There is … a certain plausibility to Nietzsche's doctrine, though it is dynamite. He maintains in effect that the gulf separating Plato from the average man is greater than the cleft between the average man and a chimpanzee.
Of course, not everything old is beautiful, any more than everything black, or everything white, or everything young. But the notion that old means ugly is every bit as harmful as the prejudice that black is ugly. In one way it is even more pernicious. The notion that only what is new and young is beautiful poisons our relationship to the past and to our own future. It keeps us from understanding our roots and the greatest works of our culture and other cultures. It also makes us dread what lies ahead of us and leads many to shirk reality.
There is thus a certain plausibility to Nietzsche's doctrine, though it is dynamite. He maintains in effect that the gulf separating Plato from the average man is greater than the cleft between the average man and a chimpanzee.
What makes The Present Age and The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle important is not so much that the former essay anticipates Heidegger and the latter, Barth: it would be more accurate to say that Heidegger’s originality is widely overestimated, and that many things he says at great length in his highly obscure German were said earlier by various writers who had made the same points much more elegantly, and that some of these writers, including Kierkegaard, were known to Heidegger. Why should Kierkegaard’s significance depend on someone else’s, quite especially when many points that others copied from him may be wrong?
Walter Kaufmann, Preface to The Present Age, by Soren Kierkegaard, Dru translation 1962 p. 15-16
Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is important for other reasons as well. It is a book that everyone seems to be familiar with but few have actually read, as if, having succeeded in upending the traditional picture of Nietzsche, it can now be safely ignored. But reading it (or rereading it) repays the effort. Kaufmann’s own views are considerably more nuanced than I have been able to suggest, and his accounts of Nietzsche’s dependence of Goethe, of his naturalism—the view that human beings are continuous with the rest of the animal world, in the spirit of Darwin—the mechanisms of sublimation, and his affinities with American pragmatism are genuine and lasting contributions to our understanding of this still seductive and enigmatic philosopher who is now, thanks to this book, part and parcel of our intellectual heritage. Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is still very much alive, and for that reason his Nietzsche deserves to come alive once again.
If Nietzsche’s image reached its nadir during the Second World War, when Hitler presented Mussolini with a bound edition of his works and the historian Crane Brinton wrote a book asserting he would have been “a good Nazi,” a resurrection was soon to come. The German émigré and Princeton professor Walter Kaufmann almost single-handedly revived his standing with his many translations and forceful reminder that Nietzsche hated anti-Semites and German nationalists as well as woolly-headed romantics. Kaufmann’s Nietzsche was a late flower of the Enlightenment, a tough-minded rationalist with the courage to face the Darwinian revelation that there is no purpose to nature or to our existence. The true task of the overman was to overcome himself, not others, and to do so by sculpturing his impulses and thoughts and inheritances into a willed unity that could be called “style.”