The trodden worm symbolizes humility and submission—qualities that Nietzsche associates with the life-effacing systems of traditional morality he challenges in Twilight of the Idols. Nietzsche first references the trodden worm in “Maxims and Arrows.” Maxim #31 of this section reads as follows: “When it is trodden on a worm will curl up. That is prudent. It thereby reduces the chance of being trodden on again. In the language of morals: humility.” Nietzsche adapts this maxim from the old expression “even the worm will turn,” which means that even the meekest, most submissive creature (the worm) will strike back in revenge if its aggressor oversteps a boundary and beats it one time too many. But Nietzsche (in the original German) is playing on this expression, changing “will turn” to “will curl up” so that the expression takes an opposite meaning. In Nietzsche’s variation, the meekest creature (or the creature made meek by traditional morality) doesn’t “turn” to fight back against its oppressor—rather, it “curl[s] up” out of self-defense and “humility,” too submissive and afraid of punishment or retribution to defend itself. Nietzsche is suggesting, then, that the “humility” that traditional systems of morality (such as Christianity) teaches its followers is not for moral improvement but for control.
The Trodden Worm Quotes in Twilight of the Idols
31. When it is trodden on a worm will curl up. That is prudent. It thereby reduces the chance of being trodden on again. In the language of morals: humility.