Walter Kaufmann

I’ve tried to assemble some extracts from Walter Kaufmann’s Introduction to his translation of Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Whether or not anybody is interested in Buber’s book, the introduction stands alone; if you are interested in Buber’s book but have as much difficulty with it as I do, perhaps the introduction catches some of the oblique sheen of Buber’s conversing by text. Whatever, I hope it gives some pleasure:

Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived. The truth is too complex and frightening; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire….

….The world winks at dishonesty. the world does not call it dishonesty.

Man’s world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them.

They like to be told that there are two worlds and two ways. This is comforting because it is so tidy. Almost always one way turns out to be common and the other is celebrated as superior.

Those who tell of two ways and praise one are recognised as prophets or great teachers. They save men from confusion and hard choices. They offer a single choice that is easy to make because those who do not take the path that is commended to them live a wretched life.

To walk on this path may be difficult, but the choice is easy, and to hear the celebration of the path is pleasant. Wisdom offers simple schemes, but truth is not so simple.

The good must be clearly good but not wholly clear. If it is wholly clear it is too easy to reject.

What is wanted is an oversimplification, a reduction of a multitude of possibilities to only two. But if the recommended path were utterly devoid of mystery, it would cease to fascinate men….There would be nothing left to dicuss and interpret, to lecture and write about, to admire and merely think about.

The world exacts a price for calling teachers wise: it keeps discussing the paths they recommend, but few men follow them. The wise give men endless opportunities to discuss what is good.

Men love jargon. It is so palpable, tangible, visible, audible; it makes so obvious what one has learned; it satisfies the craving for results. It is impressive for the uninitiated. It makes one feel that one belongs. Jargon divides men into Us and Them….

Obscurity is fascinating. One tries to puzzle out details, is stumped, and becomes increasingly concerned with meaning – unless one feels put off and gives up altogether.

Those who persevere and take the author seriously are led to ask about what he could possibly have meant, but rarely seem to wonder or discuss whether what he says is true.

Not all deceptions are palatable. Untruths are too easy to come by, too quickly exploded, too cheap and ephemeral to give lasting comfort. Mundus vult decipi, but there is a hierarchy of deceptions.

Near the bottom of the ladder is journalism: a steady stream of irresponsible distortions that most people find refreshing although on the morning after, or at least within a week, it will be stale and flat.

On a higher level we find fictions that men eagerly believe, regardless of the evidence, because they gratify some wish.

Near the top of the ladder we encounter curious mixtures of untruth and truth that exert a lasting fascination on the intellectual community.

What cannot, on the face of it, be wholly true, although it is plain that there is clearly some truth in it, evokes more discussion and dispute, divergent exegeses and attempts at emendations than what has been stated very carefully, without exaggeration or onesidedness. The Book of proverbs is boring compared to the Sermon on the Mount.

Philosophers tend to reduce the manifold to the twofold. Some of the greatest taught that there were two worlds. Why has hardly anyone proclaimed many worlds?

The straight philosophers tend to celebrate one of the two worlds and depreciate the other. The literary tradition is less Manichaean. Friedrich Schiller tried to comprehend both (classical and romantic) kinds of poetry without disparaging either naïve or sentimental tendencies, and Nietzsche followed his example in his early contrast of the two Greek gods.

Success is no proof of virtue. In the case of a book, quick acclaim is presumptive evidence of a lack of substance and originality.


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