‘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’m not sure what Nietzsche meant by this quote, and while interesting to find out, is not the point of this post. I remember feeling a quiet stillness when reading it for the first time, and since then, it’s always been in the back of my mind. It’s a rare piece of language that I can read many times over, and still feel puzzled and intrigued by it.
First, let’s break it down. The quote has two parts. The first relates to fighting with monsters, while the second relates to staring into the abyss. Both the first and second contain a reflexive, mirror-like consequence. I would interpret both as basically meaning the same thing, with the second part emphasizing the first part.
What are Monsters?
I think one of the reasons I find the Nietzsche quote really interesting is because it is true on multiple levels. It is as true for the trivial as it is for the serious. We generally have the tendency to manifest into malicious creatures when presented with a certain set of circumstances. We could call our perception of the set of circumstances the “Monster”.
One set of circumstances could be work, another could be a game, a bad habit, a relationship, or social life. A set of circumstances are external realities that exist independently of us. Our perception of these external realities influences our behaviors.
As you dig deeper, you may be able to uncover the details of each circumstance. The subjective resolution of the image of the Monster varies in size depending on what particular set of circumstances most strongly attracts you. If I have a minor tendency to play a game on my phone every now and then, it’s a minor monster. My perception of this particular circumstance is not very powerful. However, If I am binge drinking all day every day, my perception of drinking is a Major Monster.
So how does the Monster come to exist? This would depend on the interplay between our subjective perception and the external reality. Here are some features of the external reality that would give rise to the Monster.
Here are some characteristics of activities that have the potential to create a Monster.
- Attractive Force: Pulls you in
- Dangerous: Potential for Future Harm.
- Ambiguous: You don’t know what the future carries.
- Hunger: Like an organism, the activity lives or dies depending on whether you feed it.
- Magnitude: How powerful the activity is. An activity that has the previous 4 features but lacks any real power to affect you can only lead to a Minor Monster.
Seeking the Thrill
Most people have at least tried to seek out thrilling, adrenaline-inducing experiences to some degree. Some have tried and burnt their fingers and never tried again, while others have jumped in head first and experienced it indefinitely, and finally, some people have tried to flirt with these monsters harmlessly at first, but ultimately lost the battle.
There are many possible interpretations for why we almost universally look for Monsters in our lives. Maybe we are evolutionarily wired to look for harmful creatures and try to destroy them. It may be that our tendency to seek out thrilling experiences is only an echo of our ancestors past that manifests in us as deep, subconscious urges.
There are other explanations of course, but the reason why I would tend to go this direction is that we certainly don’t consciously choose to chase Monsters. In other words, if one was being rational, they would never subject themselves to unnecessarily harmful activities. Some people get addicted to jumping off of airplanes or breaking high-speed records on the highway. There is no rational justification for these activities as the risk/reward ratio doesn’t make any sense.
But we tend to do them anyway, because, on a very deep level, we are likely used to associating thrill with triumph. When we successfully hunted or killed dangerous animals in the past, we achieved sustenance, security, and love and admiration from the tribe. If we perceived the act of hunting animals as the only way to survive, our perception of hunting animals developed into a Monster. We became killing machines and eventually directed out power inwards towards fellow human beings.
It might be the case that only after we encountered and slaughtered animals, and developed our fighting power and capacity for harm that we embodied our ideas of the animals we were so fearful of. These same animals killed and threatened our kin and pushed us to seek out ways to become powerful. We manufactured better tools with sharp edges that mimicked the teeth and claws of our enemies. We figured out, on some level, what the requirements for successful killing are, and we accentuated them. These requirements may have been a certain degree of aggression, sharp edges, or speed. We not only imitated animals, we created an exaggerated mirror that we could use to decimate animals, not only through physical tools but through psychological conditioning. We might have turned into an amplified, ruthless version of what threatened our survival.
Perhaps people today have a deep yearning for that feeling and when they can’t find it anywhere, they create it by giving birth to a new Monster.
To recap, life circumstances, in themselves, cannot be Monsters. They are merely life circumstances, and different observers would experience the same set of circumstances differently. The Monster itself depends on the observer or the mind. The real Monster is not just a set of circumstances, it is our perception of that set of circumstances. We perceived the tiger as an imminent threat. That perception itself led us to become more powerful, violent as a response. When we “fight with monsters”, we are only really fighting with our own perceptions of reality.
Whether it’s drinking too much, or smoking too much, or killing too much, or eating too much, or gaming too much, or spending too much time on social media, or being abusive to others, we are experiencing nothing but internal battles. We are only really fighting with ourselves, and depending on what we are fighting for and depending on who we are, we either give rise to Major Monsters or Minor Monsters.
It’s a battle because the counter position always exists. Imagine being addicted to day trading, one part of you wants to get out, while the other wants to stay in. The part of you that wants to stay in no matter what the circumstances gives rise to the Monster. The day trader used the graphs and charts as tools, gets angry and motivates himself like a warrior and perceives the stock market as a fierce tiger. To the day trader, he isn’t the Monster, he’s only trying to take down the Monster to gain the admiration of the herd.
But in reality, the Monster is in his head. A part of him feeds it, while another part destroys that perception, and depending on who wins that battle, the day trader either finds a safe exit or develops his perceptions into a Major Monsters and loses.