Don’t Stare into the Abyss: The Philosophy of the Void

About twenty-five years ago my friends and I discussed one of Nietzsche’s famous aphorisms in from Beyond Good and Evil:

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.

This archaic translation of Nietzsche’s warning comes, like most of his writings, without much explanation. He places a warning sign for those who venture to the edges of philosophical thinking. Philosophy might seem an innocuous activity but being a philosopher has some pretty high occupational health and safety risks. Nietzsche philosophised himself into madness as he stared too deeply into the abyss of human thinking, although some argue it might have been a bad case of syphilis.

stare into the abyss

Don’t Stare into the Abyss!

This almost mystical utterance has kept me thinking for years. Are there philosophical boundaries beyond which one should not venture? What happens when you do stare too much into the abyss? What is at the bottom of the abyss? Nietzche’s aphorism is like God’s warning to Adam and Eve not to eat the apple, Prometheus’ theft of the fire of Mount Olympus or Morpheus’ invitation to eat the red pill. These three mythological stories all share a common thread of forbidden wisdom, or in the words of Kevin Solway, they are venom crystals.

As this aphorism appears in Nietzsche’s beyond good and evil, perhaps we should not take his warning seriously but go beyond it. Perhaps we should, just like Eve ate the apple, Prometheus stole the fire and Neo ate the red pill, ignore this warning. Maybe we should stare into the abyss and enhance our understanding of the world. The solution came to me from reading a book about the boundaries of thinking by Dutch philosopher Jan Bor, who quoted Dutch poet Lucebert who wrote:

… who falls into the abyss becomes an airman—free and floating.

Jump into the Abyss

It dawned on me that the only way to prevent the dangers of staring into the abyss is to jump into it. Staring refers to our attempts to locate firm ground down in the dark depths of the chasm.

Philosophy has sought firm ground for all of its existence. For 2500 years, philosophers have attempted to find a sound basis for knowledge. Descartes’ thought experiment in his Meditations is a perfect example of somebody jumping into the abyss, or as he put it, “into deep water”. His leap takes great philosophical courage, and Descartes tries hard to: “either to plant [his] feet firmly on the bottom or sustain [himself] by swimming on the surface”. However, Descartes did not succeed in planting his feet firmly on the bottom and should be content with simply floating in the water.

The solution to Nietzsche’s aphorism is to take a leap of faith, just like Descartes. Not to find firm ground, but to make the void your home, or in the words of Lucebert, become free and floating. Don’t stare into the abyss but jump into it.

Jumping into the abyss and accepting there will be no firm ground removes the fear of falling to your death. The eternal free fall, a state of blissful weightlessness, will be the result of taking this leap into the abyss. The warning signs should be removed—be brave and practice some philosophical base-jumping!

Peter Prevos

Social scientist and engineer who dabbles in magic tricks.

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