“Stare into the abyss” by Nietzsche – What does it mean?

Today, I want to talk about one of the coolest phrases in the English language.

What does “stare into the abyss” mean?

“Stare into the Abyss” is from the quote by Nietzsche: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”  It means if you contemplate evil too much, you will become evil yourself.

In this article, I want to take a look at where it comes from, whether it’s good advice, what an abyss is and where the words within are from.

By the end of this article, you’ll know about philosophy and English.

What is the origin of the phrase “stare into the abyss”?

Beyond Good and Evil

If you were to talk into any philosophy fan’s house, one book that I can guarantee you’ll see is “Beyond Good and Evil”. Written by a philosopher called “Nietzsche”.

As we’ve spoken about in a previous article, “Nietzsche” is pronounced “Nee-Cha”.

The book is filled with how Nietzsche looks at morality, society, and the nature of being.

The quote we want to look at is about how confronting evil can make you turn evil yourself. A great example of this would be the Russian Revolution.

In overthrowing the Tsar, the revolutionaries eventually formed a dictatorship, which caused untold evil throughout the world.

About Nietzsche

To understand “Nietzsche“, we should take a look at what his philosophy is all about. Unlike many other philosophers, he didn’t think that truth was something inherent in the universe, he thought truth is whatever you make it.

For Nietzsche, there is no such thing as facts, only interpretation. One person’s truth is different from another’s.

He was also critical of religion. He believed it to be a way for authorities to control the masses, which he summarised in his most famous quote “God is dead, we have killed him”.

Why you should read Nietzsche

I’m sure some of you might be thinking “Why does this matter?”.

But as with all philosophers, when you take a look into the underlying meaning of him, you can find advice to apply to your own life.

Nietzsche wanted to teach us that we can rise above our circumstances. The situations we were born into do not determine where we need to spend the rest of our lives. He wanted us to break free from “religious dogma”, and carve out our own path in life.

He put a massive emphasis on making changes to your own life.

What is an abyss?

An abyss is a canyon or large hole that seems endless. If you were to fall into one, there is little chance that you will ever get out of it. Most of the time, they are very dark and unpleasant places.

There is no light in the abyss, no life, there is nothing down there but darkness. The fear that we often associate with them is why Nietzsche decided to use them as a symbol of evil. In real life, they are not evil, just dark and very deep.

Is he right with the phrase “stare into the abyss”?

Yes

People who love Nietzsche would agree that looking into the abyss can be a bad thing. He believed that looking at evil for too long would cause you to commit evil to stop the evil.

When the communists took over from the Tsars, all they wanted was freedom from the king. However, it became clear later that by removing the Tsar’s evil, all they were doing was replacing it with another type of evil.

Often, we try to stop the bad guy, but end up becoming him ourselves.

No

On the other hand, critics of Nietzsche might argue that staring into the abyss can be necessary.

As human beings, every one of us has a dark side. We all have something inside us that has the potential to be evil. To prevent it from coming to the surface, and causing harm to others, we need to acknowledge that it exists.

There is no chance of us being able to solve problems if we can’t even admit that we have them. And those who deny that they have evil inside are likely to be the evilest of all.

Stare vs Look

It’s interesting that whoever paraphrased Nietzsche’s quote decided to use the term “stare” instead of “look”. Although the two words both relate to using your eyesight, the implications are slightly different.

A look can be anything from a quick glance to a full-on stare. To stare at someone would be to look at them for a prolonged period, giving the impression that there is a hidden intention behind it.

Usually, when we “stare” at something, we give a lot of thought into it, not just noticing it’s physical appearance.

Stare etymology

As you will probably know from some of our previous blogs, English has evolved over time, and it’s still changing today.

Our version of English is very different from how the Tudors spoke, slightly different from how the Victorians spoke. In 500 or so years, English will be unrecognisable from today.

The Old English for “Stare” was “Starian”, a word which comes from the Proto-Germanic “Staren”.

Interestingly, “Staren” comes from the Proto-Indo-European “Ster”, which means stiff. This describes our eyes when we are staring at something, they don’t move, they are fixed in place.

Look etymology

Look has a slightly different Etymology.

In Old English, “look” was “locian”. Which comes from the West-Germanic “Lokjan”. As you can see, the two words are similar, but one has a C where the other has a K, and one has an I where the other has a J.

Some scholars believe “Lokjan” comes from “Lagud”, which is Breton (an ancient language) for “eye”. Still, there is disagreement among scholars as to how true this is.

Looking at etymologies can help us understand where a word comes from and how it came to be a part of our everyday language.

Why you should learn about philosophy.

Why did I even bother writing this article?

The phrase “stare into the abyss” often gets used, on the news, and by fiction writers. When we read or hear it, understanding what it means will help us apply it to our lives.

Understanding philosophy isn’t just good for passing that exam of yours. It will help us get to grips with how the world and our mind works, enabling us to make better decisions for ourselves and help us make the world a better place.

This is particularly true about evil. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Nietzsche’s quote, we need to be able to have discussions about evil to solve it when it shows up.

Alternative quotes to “stare into the abyss”

Let’s take a look at some other quotes about evil.

“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”.

– Unknown

Whilst people rarely intend evil to happen, even people with the best intentions can cause immense damage.

“”The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

– Edmund Burke

By not standing up against evil, we are automatically enabling it.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

– William Shakespeare

The world is filled with plenty of evil, we should be worrying about making the world better, not the evil that could exist elsewhere.

Metaphorical Language

When Nietzsche spoke about “the abyss”, he wasn’t talking about a physical abyss. He was using the symbolism of an abyss to represent evil.

This is an excellent example of what is known as “metaphorical language”. This is how we can say something in a less than direct way. This sort of language is prevalent among philosophers.

Using metaphors, we can talk about very complicated subjects in ways that are easy to both remember and understand. Not to mention, they also sound incredibly cool.

Symbolism

For a long time, abysses have been used in both fiction and religion as symbols of darkness and despair. In the Bible, “the abyss” was a place of boundless space, where God’s light never touched, a place of eternal nothingness.

There have also been a few biblical scholars who claim that the abyss is a metaphor for Hell, but this is disputed among the experts.

Regardless, whenever a piece of religious text or fiction mentions an abyss, it’s certain that it does not occur during a happy scene.

Conclusion

When you stare into the abyss, you are contemplating evil. But Nietzsche would argue that you should not do that, as thinking about evil will cause it to take over you, and make you become the evil one.

Nietzsche was a philosopher who many would disagree with, but it’s essential to look into his ideas and understand his world view. Learning about philosophy, even if you disagree with it, can only even make your mind better.

Hopefully, now, you have a better idea of what Nietzsche meant when he spoke about the “abyss”, but also, I hope you have a better understanding of his overall philosophy and how you can apply that to your life.

The English language is filled with memorable quotes, some of them can help us learn about ourselves, the world we live in, and the language we speak.