Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Nietzsche and Self-Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_460

Friedrich Nietzsche held that education, or the kind of it that concerned him, is self-education in a particular sense of the phrase. As he succinctly put it, “there are no educators,” and it is a point that it would profit us to examine (Nietzsche 1996, p. 132). What, in the final analysis, can one mind teach another? Who, for instance, taught Nietzsche how to write books of philosophy? Not only did Nietzsche write eloquently on the concept of self-education, but his own education as a philosopher exhibits rather well this very theme. Nietzsche was one of the greatest philosophical writers of his time and likely the greatest. His doctoral studies were in philology, not philosophy, and he did not complete them since, having gained a position at the University of Basel, this was not required. He was a professor there for a relatively short time until his medical leave allowed him to live the life of a wandering solitary, which is the period in which he wrote his greatest works. He did it without institutional support (aside from a modest pension), tenure, research grants, assistants, and the various academic “dignities and respectabilities” which he held in contempt (Nietzsche 2003, p. 147). It was by no miracle that he “became what he was,” as he liked to put it, and it was also not due to having had good teachers in the conventional sense.

What was Nietzsche’s own formal education like, and to what extent can it be credited with producing the thinker that he became? To the latter question, the answer is not zero, but it is not so far from this, at least if we trust Nietzsche’s own word on the matter (which we should not do uncritically). Some of Nietzsche’s fondest childhood memories were of his father’s and grandfather’s studies and the world of books which they opened up to him. As he wrote at the age of fourteen: “Our house was built in 1820 and so was in excellent condition. Several steps led up to the ground floor. I can still remember the study on the top floor. The rows of books, among them many picture-books and scrolls, made it my favorite place.” A biographer notes that “already in prepubescent days he liked nothing better than fossicking around in Grandfather Oehler’s library and visiting the Leipzig bookshops with him. As [his younger sister] Elizabeth reports, it was in fact Grandfather Oehler who first spotted Fritz’s unusual gifts, telling Franziska [Nietzsche’s mother] that he was the most talented boy he had ever seen, more talented than his own six sons put together” (Young 2010, pp. 8, 17). [I cite Young’s text somewhat reluctantly and am mindful of the controversy that surrounds it.] “‘I was never happier than when I was in grandpapa’s study, browsing through the old books and magazines.’ Once again he was in a pastor’s study in a country parsonage, surrounded by books: this was as close as he could come to re-enacting the experience of being with his father at Röcken” (Hayman 1980, p. 26). Nietzsche’s father having died during the boy’s fifth year of life, the responsibility for his education fell to his mother and maternal grandparents who sent him at the age of five to a primary school for boys and the following year to a private school in preparation for entry 3 years later to a Cathedral Grammar School. This he attended between the ages of 10 and 14, following which he earned a scholarship to attend a small and prestigious boarding school named Pforta. By this time, he had acquired a strict work ethic in spite of ill health and was able to impress the teachers – most of them – of this self-contained institution which stood at some remove from town life and to which parents relinquished virtually all rights over their children for a period of 6 years.

According to Julian Young’s (highly controversial) biography, “Nietzsche never doubted that Pforta made him. And he was always loyal to the school and grateful, not only for the magnificent education in the humanities but also for the character ‘formation’ it had given him. Twenty-four years after leaving, he wrote, ‘The most desirable thing of all … is under all circumstances to have severe discipline at the right time, i.e., at the age when it makes us proud that people should expect great things from us. For this is what distinguishes hard schooling from every other schooling, namely that a good deal is demanded; that goodness, nay even excellent itself, is required as if it were normal; that praise is scanty; that leniency is non-existent; that blame is sharp, practical, and has no regard to talents or antecedents. We are all in every way in need of such a school; and this holds good of physical as well as spiritual things – it would be fatal to draw distinctions here! The same discipline makes the soldier and the scholar efficient; and, looked at more closely, there is no true scholar who has not the instincts of a true soldier in his veins.” At Pforta Nietzsche absorbed the ethos of the Prussian State and took to it like a duck to water. In later years even his physical bearing would give many the impression that he was an army officer (he had served a short time in the military). The curriculum at the exclusive secondary school consisted in the main of Greek and Latin as well as the classics of German literature (plenty of Goethe and Schiller) while mathematics and the natural sciences were not emphasized and, for the most part, poorly taught. It was the world of Rome and especially Greece into which the students were initiated, renaissance humanism being as essential to the Pforta philosophy as Prussian militarism. Here Nietzsche would remain until his twentieth year when upon graduation he began his university studies first in Bonn and, the following year, Leipzig. To please his mother, he began his studies in theology – a discipline for which he had no passion but which held out the promise of a career. “As a scholarship boy from a poor background he had no option but to think seriously about breadwinning,” and the clerical profession had been his father’s career until his premature death (Young, 2010, pp. 25–26, 31). Unable to stomach this for long, he switched to classical philology, for which Pforta had well prepared him and again which led readily to a career.

At Leipzig Nietzsche found suitable teachers in the noted philologists Otto Jahn and (especially) Friedrich Ritschl, although his interests were turning increasingly in a most impractical direction. Philosophy was his new love, owing not to any formal studies in this discipline or the philosophy professors at Leipzig but to his own reading, in particular of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation which he discovered in 1865 at the age of 21. Significantly, while Nietzsche read widely in these and subsequent years, he was not formally trained as a philosopher and had no complimentary words for the professors in this field whom he encountered in his school years or later. In “Schopenhauer as Educator,” for instance, he would write in 1874: “One has only to recall one’s own student days; in my case, for example, academic philosophers were men towards whom I was perfectly indifferent: I counted them as people who raked together something for themselves out of the results of the other sciences and employed their leisure time in reading newspapers and going to concerts, and for the rest were treated by their own academic comrades with a politely masked contempt. They were credited with knowing little and with never being at a loss for some obscure expression with which to conceal this lack of knowledge” (Nietzsche 1996, p. 188). In later years, his assessment would become harsher still. A typical example reads: “Like those who stand in the street and stare at the people passing by, so they [philosophical scholars] too wait and stare at thoughts that others have thought” (Nietzsche 2003, p. 146). When as a professor of philology at Basel, Nietzsche requested a transfer to philosophy; it was not without reason that he was denied.

While he continued to have high praise for Pforta, not only did Nietzsche discover his vocation independently but the whole story of how he became the thinker that he was must be told largely apart from his schooling. His studies at Pforta, Bonn, and Leipzig did not produce the philosopher he became. What did was a drive for knowledge that was nourished not by teachers but by an appetite for reading that was voracious in spite of the severe eye strain that it caused him. “Nietzsche’s headaches,” a biographer reports, “… were likely exacerbated by his extreme short-sightedness and by the strain imposed by prodigious amounts of reading. (Often he read through an entire night, his foot in a bucket of freezing water to prevent him falling asleep.)” (Young 2010, p. 32). No Prussian schoolmaster could have imposed the level of discipline that he imposed on himself or the passion for ideas that was awakened in him through his reading in various disciplines over a good many years. True education, he came to believe, far transcends any utilitarian end or vocational training but is a higher cultivation or formation (Bildung) that emerges from within. This does not entail that one pursues an education alone, and in the account Nietzsche would provide an important role is assigned to “teachers,” but in a sense of the word that is distinctive.

The vital matter in education, Nietzsche argued, is to find a vocation and, inseparable from this, a teacher. In his own case, the pursuit of truth constituted the former, while the latter was a less straightforward matter. Nietzsche’s doctoral supervisor, as noted, was a philologist who did little to encourage his student’s growing fascination for philosophy and in no way served as a model of the kind of thinker Nietzsche was aspiring to become. In these days, as he put it, “I believed that, when the time came, I would discover a philosopher to educate me, a true philosopher whom one could follow without any misgiving because one would have more faith in him than one had in oneself.” This youthful idea he would abandon and replace with “the terrible effort and duty of educating myself,” and it was an effort that included the difficult matter of finding himself not a master but an exemplar (Nietzsche 1996, p. 130). This is what a teacher in the highest sense of the word is, for Nietzsche: one who demonstrates in their own person and work that which the student aspires to learn and become. An educator in this sense is not assigned by an institution or by anyone but is chosen by the student. An essential part of self-education on his understanding of the term is the task of finding the teacher who can impart by example what the student needs to learn. “The education of youth by others,” in his words, “is either an experiment carried on by an as yet unknown and unknowable subject, or a leveling on principle with the object of making the new being, whatever it may be, conform to the customs and habits then prevailing.” If we would speak of education in a higher sense, and of the thinker in particular, then “one should speak only of self-education” (as cited in Babich 2010, p. 144).

In “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Nietzsche recounted his failed attempts as a young man to find the teacher he was seeking in the universities of Germany. It was an apprenticeship that he sought, not (or no longer) a master at whose feet he could sit but a philosopher who could model what he wished to become. He found this in none of his teachers in the institutional sense, men whom he largely held in contempt for mediocrity and especially laziness: “When the great thinker despises mankind, he despises its laziness: for it is on account of their laziness that men seem like factory products, things of no consequence and unworthy to be associated with or instructed. The man who does not wish to belong to the mass needs only to cease taking himself easily; let him follow his conscience, which calls to him: ‘Be your self! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself.’” The educator one seeks properly teaches one not to be them but to be oneself, and one becomes this through imitation. One is not oneself; one becomes it, or one might, and not by scrounging around in an interiority that may not even be, but by finding an exemplar(s) who is worthy of a kind of selective and critical imitation. The student imitates the teacher, but it is oneself that one becomes. For Nietzsche, “your true nature lies, not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be. Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the true basic material of your being is, something in itself ineducable and in any case difficult of access, bound and paralysed: your educators can be only your liberators” (Nietzsche 1996, pp. 127, 129). It is hardly without significance that the subtitle to Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s “autobiography” – although the scare quotes are an understatement – is How One Becomes What One Is.

There is no metaphysics of human nature at work here. Nietzsche was speaking of a process of formation in which one becomes what one is by aspiring to an ideal that is self-chosen and that is modeled by a teacher who is also self-chosen. This is a version of the “role model” argument, with the crucial difference that the teacher is not charged by an institution with exhibiting particular traits of mind or character but instead it is the student who must find the teacher who can impart less by instruction than example what it is that the student needs to learn. Becoming educated is a difficult task indeed, and not only for the usual reasons but because the student is not being acted upon but is driving a process that originates within their own being and that requires a kind of agency that far surpasses what is usual in our institutions of learning. The question for the student is: “what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self. Compare these objects one with another, see how one completes, expands, surpasses, transfigures another, how they constitute a stepladder upon which you have clambered up to yourself as you are now.” (Ibid., p. 129) No academic counseling is possible here, no guidance from without, for what one is choosing is not only what one will know or do for a living but who one will become or perhaps fail to become. One becomes what one is in the company of like-minded souls, both peers of similar inclination and especially an exemplar who has succeeded in some measure in accomplishing what one aspires to accomplish for oneself.

For the young Nietzsche, it was Schopenhauer who served in this role – a man he never met but whose writings lit a veritable fire in the student or, more likely, fanned an existing flame. Schopenhauer was no Kant or Hegel but a thinker in an entirely different and, in the student’s eyes, more Greek mold. What did Nietzsche see in this writer? The answer appears to bear less upon Schopenhauer’s philosophical doctrines than upon stylistic and affective – one might say spiritual – matters. Schopenhauer was an accomplished stylist, to be sure, but it was his sense of life still more that spoke directly to Nietzsche and that inspired him to follow in kind. What the young philosopher was in search of was himself and, as Babette Babich states, “Schopenhauer is Nietzsche’s exemplar on the way to finding himself (and losing Schopenhauer in the process, as Zarathustra enjoins his followers to lose Zarathustra)” (Babich 2010, p. 139). A philosopher, Nietzsche came to believe, is not a disciple, nor does one become what one is in a vacuum. Even the solitary Zarathustra left his mountaintop from time to time for the town in the valley below. Here is how Nietzsche described the effect that reading Schopenhauer first had on him: “I am one of those readers of Schopenhauer who when they have read one page of him know for certain they will go on to read all the pages and will pay heed to every word he ever said. I trusted him at once and my trust is the same now as it was nine years ago. Though this is a foolish and immodest way of putting it, I understand him as though it were for me he had written.” “As though” is a crucial phrase here; Schopenhauer never lived to hear the name Friedrich Nietzsche, but in the student’s mind, The World as Will and Representation spoke to him as the Bible speaks to a believer and as Nietzsche also wished to write, which is to say directly, personally, and honestly. One can read every page of Schopenhauer’s magnum opus looking for formal arguments and positions that Nietzsche would make his own and one will find little. It was not the arguments that mattered primarily but a quality of thought that is more resistant to analysis. There is an honesty in the great pessimist’s writings that spoke to Nietzsche directly, an intellectual candor and an inwardness that the young philosopher had never seen before (he never read Kierkegaard). “Schopenhauer never wants to cut a figure: for he writes for himself and no one wants to be deceived, least of all a philosopher who has made it a rule for himself: deceive no one, not even yourself!” (Nietzsche 1996, pp. 133–134). Honesty and writing for oneself, Nietzsche believed, are rare in a writer, and it was these qualities that he wanted to emulate in his own work. There was no learning this from the rank and file professors of his time who were more interested in striking a pose – including one of perfect objectivity – than thinking in a manner that is intellectually forthright, personal, and existentially urgent.

Schopenhauer, in Nietzsche’s youthful eyes, was an “untimely” figure: fearless, independent, forever swimming against the current of his times yet also cheerful in the way of one who is unconcerned with others’ estimations of his work. In an era of naive optimism Schopenhauer’s truthfulness was untimely, heroic, and isolating. Only one with an iron constitution could write in this way, and it was this rare combination of honesty and cheerfulness that the young philosopher was endeavoring to develop. “I know of only one writer,” Nietzsche stated, “whom I would compare with Schopenhauer, indeed set above him, in respect of honesty: Montaigne. That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth. Since getting to know this freest and mightiest of souls, I at least have come to feel what he felt about Plutarch: ‘as soon as I glance at him I grow a leg or a wing.’” He added: “Schopenhauer has a second quality in common with Montaigne, as well as honesty: a cheerfulness that really cheers” (Ibid., p. 135). Thinking at its highest reaches requires a free-spiritedness that was lacking in the nineteenth century, dominated as it was by ponderous notions of rationalism, empiricism, and positivistic science which constituted not only false conceptions of knowledge but a profoundly dishonest view of philosophy. Nietzsche always understood philosophy in a basically Greek way, as a relentless pursuit of truths that are forever elusive. In the end, wisdom is had by the gods (who, for Nietzsche, are dead), not human beings. The latter can at best love it in the sense of pursue it, but the thing itself eludes us. It is best sought, Nietzsche believed, with the right attitude of mind – one that is Apollonian and Dionysian at the same time and in equal measure. It is a joyful wisdom that philosophy properly seeks, not the formal certainty of modern epistemology but something roughly intermediate between science and poetry and that partakes of both. Philosophy should inspire as art does, seduce the senses at the same time that it persuades our reason, the gap between the two being more apparent than real.

This is what Schopenhauer achieved, for Nietzsche. Here was a writer who could teach the young thinker what he most needed to learn and what no school could impart, “that magical outpouring of the inner strength of one natural creature on to another.” The terms of Nietzsche’s praise reflect his own highest aspirations: Schopenhauer “is honest because he speaks and writes to himself and for himself, cheerful because he has conquered the hardest task of thinking, and steadfast because he has to be. His strength rises straight and calmly upwards like a flame when there is no wind, imperturbably, without restless wavering” (Ibid., p. 136). When he encountered Schopenhauer’s work, Nietzsche reported that he had been existentially lost, “devoid of fundamental principles,” having rejected the religion of his youth and having found nothing with which to replace it. In November of 1865 “I came across this book [The World as Will and Representation] in old Rohn’s second-hand bookshop, and taking it up very gingerly I turned over its pages. I know not what demon whispered to me: ‘Take this book home with you.’ At all events, contrary to my habit of not being hasty in the purchase of books, I took it home. Back in my room I threw myself into the corner of the sofa with my booty, and began to allow that energetic and gloomy genius to work upon my mind. In this book, in which every line cried out renunciation, denial and resignation, I saw a mirror in which I espied the whole world, life, and my own mind depicted in frightful grandeur” (as cited in Young 2010, pp. 81, 87). Here were large existential themes being spoken of in the boldest way possible and with an independence of mind seldom found in the philosophy of the day. Immediately the young philosopher became a “Schopenhauerian,” as would a famous composer with whom Nietzsche would form one of the most important friendships of his life.

Richard Wagner, a man 31 years Nietzsche’s senior, fit Schopenhauer’s definition of a genius – or so it seemed to Nietzsche at the time (and to Wagner for a while longer). The composer was a “brother in spirit” to Schopenhauer, as Nietzsche came to see himself, although his devotion to both figures was destined to be fleeting (as cited in Young 2010, p. 124). The philosopher Nietzsche was becoming far too original to be a “Schopenhauerian” or devotee of any kind, and in time both Wagner and Schopenhauer would become more like influences than the idols they had been in his younger days. As Young notes, “Nietzsche needed the ‘space’ to be his own man, to escape from the overpowering presence of ‘the Master’” whom Wagner had been to him and Schopenhauer had been on a more imaginary plane (Young 2010, p. 158). These two figures were not the philosopher’s only influences. That the young Nietzsche was a voracious reader has been noted, and among the writers he admired most were Goethe, Montaigne, Epicurus, Baruch Spinoza, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Although he often accessed philosophers via secondary literature, Nietzsche’s admiration for each of these writers was bound up with an affinity of spirit that he shared with them. All were exemplars or teachers in his sense, with whom he felt a personal connection and from whom he could appropriate less their philosophical positions than a sense of life or deep attitude of mind. What he saw in Dostoyevsky, for instance, was not the Christian moralist but the psychologist and proto-existentialist, a commonality of spirit that is more profound than any doctrine.

The self-education of this philosopher consisted in an independent reading of authors selected with the aim of finding models from whom he could learn not “what a professional philosopher must know” (whatever that is) but what he himself needed to know: what kind of writer was it possible for him to become and how could he become what he was in the world of thought. He needed, as anyone who is serious about creative work does, to learn from the masters, masters chosen in light of personal affinities and who had achieved something comparable to what he envisioned for himself. The highest aim of education, on his view, is the cultivation of genius and cultural leadership. This is what the thinker strives to become, and if no pedagogical method imparts it, then one must teach it to oneself by immersing oneself in the work of one’s exemplars. One educates and indeed becomes oneself by studying, imitating, and ultimately leaving behind one’s self-chosen teachers. One climbs the ladder that one must, then throws it away.


  1. Babich, B. (2010). Education and exemplars: On learning to doubt the overman. In P. Fairfield (Ed.), Education, dialogue and hermeneutics. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyQueen’s University KingstonKingstonCanada

Section editors and affiliations

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