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

Almost a quarter of a century ago, on a long night filled with philosophy, Belgian beer and the music of Dead Can Dance, 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.

Like most of Nietzsche’s writing, this aphorism is not explained and it is up to the reader to interpret its meaning. I cannot remember what our conclusion was on that night, but the aphorism has haunted me since. It has taken me until recently to understand what Nietzsche could have meant with this almost mystical statement.

stare into the abyss

Don’t Stare into the Abyss!

Nietzsche places a warning sign for those who venture to the edges of philosophical reasoning. 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 the human condition, although some argue it might have been a bad case of syphilis.

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 ancient and contemporary mythologies 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 ignore this warning and, just like Eve eat the apple, just like Prometheus steal the fire and just like Neo eat the red pill. 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 falls into the abyss becomes an aviator—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 feeble attempts to locate firm ground down in the dark depths of the chasm. Only by jumping into the abyss can we explore the depths of philosophy.

Philosophers have sought firm ground for over 2500 years. They have attempted to find a sound basis for our knowledge of the world. Socrates drove his fellow Athenians crazy with his ongoing questioning about the reasons behind their actions, which eventually cost him his life. Most philosophers are like a toddler that just keeps on asking “why?” every time you think you have an answer. Managers are contempt with asking why up to five times, but philosophy seems to consists of an infinite array of finding the truth behind reality.

Some philosophers have ventured into the abyss in their attempt to find firm ground. Descartes’ thought experiment in his Meditations on First Philosophy is a perfect example of somebody jumping into the abyss to find firm ground (the first philosophy). His leap takes great philosophical courage as it requires him to doubt everything he thinks he knows. 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. His philosophical project failed because he did not find a foundation for all human knowledge as he needed to resort to metaphysical assistance to make his philosophy work.

Become a Philosophical Aviator

The solution to Nietzsche’s aphorism is to take a leap of faith and, just like Descartes, jump into the abyss. 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. After 2500 years of written philosophy nobody has been able to find a firm foundation for philosophy. Becoming free from any foundation for thinking is not a postmodern excuse to say that anything is true.Detachment from the straightjacket of first philosophy does not mean you don’t give a fuck about anything. Becoming an airman means that you create your own philosophy, floating over the landscape of existence in a metaphysical hot air balloon.

So finally, after 25 years of Nietzsche’s aphorism lurking in the crevasses of my brain, I have found a solution. Remove the warning signs and practice some philosophical base-jumping!

Leave a Reply

  1. Interesting take I see you’ve inferred from your findings. To me, the abyss represents a monstrous mount of negativity. To not stare too long at it means to not dabble in such abominable acts too long that you become a portal to that mount of negativity, allowing it to spread beyond its realm.
    Your inference proposes that we should do exactly that…free and floating is not really the way life rolls. To me, the absence of firm footing invites chaos into our lives. In that bit about Descartes, I think his failure to find firm footing or to stay perfectly afloat is exactly what he says it is to be – a failure. I think on firm foundations only can you build a long lasting establishment. that or our definitions of the abyss must be entirely different.

    • Thanks for your comment. Nietzsche’s philosophy has many perspectives and your view is interesting and has inspired me to improve this article.

      To say floating free is “not really the way life rolls” implies that you interpret this aphorism in a practical way. My interpretation is philosophical. Free and floating describes a metaphysical foundation, not how you practically organise your life. Free and floating relates to popular books about “not giving a fuck. The key to understanding this is to find out what is worth giving a fuck about, instead of standing at the edge of the abyss and worry about falling in.

      Jumping into the abyss is as much a philosophical statement about metaphysics as it is a call to dare to live your life and be prepared to take risks.