Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Nietzsche and Bildung/Paideia

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_459



For a philosopher who has widely been regarded as bad, or mad, or even dangerous to know, Nietzsche has a surprisingly wide and rich variety of things to say about education. In his early career as a professor of philology at the University of Basel, Nietzsche saw himself first and foremost as an educator; after retiring (on grounds of ill-health) from education after only 10 years, he pursued different strategies of education through his philosophical writings. The purpose of this entry is to trace Nietzsche’s view of education throughout his writings and, in conclusion, to link it with the German tradition of Bildung and, beyond that, to the Greek concept of paideia.

Nietzsche as Professor of Philology

On 12 February 1869, Nietzsche learned from the Cantonal Government of Basel that, 2 days earlier, the Small Council of the City of Basel has decided to appoint him as Extraordinary Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel. This appointment was a remarkable achievement: at the age of only 24, Nietzsche had attained a professorial status which, for most others, it took many years to reach. So it is even more remarkable that, as critics and biographers are usually quick to point out, after about 10 years in post, Nietzsche tendered his resignation from his professorship at Basel in 1879.

What critics and biographers frequently overlook, however, is the extent of Nietzsche’s hands-on, practical educational activity during his tenure at Basel, at least in the years immediately following his appointment. For his teaching duties included responsibility not just for lectures at the University but also courses at the Gymnasium in Basel, the Pädagogium located on Münsterplatz. So in the summer term of 1869, Nietzsche gave lectures at the University on Aeschylus and on the Greek lyric poets, as well as classes at the Pädagogium on Plato’s Phaedo, Homer’s Iliad, and the development of Greek drama, Greek meter, and Greek grammar. As Nietzsche wrote on 10 May 1869 to Friedrich Ritschl, his former tutor in Leipzig, he had “enough to do to stop him getting bored”: every weekday at 7 o’clock in the morning, he gave a three-hour-long lecture (from Mondays to Wednesdays on the history of Greek lyric, from Thursdays to Saturdays on The Choephori by Aeschylus); on Mondays there was a seminar as well, while on Tuesdays and Fridays, he taught two classes at the Pädagogium, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, just one. These classes, which Nietzsche taught “with pleasure,” operated at a high pedagogical level. When reading the Phaedo with his students, he told Ritschl, he tried to “infect” his students with philosophy: “through the technique, unheard of here, of extemporalia” – a teaching method, whereby a teacher reads out a text, which the pupil must immediately translate into Greek – “I am shaking them very roughly from their grammatical slumber” (Nietzsche 1986, vol. 3, p. 7). True, the number of students involved was, by today’s standard, often small: around seven students in his lectures, for instance, “with which I am told I should be content,” he told Ritschl.

At the same time, there is evidence of deep personal engagement on Nietzsche’s part as a teacher. In his seminars on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung alluded twice to a story he had heard about Nietzsche and one of his students:

In one of his lectures [Nietzsche] was talking about Greece and Graecia Magna in most enthusiastic terms, and after the lecture a young man who had not understood something he said […] went up to the professor to ask him about it. But before he could put in his request, Nietzsche said: “Ah now, you are the man! That blue sky of Hellas! We are going together!” And the young man thought: “How can I go with this famous professor and how have I the money to do it?” — and he receded further and further, Nietzsche going at him and talking of the eternal smile of the skies of Hellas […], till the young man backed up against the wall. Then suddenly Nietzsche realized that the fellow was frightened by his enthusiasm, and he turned away abruptly and never spoke to him again. (Jung 1989, vol. 1, pp. 16–17; cf. vol. 2, pp. 1361–1362)

As well as doing a lot of actual teaching, Nietzsche did a lot of reflecting on teaching. The fruit of these reflections was a series of lectures which Nietzsche gave to the Academic Society in Basel in the winter and spring of 1872 under the title On the Future of our Educational Institutions – or has it has been recently retranslated, on Anti-Education. The text of these lectures nearly became Nietzsche’s second book, after The Birth of Tragedy; in the end, Nietzsche abandoned the plan to rush them into print and the lectures appeared posthumously.

In these five (of an originally planned six) lectures, Nietzsche presents a sobering and, in some respects, devastating critique of education – in his day and in our own. In his introduction, Nietzsche states as his central thesis the view that two opposing drives rule contemporary educational institutions: first, “the drive toward the highest possible widening of education” and, second, “the drive toward the diminution and watering-down of education”; these drives, he argues, succeed in producing “a culture founded on lies” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 647). What this kind of education ends up producing is, Nietzsche says, a specific kind of “barbarism,” a kind of barbarism that makes nineteenth-century Germans – and, by extension, us today – “different from the barbarians of other ages.” From the outset, Nietzsche makes it clear that, in these lectures, he does not propose a discrete set of policies or curriculum plans. Rather, he is trying to reactivate the notion found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (1123a34 – 1125a35) of megalopsykhia or “high-mindedness” (Hochsinnigkeit) (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 650).

His correspondence with, among others, Erwin Rohde strikes a similar note of disappointment in regard to something that became a constant theme in Nietzsche’s writings: the relationship between scholarly, academic activities and the tasks of the “real world,” ultimately, the relation of knowledge to life. His answer to this problem both returns Nietzsche to the tradition of philosophy conceived as exercices spirituels, as Pierre Hadot has called it, and marks him out as inaugurating, along with Schopenhauer, the body of thought known as Lebensphilosophie. For the wrong answer to the knowledge-life problem lay, so Nietzsche believed, in scholarly activity for its own sake. As he put it in one of his Untimely Meditations, “I consider every word written to be useless, unless it contains a call to activity” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 413), and in Ecce Homo, he was even more trenchant, describing “the scholar” as “a decadent”: “His instinct of self-defence has become soft; otherwise he would defend himself against books”; time and again, Nietzsche emphasized that his reflections were based on what he had himself seen: “Gifted, generously and liberally disposed natures ‘read to ruins’ in their thirties, mere matches requiring to be struck to make them emit sparks – or ‘thoughts’” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 6, p. 293).

Indeed, in his notes for a never-completed essay, provisionally entitled “We Philologists,” Nietzsche went further: “Classical philologists are people who use the hollow feeling of inadequacy among modern people in order to earn money and put bread on their table. I know them, I’m one of them” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 8, p. 76). The reverse side of this dissatisfaction was his ideal of a secular monastery; a plan to build one of these in the Swiss canton of Graubünden came to nothing (but the idea survived in Nietzsche’s mind.) In contrast to the sad figures of conventional academics (of which, as he acknowledged, he himself was one), he opposed two men, a philosopher and a composer – Schopenhauer and Wagner.

It was to these figures that Nietzsche dedicated the third and fourth (of what had been planned as a series of thirteen) essays under the umbrella title, Untimely Meditations. In his second Untimely Meditation, “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1874), Nietzsche’s encomium demonstrates the principle enunciated in his essay: “I profit from a philosopher only inasmuch as he can be an example” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 350). It is also an essay that contains in nuce Nietzsche’s theory of education, not least because it is clear that what Nietzsche says about the genius is intended to apply to himself.

The principle underlying Nietzsche’s argument about education is that “your true being does not lie hidden in you, but immeasurably high above you” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, pp. 340–341). On this basis, Nietzsche argues that “your educators can be nothing other than your liberators,” consequently defining education precisely as “liberation,” that is, as “the clearing away of weeds, debris, and vermin that want to attack the tender buds of plants, a pouring-forth of light and warmth, the gentle patter of rain at night” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 341).

Nietzsche distinguishes between two approaches to education, one of which involves recognizing the real strengths of pupils and trying to help that one excellence attain full maturity, the other of which involves developing and cultivating all the pupil’s faculties in order to bring them into a harmonious relationship (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 342). Yet in the end, he concludes, these two approaches are not opposites but rather complementary: “That educating philosopher of whom I dreamed would not just discover the central power, but also know how to prevent it from acting deliteriously on the other forces,” and he uses the following striking image to capture the task of education: “To transform the entire human being into a living, moving solar and planetary system and to discover the laws of its higher motion” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 343).

By contrast, however, Nietzsche cannot suppress his lament for the reality of education as it is practiced: he offers a searing critique of tutors (“what sort of people will do, even among our noblest and best-instructed people”), of grammar schools (“what a hodgepodge of warped minds and antiquated institutions”), and of universities (“what are they not content with – what leaders, what institutions”) (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 343)! In short, Nietzsche was looking for “the ethical exemplars and people of distinction” among his contemporaries “to serve as the visible embodiment of all creative morality” – and searched in vain (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 344).

Nietzsche’s Middle Period

On 2 May 1879, Nietzsche resigned from his post as professor at Basel and, supported by a pension from his former university employer, began a new life – as a philosopher in exile from his home country and from academic institutions. Yet the topic of education remains central to Nietzsche’s thinking. Indeed, the entire question of “disciplined schooling” is closely bound up with the emergence of the notion of “free spirit” in his thought (Mintz 2004).

For instance, in Human, All Too Human, vol. 1, §265, in an aphorism entitled “Reason in school,” Nietzsche suggested that “schools have no more important task than to teach rigorous thinking, cautious judgement, and consistent reasoning” (and hence would have no time for religion) (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 2, p. 220). Subsequent aphorisms noted the “undervalued effects of grammar school-teaching” (§266) and questioned the value of “learning many languages” (§267). In the second half of the second volume entitled The Wanderer and His Shadow, Nietzsche denied there were any real educators (§267) and argued that, “as a thinker, one should only talk of self-education,” going so far as to talk of the teacher as a “necessary evil” (§282): he blamed “the surplus of teachers” for the fact that “one learns so little and so badly” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 2, p. 677).

Then again, in Dawn (§297) Nietzsche suggested that “the surest way one can ruin a youth is to teach him to respect those who think the same as he does more highly than those who think differently from him” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 3, p. 221), and in The Gay Science (§366), he offered an excoriating critique of academic writing in an aphorism entitled “Faced with a scholarly book” – “I closed a very decent scholarly book, gratefully, very gratefully, but also with a sense of relief” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 3, p. 614).

Thus Spoke Zarathustra marks a stylistic break, but there is a strong thematic continuity between Nietzsche’s early and later thought; correspondingly, in this work the long-standing concern of education is treated in a new way. For while critics have disagreed about the attitude toward education in Zarathustra, the work’s central (and prophetic) figure is explicitly presented as pedagogical in his mission. After all, as Martin Heidegger pointed out (Heidegger 1985, p. 65), Zarathustra presents himself as “the advocate of life, the advocate of suffering, the advocate of the circle,” the circle being a symbol for a doctrine of which Zarathustra is “the teacher” – “eternal recurrence,” while at the outset of the work, Zarathustra declares: “I teach you the Superman” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 4, pp. 271 and 275 and 14). While such chapter headings as “Of Reading and Writing” (in Part 1) and “Of the Land of Education” and “Of the Scholars” (in Part 2) gesture toward the theme of education, it is clear that Zarathustra’s ambitions as a whole should be understood in the light of Nietzsche’s earlier writings. When Zarathustra says of himself, “And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and bring together into one what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 4, p. 179), and when in his Nachlass notes Nietzsche says that Zarathustra is “the great synthesis of the creative, the loving, the destroying” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 11, p. 360), it is evident that Nietzsche is restating his great theme of totality. Seen in this light, his remark made in his essay on Schopenhauer about a human being who “feels himself perfect and boundless in knowledge and love, in vision and power, and in his completeness is at one with nature as the judge and yardstick of things” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 385) can been as an anticipation of the later ideal of the Übermensch or Superman.

Later Writings

In the texts written in the final few years of his philosophical activity before his collapse in 1890, Nietzsche continued to offer a vigorous critique of education in his day. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche summarizes his entire outlook in an aphorism entitled “From the military school of life”: “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” while he repeatedly returns to the theme of education in the sections entitled “What the Germans Lack” and “Expeditions of an Untimely Man.” What the Germans lack, it turns out, is above all education – in the Nietzschean sense (§4; Nietzsche 1999, vol. 6, pp. 60 and 107). He laments (in §6) the absence from education of a sense of “noble culture,” reflected in learning to see, to think, and to speak and write (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 6, p. 108). As for learning to think, he believes (in §7) that “schools no longer have any idea what this means,” while in universities “logic as theory, as practice, as a craft, is dying out” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 6, p. 109). The German universities arouse some of Nietzsche’s strongest condemnation: “What an atmosphere prevails among their scholars, what a barren, what a self-contented and lukewarm intellectual outlook! […] For 17 years I have not grown tired of exposing the intellect-stripping influence of our contemporary scholarship” (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 6, p. 105). That exposure found its most memorable expression in the following dialogue presented as part of a doctoral viva:

“What is the task of all higher education?” — To turn the human being into a machine. — “By what means is this done?” — He must learn how to be bored. — “How is this achieved?” — Through the concept of duty. “Who serves as a model?” — The philologist: he teaches how to graft. — “Who is the perfect human being?” — The state bureaucrat. — “What sort of philosophy provides the best formula for the state bureaucrat?” — Kant’s: the state bureaucrat as thing-in-itself set up as a judge over the state bureaucrat as phenomenon. (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 6, pp. 129–130)

Were it not for the fact that Nietzsche had been an academic Wunderkind, it would be easy to read this criticism of education as an expression of resentment or bitterness. It is not; rather, it is the conclusion Nietzsche reached after having gained access to the inner sanctum of academia. At the same time, one does not have to regard Nietzsche as a case study in “suffering and self-cultivation,” as “a man who, heroically, continued to transform his physical torments and spiritual abysses into what is one of the most life-embracing and ‘yea-saying’ philosophies in the Western world” (Hillesheim 1986, pp. 177–178). Instead one can read Nietzsche as returning to the conception of education as Bildung promoted by, among others, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). Common to this tradition and to Nietzsche alike is an emphasis on the potential holistic totality of the individual. In its turn, this conception of Bildung draws on the older ancient Greek notion of paideia. This frankly aristocratic conception of kalos kagathos, “the beautiful and the good,” placed an emphasis on the excellence of perfection as a combination of ethics and aesthetics. So while it may at first glance seem surprising that the multivolume study of Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1933–1947) published by Werner Jaeger (1888–1961) does not draw more frequently on Nietzsche, this is largely because Jaeger views Nietzsche through the prism of The Birth of Tragedy’s anti-Socratism and not in the light of Nietzsche’s critique of education.


As early as 1900, one critic expressed dismay that so little notice had been taken of Nietzsche’s contribution to pedagogics (Havenstein 1900, p. 93), and it remains the case that such other themes as the Superman, eternal recurrence, and will to power tend to obscure Nietzsche’s work in this area. Yet is his critique still valid? Or could it be even more valid now than it was in Nietzsche’s day? At a section on teaching philosophy to teenagers at a philosophy conference held in Cilli in 2000, one speaker argued that “this watering-down in the name of equality and the utilitarian submission of school education to the demands of a moral-political correctness legitimized by the state” is “the situation as we find it today” (Zeder 2001, p. 13), and in 2006 and 2014, the Austrian philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann strongly confirmed this analysis (Liessmann 2006, pp. 60–64, 2014, pp. 8 and 127–128). Nietzsche, who declined in his lectures on educational institutions to produce new timetables and statistics (Nietzsche 1999, vol. 1, p. 648), would doubtless reject any utilitarian approach embodied in teaching objectives and learning outcomes of the kind found in pedagogical theory and practice today.


  1. Havenstein, M. (1900). Nietzsche als Erzieher. In M. Oehler (Ed.), Den Manen Friedrich Nietzsches (pp. 93–108). Munich: Musarion Verlag.Google Scholar
  2. Heidegger, M. (1985). Who is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra? In D. B. Allison (Ed.), The New Nietzsche: Contemporary styles of interpretation (pp. 64–79). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  3. Hillesheim, J. W. (1986). Suffering and self-cultivation: The case of Nietzsche. Educational Theory, 36(2), 171–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Jung, C. G. (1989). In J. L. Jarrett (Ed.), Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the seminar given in 1934–1939 (2 Vols.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Liessmann, K. P. (2006). Theorie der Unbildung. Vienna: Zsolnay.Google Scholar
  6. Liessmann, K. P. (2014). Geisterstunde: Die Praxis der Unbildung. Vienna: Zsolnay.Google Scholar
  7. Mintz, A. (2004). The disciplined schooling of the free spirit. Educational theory in Nietzsche’s middle period. In Philosophy of education yearbook (pp. 163–170). New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Nietzsche, F. (1986). In G. Colli & M. Montinari (Eds.), Sämtliche Briefe: Kritische Studienausgabe in 8 Bänden. Munich/New York: dtv/de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  9. Nietzsche, F. (1999). In G. Colli and M. Montinari (Eds.), Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden. Munich/New York: dtv/de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  10. Zeder, F. (2001). Nietzsche als Erzieher? Europa-Forum Philosophie: enseignement, teaching, Unterricht, 44, 12–17.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of GlasgowGlasgowUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Babette Babich
    • 1
  1. 1.Fordham UniversityNew YorkUSA