Opinion philosophy

“He Who Fights with Monsters” Meaning

 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

I think the reason this quote resonates with many people is that it is an archetypal truth. Like a law of nature, it describes a behavioral pattern that eternally repeats itself, which isn’t strange in itself, since Nietzsche wrote much of the “eternal return.”

But of course, it isn’t obvious why the quote is true. In this post, I’ll discuss a few plausible interpretations, and these are entirely subjective as they should be, in the spirit of Nietzsche, who believed that only subjective truth could give meaning to life, and could transcribe values to nature.

The Self

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. Historically, we are used to associating thrill with triumph, war with victory, 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. If you could not be violent, then you could not be useful to the tribe.

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.

Breaking Bad portrays this point through Walter White. The meek, harmless, high school physicist transforms into a hardened, cold blooded drug lord. We witness how an otherwise ordinary man, when given the right incentives, will gradually manifest the evil that dwells within him.

Walter White lost the struggle with the monster within. Part of growing up involves acknowledging your innate propensity for evil. As you struggle to tame and discipline yourself, you notice that the difficulty of your struggle doesn’t result from the weakness of your will, but from the strength of your shadow.

The power of the monster within you has the ability to dull your sense of direction and strength of your resolve. Walter White lost the battle with his shadow.

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 Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Jung 

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.

This confrontation is the first test of courage on the inner way, a test sufficient to frighten off most people, for the meeting with ourselves belongs to the more unpleasant things that can be avoided so long as we can project everything negative into the environment.

– The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Jung

The shadow or the repressed elements of the subconscious may represent the monster within, but there are other explanations.

The Desire for Suffering

Consider the following excerpt entitled ‘The Desire for Suffering’ by Nietzsche.

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.

– The Gay Science, Nietzsche

It is not only that we became killing machines, but we became much more sophisticated than that. Human beings invented art and technology and accomplished the inconceivable.

But what is the other side of that coin? Where is civilization heading? Is it towards a happier future, or one that is plagued with more self-doubt, anxiety and suffering?

When we struggle, and when we suffer, 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 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.

The abyss is the unknown, and 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. In trying to create order, we have given rise to new, unprecedented conditions for chaos.

Nothing  comes without a price, and the price of our advancement is the monster we have created, and continue to create every day.

In the past, mother nature was the monster, but in our fight against it, we have created a more formidable enemy: our advanced selves through our deadly technology.

The same idea can be applied to the last quote by Nietzsche. He speaks of the human propensity to look for distress, to solve problems. But this need is triggered by our own insecurity. The need to fight monsters is a pathology that people fail to recognize. Instead of contending with their distress internally and producing art that can enlighten and beautify the rest of the world, they insist on filling the world with their cries of distress. An example is virtue signaling.

They are indeed contending with inner demons or monsters but their resolution, far from making the world a better place, creates a type of monster in themselves that is incapable of self medication, that requires the distress of others to survive.

The Great Ancestral Figures

Jordan Peterson has an answer to Nietzsche, partially as a result of his debates with Sam Harris.

By staring back at the abyss, you go beyond it, you confront suffering, malevolence, and pain. As a result of your confrontation, you discover who you could become. You transcend your current state, which is encapsulated in Nietzsche’s superman. To understand his point, you must imagine Nietzsche’s quote as an imagistic representation of a mirroring taking place after the observer stares at the abyss (abyss stares back.)

The voluntary confrontation of suffering is the “stare into the abyss.” The stare back is the terrifying realizations about the world and about yourself which push you to overcome your present state.

After you stare at the abyss and the abyss stares back at you, the choice of the metaphorical union with your archetypal father (the representation of your heroic ancestor) is given to you. If you choose to incorporate this new identity, you transcend yourself, and transform into an individual that can overcome the abyss.

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