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Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be is a classic piece of twentieth-century philosophy. Like his predecessor, seminal Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Tillich is unique for his commitment to Christianity. For Tillich, a higher power is the solution to modern man’s anxieties. That said, Tillich does not treat religion as his primary theme.

According to Tillich, these anxieties are threefold: the first is anxiety surrounding one’s mortality. The Latin motto memento mori (“remember that you will die”) encapsulates this perpetual anxiety. The second anxiety is akin to nihilism (viz. that there is no inherent meaning in the universe). The third anxiety that uniformly plagues individuals is that one has not fulfilled his or her purpose. According to Tillich, these anxieties date to different ages—from the ancient world to modernity. Tillich adds that the individual needs to be affirmed as an individual and as a group, which allowed the Church to gain momentum. Tillich also claims that existentialists, like Marx and Nietzsche, contributed in no small way to a sense of despair. Existentialists (unlike nihilists) seek solutions in the individual, while Tillich proposes that individuals can demonstrate courage by finding meaning in a higher power outside themselves.


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The material in Paul Tillich’s book, The Courage to Be, was first presented in the form of a series of lectures given at Yale University in 1950-1951, under the sponsorship of the Terry Foundation. The central task that the author has assumed in these lectures is that of a dialectical analysis and phenomenological description of courage as a structural category of the human condition.

Defining Courage

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Courage, as understood by Tillich, is both an ethical reality and an ontological concept. As an ethical reality, courage indicates concrete action and decision that expresses a valuational content. As an ontological concept—that is, as illuminating a feature of being—courage indicates the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being. Tillich argues that these two meanings of courage must be united if a proper interpretation of the phenomenon is to be achieved. In the final analysis, the ethical can be understood only through the ontological. Courage as an ethical reality is ultimately rooted in the structure of being itself.

These two meanings of courage have been given philosophic consideration throughout the whole history of Western thought. The author provides a brief historical sketch of the attempt to deal with the phenomenon of courage by tracing its development from the Greek philosopher Plato through the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. There is first the tradition that begins with Plato and leads to medieval philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas. In the thought of Plato and Aristotle, the heroic-aristocratic element in courage was given priority. Plato aligned courage with the spirited part of the soul, which lies between reason and desire, and then aligned both courage and spirit with the guardian class (phylakes), which lies between the rulers and the producers. The class of guardians, as the armed aristocracy, thus gave the Platonic definition of courage an indelible heroic-aristocratic stamp. Aristotle preserved the aristocratic element by defining the courageous person as one who acts for the sake of what is noble. However, there was another current of thought developing during this period. This was the understanding of courage as rational-democratic rather than heroic-aristocratic. The life and death of Socrates, and later the Christian tradition, gave expression to this view. The position of Thomas is unique in that it marks the synthesis of a heroic-aristocratic ethic and society with a rational-democratic mode of thought.

With Stoicism a new emphasis emerges. Taking as the ideal sage the Athenian Socrates, the Stoics became the spokespeople for an emphatic rational-democratic definition of courage. Wisdom replaces heroic fortitude and the democratic-universal replaces the aristocratic ideal. The “courage to be” for the Stoics was a rational courage, indicating an affirmation of one’s reasonable nature, or Logos, which countered the negativities of the nonessential or accidental. However, this courage to be, formulated independently of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness and salvation, was ultimately cast in terms of a cosmic resignation. The historical significance of the ethical thought of Spinoza, according to Tillich, is that it rendered explicit an ontology of courage. This ontology of courage was one that made the Stoic doctrine of self-affirmation central but that replaced the Stoic idea of resignation with a positive ethical humanism.

Nietzsche stands at the end of the era, and in a sense is its culmination. Nietzsche transforms Baruch Spinoza’s “substance” into “life.” Spinoza’s doctrine of self-affirmation is restated in dynamic terms. Will becomes the central category. Life is understood as “will-to-power.” Courage is thus defined as the power of life to affirm itself in spite of its negativities and ambiguities—in spite of the abyss of nonbeing. Nietzsche expressed it thus: “He who with eagle’s talons graspeth the abyss: he hath courage.”


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Tillich, in formulating his ontology of courage, keeps the tradition from Plato to Nietzsche in mind. His definition of courage, as the universal self-affirmation of one’s being in the presence of the threat of nonbeing, receives its final clarification only in the light of the historical background that he has sketched. In the author’s definition of courage, the phenomenon of anxiety is disclosed as an unavoidable consideration. Courage and anxiety are interdependent concepts. Anxiety is the existential awareness of the threat of nonbeing. Courage is the resolute facing of this anxiety in such a way that nonbeing is ultimately embraced or taken up into being. Thus, the author is driven to formulate an ontology of anxiety. There is first a recognition of the interdependence of fear and anxiety.

Fear and anxiety are distinct but not separate. Fear has a determinable object—a pain, a rejection, a misfortune, the anticipation of death. Anxiety, on the other hand, has no object; paradoxically stated, its object is the negation of every object. Anxiety is the awareness that nonbeing is irremovably a part of one’s being, which constitutes the definition of human finitude. Anxiety and fear are thus distinct. Yet they are mutually immanent within each other. Fear, when it is deepened, reveals anxiety; and anxiety strives toward fear. The fear of dying ultimately ceases to be a fear of an object—a sickness or an accident—and becomes anxiety over the nonbeing envisioned “after death.” Conversely, anxiety strives to become fear, because the finite self cannot endure the threatening disclosure of nonbeing for more than a moment. The mind seeks to transform anxiety into fear, so that it can have a particular object to deal with and overcome. However, the basic anxiety of nonbeing cannot, as such, be eliminated. It is a determinant of human existence itself. Tillich distinguishes three types of anxiety: ontic anxiety, or the anxiety of fate and death; moral anxiety, or the anxiety of guilt and condemnation; and spiritual anxiety, or the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness.

Fate threatens humans’ ontic self-affirmation relatively; death threatens it absolutely. The anxiety of fate arises from an awareness of an ineradicable contingency that penetrates to the very depth of one’s being. Existence exhibits no ultimate necessity. It manifests an irreducible element of irrationality. Behind fate stands death as the absolute threat to ontic self-affirmation. Death discloses the total ontic annihilation that is imminent in every moment of existence. For the most part, people attempt to transform this anxiety into fear, which has a definite object. They partly succeed but then realize that the threat can never be embodied in a particular object. It arises from the human situation as such. The question then is posed: Is there a courage to be, a courage to affirm oneself in spite of the threat against humanity’s ontic self-affirmation?

Nonbeing threatens on another level. It threatens by producing moral anxiety—the anxiety of guilt, which threatens relatively, and the anxiety of condemnation, which threatens absolutely. The self seeks to affirm itself morally by actualizing its potentialities. However, in every moral action, nonbeing expresses itself in the inability of humans to actualize fully all of their potential. They remain estranged from their essential being. All of their actions are pervaded with a moral ambiguity. The awareness of this ambiguity is guilt. This guilt can drive people toward a feeling of complete self-rejection, in which they experience the absolute threat of condemnation. The question then arises whether people can find the courage to affirm themselves in spite of the threat against their moral self-affirmation.

Lastly, there is the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, which reveals the threat to spiritual self-affirmation. Emptiness threatens this self-affirmation relatively, meaninglessness threatens it absolutely. Emptiness arises out of a situation in which the self fails to find satisfaction through a participation in the contents of its cultural life. The beliefs, attitudes, and activities of tradition lose their meaning and are transformed into matters of indifference. Everything is tried but nothing satisfies. Creativity vanishes and the self is threatened with boredom and tedium. The anxiety of emptiness culminates in the anxiety of meaninglessness. People find that they can no longer hold fast to the affirmations of their tradition or to those of their personal convictions. Truth itself is called into question. Spiritual life is threatened with total doubt. Again, the question arises: Is there a courage to be that affirms itself in spite of nonbeing—in this case, nonbeing expressed in the threat of doubt that undermines one’s spiritual affirmation through the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness?

These three types of anxiety find a periodic exemplification in the history of Western civilization. Although the three types are interdependently present in all cultural ages, we find that ontic anxiety was predominant at the end of ancient civilization, moral anxiety at the end of the Middle Ages, and spiritual anxiety at the end of the modern period. The anxiety of fate and death was the central threat in the Stoic doctrine of courage; it received expression in the transition from Hellenic to Hellenistic civilization, which saw the crumbling of the independent city-states and the rise of universal empires, introducing a political power beyond control and calculation; and it is present on every page of Greek tragical literature. In the Middle Ages, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation was dominant, expressed in the theological symbol of the “wrath of God” and in the imagery of hell and purgatory. Ascetic practices, pilgrimages, devotion to relics, the institution of indulgences, heightened interest in the mass and penance—all bear witness to the moral threat of nonbeing as it manifests itself in guilt and condemnation. Modern civilization, born of the victory of humanism and the Enlightenment, found its chief threat in the threat to spiritual self-affirmation. Here the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness becomes dominant. Democratic liberalism calls into question the security and supports of an absolute state; the rise of technology tends to transform selves into tools and thus displace people’s spiritual center; skepticism replaces philosophical certitude. All cultural contents that previously gave people security no longer afford satisfaction and meaning. Modern people are threatened with the attack of emptiness and meaninglessness.

Tillich concludes his ontology of anxiety by distinguishing existential anxiety, in the three types discussed, from pathological or neurotic anxiety. Existential anxiety has an ontological character and is thus understood as a universal determinant of the human condition. Existential anxiety cannot be removed; it can only be courageously faced. Pathological anxiety, on the other hand, as the result of unresolved conflicts in the sociopsychological structure of personality, is the expression of universal anxiety under special conditions. It is the consequence of people’s inability to face courageously their existential anxiety and thus take the nonbeing that threatens into themselves.

The neurotic self still affirms itself, but it does so on a limited scale. Such affirmation is the affirmation of a reduced self that seeks to avoid the nonbeing that is constitutive of its universal finite condition. However, in thus seeking to avoid nonbeing, the neurotic self retreats from the full affirmation of its being. Tillich defines neurosis as “the way of avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being.” The neurotic personality always affirms something less than what it essentially is. Potentialities are sacrificed in order to make possible a narrow and intensified affirmation of what remains of the reduced self. The neurotic is unable to take creatively into the self the universal existential anxieties. In relation to the anxiety of fate and death, this produces an unrealistic security, comparable to the security of a prison. Because neurotics cannot distinguish what is to be realistically feared from those situations in which they are realistically safe, they withdraw into a castle of false security so as to insulate themselves from all threats of existence. In relation to the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, pathological anxiety expresses an unrealistic perfection. Neurotics set up moralistic self-defenses against all actions that would widen the horizons of their reduced and limited actualized state, which they consider to be absolutely perfect. In relation to the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, which expresses itself in a radical existential doubt, pathological anxiety drives the self to an unrealistic certitude. Unable to face the doubt regarding the contents of cultural tradition and personal beliefs, neurotics construct a citadel of certainty, from which they fend off all threat of doubt on the basis of an absolutized authority. This absolutized authority may be either a personal revelation, a social or religious institution, or a fanatical leader of a movement. In any case, they refuse to accept doubt and reject all questions from the outside. They are unable courageously to accept the reality of meaninglessness as a universal phenomenon in existential reality.

The Courage to Be

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The courage to be is the movement of self-affirmation in spite of the threat of anxiety as the existential awareness of nonbeing. This courage is conceptually clarified by Tillich through the use of the polar ontological principles of participation and individualization. The basic polar structure of being is the polarity of self and world. The first polar elements that emerge out of this foundational polar structure are the elements of participation and individualization. The relevance of these elements to Tillich’s doctrine of courage is evident. Courage expresses itself as “the courage to be as a part,” exemplifying the polar element of participation, and as “the courage to be as oneself,” exemplifying the polar element of individualization. Finally, these two polar exemplifications of courage are transcended and united in “absolute faith.” Absolute faith, grounded in transcendence, provides the final definition of the courage to be.

First, the author examines the manifestation of courage as the courage to be as a part. This is one side of people’s self-affirmation. They affirm themselves as participants in the power of a group, a historical movement, or being as such. This side of courage counters the threat of losing participation in the world. The social forms that embody this manifestation of courage are varied. Tillich briefly discusses four of these forms: collectivism, semi-collectivism, neocollectivism, and democratic conformism.

All of these forms attempt to deal with the three types of anxiety—ontic, moral, and spiritual—by channeling their individual expressions into an anxiety about the group. Thus, it becomes possible to cope with these existential anxieties with a courage that affirms itself through collective or conformal participation. The individual anxiety concerning fate and death is transcended through a collective identification. There is a part of oneself, belonging to the group, that cannot be hurt or destroyed. It is as eternal as the group is eternal—an essential manifestation of the universal collective. So, also, a self-affirmation is made possible in spite of the threat of guilt and condemnation. Individual guilt is translated into a deviation or transgression of the norms of the collective, and the courage to be as a part accepts guilt and its consequences as public guilt. The anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness is dealt with in the same way. The group becomes the bearer of universal meaning, and the individual derives his or her personal meaning through a participation in the group. The ever-present danger in the radical affirmation of the courage to be as a part is the absorption of the self into the collective, with the consequent loss of the unique, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable individual.

The courage to be as oneself expresses the other side of self-affirmation. This movement is made possible through the ontological polar element of individualization. The courage to be as oneself has found a concrete embodiment in romanticism, naturalism, and existentialism.

Romanticism elevated individuals beyond all cultural content and conferred upon them a radical autonomy. In some of its extreme expressions, as in Friedrich von Schlegel, the courage to be as oneself led to a complete rejection of participation.

Naturalism, whether of the “philosophy of life” variety or of the American pragmatic variety, follows basically the same path. Nietzsche, in his definition of nature as the will-to-power, granted priority to the individual will and made it the decisive element in the drive toward creativity. In Nietzsche, individual self-affirmation reaches a climactic point. American pragmatism, in spite of its roots in democratic conformism, shares much of the individualistic attitude characteristic of European naturalism. It finds its highest ethical principle in growth, sees the educational process as one that maximizes the individual talents of the child, and seeks its governing philosophical principle in personal creative self-affirmation.

It is in existentialism that the courage to be as oneself is most powerfully presented. Tillich distinguishes two basic expressions of existentialism: as an attitude and as a philosophical and artistic content. Existentialism as an attitude designates an attitude of concrete involvement as contrasted with an attitude of theoretical detachment. Existentialism as a content is at the same time a point of view, a protest, and an expression. However, in all of its varieties, existentialism is the chief protagonist for the reality of the individual and the importance of personal decision. It is concerned to salvage the individual from the objectivization of abstract thought, society, and technology alike. Existentialists struggle for the preservation of the self-affirmative person. They fight against dehumanization in all of its forms. The task of every individual, according to the existentialist, is to be oneself. Philosopher Martin Heidegger has profoundly expressed this existentialist courage to be as oneself in his concept of resolution (Entschlossenheit). Resolute individuals derive their directives for action from no external source. Nobody can provide for one’s security against the threat of ontic annihilation, moral disintegration, or spiritual loss of meaning. They themselves must decide how to face their imminent death, how to face their moral ambiguity, and how to face the threat of meaninglessness that strikes at the root of their existence.

The danger in the courage to be as a part is a loss of the self in the collective. The opposite danger becomes apparent in the various forms of the courage to be as oneself—namely, a loss of the world as a polar structure of selfhood. The question then arises whether there can be a courage that unites both sides of self-affirmation by transcending them.

Courage understood as absolute faith exemplifies this union through transcendence. A courage that can take the three types of anxiety creatively into itself must be grounded in a power of being that transcends both the power of oneself and the power of one’s world. The self-world correlation is still on this side of the threat of nonbeing; hence, neither self-affirmation as oneself nor self-affirmation as a part can cope successfully with nonbeing. The courage to be, in its final movement, must be rooted in the power of being-itself, which transcends the self-world correlation. Insofar as religion is the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself, it can be said that courage always has either an explicit or implicit religious character. The courage to be finds its ultimate source in the power of being-itself and becomes manifest as absolute faith. As long as participation remains dominant, the relation to being-itself is mystical in character; as long as individualization remains dominant, the relationship is one of personal encounter; when both sides are accepted and transcended, the relation becomes one of absolute faith. The two sides are apprehended as contrasts, but not as contradictions that exclude each other.

This absolute faith is able to take the threefold structure of anxiety into itself. It conquers the anxiety of fate and death in its encounter with providence. Providence gives humans the courage of confidence to say “in spite of” to fate and death. Providence must not be construed in terms of God’s activity but as a religious symbol for the courage of confidence that conquers fate and death. Guilt and condemnation are conquered through the experience of divine forgiveness that expresses itself in the courage to accept acceptance. The courage to be in relation to guilt is “the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.” In relation to the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, the courage to be, based on absolute faith, is able to say “yes” to the undermining doubt and to affirm itself in spite of the threat. Any decisive answer to the question of meaninglessness must first accept the state of meaninglessness; this acceptance constitutes a movement of faith. “The act of accepting meaninglessness is in itself a meaningful act. It is an act of faith.” Through their participation in the power of being-itself, humans are able to conquer emptiness and meaninglessness by taking them into themselves and affirming themselves “in spite of” these factors.

The content of absolute faith is the “God above God.” Tillich rejects the God of theological theism, who remains bound to the subject-object structure of reality. A God who is understood as an object becomes an invincible tyrant who divests people of their subjectivity and freedom. This is the God whom Nietzsche pronounced dead and against whom the existentialists have justifiably revolted. Theism must be transcended if absolute faith is to become a reality. The “God above God” is the power of being-itself, which, as the source of absolute faith, is not bound to the subject-object structure of reality. Being-itself transcends both self and world and unites the polarities of individualization and participation. The courage to be, which is ultimately grounded in the encounter with the “God above God,” thus unites and transcends the courage to be as oneself and the courage to be as a part. This courage avoids both the loss of oneself by participation and the loss of one’s world by individualization.


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Sources for Further Study

Calâi, Grace. Paul Tillich, First-Hand: A Memoir of the Harvard Years. Introduction by Jerald C. Brauer. Chicago: Exploration Press, 1996. An interesting and readable biography of Tillich.

Carey, John J. Paulus Then and Now: A Study of Paul Tillich’s Theological World and the Continuing Relevance of His Work. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2002. Discusses the composition and popularity of The Courage to Be, highlights its controversial notion of a God above God, and discusses Tillich’s relevance in the postmodernist era. Includes photographs.

Crossman, Richard C. Paul Tillich: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Keyword Index of Primary and Secondary Writings in English. Matuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1983. A source book for titles of all of Paul Tillich’s writings in English and of articles, books, dissertations, theses, and reviews about Tillich.

Crossman, Richard C. Tillich. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1962. An interesting work that fiercely assails Tillich’s work in two areas: his view of God and his view of Revelation.

Gilkey, Langdon. Gilkey on Tillich. New York: Crossroad, 1990. Sees Tillich as an unusual theological writer, being as much interested in philosophy and culture as theology. Includes personal reminiscences.

Grigg, Richard. Symbol and Empowerment: Paul Tillich’s Post-Theistic System. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985. This book examines the theological, philosophical, and psychological aspects of Tillich’s system of thought.

Johnson, Wayne G. Theological Method in Luther and Tillich. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. Defends Tillich’s approach to theology by making comparisons at different points to the theology of Martin Luther.

Lyons, James R. The Intellectual Legacy of Paul Tillich. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1969. Printed versions of lectures by three scholars as they evaluate Tillich as philosopher and theologian and as an observer of psychiatry. Includes brief biographical notes and a letter Tillich wrote to Thomas Mann in 1943.

Mahan, Wayne W. Tillich’s System. San Antonio, Tex.: Trinity University Press, 1974. A good outline of Tillich’s thought.

May, Rollo. Paulus: Reminiscences of a Friendship. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. Extremely personal glimpses of Tillich by the man recognized as his best friend during his thirty-two years in the United States.

Newport, John P. Paul Tillich. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1984. One of the best and most complete books on Tillich. Includes an excellent biographical section, plus chapters on Tillich’s views and evaluations of those views.

Stone, Ronald H. Paul Tillich’s Radical Social Thought. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980. Relates biographical information to Tillich’s social philosophy. This work contains some biographical material not found in older volumes.

Thomas, John Heywood. Tillich. New York: Continuum, 2000. Sees The Courage to Be as Tillich’s message to America. Includes biographical material and a general survey of Tillich’s thought.

Towne, Edgar A. Two Types of New Theism: Knowledge of God in the Thought of Paul Tillich and Charles Hartshorne. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. A good examination of Tillich’s thought process.

Wheat, Leonard F. Paul Tillich’s Dialectical Humanism: Unmasking the God Above God. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970. Surveys Tillich’s critics. Says that the obscurity of his language is the result of his hiding the fact that he was a secular humanist masquerading as a Christian.