Nietzsche famously said that if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss will stare back. He was referring to what it feels like to gaze into a universe too complex and too indifferent for humans to make sense of.
Most of us agree with Nietzsche whether we've read him or not. A meaningful life requires a more predictable world than the one quantum theory and existentialism describe. Human vanity requires that we ignore the facts that our sun is one of a hundred billion in our galaxy, and our galaxy is one of a hundred billion in the universe. Similarly, our moralities strive to reduce the world to a collection of comfortable dualities: Democrat or Republican, gay or straight, Christian or infidel, white or non-white, good or evil.
Never mind that mitochondrial studies show all humans to have a common ancestor, one recent enough to make us all incestuous brothers and sisters. Never mind that the people most worried about the sexual identities of others are unable to face ambiguity in their own sexuality.
Never mind that Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same debased coin. Never mind that Christianity is one of many true religions, each with its apostates and non-believers.
And never mind that what stares back from Nietzsche's abyss is a lost part of ourselves. Often enough we've lost it for a reason, but there it is, staring back at us, waving in recognition, like an old friend. Or fiend.
I've taken Nietzsche's words as a caution. My study of the abyss has been conducted through proxies, mostly. I stayed out of the abyss of Vietnam, but friends who went there came home unable to unsee what they'd seen, and often it made them crazy. I've stayed out of the abyss of politics, but I've watched my students who became politicians go from young idealists to corruptible middle-aged pragmatists on their way to becoming morally decrepit old nihilists (some of them got there early).
Probably the best way to view the abyss at a safe remove is through the study of literature. I don't mean "God's in his Heaven, and All's Right with the World" literature. I do mean Hawthorne, Melville, Dostoyevsky and Camus, who wrote about what happens when humans come face-to-face with their own disowned natures.
Human beings don't emerge happily from these confrontations. Anyone who ends a mortal existence with a sunny disposition and a kind nature hasn't experienced humanity the way Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown has. Anyone with a cheerful outlook hasn't sought revenge upon creation like Melville's Captain Ahab. Anyone with a wake-up-get-dressed-eat-breakfast unselfconsciousness hasn't fought an endemic human plague like Camus' Dr. Rieux.
Then there's Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor. Consider the Jordanian pilot burnt to death by ISIS. The Islamic State will have to burn lots more people to catch up with what the Catholic Church did from the 12th century, when it murdered the Cathar people for resisting papal authority, to 1826, when the Inquisition conducted its final execution, hanging a Spanish schoolteacher for teaching Enlightenment philosophy. In between, papal authorities ordered more than 3,000 people to be burned at the stake.
Dostoyevsky used his Grand Inquisitor to show how religious leaders had come to value worldly power over salvation, wealth over righteousness, cynical wisdom over innocence. The Grand Inquisitor saw himself protecting his flock from Satan in all His tempting, devious forms, even as Satan devoured him from within.
If this transformation sounds familiar, that's because when dour old men seize the reins of an organized religion, the original divine spark—the event or person who started the religion in the first place—gets lost. Lust for power becomes a given, and when people disagree with power, it becomes necessary to kill them to keep everyone's outlook simple and uncluttered.
But it's hard to imagine Christ being overjoyed at the Inquisition or the Christian sack of Constantinople. It's hard to imagine the Prophet Muhammad approving of the murders of Shia by Sunni, and of Sunni by Shia. It's hard to imagine the Buddha smiling at Buddhists as they burn Islamic villages in Burma.
It's all malignant foolishness, but it's human foolishness, and it will forever exist in uncomfortable counterpoint to the best humanity has to offer. It doesn't just surface in religion, either. A family, a business, a university, a government, a non-profit—all can become arenas for the exercise of power by dour old men and dour old women in drag. Hierarchies get established, lines of succession are laid down, rules are posted, people are punished, species are destroyed, continents are laid waste, sexuality comes to be seen as something to be regulated into nonexistence if it can't be owned outright. Humor and irony are exiled to enemy territory.
Nietzsche's abyss, in the end, gazes at all of us in triumph. Nietzsche himself succumbed to mute psychosis after watching a man beat an exhausted horse to death. Critics use his insanity to show his writings are insane as well, but it's worth remembering that the bloody, maddening dance of the powerful and powerless is a familiar enough sight for any of us.