Jung’s Reception of Friedrich Nietzsche: A Roadmap for the Uninitiated by Dr. Ritske Rensma


Jung was fascinated by Nietzsche. From the time he first became gripped by Nietzsche’s ideas as a student in Basel to his days as a leading figure in the psychoanalytic movement, Jung read, and increasingly developed, his own thought in a dialogue with the work of Nietzsche. As the following quote from Memories, Dreams, Reflections reveals, Jung even went as far as to connect Nietzsche to what he saw as the central task underlying his life’s work:

The meaning of my existence is that life has addressed a question to me. That is a supra-personal task, which I accompany only by effort and with difficulty. Perhaps it is a question which preoccupied my ancestors, and which they could not answer? Could that be why I am so impressed by the problem on which Nietzsche foundered: the Dionysian side of life, to which the Christian seems to have lost the way? (Jung, 1965 [1961], p. 350)

Given the huge influence Nietzsche had on Jung, examining this line of influence is a project of substantial importance for the field of Jungian scholarship. It should come as no surprise, then, that a substantial amount of academic research has already been dedicated to it. While no articles have been written about the subject thus far, there are three books on the subject: Paul Bishop’s The Dionysian Self: C.G. Jung’s Reception of Friedrich Nietzsche (1995), Patricia Dixon’s Nietzsche and Jung: Sailing a Deeper Night (1999), and most recently Lucy Huskinson’s Nietzsche and Jung: the Whole Self in the Union of Opposites (2004).

Untangling the exact influence of Nietzsche on Jung, however, is a complicated business. Jung never openly addressed the exact influence Nietzsche had on his own concepts, and when he did link his own ideas to Nietzsche’s, he almost never made it clear whether the idea in question was inspired by Nietzsche or whether he merely discovered the parallel at a later stage. Add to this the large number of references to Nietzsche in Jung’s Collected Works, and it becomes clear that a researcher who wants to shed light on Jung’s reception of Nietzsche has his work cut out for him indeed. Because of this complexity of the subject, none of the books written about Jung and Nietzsche provide an accessible introduction to the topic. Only one shorter text about the topic exists — Paul Bishop’s chapter on Nietzsche and Jung in the collection of essays Jung in Contexts (1999) but even this text is highly technical in nature, and is likely to leave the uninitiated reader feeling perplexed. This article serves to correct this imbalance by offering an introductory roadmap to the subject matter that is both clear and concise.   As such, it will hopefully be the perfect point of entry into the debate for the reader with little or no previous knowledge of this important — as well as fascinating — topic.

Jung’s reception of Nietzsche: preliminary explorations

On April 18, 1895, Jung enrolled as a medical student at Basel University, the same university where Nietzsche had been made a professor 26 years before. Up until this point, Jung had not read Nietzsche, even though he had been highly interested in philosophy while in secondary school.[i] In Basel, however, Jung soon became curious about this strange figure about whom there was still much talk at the University.

As Jung himself claimed in his semi-autobiographical book Memories, Dreams, Reflections,[ii] most of the talk about Nietzsche was negative at that time, gossip almost:

Moreover, there were some persons at the university who had known Nietzsche personally and were able to retail all sorts of unflattering tidbits about him. Most of them had not read a word of Nietzsche and therefore dwelt at length on his outward foibles, for example, his putting on airs as a gentleman, his manner of playing the piano, his stylistic exaggerations. (Jung, 1965 [1961], p. 122)

As Jung related in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he postponed reading Nietzsche, because he “was held back by a secret fear that [he] might perhaps be like him” (1965 [1961], p. 102). Jung would have been well aware of the fact that Nietzsche had gone mad towards the end of his life. As Jung himself had had frequent visions and strange dreams ever since his childhood, he perhaps worried that this was proof that he himself might also go mad. Finally, however, Jung’s curiosity got the better of him, and he started to read Nietzsche vigorously. This reading project had a huge influence on the way his early thoughts took shape. This becomes particularly obvious when one analyses the Zofingia lectures (Jung, 1983 [1896-1899]), a book which contains the transcriptions of four lectures Jung gave to the Basel student-fraternity the Zofingia society, of which he was a member during his student days. In all four of the lectures Jung repeatedly referenced the work of Nietzsche. He quoted the famous line from Zarathustra “I say to you, one must yet have chaos in himself in order to give birth to a dancing star,” and he made multiple references to Untimely Meditations, which was the first book by Nietzsche which he had read. Although the Zofingia lectures, then, might lead one to think that Untimely Meditations had the most impact on him during this time, he later revealed that a different book deserved that particular honor — Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the reading of which Jung described as “a tremendous impression”:

When I read Zarathustra for the first time as a student of twenty-three, of course I did not understand it all, but I got a tremendous impression. I could not say it was this or that, though the poetical beauty of some of the chapters impressed me, but particularly the strange thought got hold of me. He helped me in many respects, as many other people have been helped by him (Jung, 1988 [1934], Vol. 1, p. 544)

When his student days were over, however, Jung gave up on his exploration of Nietzsche’s thought for a while. The complexities of life drew his attention elsewhere: he took up a position in the famous Burghölzli clinic in Zurich, and developed a collaboration and friendship with Freud. It was only when Jung had been acquainted with Freud for a number of years that he finally began to be interested in Nietzsche again. As the published letters to Freud reveal, Jung became particularly interested in Nietzsche ´s concept of the Dionysian.[iii] Take for example the following passage, from a letter to Freud dated the 31st of December 2009:

I am turning over and over in my mind the problem of antiquity. It’s a hard nut… I’d like to tell you many things about Dionysos were it not too much for a letter. Nietzsche seems to have intuited a great deal of it (The Freud-Jung letters, 1979, pp. 279-280)

Jung’s fascination with Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian, as the letters he wrote to Freud in this period reveal, suddenly arises in 1909. What then, one might ask, brought on this sudden interest in one of Nietzsche’s most famous concepts? Although we cannot be entirely sure, I consider it highly likely that this interest was sparked by Otto Gross (1877-1820), who Jung first met in May 1908.

Otto Gross — Nietzschean, physician, psychoanalyst, adulterer and notorious promoter of polygamy — was admitted to the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in May 1908. He was to be treated for his relentless addiction to cocaine and morphine, and fell under the personal supervision of Jung himself (Noll, 1994, p. 153). Gross had, when still in a better condition, been a disciple of Freud, and had been regarded by many (including Freud himself) as a man of great intelligence and promise.[iv] He endorsed a very radical philosophy of life, which perhaps can best be explained as a mixture of Nietzscheanism and psychoanalysis. According to Gross, Nietzsche provided the metaphors, Freud provided the technique (Noll, 1997, p. 78). Psychoanalysis, for him, was a tool that had the ability to enable the sort of anti-moral, Dionysian revolution he thought Nietzsche preached. In his attempt to live the lifestyle he thought Freud and Nietzsche implied, Gross — apparently a most charismatic personality — urged many to live out their instincts without shame. In Gross’s own case, these instincts led him to dabble in drugs, group-sex and polygamy (Noll, 1994, p. 153).

By the time Jung met Gross in 1908, Jung was, as we have seen above, already influenced by Nietzsche, albeit only on a philosophical level, not a practical one. He was, at that time, happily married, still tied to the Christian beliefs of his childhood, and a successful member — if not leader — of the psychoanalytic movement. He was, in other words, a far cry removed from the wild Dionysian Nietzscheanism that Gross practiced and preached, and it comes therefore as no surprise that his initial judgment of Gross’s thought was one of distaste (Noll, 1994, p. 158). However, after Jung had treated Gross for a while, the disgust gave way to admiration, as the following letter to Freud reveals:

In spite of everything he is my friend, for at bottom he is a very good and fine man with an unusual mind. . . . For in Gross I discovered many aspects of my true nature, so that he often seemed like my twin brother — except for the dementia praecox. (The Freud-Jung letters, 1979, p. 156)

Whether Jung having fallen somewhat under Gross’s spell influenced his renewed fascination with Nietzsche and the Dionysian is a question to which we will probably never have the answer. In my opinion, however, the fact that both instances coincide does make this likely to be true. Gross probably functioned as a catalyst for Jung’s heightened interest in Nietzsche and his concept of the Dionysian. The knowledge of Nietzsche’s philosophy was already there for Jung, but Gross amplified this knowledge and made Jung more sensitive to its application on a practical level. Needless to say, Jung never became such a radical as Gross was. What Gross did do, most likely, is install in Jung an even more urgent sensitivity to the problem with which Nietzsche had battled: how to deal with the Dionysian side of life.   There was one work by Nietzsche in particular which Jung turned to in this period to investigate that question, and that was the book which had tremendously impacted him as a student:   Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1914, right in the middle of the very difficult phase in his life which followed after the split with Freud (the same period during which he also wrote his famous Red book), Jung embarked on a second reading of the work, this time making lots of notes (Jung, 1988 [1934], Vol. 1, p. 259). Such was the impact that the book made on him again that in 1934, twenty years later, Jung embarked on an even more extensive reading of the book. This time, however, he chose to devote an entire seminar to it. The book that resulted from this seminar is the most elaborate source available to us for the examination of Jung’s mature thoughts on Nietzsche, and for that reason I will devote an entire section to it. It is to that section that we will now turn.

Jung’s seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra

At the time of the seminar (1934-1939), Nietzsche was increasingly being associated with National Socialism (Jung, 1997 [1934], p. xviii). This made a seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra a sensitive issue, especially for Jung himself, who had already been accused of National Socialist affinities more than once at that time.[v] Despite all of this, Jung still decided to persist in his discussion of this now controversial work. In the early sessions of the seminar, Jung clarified why he felt that Zarathustra was deserving of this attention. The collective unconscious, as Jung reminded his audience, operates by a mechanism that in Jungian language is called compensation. It will try to correct conscious attitudes that are too narrow or one-sided by offering, by means of archetypal content, a compensatory alternative. Zarathustra, according to Jung, consisted of such archetypal, compensatory content. It was therefore a book which not only said something about Nietzsche, but also about the zeitgeist of Western culture at that particular moment in history. Nietzsche, as Jung put it, “got the essence of his time” (Jung, 1988 [1934], Vol. 1, p. 69)[P1]   .

Jung labeled the process that results from the compensatory nature of the unconscious enantiodromia, a term he borrowed from Heraclites to denote a process of alternation between opposites. When the psychological system has reached a certain extreme, the unconscious will intervene by means of an archetypal compensation, thus causing the psychological system to change its course towards the opposite of that extreme. Jung not only saw this principle as underlying the psychological life of the individual, but as underlying the process of life itself:

[In] the process of life and becoming, the pairs of opposites come together . . .   the idea that next to the best is the worst. So if a bad thing gets very bad, it may transform into something good. . . . This is the natural enantiodromia. (Jung, 1997 [1934], p. 309).

Jung believed it was this process of enantiodromia that had been the driving force behind the creation of Zarathustra. According to Jung, Nietzsche’s age (and in many ways, Jung’s own age too) was an age characterized by a narrow and one-sided conscious attitude. At the end of the Christian era, life had become repressed, too overly focused on the Apollonian side of life, to put it in Nietzsche’s own terms. It was Nietzsche who, according to Jung, was among the first to recognize this fact, and who expressed that a part of human nature was not being lived (the instincts, the Dionysian side of life). Because he felt these problems of his own time so deeply, the collective unconscious presented him with a compensatory, archetypal vision, therewith starting the process of enantiodromia, of a new beginning:

Nietzsche was exceedingly sensitive to the spirit of the time; he felt very clearly that we are living now in a time when new values should be discovered . . . . Nietzsche felt that, and instantly, naturally, the whole symbolic process . . . began in himself (Jung, 1988 [1934], Vol. 1, p. 279).

Jung, then, saw Zarathustra not as a conscious, deliberate construction of Nietzsche. Rather, he saw it as the result of a sort of dream state into which Nietzsche had entered, which culminated in a work of archetypal content that stood in a compensatory relation to the age in which it had been created. Nietzsche, because he was so sensitive, was among the first to have such an experience, but it was Jung’s conviction that the very archetypal content that had captivated Nietzsche would later enthrall all of Europe.

So what archetypal, compensatory content is it that Jung claims we can find in Zarathustra? In the seminar, we find Jung claiming again and again that the essence of the book is characterized by a single archetype: the archetype of Wotan. Jung named this archetype after a Germanic God who he described in another text as “a God of storm and agitation, an unleasher of passion and lust for battle, as well as a sorcerer and master of illusion who is woven into all secrets of an occult nature (Jung, 1936). It is this archetype which, according to Jung, lies at the root of Zarathustra:

It is Wotan who gets him, the old wind God breaking forth, the god of inspiration, of madness, of intoxication and wildness, the god of the Berserkers, those wild people who run amok (Jung, 1988 [1934], Vol. 2, p. 1227).

This archetype first revealed itself in the work of Nietzsche, but had, by the time of the Seminar, already captivated almost everyone in Europe, according to Jung. He associated it with the revived interest in paganism and eroticism, but also with the disasters of war that would so strongly characterize the first half of the 20th century:

Now old Wotan is in the center of Europe, you can see all the psychological symptoms which he personifies. . . . Fascism in Italy is old Wotan again, it is all Germanic blood down there (Jung, 1997 [1934], p. 196).

Or consider this quote from Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which also sums up Jung’s thoughts on the relationship between Wotan, Nietzsche and the disasters of war quite well:

[The] Dionysian experience of Nietzsche . . . might better be ascribed to the god of ecstasy, Wotan. The hubris of the Wilhelmine era alienated Europe and paved the way for the disaster of 1914. In my youth, I was unconsciously caught up by this spirit of the age (Jung, 1965 [1961], p. 262).

Both quotes illustrate very clearly that Jung saw the archetype of Wotan as an explanatory cause for both World War I and Fascism. The second quote, however, also illustrates something that is of much more importance to our discussion here: Jung related Wotan directly to the Dionysian. Indeed, when we examine Jung’s discussion of Wotan in the seminar on Zarathustra, he makes explicit the fact that he considers the two related:

Therefore one can say he [Wotan, RR] is very similar to the Thracian Dionysos, the god of orgiastic enthusiasm(Jung, 1997 [1934], p. 196).

Now we have finally come full circle. As we have seen in the first section of this article, the work of Nietzsche that Jung was most interested in was Zarathustra, and the Nietzschean concept he found the most important was the Dionysian. Here, then, do these two strands finally come together. Zarathustra, according to Jung, was an archetypal work that stood in a compensatory relationship to the Apollonian age in which it had been created, and the archetype which characterized it most of all was the archetype of Wotan, or, in non-Germanic terms, Dionysos.[vi]

“In my youth,” Jung wrote in the passage from Memories, Dreams, Reflections quoted above, “I was unconsciously caught up by this spirit of the age” (p. 262). [P2]  We can now finally come to understand what he meant by this. According to Jung, his age was characterized by the spirit of Wotan, or, in Nietzschean terms, the spirit of Dionysos, and it was in Zarathustra that he saw this spirit announce itself, after having been neglected for such a long time during the overly Apollonian era of Christianity. Zarathustra, in other words, “was the Dionysian experience par excellence” (Jung, 1988 [1934], Vol. 1, p. 10).


We are now finally in a position to sketch a rough outline of the essence of Jung’s interpretation of Nietzsche. Nietzsche provided Jung both with the terminology (the Dionysian) and the case study (Zarathustra as an example of the Dionysian at work in the psyche) to help him put into words his thoughts about the spirit of his own age: an age confronted with an uprush of the Wotanic/Dionysian spirit in the collective unconscious.   This, in a nutshell, is how Jung came to see Nietzsche, and explains why he was so fascinated by Nietzsche as a thinker.

A topic which still remains to be discussed, however, is in which way Nietzsche, and the concept of the Dionysian in particular, influenced Jung’s own conceptual framework. This is a topic all its own, and one which I do not have enough room for here to fully do justice. It is also a topic about which the scholars who have written about Jung’s reception of Nietzsche disagree somewhat. For myself, I have come to the conclusion that the concept from Jung’s own theoretical framework which was most explicitly influenced by Nietzsche is his concept of the shadow. Jung hypothesized that all the inferior (Jung’s term) parts of ourselves which we refuse presence in our lives — our wild and untamed instincts, as well as our unethical character traits and ideas — take on a subconscious life of their own, occasionally overtaking us when we least suspect it. According to Jung, the best way to deal with this shadow side of our personality is not to deny it, but to become conscious of it and work with it. The shadow, in other words, is not to be neglected — it is to be confronted. When this task is accomplished, the shadow stops being antagonistic, and can even become a source of great strength and creativity. The shadow, in other words, must be integrated into the conscious personality:

It is a therapeutic necessity, indeed, the first requisite of any thorough psychological method, for consciousness to confront its shadow. In the end this must lead to some kind of union, even though the union consists at first in an open conflict, and often remains so for a long time. It is a struggle that cannot be abolished by rational means. When it is wilfully repressed it continues in the unconscious and merely expresses itself indirectly and all the more dangerously, so no advantage is gained (Jung, 1963, p. par. 514).

I do not mean to imply here that Jung’s concept of the shadow is the exact equivalent of Nietzsche’s notion of the Dionysian. Nietzsche used his term in a much more abstract fashion than Jung did. The shadow, after all, denotes a specific part of the human psyche, not an abstract life force like the Dionysian. Still, if we examine the characteristics of Jung’s concept of the shadow, it becomes clear that it overlaps significantly with the concept of the Dionysian. The shadow, after all:

  • Was neglected and repressed during the Christian era;
  • Operates on a primitive and emotional level;
  • Is also a source of vitality and inspiration, a “congenial asset” (Jung, 1918, par. 20) which represents “the true spirit of life” (Jung, 1965 [1961], p. 262).

All of these characteristics apply to Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian as well. Needless to say, this overlap could merely be a coincidence: it could be the case that Jung developed his concept of the shadow without any direct line of influence from Nietzsche’s ideas whatsoever. As I will argue in a forthcoming paper, however, there is clear evidence to be found in texts from the early stages of Jung’s career that Jung developed his concept of the human shadow with Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian in the back of his mind. Nietzsche, then, was of profound importance for Jung. Not only did Jung see Nietzsche’s work as essential for anyone wanting to grasp the essence of the time in which he himself lived, Nietzsche’s ideas also had a strong influence on the way his own concepts took shape. Understanding Jung’s relationship to this extraordinary German thinker is therefore of prime importance for anyone who wants to truly understand Jung himself. Although coming to a complete understanding of the exact nature of this line of influence is a complex task, the roadmap presented in this paper will hopefully have made it more manageable.


Bishop, P. (1995). The Dionysian self : C.G. Jung’s reception of Friedrich Nietzsche. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Bishop, P. (1999). C.G. Jung and Nietzsche: Dionysos and analytical psychology. In P. Bishop (Ed.), Jung in contexts : a reader. London / New York: Routledge.
Dixon, P. (1999). Nietzsche and Jung : sailing a deeper night. New York: P. Lang.
The Freud-Jung letters. (1979).   (R. F. C. Hull & R. Manheim, Trans.). London: Penguin books.
Grossman, S. (1999). C.G. Jung and National Socialism. In P. Bishop (Ed.), Jung in contexts : a reader. London / New York: Routledge.
Huskinson, L. (2004). Nietzsche and Jung : the whole self in the union of opposites. New York /
Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
Jung, C. G. (1918). The role of the unconscious. In The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 10). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1936). Wotan. In The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 10). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1963). Mysterium coniunctionis (The collected works of C.G. Jung vol. 14). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1965 [1961]). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Random House.
Jung, C. G. (1983 [1896-1899]). The Zofingia lectures. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jung, C. G. (1988 [1934]). Nietzsche’s Zarathustra : notes of the seminar given in 1934-1939. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1997 [1934]). Jung’s seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (abridged edition). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Noll, R. (1994). The Jung cult: Origins of a charismatic movement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Noll, R. (1997). The Aryan Christ : the secret life of Carl Jung. New York: Random House.

[i] Jung’s favorite philosophers up until that time had been Kant, Schopenhauer and Plato.

[ii] As is well-known, Memories, Dreams, Reflections is NOT Jung’s autobiography. Although Jung wrote sections of the book himself, most of the real legwork was done by his secretary, Aniela Jaffé, who based most of the passages she wrote on interviews she conducted with Jung in the period before his death. As Sonu Shamdasani, in C. G. Jung: A Biography in Books, has pointed out, the final version of the book was assembled after Jung’s death, and included many editorial changes made by Jaffé and the Jung family that had not been approved by Jung himself. This means that Memories, Dreams, Reflections is a controversial work, the content of which cannot be taken at face value. It should be noted, however, that the passages about Nietzsche in Memories, Dreams, Reflections are in all likelihood not passages that would have been changed after Jung’s death in accordance with the wishes of the Jung family, as they do not represent anything ‘controversial’. Moreover, it is pretty much the only source available if one wants to give a historical overview of Jung’s relationship with the works of Nietzsche, which is why I make use of it in this section.

[iii] The Dionysian was a concept which Nietzsche first used in his book The Birth of Tragedy, in which he contrasted it with the opposing concept of the Apollonian. According to Nietzsche, both of these forces are operable in human culture. The Apollonian he associated with reason, harmony and balance; the Dionysian, on the other hand, he associated with irrationality, drunkenness and madness. He also related it to intuition and to ecstatic union with the forces of nature.

[iv] Gross was up until recently somewhat of a forgotten figure; however, the recently released Hollywood film about Jung’s life, A Dangerous Method, may have changed this somewhat, as the meeting between Gross and Jung plays an important part in the story of the first half of the film.

[v] Jung’s alleged National Socialist sympathies are a topic unto themselves, and one with which I cannot deal here. For a good discussion of this topic see Grossman (1999).

[vi] Jung felt strongly that one had to stick to the traditions/myths of the culture one had been raised in. This probably explains why he preferred to refer to the Dionysian by using a more Germanic term such as Wotan (so as to better suit his own Swiss/Germanic upbringing).

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Dr. Ritske Rensma is a lecturer in the field of Religious Studies at Roosevelt Academy, an international honors college of the University of Utrecht. He is the author of the book The Innateness of Myth (London: Continuum, 2009), which analyses Jung’s influence on the American comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell.



  1. Jung wrote,that he was steeped in Kant’s philosophy,
    Nietzsche,was hardy mentioned in what I read,
    But an interesting concept,
    He did see Hitler as a symbol,
    And thought he he could revive Germany,
    After studying Jung for fifty years now
    being in my eighties,I see him quite differently.
    He is more followed for his mystic side
    By people looking for a substitute for religion
    Or even to complement it ,
    Just my view, no one else’s,it seems,
    We all have our own dreams;

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