"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." - Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886), Chapter IV. Apophthegms and Interludes, §146).

I've been reading a little Nietzsche and I find his philosophy fascinating so far, but I'm having trouble understanding this quote. My own take is that, evil can corrupt you if you are in an environment amongst it, and aren't careful and vigilant against its tempting nature? Can someone enlighten me on what Nietsche really means by this quote?

  • This is about moral relativism. You can be a monster (bad) for those who are monsters (bad) for you. – rus9384 Aug 30 '18 at 19:59
  • Adding a citation would give the quote a context and assist other readers. – Mark Andrews Aug 31 '18 at 3:47
  • Too brief ans scarcely commented... I think that we have to read it metaphorically: monsters can be philosophical errors, metaphysical notions, false beliefs, ideologies (religions). – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Aug 31 '18 at 6:50

The key word in the first sentence is "fights." When one fight, one often justifies one's actions by what it does to one's opponents. People who consider killing to be wrong are often willing to take a life in self defense.

In practice, it is often very hard to stop undertaking these actions when the monster is gone. Consider the case of the warrior who has to come back to live in a society where the instincts that kept him alive for years now have disastrously unacceptable outcomes.

There is also the concern of the monster's perspective. Often the mere fact that you are fighting against them can make you a monster in their eyes. Then you have to consider all of these issues from their perspective. Suddenly they may be willing to kill in self defense when they otherwise thought killing was wrong.

The abyss is a more difficult one to capture in words. If given a choice, I prefer to simply stare at the phrasing you already have: "If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." At the very least, there is certainly a reflexive property to this action. You are staring at the abyss, presumably with the intent to understand it. This means you must be forming an image of the abyss in your mind. When it comes to concepts of emptyness, the image of emptiness is often indistinguishable from the emptyness itself. As a boring mathematical example, it is stated that "there is only one empty set." So if you try to observe an empty set, and form an image of it in your mind, that image must, itself, be the empty set. Contrast that with trying to observe a person. In that case, the image of a person is not the same thing as the person itself.


"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster"

Think of Quint in Jaws. His experience on the USS Indianapolis so affected him that the rest of his life became a quest to kill sharks. He became the monster he was seeking. He was obsessed like Captain Ahab. There is also a good scene in "Manhunter" where Will Graham vists Hannibal Lecktor in prison to "get the scent back" but as a scared Graham runs from the jail the last thing Lecktor says to him is "smell yourself". Quint and Ahab both died as "monsters" at the hands of what they sought to dominate. Think Frankenstein.

"if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you" Basically when man, in all his Manifest Destiny, looks out at the wilderness with the feeling that he must conquer it he should also realize that every bear and mountain lion is looking back at him as their next meal

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