Few philosophers are as widely quoted and as widely misunderstood as Friedrich Nietzsche.
Although he’s often assumed to be anti-Semitic because of the obsession with his idea of the “übermensch” (superior man), he was actually a vocal critic of anti-Semitism.
Additionally, his nihilistic philosophies, which argue that the world has no underlying truth, make him difficult to understand.
All the same, because he had to write in short bursts due to migraines and other illnesses, many of Nietzsche’s sayings are easily quotable.
In this post, we’ll look at the real meaning of one of Nietzsche’s most famous aphorisms: “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back.”
What does the phrase “stare into the abyss” mean?
The word “abyss” means a deep, almost endless cavern or hole. The literal meaning of this phrase, then, is to stare into endless darkness.
To understand the actual meaning of the phrase, it helps to know the full sentence: “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back.”
In plain English, you might rephrase this as “When you confront evil, make sure it doesn’t influence you.”
For example, if a politician is investigating corruption, they may begin to see it everywhere and may themselves become corrupt as a result.
In a more extended use, the phrase can be used to mean the effect that study of anything at all can have on your mind.
Endlessly seeking out the truth in an “abyss” can lead you to unpleasant truths, after all.
In short, then, “staring into the abyss” means to deeply contemplate something foreign to yourself, and which may have consequences on your concept of your own self.
What do the words in this phrase mean?
An abyss is a canyon or other large hole so deep that it seems to be endless.
Staring is the act of looking for a long time. It could also imply a very severe kind of focus, rather than a casual glance.
Taken literally, then, this phrase is saying that someone is looking very hard into a nearly bottomless canyon.
If you see this phrase, though, it’s unlikely to be literal.
To figure out its more likely meaning, we will need to take a detour through 1800s German philosophy and the work of Friedrich Nietzsche
A very brief introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher active in the late 1800s.
To gain a real understanding of Nietzsche’s thought, you would probably need to take several university-level courses into modern philosophy.
This article isn’t going to manage that, so we’ll make do with a very basic explanation of the core of his philosophical ideas.
Some core ideas of Nietzsche’s philosophy
Probably the single most important idea in Nietzschean philosophy is that truth is what you make of it, and that interpretation is essential to getting to the bottom of reality.
As Nietzsche himself put it, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”
Another core idea is a criticism of traditional religion and traditional moral values. Additionally, he was strongly opposed to nationalism and centralized forms of government.
These ideas led to such cheerful phrases in Nietzsche’s writings as “God is dead” and “Everything the State says is a lie, and everything it has it has stolen.”
Although Nietzsche’s philosophy seems pretty depressing, he comes through these dark places to end with the idea of an “affirmation of life,” where for a human being to affirm or hold up themselves carries more meaning precisely because of the general lack of meaning the universe has by default.
In short, you can think of Nietzsche as saying: “So what if the universe is meaningless? That just means we can give it our own meaning.”
Beyond Good and Evil and staring into an abyss
Digressions aside, to really tease out Nietzsche’s meaning of “stare into the abyss” we need to look at the original use of the phrase.
That original use took place in Beyond Good and Evil, a book of philosophical aphorisms or short sayings:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
The first part of this aphorism immediately makes the meaning of the second part clearer.
The saying as a whole is essentially a warning: If you’re going to confront evil, make sure you don’t adopt evil methods yourself.
A great example is Russia’s communist revolution of the early 1900s. What began as a fight against the violent Tsarist government quickly led to the fighters themselves becoming violent fascists.
With this in mind, we can interpret “stare into the abyss” as meaning something like “confront evil” or at least “contemplate evil.
After staring into the abyss of a police corruption case, the officer decided the best way to find the worst offenders was to offer the others a bribe.
In this example, a police officer confronts the evil of corruption before adopting its own methods.
Other interpretations of the abyss
Nietzsche being Nietzsche, it seems appropriate that we consider other possible meanings of the phrase “stare into the abyss.”
Beyond the likely intended meaning, this phrase has also taken on an implication of considering something that’s likely to change your mindset.
Some of this meaning is also in line with Nietzsche’s thought. For example, he was a dedicated seeker of truth but believed that his truths were “bloody.”
What this means is that learning the truth about something is not always entirely positive. Even if it is, it can have a profound impact on the person who was looking for the truth.
For instance, you might hear someone say “don’t stare too long into that abyss.” This person likely means, “don’t think about that too long or you might regret it.”
“I stared into the abyss for a while, full of melancholy. If even Lottie was cheating on me, was any kind of love true?”
Here, staring into the abyss does not necessarily cause a turn to evil. Rather, it reveals what might be an uncomfortable and somewhat depressing idea.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.