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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?

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  • This is about moral relativism. You can be a monster (bad) for those who are monsters (bad) for you.
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 19:59
  • Adding a citation would give the quote a context and assist other readers. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 3:47
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    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). Commented Aug 31, 2018 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
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 13:02
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    Perhaps you've also considered Carl Jung (shadow)? Interesting perspective on human nature, and J.Peterson lectured on the subject. In ancient Greece, the concept of monsters were used to explain the forces of nature, which needed to be placated with sacrifices and offerings to ensure order over chaos in nature, for example.
    – user48972
    Commented May 22, 2021 at 15:52

16 Answers 16

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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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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.

What Nietzsche meant by monsters, discussed here: What did Nietzsche mean by monsters and the abyss?

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    "the single best known phrase from Nietzsche's work". Ahem. I'd bet that is "God is dead." Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 19:23
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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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Think about your own demons and enemies. You do your best to push them to the side. But how far will you go? How long do you ponder a darker solution? Where is the line you will go to?

The more monsters you face the further you are willing to push that line...the further you will walk away from who you are.

I describe it slightly differently: we are all gray. Every choice we make adds to who we are. Some choices are white; some choices are black. Every time you make a white choice you adds more white to your gray. And closer to white you become. Every black choice you make adds more black to your gray. Make enough black choices and you are no longer gray; you are just black. And the same for white choices.

And the white choices are easier to see the lighter your gray is. The black choices seem easier the more black choices you make.

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This is an interesting question and, personally, I have also pondered on what Nietzche meant by this quote. This is my interpretation:

The more one allows oneself to dwell on depression and whatever forms of negativity, the likelier the person would be engulfed by these 'demonic' forces. Nietzsche, though an atheist, looks at almost all problemes from a highly ethical view that one can even claim as religious. Therefore, it may be quite clear that Nietzsche's quote here was meant as a form of prescription for people mired in moral nihilism, which happened when God died. To battle nihilism with nihilism is simply futile because one cannot escape from the condition one wants to get out of. This ends up as the monster that the person eventually takes on.

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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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Maybe it's a retake on the biblical saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As for the abyss gazing back. I guess if the abyss is empty by definition it would take on your reflection if it were to gaze back at you.

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I've been reading a little Nietzsche and I find his philosophy fascinating so far, but I'm having trouble understanding this quote.

Better get used to it with his works. Even the parts you think to understand now go back in a year with greater wisdom than you currently contain and see how much context you missed, its unnerving how deep his thoughts could go.

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?

This is a great starting point, and wisdom is there also, but what if the abyss you are staring into is your own self? The first journey should always be into the self, your own subconscious being brought to the conscious side. One must reconcile the shadow self and in so doing one encounters darkness, monsters, and evil all throughout. So if staring into the abyss is indeed the depths of ourselves, and the monsters we fight are indeed apart of us, how simple a thing it could be to become convinced of the fact We are ourselves the monsters.

My opinion is while they are apart of us they are not us, no more than my arm is who I am simply because one part of me is an arm. I am darkness as part of me as well, demons, vices, monsters, but also virtues, and other qualities, tendencies that could be considered light. I intend not to lose sight of the monsters within my abyss by keeping an eye on them, but never two eyes on them lest by giving them full focus they become dominant. Hopefully that makes some sense, this is merely my take on the quote from my own experiences.

Can someone enlighten me on what Nietsche really means by this quote?

No! Noone can give understanding on this nor hardly any subject. Understanding comes from experience and reflection upon the same. If you truly seek to know, experience it for yourself and you will see exactly what is meant.

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In my opinion it has to do with becoming what you fight against, it is in a way unavoidable not to become a monster if you fight a monster. Staring into the abyss is the same thing, you get to this dark place and that dark place becomes what you are. The movie "Death Sentence" with Kevin Bacon translates this quote from Nietzche the best, in the end he becomes what he fought against in a way a Monster...

Sorry Im posting as a guest

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"When you gaze long into the abyss ... " the abyss being the void, the utter arbitrariness and meaninglessness of the universe ... "the abyss gazes also into you." ... you begin to lose your sense of detachment, the comfort of thinking of yourself as an observer separate from that which you observe. The meaninglessness penetrates you, and you begin to realize that you are not a detached observer, but that the void is in you, and you are also part of it. You are shocked into seeing that when you gaze into the emptiness, you are gazing into yourself.

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    Quotes and references that show familiarity with Nietzsche & his work would improve this answer
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 23:06
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I am a civil servant in the UK. I look at this quote from a 'systems science' perspective. I spend my career trying to reform the way government works. It is incredibly difficult. When you are part of an organisation (or society), you can change the organisation, but more than likely the organisation changes you. And that is what I take from Nietzsche's quote. We should strive to live by our own set of values, not by the values of an organisation/system we are part of.

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Nietzsche was a scholar of ancient Greek thought. And perhaps he was thinking of Oedipus who thought he was fighting "monsters" but found he was a monster himself. He was repeatedly warned by the seer, Tiresias, to abandon his search for truth but being the character he was, he did not.

Personally I wonder whether Nietsche was talking from personal experience. After all, he was engaged in a giant battle of truth against the "monster" of Christianity. Few philosophers concern themselves with his later descent into madness and even fewer connect this to his philosophy. Yet the ancient Greeks, who he admired so much, perhaps too much, would have connected this. They would have wondered at what furies circled his mind, and at what unknown, divine limits he had trangressed ...

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Fighting with monsters, maybe this represents the difficulties of the battles of reality and maybe the abyss represents the mind.

If so, the quote would be about thought and its necessity, to look into the darkness of your own mind to figure out the problems from within, so you would not become a monster yourself.

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I love this quote, very intriguing. The first sentence and the second somehow have a different vibe, and feed into each other misteriously. I read it in this way:

In the process of becoming true humans, in tune with our true nature, we have to face many monsters, which are our sovrastructures, preconceptions, shame, pain... FEARS. In this process we have to look at our depths, it's a journey towards our shadow zones.. we have to stare into the abyss.

But then the abyss (our fears, our dark side) will become so present, so vivid and real, it can suck us in, as it will start to appear so powerful compared to our strenghs, to the point it will look like having its own agency.

Hereby - I can infer from this quote - it will be better not to try to 'fight' these monsters. Better sit quietly with them, sit with our pain and fears in the shadow, stare at the abyss, immerse a tip toe in it, then - when ready - plunge and dive deep into it.

But don't try to fight the monsters in an open battle, it won't serve any use repressing them, being angry at them for existing, forcing them deeper down into your subconscious. This will only make a 'monster' of you too (as you will never accept and love yourself for who you are and - as a reflection - you will do the same to people around you).

Look at your monsters instead, and tame them. In time, little by little.

Then the abyss will still be there, the monsters that live in it will still be there, but you will know them, and they won't have power over you anymore.

I'm aware this interpretation is very much based on my own life experience and modern psycotherapy... And I guess there are so many other interpretations for this quote... I was also thinking in particular to how attractive the abyss can be, how much someone could be tempted to dive into it and become subdue and addicted to its naughty perfume.... Baudelaire knew it well.

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Who he is speaking to?

  1. heed your difference lest you consummate your nihilism;
  2. beware their difference from you: you don't need morality.
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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."

Greater common good is the simplest way anyone can become a monster. Who decides the good and where do you draw a line between good and evil - you need to tread a fine line to just distinguish between. Similar to what Isaac Asimov's Zeroth law of robotics, or Thanos in Marvel comics trying to do whats good for humanity. The intention can be good, but you don't even know if it's good or evil.

You gaze into an abyss part - abyss swallows you when you stare - literally and figuratively. Can we stare down from the top of a skyscraper forever and stay sane? or into an abyss? maybe for a few minutes or hours if you are strong enough - but i'd say one will get swallowed drowned - if one tries to stare forever.

Similar to the what the fighting with monsters will do to us - you will never realize when the monsters are dead and when you start killing the humans. You should have stopped staring or have dropped your weapon - but you won't realize till its too late, or you will never do because you will never know when you crossed the line - someone else has to and you might kill that someone too, or there might not be anyone to stop you by that time.

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