to FI’s Great Minds column and also writes the weekly Women in Science series at

Walter Kaufmann saved skepticism, almost singlehandedly, from McCarthyite repression and Eisenhoweresque torpor.

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