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 Twilight of the Idols quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Trodden Worm . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:).
Maxims and Arrows Quotes
The timeline below shows where the symbol The Trodden Worm appears in Twilight of the Idols. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Maxims and Arrows
Expeditions of an Untimely Man