In my answer to this recent question, I translated "when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you" as: si diu voraginem intuitus eris, etiam vorago te intuebitur. That is, I used the future perfect + simple future combination which is often found in Latin. But is it correct here? After all, one does presumably not stop looking into the abyss, whereupon the abyss decides it's now its turn.

So should I use future + future? Or is something like that rather a simple rule that should be expressed in the present indicative?

A more innocent example:

Si florem lactis satis diu agitas/agitabis/agitaveris, fit/fiet butyrum.

What tenses should I use?

  • 1
    Perhaps relevant is the fact that in sentences like "I have been looking into the abyss for a long time" Latin uses the present, rather than the perfect as one might expect from an English perspective.
    – TKR
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 20:25

2 Answers 2


For the butter example, I think a future more vivid is probably the way to go, since it's explaining the logical facts of the case and is as direct as direct can be. Cf. Cato's si me rogabis, sic dicam, "if you ask me, I will say the following." Future + future indicative is fine.

The future perfect would be used when the action in the protasis "is regarded as completed before that of the apodosis begins" (A&G §516c; emphasis theirs). You don't stop churning milk and then it turns to butter; you don't stop looking at the abyss and then it looks back at you.

I think a case could be made for a present general as well, depending on how one interprets Nietzsche. It could potentially be argued that the abyss doesn't look at you in return. It is always looking, and so by looking, you recognize it looking back once you look long enough. A more archaic way of putting it would be, "If you ever find yourself looking into the abyss for a long time [but you're currently not!], [you will find that] the abyss is always looking back at you."

Compare this with the example given in A&G:

Sī hōc dīcās, crēditur.
If [ever] you say this, [you will find] that it is believed.

In this reading, Nietzsche's quote isn't linking the two halves of the conditional causally, but stating that the apodosis expresses a general truth which is revealed with the fulfillment of the protasis. That's generally the general conditional in Latin. There's nothing really particular about it, I think. He's not stopping someone from looking into the abyss at the moment, right?

  • Amazing how @tony, you and I all have a totally different understanding of what this (not exactly very complicated) expression of Nietzsche's means. Commented Nov 21, 2021 at 14:35
  • @SebastianKoppehel Granted, I haven't read Nietzsche since college, and mein Deutsch ist eingerostet (is that a proper idiom?), but it seems like a plausible reading to me. But I yield to academic circumspection.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 21, 2021 at 15:29

If you continue to look into the abyss then when does the abyss take its turn to look into you? Do you stand there forever; or, until you starve to death or just fall asleep? By definition, at some point, you stop gazing. At this juncture does the abyss decide to commence his/ its vigil of yourself?

A conditional (simple conditions) sentence using future-perfect; and, when this observation thing has been completed (looking into the abyss), in the future; because you finally get bored or hungry the consequence (the abyss will start to observe you) requires a simple future-tense. (In such sentences the future-future combination tends to be reserved for threats:

"si huc venies, te interficiam" = "If you come here, I will kill you" (Nicholas Oulton: "So You Really Want to Learn Latin" III, p.80).

It could be argued that you find the abyss intimidating; but, given such circumstances, you might not remain long enough for it to begin to observe you.)

What if the observations are simultaneous? As you've mentioned--present indicative--for an accepted state-of-affairs--Allen & Greenough (section 465, p.293): "(the present tense) as indefinite, referring to no particular time, but denoting a general truth":

"obsequium amicos, veritas odium parit" = "Flattery gains friends, truth hatred." (Ter. And. 68).

The warning: "When you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you." may be construed as "a general truth", qualifying it for the present-present tense-combination.

  • 2
    I assume the abyss can only stare back at you while you are still staring at it (if you stop and walk away, the abyss can hardly follow you around). Hence my doubts about the future perfect, and hence my cream-and-butter example, since I am sure we agree the cream does not turn to butter after you beat it. Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 18:44
  • @Sebastian Koppehel: the point, I think, is that this harks back to Primeval fears and terrors/ superstitions: "the abyss", the gateway to Hell; the forces of evil. That is, if a man is tempted by evil (looks into the abyss), it, evil, will look into him, seek his soul. Therefore, metaphorically, the "abyss" will follow you around. I thought your tense-choices were entirely correct.
    – tony
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 23:48

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