“Be careful, for when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”
Friedrich Nietzsche was such a creeper…but it’s true.
The work of a scholar or an artist, or really just about anyone, is often very lonely. I can only tell you this from the perspective of artistry because that has been my only experience, but I imagine that it applies, in varying degrees, across all of the fields. The point of art is to try to share the deepest parts of the soul with all of humanity, but as soon as one makes that his mission, he begins to realize how incomplete that task really is. The artist is aware, on a profound level, of just how alone we all are. He realizes that humanity is isolated from itself and the souls of men are clad in an inescapable barrier, and this knowledge causes him great pain. As King Solomon writes, “in much wisdom there is much sorrow,” and this is certainly the case here.
In the context of Nietsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, the abyss is an abyss of the inner self; it is the struggle of the different drives of the self, a struggle that only the strongest can endure. I do not wish to promote Nietsche’s philosophy–obviously–but I think he was on to something rather important in this particular epigram. If you are not familiar with it, in full it reads, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. / And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” (The “be careful” is often added to the second part of it when quoted alone to signify the cautionary quality of the warning which is established in the first part.)
So the abyss for our purposes, while it could still be looked at as an inner struggle if you like, is the loneliness of the soul. Many are not aware of it, but all are subject to it. It is, of course, much easier to go through life in blissful ignorance to the abyss, for its pain cannot reach you, or at least it doesn’t seem to reach you, when you are in such a state. And so many do, go through life, only engaging in the surface of friendship, for to strive for something deeper is to acknowledge that there exists something deeper and that such depth is not yet achieved. But we are called to walk away from this comfort–into the abyss. To die to the world, and to what we formerly called ourselves, so that we may venture into real life for the first time. It is a form of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, if you are familiar.
And so we dwell in the abyss. But when you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. That is, the darkness and emptiness that surrounds you is capable of devouring you. Nietzsche claims that it is therefore only the strongest that can survive and triumph over the abyss; this is where I think he is wrong. No one can survive the abyss. According to our model of metaphysics, reality is infinite. Therefore, the abyss, as a kind of hell, is the infinite absence of reality. In other words, it is infinite in the sense that it is infinitely lacking; if something exists, then its absence can be thought of as an absence of equal “magnitude” to its presence. Since the reality vector is infinite, the non-reality vector must also be infinite, but opposite because it exists (as all things do) relative to the reality vector (hence an absolutist application of the principal of relativism). Therefore, the abyss is infinite, and we, as finite creatures, are not capable of surviving it.
Our only hope, therefore, of not becoming a part of the abyss is in reaching out for something outside of it. A savior. God Himself is the only one capable of triumphing over the abyss, and so His mercy is our only hope of surviving it. A Christian is called to realize that he is in the abyss; to strive himself for la cima del purgatorio, for freedom from the abyss; and then to let God do the real work and free him once and for all. Many think it is freedom to live inside the abyss–in fact, one of the more common rhetorical points made contrary to Christianity is that it is oppressive, with all its commands about what is right and what is wrong–but the truth is that freedom is only found in obedience, because existence is only found in Heaven. A man who chooses not to exist is not free but bound to hell, but a man who exists is free to be as his will would have him be, only limited to the domain of reality, but reality is fractal.
“For he who does not need shall never lack a friend.”