Eduard Zeller was born at Kleinbottwar in Württemberg, and educated at the University of Tübingen and under the influence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In 1840 he was Privatdozent of theology at Tübingen, in 1847 professor of theology at Berne, in 1849 professor of theology at Marburg, migrating soon afterwards to the faculty of philosophy as the result of disputes with the Clerical party. He became professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg in 1862, moved to Berlin in 1872, and retired around 1895. His great work is his Die Philosophie der Griechen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung (The Philosophy of Greeks in their Historical Development) (1844–52). This book he continued to amplify and improve in the light of further research; the last edition appeared in 1902. It was translated into most of the European languages and became the recognized text-book on Greek philosophy.
Zeller was also a very active author on theology, and published three volumes of philosophical essays. He was also one of the founders of the Theologische Jahrbücher, a periodical which acquired great importance as the exponent of the historical method of David Strauss and Christian Baur. Like most of his contemporaries he began with Hegelianism, but subsequently he developed a system on his own lines. He saw the necessity of going back to Kant in the sense of demanding a critical reconsideration of the epistemological problems which Kant had made but a partially successful attempt to solve.
Nonetheless his merits as an original thinker are far outshone by his splendid services to the history of philosophy. Zeller's conception of the history of Greek thought was influenced by the dialectical philosophy of Hegel. Some critics maintain that Zeller was not alive enough to the so-called intimate relation which thought holds to national life and to the idiosyncrasy of the thinker. It is held in some circles that he lays too much stress upon the "concept," and explains too much by the Hegelian antithesis of subjective and objective despite the fact that his history of Greek philosophy is a noble monument of solid learning informed with natural sagacity. He received the highest recognition, not only from philosophers and learned societies all over the world, but also from the emperor and the German people. In 1894 the Emperor Wilhelm II made him a "Wirklicher Geheimrat" with the title of "Excellenz," and his bust, with that of Helmholtz, was set up at the Brandenburg Gate near the statues erected to the Emperor and Empress Frederick.
The Philosophie der Griechen has been translated into English by S. F. Alleyne (2 vols, 1881) in sections: S. F. Alleyne, History of Greek Philosophy to the time of Socrates (1881) Volume 1 and Volume 2; O. J. Reichel, Socrates and the Socratic Schools (1868; 2nd ed. 1877); S. F. Alleyne and A. Goodwin, Plato and the Older Academy (1876); Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe and J. H. Muirhead, Aristotle and the Earlier Peripatetics (1897)Volume 1 and Volume 2; O. J. Reichel, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics (1870 and 1880); S. F. Alleyne, History of Eclecticism in Greek Philosophy (1883).
Zeller was also, in Philosophie der Griechen, one of the first to use the term "übermensch", later reified by Nietzsche, in adjectival form: "...so kann die Glückseligkeit, welche in ihr besteht, auch als eine übermenschliche, die Glückseligkeit der ethischen Tugend dagegen als das eigenthümlich menschliche Gut bezeichnet werden."
The Philosophie appeared in an abbreviated form as Grundriss der Geschichte der Griechischen Philosophie (1883; 5th ed. 1898); English transl. by Alleyne and Evelyn Abbott (1886), under the title, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy.
- Among his other works are:
- Platonische Studien (1839)
- Die Apostelgeschichte kritisch untersucht (1854; English translation J Dare, 1875-76: Volume 1 and Volume 2)
- Entwickelung des Monotheismus bei den Griechen (1862)
- Strauss und Renan (1864); (English translation 1866)
- Geschichte der christlichen Kirche (1898)
- Geschichte der deutschen Philosophie seit Leibniz (1873, ed. 1875)
- Staat und Kirche (1873)
- Strauss in seinen Leben und Schriften 1874; (English translation 1874)
- Über Bedeutung und Aufgabe der Erkenntnisstheorie (1862)
- Über teleologische und mechanische Naturerklärung (1876)
- Vorträge und Abhandlungen (1865–84)
- Religion und Philosophie bei den Römern (1866, ed. 1871)
- Philosophische Aufsätze (1887).
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.