Faith of a Heretic: Walter Kaufmann’s views on morality

| January 1, 2007 | 2 Replies

Back in the late 1970s, I found a copy of a book called The Faith of a Heretic, by Walter Kaufmann.  The book is currently out of print, though I have retained my copy.  Walter Kaufmann is well-known as a translator of virtually all of Nietzsche’s works. Back in the 1970′s, I found the Faith of a Heretic to be well-written and, at many points, inspirational.  After re-reading portions of this work recently, I was again impressed.

What is a “heretic”?  According to Kaufmann:

Heresy is a set of opinions at variance with established or generally received principles.  In this sense, heresy is the price of all originality and innovation.

When Kaufman speaks of “faith,” he is not referring to close-minded beliefs that contravene evidence.  Instead, he is using “faith” to describe the attitude of a person who cares intensely yet has “sufficient interest to concern himself with issues, facts and arguments that have a vital bearing on what he believes.” Kauffman argues that there are at least two types of faith: the faith of the true believer and the faith of a heretic.

Kaufman argued that although morality

cannot be based on religion, religion can be used to help prop it up. It may supply additional motives for being moral and for not being immoral.  But to determine in the first place what is moral and immoral, we cannot settle the matter by relying on a deeply felt religious faith.

Here are some excerpts from Kaufmann’s writings regarding morality:

My own ethic is not absolute but a morality of openness.  It is not a morality of rules but an ethic of virtues.  It offers no security but goals. To communicate it, one has to enumerate virtues.  A long list would be ineffective; a short list would probably leave out much that I deem it important for it here are four cardinal virtues.

The first lacks any single name but is a fusion of humility and aspiration.  Humility consists in realizing one’s stark limitations and remembering that one may be wrong.  But humility fused with smugness, with complacency, with resignation is no virtue to my mind.  What I praise is not the meekness that squats in the dust, content to be lowly, eager not to stand out, but humility winged by ambition.  There is no teacher of humility like great ambition.  Petty aspirations can be satisfied and may be hostile to humility.  Hence, ambition and humility are not two virtues: taken separately, they are not admirable.  Fused, they represent the first cardinal virtue.  Since there is no name for it we shall have to coin one-at the risk of sounding humorous: humbition… Meekness says: Judge not, that you be not judged! . . . Humbition replies: Judge, that you may be judged!

The second cardinal virtue is love . . . love as a virtue does not end with projection and understanding.  It is not content to perceive and sympathize; it involves the willingness to assume responsibility and to sacrifice.  Devotion and commitment as such elicit some admiration but are no virtues . . . Fused in love, they represent the second cardinal virtue . . . the Buddha knew that love brings “hurt and misery, suffering, grief, and despair”; and he advised deattachment.  The love I consider a virtue is not the blind love of the lovers or the trusting hopeful love of Paul, but the love that knows what the Buddha knew, and still loves with open eyes.

The third cardinal virtue is courage.. . . as soon as aspiration becomes self-conscious and conscience emerges, courage is needed.  Without courage, aspiration is denied and conscience is muted by inactivity, failure to try, sloth-the humility that is no virtue, meekness.  Courage is vitality knowing the risks it runs.

The fourth virtue is honesty.  A little honesty is so easy, so common, so unavoidable, it is hardly a virtue.  But thorough honesty is the rarest and most difficult of all the virtues; and without that, each of the other three is somewhat deficient.  Lack of thorough honesty takes so many forms . . . dishonesty says: my views are what I mean; yours are what you said.  Dishonesty says: you are doing all you can.  Dishonesty approximates the mythical ubiquity of original sin.  It finds expression in unnecessary complications that, even if not designed to look impressive to the gullible, help to deceive the writer, or the speaker, about his own lack of clarity and other weaknesses.


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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Orson says:


    This book is the one I am most eager to share with theists because WAK is most searching and sympathetic in his criticism. Unlike most convinced atheists, the spirit of wonder at the human condition and the universe animates his learned prose. Too often dialog gets shut down in a series of well-rehearsed arguments. The virtue here is that dialog may be opened up instead.

    While I am a convinced atheist, I realize only a few of the arguments that move and convince me are of interest to the theist, and therefore I rarely impose myself on others of Belief. Kaufmann expands the lens under consideration, and this helps both sides! Humbition indeed.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Orson: Good to hear from you. Kaufmann's neologism "humbition" is such a funny-sounding yet such an important word.

    I read several of Walter Kaufmann's books in the 1980s, and I fear that I probably plagiarize many of his excellent ideas (though not intentionally–it's just that I took his work to heart and it's been so long since I've read most of his books). He was a terrific thinker and writer of his own accord, in addition to having translated numerous works by Nietzsche, that I also found to be inspirational.

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