Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Nietzsche and Rhetoric as Self-Education

  • Tracy B. Strong
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_468

It is well known that the secondary literature on Nietzsche covers the widest possible range. It goes from Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi to Nietzsche as aristocratically and aesthetically apolitical to Nietzsche as a possible constitutionalist and democrat. This spectrum of interpretations is often said to be consequent to inconsistencies or confusions or mistakes in his thought. One might, however, also note that it seems to be thelot of great thinkers to permit such a wide range of interpretations – one thinks of Plato or Rousseau.

How and by what are we to be educated in reading Nietzsche if no one can say finally what he means? This diversity leads one to ask if one can – or should – take all of Nietzsche’s writings seriously. Are there not what one might call “rhetorical” exaggerations? It is clear that no one can fail to recognize the rhetorical quality and concerns of his work. Aside from his published writings, he lectured regularly about rhetoric and related matters; it is worth noting that Nietzsche is explicit that this work forms a “background” to the Birth of Tragedy, even if, as he notes in a letter to his friend Rohde in February, 1872, he had consciously left it out of that book. (These lectures are in the second set of volumes from Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1966ff), henceforth WKG (and are not in the paperback Studienausgabe). Other citations from this edition.) The analysis of rhetoric underpins the argument of his first book as it does the rest of his work.

Some scholars have taken his rhetoric very seriously and find Nietzsche’s style to be the source of political danger. Heinz Schlaffer has argued that Nietzsche’s style has had the effect of hyperbolizing contemporary political understandings. Thus, after Nietzsche, when one speaks of leadership in a political context, one thinks of a “super”-leader, a leader of leaders. Nietzsche may have thought of such a person as a philosopher (as Heidegger was shortly to do), but when that possibility fades away, Schlaffer remarks, the “word is unbound” but the rhetorical idea of what a leader ought to be remains. This can have, he argues, deleterious political consequences (Schlaffer 2007).

Schlaffer’s is a serious argument, but it is notably not that of most of those who take note of his rhetoric and style. Most of those who do generally point to his rhetoric as a way to excuse Nietzsche from one or another claim or to point out a philosophical “mistake,” an “unacceptable” political stance. This is often phrased as his “rhetorical excesses.” The general presumption of this claim is often that behind or besides such rhetoric there is an argument that one should reconstruct: an attempt to get something “out” of Nietzsche. This has led to a multitude of readings that seek to excuse him from some apparent implications of his writings on the grounds that “Nietzsche certainly did (really) not believe X.”

After the Second World War, Walter Kaufmann was the first great master of the apology based on rhetoric. Aside from interpretive choices, there were political-historical reasons for his approach: not only had the First World War been tagged by British journalists as “Nietzsche’s War,” not only had a copy of Zarathustra been standard issue to each soldier in the Wehrmacht, but the subsequent appropriation of Nietzsche by the Nazis required a rehabilitation for him to be granted admission to the philosophical host. Nietzsche could appear to be responsible (in some sense of the term) for the horrors of the century. To distance him from these events, Kaufmann generally proceeded by suggesting that when Nietzsche praised, for example, war, he only meant a war like the Franco-Prussian war: his praise was “just rhetoric.” To his apparently derogatory remarks about Jews, Kaufmann adduced counter anti-anti-Semitic quotations with the explicit or latent assertion that any offending words elsewhere were consequent to youth, the spirit of the times, or Wagner’s baleful influence.

This approach lead to much work that sought to present what Nietzsche would have said had he been writing to publish in a contemporary philosophical journal. We are given what would have/should have been Nietzsche’s arguments, which are then subjected to the kind of critical analysis that philosophers are good at. While there is sometimes material of interest in such work, it generally skirts the question of the importance of rhetoric.

Relatively few commentators have taken his rhetoric seriously and positively, denying that Nietzsche’s style and rhetoric are centrally important to his philosophical teaching. Although he is far from the only one, exemplary here is Brian Leiter who argues in his contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Nietzsche’s “penchant for hyperbolic rhetoric and polemics often leads him” to “overstate” his case. Such a judgement is, I think, seriously wrong.

To start with, Nietzsche does not separate “rhetoric” from language itself. In a 1874 lecture course he writes: “There is obviously no unrhetorical ‘naturalness’ of speech to which one might appeal: speech itself is the result of nothing but [lauter] rhetorical arts [,] the power – which Aristotle names rhetoric – to discover and make expressive [geltend] that which works and makes an impression on each thing and this is at the same time the essence of language [Sprache] . . . it does not wish to instruct but rather to transmit a subjective arousal [Erregung] and acceptance to another person.” If language is then ineluctably rhetoric(al), what does that mean in terms of one’s inevitable use of language?

Nietzsche’s concern with rhetoric is continuous. Aside from his courses, in 1872, for instance, he sketches an outline for a book “Considerations on Reading and Writing.” In 1875 he prepares a document on style for two of his students. The most important elaboration, however, comes in “The Doctrine of Style,” ten notes or commandments presented by letter to Lou Salomé in August, 1882. Nietzsche sends her this:
  1. 1.

    The first necessary matter is life: Style must live.

  2. 2.

    Style must in retrospect be appropriate for you in relation to precisely the particular person with whom you wish to confide. (The law of double relation).

  3. 3.

    One must first be quite clear about this: thus and thus do I wish to speak and express myself – before one has the right to write. Writing must be an impersonation (Nachahmung).

  4. 4.

    Because many of the means of those who speak (Vortragenden) are missing to those who write, the person who writes must have an overall highly developed expressive ability to present speech as a model: the presentation of that which is written must necessarily turn out as much paler.

  5. 5.

    Wealth in life betrays itself as wealth in gestures (Gebärde). Everything, the length and brevity of sentences, punctuation, the choice of words, pauses, the sequence of arguments – must be learned to be understood as gestures.

  6. 6.

    Be careful about the use of periods [full stops – TBS]. Only those beings that have a lengthy breath in speaking have the right to periods. For most, periodizing is an affection.

  7. 7.

    Style should show (beweisen) that one believes in ones thoughts and does not only think them but rather feels them.

  8. 8.

    The more abstract is the trust that one wishes to teach, the more must one bring (verführen) sense (Sinne) to it.

  9. 9.

    In the choice of its means, the rhythm of a good writer of prose (Prosaiker) approaches that of poetry, however, without ever surpassing it.

  10. 10.

    It is neither proper nor intelligent to anticipate the small objections (leichteren Einwände) for ones readers. It is very proper and very intelligent to leave it to ones readers to express themselves the essential point of our wisdom.


Each commandment is worth pondering. To pick out a few: “Style must in retrospect be appropriate for you in relation precisely to the particular person with whom you wish to confide (der du dich mitteilen willst).” He calls this the “law of the double relation.” This is an educational concern: one must shape what one says according to the particular qualities of the person or persons one is addressing and the circumstance. One recalls a phrase of Emerson’s: “Eloquence is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak.”

At the end, he urges that it is the reader (in each case the person for or with whom the writer wishes to speak) who must come to express for himself or herself these claims; they must, that is, become part of the assessment the reader has of the world. He had insisted: “Wealth in life betrays itself in a wealth of gestures. Everything, the length and brevity of sentences, punctuation, the choice of words, pauses, the sequence of arguments – must be learned to be understood as gestures.”

What this “everything” entails is that Nietzsche crafted everything that he published with great and purposive rhetorical care and with central attention to its educational impact. If one takes this claim seriously, it means that everything in his published texts is there for an educational or therapeutic purpose, including that which appears as “excessive.”

This is a strong claim – it is a bit like saying that there is nothing in da Vinci’s La Gioconda (the “Mona Lisa”) that is not essential to that painting and that there is nothing that is not there that could have been part of that painting. It is like saying that every word in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” is exactly necessary to the poem. Or it is like Schumann’s response when asked, upon finishing a piece, as to its meaning. His response was to play it again, every note. Presumably not even Nietzsche was able to attain perfection in all of his writing, but it is significant that this is what he sought to do and this means that dismissing some aspect of his writing as “overblown rhetoric” will most likely proceed from an unrecognized prejudice.

In the Phaedrus (274e–275b), calling upon the story of the presentation of the art of writing by the god Theuth to the Egyptian king Thamus, Socrates instantiates Thamus’s distress with the written word: writing reminds but does not remember; it gives the simulacrum but not the reality of wisdom. As if responding to Plato, the reading of one commandment (the fourth) indicates that Nietzsche is pressing Lou Salomé on how to write in order that one’s writing acquire the quality of speech – with all its hesitations, gestures, embodiments, and so forth. This is the importance of rhetoric. In analyzing Nietzsche’s work, one must then proceed very carefully and slowly – one must listen to it – for writing is always a temptation to conclude. Note for instance number six above: the point about periods means that you have to have done a lot to be entitled to put an end to a thought.

As such his work is also meant to be a temptation and to be experienced as such: the rhetorical tropes are of utmost importance, of a necessity embedded in our very use of language. In the 1874 lecture course “Presentation [Darstellung] of Ancient Rhetoric,” he continues with “there is in fact no unrhetorical ‘naturalness’ of speech to which one might make appeal. . . . To sum up: tropes do not attach themselves now and then to words, but are their most particular nature.” Tropes are not a “special meaning” applying only in special cases. “In fact all that is called ordinary speech is figuration.” It is worth noting here that this does not mean that Nietzsche thought that “everything is metaphor” – which would make the idea of metaphor impossible – but that the concept of metaphor allows him to deal in a complex manner with the relation between language, mind, the natural world, and the body.

Importantly, he calls rhetoric “an essentially republican art,” because one has to be “used to bearing the strangest opinions and outlooks and even be able to feel a certain pleasure in their conflictual play (Widerspiel).” He indicates that rhetoric was the culmination of the education of the men of Antiquity: “the highest spiritual activity of a well-educated (gebildeten) political man.” This is, he says, an “odd notion for us,” and proceeds to quote Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment to the effect that “the speaker gives notice of a matter to be considered and, in order to relate to (unterhalten) his listeners, presents it as if it were a play with ideas.” Rhetoric permits thoughts to be addressed to a wide range of individuals, with different formations and understandings – it is thus educational and political.

What difference then does it make to pay attention to rhetoric? Here is an example where a translator has paid insufficient attention to a rhetorical trope (I borrow and extend this example from Babich 2006). In the Kaufmann edition of the Genealogy of Morals, one finds that all of the sections in the first essay begin with a capital letter. If, however, you go to the German edition, you will find that sections 1, 4, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, and 17 begin with a dash, in German a Gedankenstrich – a “thought-stroke.” Just to make matters more complex, Kaufmann does give the dashes at the end of several paragraphs (8 has a double dash) but does not give the two dots at the end of 6, nor the three at the end of 7, 10, 11, 12, and 16.

What to make of this? From the strictures to Lou von Salomé one can say that the dots indicate an ellipsis, the rhetorically intentional omission of something from an original thought. I am unclear why there is an ellipsis with only two dots. The dashes, however, mark an aposiopesis – the word means “becoming silent” and is a rhetorical device indicating the presence of something has not been made explicit, as in Darth Vader’s “I sense something, a presence I have not felt since—.” Here at the beginning of a section, they seem to me to indicate that what follows is addressed to a particular person and that the following text is a response to this person. (A clue comes from the fact that sections 14 and to some degree 15 are in fact explicit dialogues.)

To what it is a response is for us to determine. In section seven Nietzsche appears, and is often taken, to contrast the noble with the base. Larry Hatab, for instance, speaks of it as providing the oppositional framework between the warrior and the priestly. Brian Leiter reads it as the “marked” contrast of “the values of ‘the warrior caste’ with the ‘priestly caste.’”

Nietzsche writes in the first part of the section:

You will have already guessed how easily the priestly way of evaluating can split from the knightly-aristocratic and then continue to develop into its opposite. Such a development receives a special stimulus every time the priestly caste and the warrior caste confront each other jealously and cannot be one with the other as to the prize. The premise of the knightly-aristocratic value-judgments is a powerful physicality, a radiant [blühende: Diethe (Cambridge University Press) gives “blossoming”; Kaufmann, “flourishing”], rich, health that overflows the self [selbst überschäumende: D, “even effervescent”; K, “even overflowing”], which includes all that it needs to maintain itself, war, adventure, the hunt, the dance, combat games [Kampfspiele: D, “jousting”; K, “war games”] and above all contains in itself all that is strong, free, happy activity.

This sounds pretty much like the standard vision of Nietzsche’s master/aristocrat. Yet what about that little dash (omitted from Kaufmann, unmentioned in Hatab or Leiter)? Rhetorically the passage as addressed to someone. To whom? One answer would be to Christian anti-Semites. They might read the part of the section quoted in the passage above and respond with something like: “Yeah! That’s us knights! Jüden ‘raus!” Yet what one finds later in the section is that these Jews give rise to the Sermon on the Mount. Much of the last half of the section is in fact a paraphrase of Matthew 5.13. “We know now,” says Nietzsche – who here is the “we”? – “who became heir to this Jewish revaluation.” Those who became heir to the “Jewish revaluation” are the Christian anti-Semites who had been lapping up the first part of the section. So: apparently Christian anti-Semitism is itself consequent to the “Jewish revaluation.”

The next section (eight) begins with another dash, now presumably the voice of the author of the above paragraph responding to the readers. He writes there: “But don’t you understand that? You don’t have eyes for something which needed two millennia to achieve victory?” “Two millennia” and “you” obviously orient the designation to contemporary Christianity and Christians, thus confirming that the addressees are in fact Christian anti-Semites. One should continue through all sections asking who is talking to whom. In anticipation of and in an improvement on Sartre’s Antisemite and Jew, Nietzsche is telling us here that the distance between anti-Semites and Jews is constructed by Christian anti-Semites to serve their advantage. The passage first seduces that group and then turns back on it.

Nothing in Nietzsche (at least in what he published) can be read properly without hearing the rhetorical resonance that any section of a sentence sets up, both with the rest of the sentence and with the rest of the entry of which it is a part, and with those that are around it. (You cannot just pick passages at random as some commentators have averred.) Nietzsche’s writing thus calls up (or can call up) a critical relation between what the reader wants and what the text makes available and requires of the reader. His writing calls into question precisely the desire to assume that one’s understanding is correct. Nietzsche’s rhetoric reverses the traditional picture of the reader and the text: it is as if the text has become the analyst and the reader the analysand. We are not to interpret the text but to allow ourselves to be available to the text for nothing should stand between. (In a like manner, Tyndale and other early Protestants urged a direct [“literal”] engagement with Scripture.) In reading Nietzsche or any (philosophical?) text, one should/can come to call into question precisely what one wants to make of it – and that teaches one something about oneself. The rhetoric of the text is intended to produce a “self-critique” – an education of one own self by one’s self. This critique is what Nietzsche in his preface to Twilight calls “sounding out idols,” idols which function here as “eternal truths,” that is, as truths that claim for themselves a permanent moral standing. To “sound out an idol” means rather to produce a dissonance, the contrast between the tuning fork and the sound the idol makes when struck. An understanding of the role of his rhetoric shows why, at the end of his first book, Nietzsche says that the human being “becomes dissonance.”


  1. Babich, B. (2006). The genealogy of morals and right reading: On the Nietzschean Aphorism. In C. D. Acampora (Ed.), Nietzsche’s on the genealogy of morals (pp. 163–176). Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  2. Schlaffer, H. (2007). Das entfesselte Wort: Nietzsches Stil und seine Folgen. Munich: Hanser Verlag, esp 142ff.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Southampton (UCSD Distinguished Professor, Emeritus)SouthamptonUK

Section editors and affiliations

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