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

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...

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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...

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The Courage to Be

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...

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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.


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