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?

  • 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. – Michael Lee Dec 27 '14 at 15:04

10 Answers 10


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.

  • 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. – Michael Lee 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. – Michael Lee Dec 27 '14 at 22:40

"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.

  • 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

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."


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"


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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

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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