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Book Review

The Courage to Be. By Paul Tillich. Second Edition. New Haven, Yale University, 2000 (1st ed. 1952). 197 pages.

Reviews by JL and SC

Review by JL

German Protestant philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich published The Courage to Be (TCTB) in 1952. It is a confrontation of the concept of “courage” and the types of anxiety confronted by people, particularly in the modern age, expressed in the language of depth psychology and existentialism. This book succeeds in introducing to a “lay readership” a sophisticated philosophical discussion of human ontology, anthropology, psychological tendencies and theology. Tillich presents anxiety as the primary modern psychological epidemic resulting from a loss of meaning in life. He supplies courage as the antidote. Courage is the strength to affirm one’s own life in spite of the fact that life will inevitably end, that it may seem to have no purpose, and that people are destined to carry great burdens of guilt for not being perfect or “acceptable” in their own eyes.

The book opens with a discussion of the concept of courage in several philosophical and theological contexts. Tillich reviews courage with respect to fortitude, wisdom, self-affirmation and existence itself, drawing respectively on Plato and Aquinas, the Stoics, Spinoza, and Nietzsche. Tillich understands courage as “rooted in structure of must be considered ontologically in order to be understood ethically” (1). The “courage to be,” specifically, 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” (3). It is the affirmation of one’s essential nature, and its analysis must precede an understanding of such attributes as faith, wisdom and joy. Courage involves “striving toward self-preservation or toward self-affirmation [that] makes a thing what it is,” and is a definitively virtuous process of careful reasoning and intentionality (21). Even though life is ambiguous above all, “courage is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of this ambiguity, while the negation of life because of its negativity is an expression of cowardice” (27). Affirmation of one’s own being involves the acceptance of one’s finitude and inevitable nonbeing; the courage to be takes into itself the anxiety of death.

Tillich pursues an ontology of anxiety, starting with an analysis of nonbeing, recognizing it as the necessary balance to an exploration of being. It “is not a concept like others. It is the negation of every concept” (34). But nonbeing is a part of being, just as destruction is a part of creation. “Being ‘embraces’ itself and nonbeing” (34); “there could be no negation if there were no preceding affirmation to be negated” (40). Enter anxiety: “the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing” (35). Tillich differentiates anxiety from fear in that fear has a definite object which can be faced and attacked, endured or conquered, whereas anxiety has no object and “therefore participation, struggle, and love with respect to it are impossible” (36). Without an object or a tactic to defeat it, anxiety surfaces as the pain of impotence, negation and disempowerment. But the power of being stirs deeply beneath anxiety; nonbeing strives toward being when “anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage” (39).

Tillich distinguishes three types of anxiety: that of fate and death (ontological); that of emptiness and loss of meaning (spiritual); and that of guilt and condemnation (moral) (41). Tillich discusses these forms of existential anxiety as realities in individual life, “then with their social manifestations in special periods of Western history” (ibid.). The first, the anxiety of fate and death, is universal and inescapable; “everybody is aware of the complete loss of self which biological extinction implies” (42). Fate is the “mini-death” which constantly afflicts the human being in a contingent existence, where one is constantly subject to changing conditions and aware of their impermanence and susceptibility to weakness, disease, and accidents. Nonbeing is not only felt through death and fate but also spiritually in the encounter with meaninglessness, the result of which is the second kind of anxiety; the antidote is spiritual self-affirmation, which “occurs in every moment in which man lives creatively in the various spheres of meaning” (46). Living spontaneously, participating in the creation and enrichment of meaning, can stave off the threat of nonbeing to the spiritual life, which is described in terms of “doubt, a creative and destructive function in man’s spiritual life...based on man’s separation from the whole of reality, on his lack of universal participation, on the isolation of his universal self” (48, 49). The doubting individual will often deal with spiritual pain through overcompensatory fanaticism or desperate participation in something external. Spiritual anxiety is a threat to the whole being, revealed in “the desire to throw away one’s ontic existence rather than stand the despair of emptiness and meaninglessness” (51). Finally, anxiety surfaces in the realm of guilt, when human beings fall short in their moral self-affirmation, the act by which they actualize their potential. “A profound ambiguity between good and evil permeates everything he does...the awareness of this ambiguity is the feeling of guilt” (52). This state results in self-rejection, or the conscious choice of nonbeing. Tillich notes that the three types of anxiety are visible in periods in Western history: “At the end of ancient civilization ontic anxiety is predominant, at the end of the Middle Ages moral anxiety, and at the end of the modern period spiritual anxiety” (57).

In addition to three forms of existential anxiety there is also non-existential anxiety, “the result of contingent experiences in human life” (65). Courage does not remove this anxiety but embraces it by acknowledging it, affirming oneself “in spite of” the anxiety of nonbeing, meaninglessness and guilt. Neurotic anxiety, much like overcompensatory fanaticism that avoids full confrontation with the meaninglessness of existence, “is the way of avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being” (66). The neurotic clings to “a fixed, though limited and unrealistic, self affirmation” (68), eschewing the reality of illness or danger, instead hiding in a “castle of defense” (69). Inasmuch as anxiety has a psychosomatic character and surfaces in various diseases, vitality and courage, too, have psychosomatic characters; they are biological as well as physical (78). Courage “is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives...for the sake of a fuller positivity. Biological self-affirmation implies the acceptance of want, toil, insecurity, pain, possible destruction…. The more vital strength a being has the more it is able to affirm itself in spite of the dangers announced by fear and anxiety” (ibid.). Since the courage to be is a function of vitality, strengthened vitality brings forth the power to be and allows one to create beyond oneself without losing oneself. “The periods of a diminished courage to be are periods of biological weakness” (79).

What, asks Tillich, is “the relation of self-affirmation and love toward others”? (22) It is not an isolated act for the individual but “is participation in the universal or divine act of self-affirmation” (23). Tillich thus introduces a major theme of TCTB: the dialectic of individualization and participation. TCTB’s Chapter 4, “Courage and Participation,” and Chapter 5, “Courage and Individualization,” confront the basic polar structure of being, that of self and world. Tillich argues that these realms are interconnected and mutually influencing; self-affirmation “is not the courage to be as oneself, but the courage to be as a part” (89); “the more self-relatedness a being has the more it is participate (90). Tillich reviews collectivist and semi-collectivist historical manifestations such as feudal societies of the Middle Ages (90); neo-collectivist manifestations such as fascism, Nazism and communism (96); and the democratic conformism of America and its tie to the idea of constant progress in such specifically American philosophies as pragmatism, process philosophy, the ethics of growth, progressive education, and crusading democracy (109). In Chapter 5 he takes the opposite tactic and examines the rise of modern individualism, tracing the context and experience of selfhood through successive historical periods, noting how the interaction of societies with religious authorities or trends (such as the Roman Church, pietism and Methodism) often determine the tenor of the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. Post-Enlightenment, “the courage to be is the courage to follow reason and to defy irrational authority” (116); with the help of reason, courage affirms itself as a transforming reality and conquers the threat of meaninglessness with courageous action.

In reviewing the late romantic, Bohemian and romantic-naturalistic approaches to courage, Tillich unveils Existentialism as the most radical form of the courage to be as oneself, because it demands involvement and participation over a theoretical or detached approach to life. Nietzsche is the more important forerunner of the Existentialist courage to be as oneself. Tillich describes the individual who has self-affirmed in this way: “He mediates the powers of being which are concentrated in him. He has them within himself in knowledge…. He directs the course of his life” (120-121). Tillich follows existentialism as a point of view, a form of protest, and a kind of expression; it is pervasive in the art, literature and philosophy--and therefore the cultural destiny--of the twentieth century and is the answer to its all-pervading anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness (126-131).

Tillich introduces his well-known notion of “the courage to accept acceptance” in the final chapter of TCTB. He presents religion as a realm where the power of being, and thus the courage to be, can be accessed, particularly in mysticism, where “the individual self strives for a participation in the ground of being which approaches is self-surrender in a higher, more complete, and more radical form...the perfect form of self-affirmation” (157). The mystic conquers the anxiety of fate and death by elevating the soul above the finite to the infinite. The other kind of religious encounter with the power of being is the personal encounter or communion with God and the “courage of confidence in the personal reality which is manifest in the religious experience” (160). This courage of confidence derives from divine forgiveness, which facilitates “the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable” (164). It is not the good or wise or pious who receive the courage to accept acceptance but “those who are lacking in all these qualities and are aware of being unacceptable” (165). In accessing the accepting love of the self beyond the self, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation is conquered. This may be more powerful than mysticism because “conquest of the anxiety of guilt is also conquest of the anxiety of fate” (168). But both require faith, “the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself” (172). Tillich insists that faith can coexist with doubt and despair.

Despair and doubt are necessary tools of faith and self-affirmation. The courage of despair “takes despair [into itself] and resist[s] the radical threat of nonbeing by the courage to be as oneself” (140). Such courageous acceptances of the negative, creative expressions of decay, and meaningful attempts to reveal the meaninglessness of our situation (ibid.) are often misunderstood by collectivist or conformist affirmers, who neurotically avoid the reality of life’s challenges in favor of temporary security. But the courage to face things as they are, displayed in much art and philosophy of the twentieth century, is a radical and creative negativity that actually points to deeper hope. “The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of nonbeing…. The act of accepting meaningless is itself a meaningful act” (176). Once we overcome the No in our surrounding conditions, we reach a Yes that is livelier than ever before (180). Accepting suffering affirms life instead of rose-coloring it in fantasy. Likewise, transcending a rhetorical theism and striving to participate in God-beyond-God, the power of being, is required for doubt and meaninglessness to be taken into the courage to be. Otherwise the theistic God figure is used as a shield to obscure the reality of ambiguity in life. When one has the courage to take the anxiety of meaningless upon oneself, a true power of being is revealed. “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt” (190).

Tillich engages primarily male language to discuss both humanity and divinity, which falls “dated” on today’s ear. The first and last “thirds” of the book, devoted to the exploration of the ontology and flavors of courage and of the various anxieties, would naturally be read personally and reflectively and have a somewhat intimate feeling. Thus, the middle third of the book, with its pursuit of the roots and manifestations of individualism, collectivism and existentialism in historical and cultural contexts, feels strangely distant and impersonal, and less immediately, intimately relevant for the reader. The final third of the book, through its return to the theme of “accepting acceptance,” is once again deeply psychological, and also suddenly takes on a surprising amount of religious language. More surprisingly, this language remains “unpacked,” which I imagine might be alienating for readers who were not comfortable with terms like “divine forgiveness,” “personal communion with God,” and other such seeming references to an agential deity.

I first read The Courage to Be several years ago, when I was still unfamiliar and uncomfortable with theistic and agential God-language. I used the same copy of this text for this review and was interested to see my own “marginalia” from years ago that indicated my inability to access or work productively with these terms even metaphorically. Several years of theological study and personal work with such loaded terms later, I understand the manner in which Tillich is using this language. But since this book is intended for a lay readership unacquainted with classical theological constructions—and a radical, metaphorical Tillichian engagement with them—I can imagine that this last third must be alienating for readers seeking (needing?) a purely philosophical, psychological, or historical discussion. This language is introduced somewhat suddenly and without positioning for the secular ear. Perhaps the readers of Tillich’s time could have stomached this language more fluidly—as well as the patriarchal language—but the upshot is that the book feels dated and may not pack the same popular punch as it did in its time.

This is not to say the book has nothing to offer the contemporary reader; far from it. The illumination of human anxieties and human courage is still provocative, spiritually motivating, and indeed radicalizing for readers who have not yet thought of God as the ground and power of being. As a reader always concerned about active engagement and application of theory, I found myself wishing Tillich had more practical or prescriptive suggestions in discussing how courage can actually be accessed; the most concrete recommendation seems to be the embracing of doubt, despair, and life’s ambiguity. I also wondered what a feminist rendering of this text would look like as much of Tillich’s discussion of the human condition seems specific to the white, middle-aged Western male. Moreover, familiarity with Tillich’s biography and personal struggles greatly illuminates the urgency of this text.

Review by SC

Paul Tillich’s book, The Courage to Be comes from a series of lectures he presented between 1950-51 at Yale University as part of the Terry Foundation lectures. The aim of these talks was to address religion in light of science and philosophy, a task Tillich responds to by an analysis of the human situation through the examination of the concept of “courage”. His claim is that as courage is an ontological condition of existence it points to the nature of being itself.

Tillich begins by separating courage into two parts: the ontological concept and the ethical reality. As is typical of his systematic approach, he claims that it is the separation of these two from one another that leads to a distorted understanding of courage. He tracks this development from Plato to Nietzsche showing at each step along the way how the contemporary philosophers and society at large viewed courage in relation to the conditions of the world around them. Of particular interest to Tillich are the Platonic ideas aligning courage and spirit with the phylakes or armed aristocracy of ancient Greece and the development of these ideas up through Thomas Aquinas, and the competing view of the Stoics, a group he sees as ultimately choosing the path of cosmic resignation in the face of the anxieties of existence. In Spinoza and Nietzsche, Tillich finds kindred, but incomplete definitions of “courage” to the one he espouses: affirmation of one’s being when faced with the threat of nonbeing.

Anxiety, its origins, form and character, are Tillich’s next point of exploration. Anxiety for Tillich is the recognition of the threat of non-being; it is ontologically necessitated and is the counterpart to courage. Following his pattern of creating dialects between external and internal, universal and particular, Tillich differentiates between anxiety, the response to being faced with non-being, and fear as an object-specific response. Fear inherently is “fear of” something, while anxiety is always directly resultant from facing the threat of non-being (a true nothingness). He differentiates between three kinds of anxiety (ontic - anxiety of fate and death; spiritual - anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness; and moral - anxiety of guilt and condemnation) and then dissects each of these to show how they result from a recognition of the human condition, and how the specific milieu of different historical periods leads to a prevalence of particular types of anxiety. He next applies the categories of anxiety to the neurotic and pathological to gain better understanding of their character. The neurotic, recognizing the danger of non-being builds a false castle of security when faced with anxiety, and can exhibit intense bouts of creativity, but at the cost of full human potential, while pathological anxiety by contrast is a result of people’s total inability to face their existential anxiety, and results in a certitude that leads to fanaticism. Healthy anxiety is that which leads to the courage to absorb the threat of non-being into oneself through an act of courage.

Having laid the groundwork for his book through his exploration of courage and anxiety as ontological concepts, Tillich makes his final move to an examination of the dialectic ontological categories of participation and individuation and their relation to courage and anxiety. For Tillich, it is in the alignment and unification of these concepts of being that we find true “courage to be.” Tillich takes us through the manifold ways in which we can fail to hold these two together. Beginning with participation, or “being a part of”, he gives examples of Eastern and Western societies which exemplify the complexities and failures of finding courage in one’s participation within a group, the primary problems being the inherent falseness of such a position, and the danger of completely subsuming the self within the group and thus a loss of one of the poles of existence. The inverse, an emphasis on individualization is examined through the modes of romanticism, naturalism and existentialism. While both romanticism and naturalism aim in the right direction by emphasizing the importance of the individual self, they do not attain the level of resistance to dehumanization and self-affirmation realized in existentialism. This too can be taken to the extreme and a loss of the world can result.

Tillich has revealed a problem that can only be solved through transcendence: to face the anxieties of the self-world split one cannot look to either the self or the world as these are within the realm of existence and therefore subject to the split. Courage demands looking beyond this to being itself which transcends the divide. Courage is the faith that one is acceptable even in the face of unacceptability. Tillich calls this “absolute faith”, and in the closing chapter of his book he outlines how this meets and conquers the three forms of anxiety that run throughout existence.

This biggest strength of Tillich’s Courage to Be is his analysis and presentation of the human condition. Tillich’s book speaks to the very real human condition of anxiety in the face of death, meaninglessness and condemnation while simultaneously capturing the breadth and depth of human attempts to escape this anxiety. We all encounter death in our lives but few of us truly “face” it, often losing ourselves in communities of faith who “deal” with the icky parts for us, or else ignoring it completely as Western culture does so well in the complete sanitization of death and dying. We don’t see a corpse until it is drained, filled, starched, pressed and in full make-up. To see it otherwise would bring us face-to-face with our own mortality and limits. So it is with Tillich’s book, for readers on either path (participatory or individualistic), Tillich’s book can be a harsh experience as he confronts the reader time and again with the contradictions implicit in their actions and beliefs.

In rooting his theology in ontology Tillich is able to escape the problems of a theistic God, but it is not clear that he replaces this with something equally comforting. Confronted with the great abyss of meaninglessness, Tillich proposes that we are faced with a decision between courage and despair and that we should choose courage, that is we should live in a meaningful way in spite of being unsure. Several times throughout the book he notes that Stoicism with its decision for resigned defeat is a plausible alternative. While Tillich does show the benefits of choosing courage over despair, his admitted inability to know for certain that faith is more “true” does ultimately leave open the possibility for making the opposite choice. This reader for one remains uncomfortably stuck on the contingency of a choice for courage.

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