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"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
  • It is a common observation that we become like those we fight against, since we have to do so in order to conduct the fight. And if you try it, you'll find that staring into the Abyss creates a reflection that stares back. The latter is a subtle idea but verifiable. – user20253 Apr 21 at 13:02
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It's also important to remember that Nietzche's father was an ultra religious Christian and he would have no doubt been well familiar with Jesus' words from https://biblehub.com/matthew/26-52.htm "Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword."

Or simply, "You are what you eat" in the more modern phrasing.

And thus, the abyss, the nothingness is analogous. When one looks long into nothingness, one becomes nothing, empty. And the monsters here are (from his work Beyond Good and Evil) the result of a false morality. Nietzche would have pointed out modern priests and pastors of which there are so many examples that "fell from grace" in their fighting of monsters (e.g. the pastor who preaches against homosexuality only to find that he's been paying for male prostitutes for years).

It's poetic if anything so not reducible like previous modern philosophers, but when viewed as the precursor to existentialism, that existence preceeds essence, it's the core of the uber-mensche philosophy.

That is, to form your own essence and meaning, you must first empty yourself of the idea that you were born with an essence, meaning or purpose given to you from elsewhere. When emptied you are free to create your own meaning and purpose.

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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.

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"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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It has to be read as poetic language. It's evocative, unsettling, and striking, rather than explicit.

Fighting monsters making a hero monstrous is not an uncommon trope, for instance it can be found in Beowulf where the hero progressively takes more of the characteristics and language previously reserved for monsters - with allegorical insights stored eg against hording treasure (& power).

The twist of the abyss gazing back into us is uniquely Nietzschean. I think purposefully not definite in meaning, and that in major part is why it is the single best known phrase from Nietzsche's work, and has totally entered the language as a stock-phrase.

In 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' published in parts between 3 & 5 years earlier, he had said:

"Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman--a rope over an abyss.

A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting.

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an OVER-GOING and a DOWN-GOING.

I love those that know not how to live except as down-goers, for they are the over-goers.

You could draw from this ideas like crossing a tightrope it is not helpful to look down. Or dwelling to deeply on what seems uncrossable, makes it more of an obstacle. But Nietzsche is also clearly exhilarated by the danger, the great challenge is necessary for the new more 'angelic' being. The depth of the abyss, the size of the challenge, defines the scope for greatness, which Nietzsche values above all else. A thirst for danger, towards down-going, is necessary for over-going, to prefer death in the attempt than never to try.

But I would point to poetry to how widely used phrases or metaphors lose power. Nietzsche frequently risked that, like in Zarathustra where the constant level of epic drama is not easily kept. In poetry the 'blazon' form, compares a usually unattainable courtly love's body parts to a series of rapturous objects. It led to the 'contreblazon', like one of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'. The twist on form, makes some of those better remembered than the whole genre of blazons.

The abyss also gazes back twists the previous metaphor, it is not just seeing emptiness and becoming more empty, it also personifies the emptiness. I would identify that with what Nietzsche saw as being all of our greatest opponent, nihilism (which Nietzsche consistently sought to oppose, and is a philosopher of nihilism, never one advocating it), manifested in 'L'Appel du Vide', the 'call of the void', the irrational urge to do dangerous things like jump off high places even though otherwise happy. Without values we risk losing our grip on meaning, on social cohesion. But, by truly acknowledging this great enemy, and it's power, by refusing to believe tinkering with the old system will work, only then is real transcendence possible, creating new systems of values, ascending the tightrope - fighting monsters without become monsters, or nihilistic, but instead, angels, creating new values.

He transcends his own earlier metaphor.

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