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Book Review

Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analysis and Ethical Applications. By Paul Tillich. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Paul Tillich’s easily approachable volume Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications was originally conceived of as a pair of lecture series (the Firth lectures in Nottingham, England and the Sprunt lectures at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia) and a small seminar Tillich taught at Princeton. It reads quickly and its chapters possess the steady flow of thoughts that a good lecturer should present his audience. As Tillich admits, the idea of dealing with terms that carry such gravity, history, and problems is daunting (v). As such, he offers (as the title suggests) only the most basic ontological analysis and possible ethical applications. The result is what Jacob Taubes has called a “real tour de force,” a compact and lucid untangling of the meanings that saturate these words, making them almost unintelligible in common usage.

The ubiquity of the terms under consideration in Love, Power, and Justice to all spheres of thinking (especially theological and philosophical arenas) presents a unique problem. Their significance warrants special attention to their meaning, yet the breadth of their usage prevents any one thinker from forming an accurate picture of this meaning (either individually or relationally). Tillich, in typical fashion, approaches the terms as “principles” or categories of being, which prompts an ontological investigation into their meaning. The first chapter reveals the problematic nature of talking about such principles, while chapters II, III, and IV jump headlong into analysis, aiming to elaborate these meanings by determining their individual relation to being, i.e. asking “In what way is each of these concepts rooted in being-itself?” After the individual meanings are parsed, Tillich moves on to investigate how these terms, taken in relation to one another, manifest a particular set of ethical implications, thus linking the structure of being to right action in three spheres of ascending scale: the personal, the political, and the ultimate.

Tillich frames love in the polarity of estrangement and reunion (25). Human being is always being under the conditions of existence. As such, it is being experienced as estrangement from all other beings. Love, then, is the “drive towards the unity of the separated.” Love constantly moves towards reunion and, in this way, finds itself “united with the compulsory elements of power” in order to destroy what is against love (50).

His analysis of power is a bit more nebulous. Power is a potentiality that exists or is actualized only in a being’s encounter with the other. It is made real in the confrontation between lives, which are the constant affirmations of being in the face of non-being (37-41). This self-affirmation is what Tillich calls “the power of being.”  The idea of compulsion plays a huge role in Tillich’s explanation of power. Every actual manifestation of power, Tillich says, possesses some form of compulsion. He goes on to explain how and why force and compulsion are necessary actualizations of power. One of the more striking features of this analysis is his characterization of the self as a power structure. That is, the use of force and compulsion over the forces, both internal and external, which shape the self in a way that controls this process (hence “self-control”) (52-53).

Justice is the “form in which the power of being actualizes itself” (56) under the principle of love (57). It is grounded in the essential claim of all beings as beings (as opposed to things). Justice is violated when this intrinsic claim is disregarded, when an other’s power of being is rejected. In summation of these three analyses, Tillich states that justice preserves what love reunites. Justice is “the form in which and through which love performs its work” (71), the channel through which the compulsive and forceful power of love is necessarily directed.

The remaining three chapters move very quickly. The three guiding concepts are used here somewhat like a system of checks and balances, ensuring that first personal relations, then corporate and divine relations are held in harmony by the proper application of love, power, and justice. It is interesting to note, at least stylistically, that the second half of the book actually mirrors the first, taking as its orienting principle first justice, then power, and ending with love. It may be a sign as to how these terms are actually weighted in Tillich’s overall system (love, as the first and last, representing the most important of the three concepts).

The most interesting section in this last half comes in his analysis of group relations or political interaction. He emphasizes the importance of a given social group’s center and the dynamics of power that determine the actions of these centers and, thus, the actions of the larger social body. His aim is to say that it is not the group itself that is directly held responsible, but the actors in the center of power. His example is unusually relevant (given his context): Nazi Germany. If one was ever looking for a place where Tillich’s personal concerns explicitly spilled over into his theory, this would be that place. “It is never the nation which is directly guilty for what is done by the nation. It is always the ruling group. But all individuals in a nation are responsible for the existence of the ruling group. Not many individuals in Germany are directly guilty of Nazi atrocities. But all of them are responsible for the acceptance of a government which was willing and able to do such things. Those who represent the power of a social group are a representative but not an actual center. A group is not a person.” (94)

He goes on in this section to defend, in a way, the idea of empires as uniting forces (i.e. forces of love) and the possibility of a world-state emerging from the bifurcation of the two great Cold War powers (104-106). Such talk naturally leads into a conversation on the very possibility of a united mankind, the holy community, and the Kingdom of God.

The last chapter begins with a quick lesson in ground-of-being theology and how we are to relate the principles under consideration to the divine. The principles of love, power, and justice are applied to God only symbolically. Because they are principles of being and God is the ground or abyss of being, we can only speak symbolically of “God” (the symbolic persona with which we orient matters of ultimate concern) and God’s love, power, and justice. In this final chapter, Tillich absolutely blazes through a hyper-condensed version of his systematic theology. God as the ground of being, existential hell as despair, the courage to be, the Cross as a symbol of divine love, Spiritual power as a force for reuniting love, the idea of the church as anticipating the Kingdom, so on and so forth. All in the span of ten short pages (115-125)!

Like much of Tillich’s work, this book attempts to offer a descriptive analysis of the structures of being and a frame for understanding some of these structures in relation to one another. The downside to such an approach is the lack of determinate moral positions with regard to viewing the world through this frame. For example, when Tillich says that love and power are unified in a way such that love, through compulsion, destroys those things which stand in the way of reunion, what are we to take from this in a practical sense? Could not a variety of destructive actions be justified under the banner of love? The same could be said regarding his different conceptions of justice, which manifest themselves necessarily in relations of power between beings in existence. How does one judge the relative claims of beings and thus the proper degree or kind of compulsion which is necessary to both love and justice? How and under what circumstances should one punish or be punished? There are, of course, other areas that could be critiqued. First and foremost being his description of the different qualities of love in the last chapter, particularly his defense and valorization of agape over and above a shallow characterization of eros (116-119). Yet, I find his philosophically poetic prose to be artfully convincing despite these shortcomings.

This slim volume (a mere 125 pages) reads like a primer to Paul Tillich’s patented method of ontological analysis. It could be easily recommended to newcomers to Tillich’s thought, who will more than likely find it dazzling in its philosophical acumen, though not overbearing in its depth. It could also be recommended to those familiar with Tillich’s system, who may find deep wells of meaning underlying the seemingly simple presentation of such rich terms.

W. G. Dalton
Boston University
Fall 2010

 

Helpful (contemporaneous) reviews:

Gray, J. Glenn. Review of Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications, by Paul Tillich. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 51, No. 21 (Oct. 14, 1954), pp. 644-646.

Ramsey, Paul. Review of Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications, by Paul Tillich. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Jan., 1955), pp. 155-158.

Taubes, Jacob. Review of Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications, by Paul Tillich. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Apr., 1955), pp. 99-100.

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