Notes (from 2008) on Paul Tillich's book The Courage To Be (1952)


       Paul Tillich: “The tension between liberalism and democracy explains many traits of American democratic conformism.” Suggestive. If you’re wondering what this tension is, Tillich states it tersely: “Liberalism and democracy could clash in two ways: liberalism could undermine the democratic control of society or democracy could become tyrannical and a transition to totalitarian collectivism.” 

           In medieval times: realism vs. nominalism. Universal prior to the individual, or individual prior to the universal? Philosophical reflection of social change: the individual gradually becoming not just an instance of the “universal” but someone in his own right, a thing more real than the universal. Nominalism won.

         A Tillichian observation: In Plato, the soul’s spirited element could potentially bridge the cleavage between reason and desire. (Note to self: platonically, what’s the relation between the sensual and the sensuous?) But actually Platonism tends to be dualistic.

        Two meanings of courage (says Tillich): ethical and ontological. A matter of valuation vs. the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being. “The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation.” Two conceptions of courage: heroic-aristocratic and rational-democratic.


The aristocratic element in the doctrine of courage was preserved as well as restricted by Aristotle. The motive for withstanding pain and death courageously is, according to him, that it is noble to do so and base not to do so. The courageous man acts “for the sake of what is noble, for that is the aim of virtue.” “Noble”…is the translation of kalós and “base” is the translation of aischró, words which usually are rendered by “beautiful” and “ugly.” A beautiful or noble deed is a deed to be praised. Courage does what is to be praised and rejects what is to be despised. One praises that in which a being fulfills its potentialities or actualizes its perfections. Courage is the affirmation of one’s essential nature, one’s inner aim or entelechy, but it is an affirmation which has in itself the character of “in spite of.” It includes the possible and, in some cases, the unavoidable sacrifice of elements which also belong to one’s being but which, if not sacrificed, would prevent us from reaching our actual fulfillment. This sacrifice may include pleasure, happiness, even one’s own existence. In any case it is praiseworthy, because in the act of courage the most essential part of our being prevails against the less essential. [Yes: the desire for recognition prevails against the animal desire for comfort.]… Since the greatest test of courage is the readiness to sacrifice one’s life, the soldier’s courage was the outstanding example… As long as the aristocracy was the group which carried arms, the aristocratic and the military connotations of courage merged. When the aristocratic tradition disintegrated and courage could be defined as the universal knowledge of what is good and evil, wisdom and courage converged and true courage became distinguished from the soldier’s courage. The courage of the dying Socrates was rational-democratic, not heroic-aristocratic. …But the aristocratic line was revived in the early Middle Ages. Courage became again characteristic of nobility… [Cf. Nietzsche’s love of the barbarian spirit.]


          Is it true that “rational-democratic ethics are a heritage of the Christian-humanistic tradition”? Is it even wholly justified to associate Christianity with humanism? Is it at all meaningful to say that humanism grew out of Christianity? In an obvious sense it is: humanism was reborn [during the Renaissance] in a Christian society. But was that despite Christian traditions or (partly) because of them? Both, of course. And what’s the relation between late-medieval humanism and modern democratic ideologies?

          “The spiritual substance of Renaissance humanism was Christian as the spiritual substance of ancient humanism was pagan, in spite of the criticism of the pagan religions by Greek humanism and of Christianity by modern humanism.” Good way of expressing it.

           Stoicism and neo-Stoicism are not just philosophical schools; they are ways that people have “answered the problem of existence and conquered the anxieties of fate and death. Stoicism in this sense is a basic religious attitude, whether it appears in theistic, atheistic, or trans-theistic forms. Therefore it is the only real alternative to Christianity in the Western world.” It’s true that the Stoic doctrines of the Logos and the natural moral law influenced Christian dogmatics and ethics. “But this large reception of Stoic ideas could not bridge the gap between the acceptance of cosmic resignation in Stoicism and the faith in cosmic salvation in Christianity.” Personally, I’m a Stoic by temperament but have the Christian’s yearning for salvation.


         Stoic courage is not an invention of the Stoic philosophers. They gave it classical expression in rational terms; but its roots go back to mythological stories, legends of heroic deeds, words of early wisdom, poetry and tragedy, and to centuries of philosophy preceding the rise of Stoicism. One event especially gave the Stoics’ courage lasting power—the death of Socrates. That became for the whole ancient world both a fact and a symbol. It showed the human situation in the face of fate and death. It showed a courage which could affirm life because it could affirm death. And it brought a profound change in the traditional meaning of courage. In Socrates the heroic courage of the past was made rational and universal. A democratic idea of courage was created as against the aristocratic idea of it. Soldierly fortitude was transcended by the courage of wisdom. In this form it gave “philosophical consolation” [see Boethius] to many people in all sections of the ancient world throughout a period of catastrophes and transformations.

       The description of Stoic courage by a man life Seneca shows the interdependence of the fear of death and the fear of life, as well as the interdependence of the courage to die and the courage to live. He points to those who “do not want to live and do not know how to die.” He speaks of a libido moriendi, the exact Latin term for Freud’s “death instinct.” He tells of people who feel life as meaningless and superfluous and who, as in the book of Ecclesiastes, say: I cannot do anything new, I cannot see anything new! This, according to Seneca, is a consequence of the acceptance of the pleasure principle or, as he calls it, anticipating a recent American phrase, the “good-time” attitude, which he finds especially in the younger generation. As, in Freud, the death instinct is the negative side of the ever-unsatisfied drives of the libido, so, according to Seneca, the acceptance of the pleasure principle necessarily leads to disgust and despair about life. [Tillich may be misunderstanding Freud.] But Seneca knew (as Freud did) that the inability to affirm life does not imply the ability to affirm death. The anxiety of fate and death controls the lives even of those who have lost the will to live. This shows that the Stoic recommendation of suicide is not directed to those who are conquered by life but to those who have conquered life, are able both to live and to die, and can choose freely between them. Suicide as an escape, dictated by fear, contradicts the Stoic courage to be.


          Stoic courage is based on the control of reason, i.e. the internalization of the Logos. In their effort to conquer desires and fears, “the Stoics developed a profound doctrine of anxiety which also reminds us of recent analysis. They discovered that the object of fear is fear itself. ‘Nothing,’ says Seneca, ‘is terrible in things except fear itself.’ And Epictetus says, ‘For it is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship.’ Our anxiety puts frightening masks over all men and things. If we strip them of these masks their own countenance appears and the fear they produce disappears…” I’m not convinced.

         Ancient humanism: Stoicism, renunciation, tragedy of existence, the ambiguity of being (creative form, inhibiting matter), circular repetition of history (a doctrine resulting from societal stagnation), asceticism, the individual valuable not in himself but as a representative of something universal, e.g. a virtue. Modern humanism (Renaissance, Erasmus, Spinoza, etc.): “being as being is good,” not asceticism but active shaping of the material world, belief in progress and creativity, hope, the individual valuable as a unique expression of the universe and irreplaceable. Rejects both Stoic renunciation and Christian salvation. Replaces renunciation by “a kind of self-affirmation which transcends that of the Stoics because it includes the material, historical, and individual existence.” Nevertheless, it can be called neo-Stoicism. Spinoza is its representative. For him, everything shares the “courage to be,” which is to say that it essentially endeavors to affirm or preserve itself. This is its essence and its particular virtue. That is, “virtue is the power of acting exclusively according to one’s true nature. And the degree of virtue is the degree to which somebody is striving for and able to affirm his own being… Self-affirmation is, so to speak, virtue altogether. But self-affirmation is affirmation of one’s essential being, and the knowledge of one’s essential being is mediated through reason, the power of the soul to have adequate ideas. Therefore to act unconditionally out of virtue is the same as to act under the guidance of reason.” Tillich and Spinoza are right that an ideal-typical person, whose mind hasn’t been damaged by civilization, will, in acting to confirm his being (which action is the essence of the self), act virtuously and lovingly with others.

            “The Self has itself, but at the same time it tries to reach itself.” It wants to coincide with itself.

            “Insofar as courage is the affirmation of one’s self it is virtue altogether.”

           Anxiety: the state in which a being is aware of its possible non-being. The awareness that non-being is a part of one’s own being. The awareness of one’s finitude as finitude. Hmm… I guess that’s acceptable, though a little simplifying. 


           …Fear, as opposed to anxiety, has a definite object which can be faced, analysed, attacked, endured. One can act upon it and in acting upon it participate in it—even if in the form of struggle. In this way one can take it into one’s self-affirmation [or -confirmation]… But this is not so with anxiety, because anxiety has no object, or rather, in a paradoxical phrase, its object is the negation of every object. Therefore participation, struggle and love with respect to it are impossible… [The helplessness of anxiety] expresses itself in loss of direction, inadequate reactions, lack of “intentionality.” The reason for this sometimes striking behavior is the lack of an object on which the subject can concentrate… Fear and anxiety are distinguished but not separated. They are immanent within each other: The sting of fear is anxiety, and anxiety strives toward fear…

           The fear of death determines the element of anxiety in every fear. Anxiety, if not modified by the fear of an object, anxiety in its nakedness, is always the anxiety of ultimate non-being. Immediately seen, anxiety is the painful feeling of not being able to deal with the threat of a special situation. But a more exact analysis shows that in the anxiety about any special situation, anxiety about the human situation as such is implied. It is the anxiety of not being able to preserve one’s own being which underlies every fear and is the frightening element in it. In the moment, therefore, in which “naked anxiety” lays hold of the mind, the previous objects of fear cease to be definite objects. They appear as what they always were in part, symptoms of man’s basic anxiety… This situation drives the anxious subject to establish objects of fear. Anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage. It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more than a flash of time… But ultimately the attempts to transform anxiety into fear are vain. The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of non-being, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself.


           This sort of Existentialist thinking is so foreign to the spirit of Marxism that I never know what to make of it. Is it postulating as an absolute truth something that is characteristic only of certain societies, or is there indeed a trans-historical validity to all this? Did Cro-Magnon man experience “anxiety”? In forty thousand years, will existential anxiety still be around? It does seem ineluctable, this anxiety. How could it ever be overcome? Surely it’s inherent in the human condition.

          The source of my infinite wonder has always been: why is there something rather than nothing? And how can there be something without its having some kind of transcendent meaning?

     Three types of anxiety according to the three ways in which non-being threatens being: the anxiety of fate/death, of emptiness/meaninglessness, and of guilt/condemnation. They correspond, respectively, to ontic self-affirmation, spiritual self-affirmation, and moral self-affirmation. —I don’t object to most of Tillich’s ideas, but I object to his framing human life in terms of ontology, of “being.” It’s unnecessarily metaphysical and theological.

        1. Anxiety over death is the most universal. Inescapable. Can be mitigated depending on the form of society, but even in collectivist and primitive societies people are afraid of death. As regards “fate,” Tillich has in mind, ironically, the contingency of life. Its irrationality, its lack of necessity. Fate and death are associated because life’s contingency and unpredictability wouldn’t produce anxiety unless death waited quietly in the background. “And death stands behind fate and its contingencies not only in the last moment when one is thrown out of existence but in every moment within existence. Non-being…stands behind the experience that we are driven from the past toward the future without a moment of time which does not vanish immediately. It stands behind the insecurity and homelessness of our social and individual existence. It stands behind the attacks on our power of being in body and soul by weakness, disease and accidents… We try to transform the anxiety into fear and to meet courageously the objects in which the threat is embodied. We succeed partly, but somehow we are aware of the fact that it is not these objects with which we struggle that produce the anxiety but the human situation as such.”

            2. Man’s spiritual self-affirmation is his living creatively, his taking “culture” seriously, as a matter of ultimate concern for him. Emptiness and, more despairingly, meaninglessness manifest themselves when a person loses his concern for creative living. Their threat is implied in man’s finitude but actualized by man’s estrangement. Tillich notes that ontic and spiritual anxiety can’t really be separated, since the onset of one tends to provoke the onset of the other.

           3. Man is responsible for making something of himself, for doing something good with his life. He sits in judgment on himself, a situation that can produce the anxiety of guilt, or even the anxiety of self-rejection or condemnation. “Even in what he considers his best deed, non-being is present and prevents it from being perfect. A profound ambiguity between good and evil permeates everything he does, because it permeates his personal being as such… The awareness of this ambiguity is the feeling of guilt. The judge who is oneself and who stands against oneself, he who ‘knows with’ (conscience) everything we do and are, gives a negative judgment, experienced by us as guilt. …This anxiety can drive us to the feeling of being condemned—not to an external punishment but to the despair of having lost our destiny.” Again, this moral anxiety can’t be entirely separated from the other anxieties.

            These anxieties are existential in that they’re implied in the existence of man as man, his finitude, and his estrangement. They’re fulfilled in the situation of despair.

           To support his distinctions, Tillich suggests that at the end of ancient civilization ontic anxiety predominated; at the end of the Middle Ages moral anxiety was widespread; and at the end of the modern period spiritual anxiety is common. But in each period, needless to say, the other anxieties have been present, have been “embraced” by the predominating form of anxiety. Incidentally, “if one period deserves the name of the ‘age of anxiety’ it is the pre-Reformation and Reformation.” Tillich repeatedly makes statements that seem dubious but prove to be well-founded in his arguments.

           “It is significant that the three main periods of anxiety each appear at the end of an era. The anxiety which, in its different forms, is potentially present in every individual becomes general if the accustomed structures of meaning, power, belief and order disintegrate…” On the other hand, you could say that the individual experiences anxiety only if accustomed structures of meaning etc. disintegrate. The presence of structures of meaning is, in a way, more “natural” than anxiety.

              What’s the relation between existential anxiety and pathological anxiety, as in neurosis and psychosis?:


          There is one common denominator in all the theories of neurotic anxiety: anxiety is the awareness of unsolved conflicts between structural elements of the personality, as for instance conflicts between unconscious drives and repressive norms, between different drives trying to dominate the center of the personality, between imaginary worlds and the experience of the real world, between trends toward greatness and perfection and the experience of one’s smallness and imperfection, between the desire to be accepted by other people or society or the universe and the experience of being rejected, between the will to be and the seemingly intolerable burden of being which evokes the open or hidden desire not to be…

             …[In all these theories] there is the lack of a clear distinction between existential and pathological anxiety, and between the main forms of existential anxiety. This cannot be made by depth-psychological analysis alone; it is a matter of ontology…

             Pathological anxiety is a state of existential anxiety under special conditions. The general character of these conditions depends on the relation of anxiety to self-affirmation and courage… He who acts courageously takes, in his self-affirmation, the anxiety of non-being [or, rather, of the world’s not being the self] upon himself. The preposition “upon” is metaphorical and points to anxiety as an element within the total structure of self-affirmation, the element which gives self-affirmation the quality of “in spite of” and transforms it into courage. Anxiety turns us toward courage, because the other alternative is despair. Courage resists despair by taking anxiety into itself.

              This analysis gives us the key to understanding pathological anxiety. He who does not succeed in taking his anxiety courageously upon himself can succeed in avoiding the extreme situation of despair by escaping into neurosis. He still affirms himself but on a limited scale. Neurosis is the way of avoiding non-being by avoiding being. In the neurotic state self-affirmation is not lacking; it can indeed be very strong and emphasized. But the self which is affirmed is a reduced one. Some or many of its potentialities are not admitted to actualization, because actualization of being implies the acceptance of non-being and its anxiety. He who is not capable of a powerful self-affirmation in spite of the anxiety of non-being is forced into a weak, reduced self-affirmation… He surrenders a part of his potentialities in order to save what is left. This structure explains the ambiguities of the neurotic character. The neurotic is more sensitive than the average man to the threat of non-being. And since non-being opens up the mystery of being, he can be more creative than the average. This limited extensiveness of self-affirmation can be balanced by greater intensity, but by an intensity which is narrowed to a special point accompanied by a distorted relation to reality as a whole…


          Tillich proceeds to discuss in more depth the difference between the neurotic and the healthy personality. The former is more intense but limited, the latter more extensive but “lacking in the intensity which can make the neurotic creative. His anxiety does not drive him to the construction of imaginary worlds.” The neurotic settles down to a fixed self-affirmation which involves his retiring to a “castle which he defends with all means of psychological resistance,” because if he didn’t defend it he’d succumb to despair. However,


There is a moment in which the self-affirmation of the average man becomes neurotic: when changes of the reality to which he is adjusted threaten the fragmentary courage with which he has mastered the accustomed objects of fear. If this happens—and it often happens in critical periods of history—the self-affirmation becomes pathological. The dangers connected with the change, the unknown character of the things to come, the darkness of the future, make the average man a fanatical defender of the established order. He defends it as compulsively as the neurotic defends the castle of his imaginary world. He loses his comparative openness to reality, he experiences an unknown depth of anxiety… This is the explanation of the mass neuroses which usually appear at the end of an era. In such periods existential anxiety is mixed with neurotic anxiety to such a degree that historians and analysts are unable to draw the boundary lines sharply. When, for example, does the anxiety of condemnation which underlies asceticism become pathological?… To what degree are present-day Existentialist descriptions of man’s predicament caused by neurotic anxiety?


         Again: “neurotic anxiety is the inability to take one’s existential anxiety upon oneself.” Good formulation. But I’m still suspicious about his whole approach. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny, for example, that “Large sections of man’s civilization serve the purpose of giving him safety against the attacks of fate and death. He realizes that no absolute and final security is possible; he also realizes that life demands again and again the courage to surrender some or even all security for the sake of full self-affirmation.”

         Just a reminder for you philosophy students: Plato “teaches the separation of the human soul from its ‘home’ in the realm of pure essences. Man is estranged from what he essentially is. His existence in a transitory world contradicts his essential participation in the eternal world of ideas… Wherever Plato uses a myth he describes the transition from one’s essential being to one’s existential estrangement, and the return from the latter to the former. The Platonic distinction between the essential and the existential realms is fundamental for all later developments. It lies in the background even of present-day Existentialism.” Platonism, alienation, disenchantment.

         …“Courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being. It is the act of the individual self in taking the anxiety of non-being upon itself by affirming itself either as part of an embracing whole or in its individual selfhood.” That’s one of Tillich’s main ideas: the dichotomy between participation and individualization. Two ways of affirming the self. Mysticism, collectivism, semi-collectivism, conformism, as against individualism and “Existentialism” in their manifold manifestations. He has a point. But I’ve discussed this alleged dichotomy before.

           “The courage to die is the test of the courage to be.” Why? Because being includes non-being: death is a part of life. An inability to accept death is an inability to accept life. The essential component of true self-affirmation is unqualified acceptance of the relation between oneself and the world, a relation that includes one’s final negation by the world (which is also one’s re-absorption into the cosmos).


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright