My wife recently put me on a mandatory book buying fast. Begrudgingly, I complied, but figured I’d make the most of it by rereading some old books that I haven’t touched in years. All in all, it’s been a highly productive fast (finally we have enough money left over to spend on senseless, impulsive purchases in the toy section of Crackle Barrel on Sunday morning).
One of the works I dusted off was “The Courage to Be” by Paul Tillich. The book is primarily an ontological and ethical study on courage, but spends considerable time working through various concepts of anxiety. He discusses three basic forms, all of which comingle in a way that requires an aptitude for nuance, the kind of which Tillich had no shortage.
The three forms he discovered were: anxiety of fate and death, anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, and anxiety of guilt and condemnation. The goal of this article is to provide enough material on each category so that one can use it as an easy reference guide of his thoughts.
The Anxiety of Fate and Death
It seems to me that this first form is at once the most obvious, yet the one most likely to escape one’s general awareness. The average person does not walk around with his or her mortality on their mind most days. Yet, ask anyone and they will tell you that they understand their situation, that they could meet their end at any moment—stroke, stray bullet, stray car, stray falling piano, etc. But unless they have just narrowly escaped death on the freeway, or recently experienced the passing of a loved one, the average person does not dwell on the fact of their mortality. How then does fate and death qualify as “the most basic, most universal, and inescapable” form of anxiety?
Tillich argues that, “death overshadows all concrete anxieties and gives them their ultimate seriousness.” Indeed, “The fear of death determines the element of anxiety in every fear.” The inescapable fact of death changes everything.
“Why don’t you get a job; why don’t you marry; why don’t you have kids,” are some anxieties people foist on one another. “Get off my back,” the immortal might reply, “I can do all of that in 700 years.” Without the threat of death, anxiety has no foothold.
And not merely the threat of death, but that of fate poisons the pool of courage.
“The threat of nonbeing to man’s ontic self-affirmation,” Tillich continues, “is absolute in the threat of death. Fate would not produce inescapable anxiety without death behind it.” Fate in this context is important to include with death, and in fact with all the forms of anxiety, in that it “stresses their contingent character, their unpredictability, the impossibility of showing their meaning and purpose.”
Contingency here should not be misunderstood as meaning “causally undetermined,” but rather that “the determining causes of our existence have no ultimate necessity.” Tillich explains that “it is not causal necessity that makes fate a matter of anxiety but the lack of ultimate necessity, the irrationality, the impenetrable darkness of fate.”
“Death stands behind fate and its contingencies not only in the last moment when one is thrown out of existence but in every moment within existence. Nonbeing is omnipresent and produces anxiety even where an immediate threat of death is absent.”
The Anxiety of Emptiness and Meaninglessness
The threat of nonbeing, delivered by the anxiety of fate and death threatens a person’s whole being, and therefore one’s spiritual self as well. Tillich states that, “spiritual self-affirmation occurs in every moment in which man lives creatively in the various spheres of meaning.”
By “creative” Tillich has in mind a “spiritual creativity” which allows one to “participate meaningfully in their original creations,” that is, “Everyone who lives creatively in meanings affirms himself as a participant in these meanings. He affirms himself as receiving and transforming reality creatively.” A person who does not experience this “spiritual self-affirmation,” experiences instead the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness.
If that lacks clarity, allow me to quote Tillich at length to help iron-out the thought:
The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of nonbeing to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in the sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had passionately affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference or aversion. Everything is tried and nothing satisfies. The contents of the tradition, however excellent… lose their power to give content today. And present culture is even less able to provide the content… Anxiously one turns away from all concrete contents and looks for an ultimate meaning, only to discover that it was the loss of a spiritual center which took away the meaning from the special contents of the spiritual life.
The danger with this form of anxiety is that it’s remedy—a strong faith in God or something of ultimate meaning—cannot be produced intentionally, and the attempt only deepens the anxiety. In addition, as one attempts to break out of this situation, he will often attempt to identify himself with something “transindividual.” Tillich explains, “He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively.”
I find this to be one of Tillich’s more brilliant observations, and one that lends explanatory power to many ills in modern society. Far from pertaining only to religious individuals, all people are vulnerable to the “escape from freedom,” (as Erick Fromm put it) in order to avoid the anxiety of one’s existential responsibilities. “In order to avoid the risk of asking and doubting,” Tillich continues, “he surrenders the right to ask and to doubt. He surrenders himself in order to save his spiritual life… to escape the anxiety of meaninglessness.”
The trouble is, one’s conquest of doubt required the “sacrifice of the freedom of the self,” which then reveals itself as “a fanatical self-assertiveness.” The very anxiety that his self-surrender was supposed to conquer becomes a fanaticism which attacks those who disagree with him. This is because he must suppress in others what he had to suppress in himself.
The Anxiety of Guilt and Condemnation
This third form is one that threatens one’s moral self-affirmation. Tillich again, wisely applies this form of self-affirmation to all people, not only the religious. “Man’s being, ontic as well as spiritual, is not only given to him but also demanded of him. He is responsible for it; literally, he is required to answer, if he is asked, what he has made of himself.”
Whether one is religious or not, there exists within a man the necessity “to make of himself what he is supposed to become, to fulfill his destiny,” whatever that happens to be.
All people carry with them their own independent “hero project” (as Otto Rank put it) for their sense of moral obligation. One is faced with guilt and condemnation when he or she fails to live up to their own measure, to their ideal hero-self.
The trouble is, regardless of how well he has formulated the ethics of his ideal self, “man has the power of acting against it, of contradicting his essential being, of losing his destiny… Even in what he considers his best deed nonbeing is present and prevents it from being perfect. A profound ambiguity between good and evil permeates everything he does, because it permeates his personal being as such.”
Tillich explains that this sort of moral self-awareness can drive a person toward complete self-rejection. And here I will again quote him at length:
To avoid this extreme situation man tries to transform the anxiety of guilt into moral action regardless of its imperfection and ambiguity. Courageously he takes nonbeing into his moral self-affirmation. This can happen in two ways, according to the duality of the tragic and the personal in man’s situation, the first based on the contingencies of fate, the second on the responsibility of freedom. The first way can lead to a defiance of negative judgments and the moral demands on which they are based; the second way can lead to a moral rigor and the self-satisfaction derived from it. In both of them—usually called anomism and legalism—the anxiety of guilt lies in the background and breaks again and again into the open, producing the extreme situation of moral despair.
At this point Tillich breaks off into a very interesting discussion on despair as it relates to the three forms of anxiety. And I too will leave off here. Thanks for reading.