The Courage to Be Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 1950 the German-born theologian Paul Tillich, who had fled the Nazis in 1933 and become a lecturer in the United States, was invited to give the Terry Foundation lectures at Yale University. Two years later Tillich published an expanded version of the lectures as The Courage to Be and became something of a celebrity. The book struck a chord and became a best seller as well as a text used in college courses and at religious seminaries.

The book seemed to speak to its time, a time of disruption and uncertainty, the beginning of the Cold War, and the spread of modernist despair and existential doubt, at least among the intellectuals. The book itself, though coming from a well-respected Christian theologian, focuses on the secular philosophy of existentialism, and not until its concluding chapter does Tillich attempt to connect his analysis of society to religious themes.

He begins by tracing the history of courage, referring to Socrates and other early Greek philosophers as well as to the stoic philosophers of ancient Rome and such later thinkers as Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He argues that courage is connected to being, that it is the affirmation of one’s being, and distinguishes this sort of self-affirmation from the courage of soldiers.

In his second chapter, Tillich introduces the concept of nonbeing, saying that being embraces both itself and its negation, adding that being is eternally overcoming nonbeing. He then moves on to discuss anxiety, which he describes as the awareness of one’s own potential nonbeing, and he says nonbeing threatens being in three different ways, producing three different forms of anxiety.

The first form of anxiety is related to fate and death, the fact that human beings are subject to a variety of accidental factors that can change the direction of their lives and the fact that ultimately all human beings must die. The second form of anxiety is related to emptiness and meaninglessness, something that arises when there no longer seems to be a clear explanation of the meaning of existence. In such a situation,...

(The entire section is 869 words.)