‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee” – Nietzsche
An archetypal truth is like a law of nature in that it describes a pattern that eternally repeats. It is hardly wise to classify a Nietzschean aphorism as an eternal truth. But it is beyond question, that its ability to perplex, confuse, and drive the human mind into deep thought, is timeless.
Like most of the Nietzsche’s work, you can interpret the meaning of his words in a number of ways. Such ambiguity can be off-putting for most. But this is not unintentional. Nietzsche understood something profound about the human mind, we are more enthralled by what is obscure than what is plain. It is not out of an admiration for vagueness in itself, but rather, obscure language, when masterfully constructed, serves as a conduit for the man who wishes to transcend his metaphysical limitations. To be free from a limited perspective of the world, you must choose to be perplexed.
whoever believed he had understood something of me had dressed something out of me after his own image’
Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, ‘Why I write such excellent books’
The Camel, The Lion, And The Child
Nietzsche thought of the Self as man’s productive core, and something like the freedom of the abyss of the soul. To understand this, it is useful to review what was written in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche describes the metamorphoses that take place before becoming the superman. The first is the camel; this is when man lives according to “thou shalt” and where obedience is the highest value.
The second is the lion; this is when man destroys the past, and tradition. This is marked by nihilism or the last man.
The third stage is the child, and this is when man invents their new values, and becomes the superman.
In order to do so, man must connect with the self – the elusive part within them, which allows for infinite possibility. Thus, when you “fight with monsters” – these could be the contradictory parts within yourself, the sub-personalities that are in conflict with each other, the old ideas that you have destroyed (as marked by the lion).
“Becoming a monster” is the implicit risk of superimposing your new values on yourself, which, given they are not provided to you by God or scripture, will determine your destiny, and can either be glorious or deadly. But you are responsible, you are the “monster” now.
And the “abyss” that stares back, is the abyss of possibility. It is the complete freedom to choose, and while we may at first be tempted by this freedom, and even yearn for it, it is also true that this freedom can be overwhelming, even terrifying.
We Become What We Fight
Another way to see it is: we become what we fight. We have historically associated thrill with triumph, war with exaltation, struggle with salvation. When our ancestors successfully hunted and killed dangerous animals in the past, they achieved sustenance and security. They earned respect, love and admiration from the rest of the tribe. But then hunting became a way of life. Violence became incorporated into primitive man’s social identity, it defined his self-worth. Even more, it defined the extent to which he could survive, and protect his kin.
At first, we perceived the act of hunting animals as the only way to survive, we saw animals as monsters we had to kill – to protect and feed ourselves. But through hunting, we learned how to become ruthless killing machines, and eventually directed these powers towards other human beings – who proved to be more dangerous than the beasts we had slain. The mimetic mechanism behind the motivation towards violence was not out of a need to survive, but out of a need for retribution, and a need for reciprocal glory. “He has a hut? I must have a hut. She has jewelry? I must have jewelry.” The competition for scarce resources could not but have resulted in conflict. But as Girard points out, it was not the desire for the object, but the desire for the desire itself that led to conflict. So, in more precise terms, “He has a hut, because he wants prestige. I must have prestige, thus I must desire a hut. She has jewelry, because she wants to be envied. Thus, I must make others envy me – I will buy jewelry.”
Mimesis is at work all around us. Especially in the arts (novels, movies, etc…)
The show Breaking Bad portrays mimesis through the life of Walter White. The meek, harmless, high school chemistry teacher (Walter White) transforms into a murderous, cold blooded drug lord (Heisenberg). We witness how an otherwise ordinary man, when given the right incentives, will gradually manifest the evil that dwells within him. It is only until the end of the show that we discover his true motivations. It was not to provide security for his family, but was an ego trip – an attempt to satisfy his vanity.
Many years before (in the 1980’s), White cofounded a multi-billion dollar company called Gray Matter Technologies with Elliott Schwartz – they were best friends. The company had a slow start, and at the same time, White dated his lab assistant, Gretchen. The two were in love for a while, but then White began to feel inferior to Gretchen because of her family wealth. He finally broke up with her during a vacation with her family. (“Peekaboo“)
Walter sold his share of the company for 5,000 dollars, which was a lot of money to him at the time. Gretchen ended up marrying Elliot and Grey Matter would become a highly successful company, worth around 2 billion dollars. White’s share would have been around 700 million dollars.
The show catalogues Walter White’s gradual mental breakdown as he tries to get retribution for what had happened, out of envy. Sounds familiar.
The unconscious is commonly regarded as a sort of encapsulated fragment of our most personal and intimate life—something like what the Bible calls the “heart” and considers the source of all evil thoughts. In the chambers of the heart dwell the wicked blood-spirits, swift anger and sensual weakness. This is how the unconscious looks when seen from the conscious side.
The difficulty with confronting your shadow, according to Jung, is that when you delve into the unconscious, you will not be flattered by what you see, especially when you have to contend with new information that is contrary to your comfortable world view – namely, that the evil that you project onto others is an extricable part of you. The typical example is the conservative or liberal who sees the “other” as responsible for all of society’s problems. The relevant example here is Walter White’s decision to lay the blame on Gretchen and Elliot rather than on himself (despite being at fault).
When I think of the desire to do something, how it continually tickles and stimulates millions of young Europeans, who cannot endure themselves and all their ennui,- I conceive that there must be a desire in them to suffer something, in order to derive from their suffering a worthy motive for acting, for doing something. Distress is necessary! Hence the cry of the politicians, hence the many false, trumped-up, exaggerated ” states of distress ” of all possible kinds, and the blind readiness to believe in them. This young world desires that there should arrive or appear from the outside-not happiness-but misfortune; and the imagination is already busy beforehand to form a monster out of it, so that they may afterwards be able to fight with a monster.
When we struggle, we become more than we are, we transcend ourselves. We transform into something new. And this new form is not only more inventive and productive than the old form, it is more dangerous and pathological.
Think about the development of nuclear weapons or the potential dangers of AI. Because human beings suffered from the harsh conditions of nature, we were determined to overcome its cruelty by our wit and imagination. But in the process of overcoming nature, and sacrificing our own happiness for more security, we became too advanced.
Technology is ethically neutral but human nature is not.
The abyss is the unknown. Hidden scientific knowledge is a part of the unknown. We have systematically made known the things our ancestors could not understand, but the trade-off is a potentially fatal world. Before the year 2000, there were countless prophecies about the end times. Many books on surviving the apocalypse were sold. The same myth was propagated in 2012. The sense of impending doom never leaves the collective consciousness, even if the world is objectively better than it once was. It may not be because people are not paying attention to the boons of technology (as some writers such as Pinker would argue), but because looming underneath the veneer of stability is boiling rage and an unprecedented capacity for destruction.
In trying to create irreversible order, we have given rise to new, unprecedented conditions for chaos.
The compulsion to solve problems, out of insecurity, has created the powerful monster, and the underlying and hidden forces behind human motivation – out of envy – ensure that the monster is indestructible.
If you’re interested in exploring the darker parts of human psychology that most people ignore, consider reading this short book The Dichotomy of the Self.
And if you enjoy great quotes, check out this book, The Greatest Words They Ever Said, which has recently been released. It is a collection of quotes that span 14 topics from the best authors who have ever lived.