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What do you think Nietzsche meant by "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." (Beyond Good and Evil, 146)? What kind of monster? What does it mean to look into an abyss?

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  • Rage is what fuels a monster. For example, Achilles' rage towards Agamemnon. He would have killed the latter had not Athena and Hera intervened. Staring into an abyss and seeing nothing but void (it appears black) would frighten me. I'm afraid that's the best I could do. Dec 27 '14 at 15:04
  • Discussion of the abyss quote: 'Trying to Understand Quote by Nietzsche' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/55074/…
    – CriglCragl
    May 20 at 20:00

12 Answers 12

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This is one of the aspects of Nietzsche that is easily overlooked by people who want to see him as simply nihilistic and destructive.

For Nietzsche, the construction of the self is not a religious act, an obligation, or an act of submission to nature, as variously seen by 'moralities' -- it is an art form. In The Gay Science he says something to the order of 'One must make of one's Self a work of art, carving away something here, growing something there, repurposing some mass of unavoidable ugliness elsewhere to present a more pleasant view from the distance...' (I do not have a copy here, and I cannot find it online, if someone can give me the words...)

A monster is one whose 'self' lacks 'art'.

Power may be the medium of morality, and its goal, but tasteless use of power is like tasteless use of any other medium. To see his aesthetic, you can look at his own artistic process, which he displayed over and over again by choosing mythological or poetic representations, or you can look at his critiques of other's work. Particularly, I think it is why he bothered to publish 'contra Wagner'.

He accuses Wagner's music of being an assault on the audience, brandishing its scale in a way that shocks the senses and bruises the organs, and of having too little consistency and comprehensibility -- winding an endless melody, rather than a theme.

In this context, I think the quote about monsters indicates there are aesthetic choices that we should restrain ourselves from making even though they would be effective. We should choose scale, elegance and consistency. If others' use of power lacks art, we should not simply confront them with more power, if that involves less art. We should restrain ourselves.

In particular, I think 'an abyss' is a sort of monster, the monster of complete cynicism and true nihilism -- the completely empty man that early 'beatnik' post-modernism seems to favor. There is always power to be uncovered by renunciation of boundaries, but pursuing an utter lack of restraining form leaves one 'powerfully empty', and perhaps incapable of recovering one's artistic nature.

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  • Thank you for taking the time to write such a well written account of what he meant; great Lord, I think I've turned into such a monster. Dec 27 '14 at 13:08
  • I didn't mean to be scary, just to emphasize how prescient I think the notion was. Most of us have a lot of 'abyss' in us nowadays -- we tend to 'wind an endless melody with no theme'. Relative to personal aesthetics, Wagner won, classical notions of restraint have just become less prevalent. Even though Nietzsche was pushing in this direction with great force, he knew how many people were most likely to go too far. (His analysis of Christianity basically told him social forces tend to go too far well before the problem they are overreacting to abates, and then to continue going farther.)
    – user9166
    Dec 27 '14 at 15:02
  • Nothingness and emptiness frightens me because the only knowledge I possess, that cannot be doubted, is one day I, and all others at some moment in time, shall cease to exist (i.e. die). Listen to what Hector said, "Unless it is my fate, I will not be slain, but no man (or woman), brave or cowardly, ever escapes death once he or she has been born." Death sounds like a dark place, but then we will not have a mind to experience anything. On the other hand, Epicurus noted death is meaningless to us, for while we are alive death is not. Dec 27 '14 at 22:40
  • @MichaelLee: "The wheel of Fortune turns, I go down, demeaned; another is raised up; far too high up sits the king at the summit - let him fear ruin! For under the axis, is written 'Queen Hecuba.'.." - lyrics from the poem used for Orff's Carmina Burana. Hecuba was the mother of Hector, who had 19 children, all slain, and died in the madness and ruin of grief for her lost city of Troy and her family.
    – CriglCragl
    May 20 at 21:50
  • I would argue that the abyss is not an actual "monster", but rather the unknown, which can be more terrifying than real monsters. When the abyss "looks into us", it is reflecting our own fears rather than a genuine monster, and fighting our fears can lead us into becoming actual monsters. A classic example would be the closeted homosexual person who becomes homophobic out of fear of his own internal "monster", and ends up tormenting others as a result. Jul 19 at 20:53
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"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."

If you engage in any kind of activity, you begin to embrace the viewpoints and facts related to the activity. If you keep on immersing yourself, the more all-encompassing the viewpoint becomes: "if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

I believe that for Nietzsche, facts, interpretations and activities are always tied together, which can be illustrated in terms of how people in different occupations see the world around them.

E.g. If you are a doctor, you solve health-related problems daily (activity), you observe facts which are related to health (e.g. pulse, blood pressure, breathing, general wellbeing) and often think of different things how they relate to health (interpretation). On the other hand, if one works as a manufacturer, one knows how produce certain kinds of things (activity and viewpoint). One also knows how much materials cost (fact) and how much people are willing to pay for the goods (facts). I believe this is the idea behind another famous Nietzsche quote: "There are no facts, only interpretations".


I assume that N. means by 'facts' things which confront the individual as external constraints and the individual has no power over them.

However, the facts are tied to certain kind of activities: If I drive a car, I must abide the driving regulations, the technical constraints of the car, and the financial realities of keeping the car in shape and fixing it whenever faults emerge. I can use the car as I please but I have to abide to these constraints.

On the other hand, if I sell the car and decide to go with a bike instead, the constraints/ facts of car-driving no longer apply to me. I am then bound by the constraints which control riding a bike (different kind of regulations, regions where I ride and so on). I no longer need to care about whether gas costs 1,3 euros or 2,6 euros because I am no longer engaged in car-driving. When I switch from car driving to riding a bike, the activity changes and so do the constraints.

I cannot alter the facts associated to particular activity, but I can find freedom in choosing what kind activity I engage in. The types of activities which are available for me at the moment, are determined by the society in which I have been born into. And engaging, I also gain the particular types of freedoms associated to that particular activity.

Facts always require seriousness from people and try to convince that they are eternal and never change. N. is pointing out with this example that the facts of witch hunting were tied to interpretation which was prevalent at certain time but as times have changed, people no longer dabble in witch hunts and he is claiming that this applies to all human activities.

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  • Can you unpack this a little further? Why is this a persuasive answer to the question for you? (What research could confirm it?)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Aug 23 '16 at 18:13
  • I altered the post.
    – emononen
    Aug 23 '16 at 21:36
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Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.

It doesn't sound to me like Nietzsche is saying people shouldn't fight evil. I don't know what Nietzsche's beliefs regarding justice and revenge were, but I interpret his words as a question of balance. If you're going to fight evil, be careful you don't become the very evil you're fighting.

And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

This can be interpreted in various ways.

One interpretation is that people who hate evil should remember that there's a little evil in all of us. Rather than put ourselves on a pedestal, we should carefully examine our own lives.

Another interpretation is that focusing too intently on evil can either twist one's mind or simply induce a depression so great it drags us down into the abyss. Some might simply call it "burnout."

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  • "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts." -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago
    – CriglCragl
    May 20 at 21:56
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The monster doesn't fight fair. Ethics and morals mean nothing to the monster as their action is unrestrained. In doing battle how can a person win without sinking to their level? A person fights the monster and grows weary, over time there is less and less they wont do to achieve victory. In trying to defeat the monster they have become just like it.

A person is aware of the darkness that lies in the monster, while the monster is aware of the darkness that can be nurtured within every person.

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I believe that the first part of the quote means that one should make sure it doesn't become what it fights. I immediately thought of Robespierre in the French Revolution, he was fighting the "monsters" that were the French Monarchy and traditional government. He succeeded by overthrowing the government and instilling the one he wanted but in the end he turned into the monster that he seeked to destroy. The second part is very powerful, I believe that it is less negative than the first sentence. I believe that nietzsche meant that if you try hard enough to become something eventually you will become it but only if you surround yourself with that "abyss"

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Considering both sentences of the quote I think it would mean that if in the process of bringing about change you become have become obsessed with what you are trying to change then you have already failed because you have become that what you wanted to change. Considering the second sentence apart: "And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you" and taking abyss to mean infinite emptiness then it (the abyss) reveals how empty you are, too.

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Perhaps N is cautioning against trying to change the herd or anything that is beneath you, such as one whose 'self' lacks art, as per another respondent. It's almost impossible to change the herd, and if you try, the herd will change you, and not for the better -- you will become more like it. If this is right, staring into the abyss Involves getting wrapped up with the herd, and N advises looking away, to stay above what is beneath you, to focus on your task.

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I think Nietzsche meant this as both a political and spiritual statement about fear, darkness and light.

On an individual level, when we feel pushed to fight, we have the capacity to either act from consciousness, retaining and responding through a framework of our own deep humanity and values, or allow the unconscious, what Jung calls the shadow, to go on default response in a way that can ultimately compromise that framework - we unleash our own capacity to be a monster.

Nietzsche's 'looking into the abyss' is metaphoric for falling into our own darkness, if we allow a descent into our fear, hatred or unchecked righteousness to feed the way we view and respond, we reflect that abyss, our shadow 'the monster'. It consumes us, becomes us.

Nietzsche's frequent themes eschewing religion and god, prescribed morality and dogma in favour of self realisation, agency of conscious, independent thought and personal creative capacity identify the potential of man to be led and corrupted by their fears - the shadow when personal accountability is overshadowed by a sense of judgement and righteousness.

“One must not let oneself be misled: they say 'Judge not!' but they send to Hell everything that stands in their way.”

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I think "monster" is a word that anyone can project upon. Everyone can have some form of monster that lives within their imagination whether it be fear, rage, your shadow, the unknown, gluttony, sloth, lust, greed, violence, murder, death, darkness... monster is a archetype that most cultures can relate to. There is some kind of mythical evil in every culture. So people can interpret that word in countless ways. And in the process of fighting these demons within oneself or with others, one must not lose their humanness, their soul. If one loses their way in this process, disconnects, dissociates, and becomes that which he hated or abhorred in others, will see that abyss, that darkness, that emptiness staring right back at you. You have become the monster.

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    Could you add references to texts by Nietzsche that support this interpretation?
    – user2953
    Oct 16 '16 at 12:17
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I think N was trying to say that with the right motives, it is impossible to become the monster that you are fighting, not that he is cautioning about becoming a monster. I think it is precisely that fear and uncertainty he aimed to reduce for those fighting noble causes. Analogous to 'two objects cannot occupy the same point in space', you cannot become that which you destroy out of altruism.

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Think carefully before you stare into the Unknown. That's all. It hints to the idea that the Abyss is conscious, perhaps it is GOD too and won't take wayward explorers lightly.

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Nietzsche gives an example of fighting a monster:

"But in the loneliest wilderness happeneth the second metamorphosis: here the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness.

Its last Lord it here seeketh: hostile will it be to him, and to its last God; for victory will it struggle with the great dragon.

What is the great dragon which the spirit is no longer inclined to call Lord and God? "Thou-shalt," is the great dragon called. But the spirit of the lion saith, "I will."

"Thou-shalt," lieth in its path, sparkling with gold- a scale-covered beast; and on every scale glittereth golden, "Thou shalt!"

The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaketh the mightiest of all dragons: "All the values of things- glitter on me.

All values have already been created, and all created values- do I represent. Verily, there shall be no 'I will' any more. Thus speaketh the dragon." -Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ch 10.1

There can be absolutely no doubt Nietzsche was familiar with the dragon Fafner as Wagner called it, in The Ring Cycle. Wagner was drawing on The Old Norse Eddas and The Volsunga Saga.

For a long time, these Viking and Old English texts were considered essentially, meaningless. Just made-up mythic stories about outlandish and impossible things, and no depths to explore. This was challenged in terms of critical analysis of literature by the anthology Monster Theory: Reading Culture (available free online here). From the blurb of that:

"In viewing the monstrous body as a metaphor for the cultural body, the contributors to Monster Theory consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior. Through a historical sampling of monsters, these essays argue that our fascination for the monstrous testifies to our continued desire to explore difference and prohibition."

See also Tolkien's great scholarly contribution, The Monsters And The Critics.

What has been taken as vacuous story-telling about impossible creatures, very often seems to have been about change in cultic practices; in a non-monotheist world, without a hegemonic church with an unalterable text. We can find this dynamic in Beowulf, which has been linked to the transition from pagan rites around intoxicants and human sacrifice (very like the Elusinian mysteries, one of the worlds longest practiced rites), and contention for sway over the community with the then new Christian culture. Power could not be cemented by force alone, it also crucially required, having the best story. Before written texts, that defined human history - the best story.

It has been suggested many of the cthonic deities in Ancient Hellenic culture, and the Titans more generally, represent a previous era of cult practices, overtaken by the Olympian deities but living on in literally underground practices. The Pythia at Delphi, and mythological Python, is perhaps the clearest example, as this ancient cult underwent an exceptionally long overlap with these 'new' practices, which required a reconciliation of narratives that accounted for which cult was ascendent, but also made space for a socially useful and powerful priestesshood.

Another great example is The Green Knight, which seems to represent the encounter of the Christian Arthurian knights and their ethical code of chivalry, with pagan traditions about rebirth and submission to natural cycles.

Did Nietzsche intuit this kind of 'monster theory' interpretation of old literature? I think his 'Thou Shalt' dragon with scales glittering, shows his layered understanding of monsters. A lion that becomes a dragon, would in the language of his metamorphasees create values and deny further change, deny that values can be dynamic, to suppress others. Nietzsche composed concert music, and placed art in position of highest importance in life - and he did so in terms of exploring new values, which is why the neo-Pagan thinking of Wagner had so captured him, reasserting heroic narrative against fixed metanarratives. So yes, I think he did at least to some extent understand the history of cultic change held in mythology. And, himself seeking a way to reconcile society with his recognition that "God is dead for we have killed him in our hearts", he knew that great heroic narratives were the path, the way to recast and recontextualise conflicts of values, to define a new compelling reality to invite others too. Hence, his choice of the narrative of Zarathustra, echoing biblical and Hellenic stories of prophets and philosophers, and subverting them.

I discussed the 'abyss' part already here: Trying to Understand Quote by Nietzsche

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