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Courage and Paul Tillich’s Philosophy and Theology


The category of courage is of keen interest in the fields of ethics, philosophy, and theology. There are many opinions on the subject in the literature, and many of them contradict each other. The topic of this paper is the courage to be, one of the central elements in the theological system of Paul Tillich. In his philosophy, courage serves as the instrument of building self-awareness and, at the same time, can be regarded as the ultimate measure of individual spiritual self-affirmation. Therefore, in the paper, we will argue that courage is not merely an ethical value but an ontological conception and is opposed by the classical purely moral perspective on courage.

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Tillich provides a unique system that is rooted in the principles of existentialism. Therefore, to understand the significance of courage in his theological worldview, we will evaluate such notions as existential anxiety, fear of nonbeing, finiteness, etc. The existential anxiety associated with fears of losing the ultimate interest that gives the life its value and significance or death are deeply interrelated with the courage to be and, therefore, through evaluation of these theoretical concepts we will get closer to the comprehension of the category of courage. Moreover, by analyzing the fundamental ideas comprised in Tillich’s theology and comparing them to other philosophical views, we will conclude whether courage is an ontological or an ethical category.

A Classical Take on Courage

Most of the traditional schools of philosophical thought investigated courage in the framework of military ethics and defined it as a quality consisted in the act of “overcoming the fear of significant harm for a worthy cause”1. Nowadays, it is possible to find many definitions of courage which also may be controversial. To demonstrate the potential controversies that existed in the views of ancient philosophers and which laid the foundation for the contemporary perspectives on courage, we will analyze Plato’s, Aristotle’s, and Kant’s ideas.

Plato’s Look on Courage

In Plato’s Laches, Socrates evaluates courage as a specific independent quality through which an individual may investigate the world. He starts from the narrow definition which states that “a man of courage is the one ‘who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy’”2. But then, he generalizes the idea and includes in the category of courageous people even those who “are mighty to contend against desires and pleasures”3. Socrates recognizes that courage merely serves the virtue and obeys it. From his perspective, courage cannot be understood without understanding the being as a whole, and since the being cannot be thoroughly comprehended, one cannot give a precise explanation to courage as well. At the same time, the term may be applied to describe a variety of actions or responses aimed to overcome the fear of the unknown and the absolute uncertainty4.

Courage as a Sign of Nobility

Similarly to Plato, in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle also reviews the category in the context of the battlefield. Courage is defined there as the quality that allows individuals to overcome the fear of death. From the Aristotelian point of view, death is “the most fearful thing,” and a person can be regarded as courageous merely in case he or she overcomes this great fear to serve a noble purpose5. However, it is worth mentioning that Aristotle distinguished an honorable death from the regular one. It means that he paid much attention to “circumstances which bring out courage are those in which a man can show his prowess or where he can die a noble death, neither of which is true of death by drowning or disease”6. Thus, it is possible to say that the notion “courage” in the Aristotelian framework has significant political implications (i.e., a man is meant to serve common happiness and contribute to the society) rather than a personal and a theological one.

Kantian Perspective on Courage

Aristotle considers duty as the highest virtue and, in this regard, courage demonstrated in the face of challenges on the way towards the fulfillment of one’s duty has an undeniable virtuous quality for him. Still, such a perspective is criticized by another philosopher, Kant, who doubted in the moral significance of courage and viewed it in a negative light. He questioned whether any action that is not conformed with duty has any moral value, and tended to believe that it does not7. He considered courage “a sign of outstanding personal excellence” which, by its nature indicates inequality and superiority of one person over another8. Thus, in Kantian philosophy, virtuousness and courage are not linked.

The review of the literature revealed three views on courage that can be traced in the modern common perception of the analyzed human quality. At the same time, the identified controversies demonstrate the complexity and multidimensionality of the phenomenon. It is possible to assume that Plato’s perspective is one of the closest to Tillich’s ontological view on courage as it implies a more generalized approach and links expression of courage to deal with a fear of uncertainty inherent in the existence. However, Tillich considered the neo-stoic philosophical view, and Spinoza’s perspective on courage, in particular, most proximate to own idea.

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Therefore, in the following paragraphs, we will review the neo-stoic perception of courage, and demonstrate how the individual human being has its roots in the universal, cosmic being where his or her natural qualities and attributes, such as courage, derive from. We also will show that the existential threats, as well as the anxiety which they cause, designate the separateness of the human from the divine and the truth. The presence of existential threats and the spiritual roots of human beings reveal the twisted structure of human existence. This controversy may be used to explain why there is an essential need for recognizing one’s true nature in Tillich’s philosophy.

Existential Basis of Tillich’s Theology

Courage to Be

According to Tillich, “courage is an ethical reality, but it is rooted in the whole breadth of human existence and ultimately in the structure of being itself”9. Like any action, courage can be subject to ethical evaluation, but, when regarded as a means for self-affirmation, it obtains an ontological meaning. The courage to be is “the courage to affirm oneself despite fate and death, but it is not the courage to affirm oneself despite sin and guilt”10. The given statement is related to the area of postmodern epistemology and addresses such topical contemporary theological issues as the nature of truth and being.

It is observed that in Tillich’s theological framework, “human consciousness is God-positing and at the same time self-separated from the divine”11. The theologian regards courage as an intrinsic quality of the human being. His idea is inspired by Heidegger’s perspective on the human as the point in which the structure of the being reveals itself. Heidegger suggested that when individuals analyze the being, they always analyze themselves12. Overall, the human being is considered an instrument through which the universal, absolute being cognizes itself. Similarly, Tillich stated that to be a human means to question own being and to live following the answers one receives during the process of building self-awareness.

Essence of Nonbeing

To understand the ideas reviewed above more profoundly, it is important to evaluate the reasons why an individual may engage in the analysis of own being. According to Tillich, the question about being is provoked by the shock of nonbeing. Only the human can be involved in ontological reflections because, contrary to animals, he or she can look beyond the boundaries of the personal being, as well as the being of others. When viewing being from the stance of possible nonbeing, it represents as a mystery, a mystical experience. People can develop the given perception as their physiological and intellectual abilities allow them to transcend this reality.

From the human perspective, being is temporary; it is limited by nonbeing. The idea of nonbeing is closely related to being, and it does not exist separately from it. Being always precedes nonbeing in the ontological reality. Being in the beginning without an end and the end without the beginning13. Nevertheless, all attributes of being are, to some extent, associated with nonbeing. It is the process of constant change and transformation in which particular objects come into existence and then move into nonbeing. It has an end; it is certain and limited. Human life inevitably ends, and death is the fact which, sooner or later, every person has to face14.

Existential Anxiety

To be is to be finite. For Tillich, the comprehension of own temporality is existential anxiety. As an ontological quality, anxiety is pervasive. It depends on nothing but the threat of nonbeing. Since the existential anxiety does not depend on any particular object, it cannot be overcome through acting or thinking because nobody can overpass own physical constraints and limitations. Therefore, although many people are not always aware of it, anxiety is constantly there.

The ontological anxiety may have many forms. For instance, nonbeing threats existential self-affirmation of individuals in the form of death or fate, spiritual self-affirmation – in the form of emptiness and meaninglessness, or moral self-affirmation – as guilt and condemnation. Each of the types of anxiety affects individuals to some degree. At the same time, although the anxieties are categorized, it does not mean they are separated from each other. All three forms are interrelated, and one of them may prevail over others in particular periods and development. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that the anxiety associated with death and fate is fundamental and the deepest. It may substantially undermine various spheres of individual self-realization, including moral self-affirmation.

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Another primary source of ontological anxiety is time and space that represent two of the central categories of human existence. It moves from the past that is already not there to the future which is still not there, through the present which is nothing more than just a moving boundary line between the future and the past15. “To be” means to be in the present. “The present implies space; time creates the present through its union with space”16. Every striving to provide itself with space (geographic, spiritual, social, etc.) and preserve it.

However, the spatiality is linked to nonbeing not merely because individuals may lose a particular space but also because they will have to lose any space they could have. Finitude implies the lack of possession of a permanent location which means absolute insecurity. However, the anxiety provoked by the fear of the loss of personal space can be balanced with courage with which one can affirm the present moment and space. The human is a unique creature in the sense that it can accept own ontological insecurity and find protection in this acceptance. However, the controversy between the inability of the human being to exist without space and the acceptance of the ultimate spacelessness is one of the primary Tillich’s concerns.

From the common point of view, anxiety is a psychological category, and psychological methods are usually regarded by theologians with a share of skepticism and suspicion. At the beginning of the 20th century, psychology was frequently opposed to traditional schools of theology and was considered “an enemy of Christian philosophy”17. However, the physiological and theological elements are correlated in Tillich’s view. He observes that the existential anxiety may be the factor for the development of neuroticisms or “pathological anxiety,” psychological disorders caused by the inability to cope with the threat of nonbeing18.

Both existential and pathological anxiety are forms of limited and narrowed individual behavioral extensiveness and expressivity. At the same time, the theologian distinguishes the fundamental ontological anxiety from the fear of particular objects by their severity, intensity, and relation to the core of being. Fear is psychological; it means that it can be treated through various psycho-emotional interventions. However, anxiety as the existential awareness of nonbeing is detached from objects and their abstract meanings and is based on the recognition of the actual state of things, i.e., temporality and finitude of own existence. At the same time, anxiety in its ontological sense may be implicitly present in other types of fear as well. In this way, there may be two outcomes of the anxious state: fear and despair, or courage, and self-cognition.

Any finite being cannot bear pure anxiety for a long time and, therefore, the transformation of such experience into fear is natural. In this way, fear may be regarded as the method of coping with existential anxiety. In the given context, pathological anxiety is viewed by the theologian as a result of unsuccessful attempts to deal with the ontological anxiety19. It is also suggested that existential anxiety cannot be eliminated as such. Therefore, a person needs to find a way to live with it. For this reason, courage has significant value because it is a constructive method for coping anxiety which helps to prevent despair and other conditions that may adversely impact the human being.

Courage in the Neo-Stoic Framework

The Nature of Self-Preservation

“Anxiety turns us toward courage because the other alternative is despair. Courage resists despair by taking anxiety into itself”20. In Tillich’s theology, the ontological quality of courage prevails over the ethical one. From his perspective, it should not be regarded merely as a virtue, but as a means for finding an answer to the questions about human existence. Tillich refers to the neo-stoic perspective on courage as the most profound among all other perspectives. Courage in the neo-stoic sense implies the submission of the personality to the universal being; it implies cooperation with the divine consciousness that allows transcending the realm of suffering and desires21.

The stoic courage is the courage to affirm own being despite everything that resists human unity with Cosmos. Tillich refers to the work of Benedict de Spinoza, whom he considered the most prominent representative in this philosophical line, and demonstrates the courage as an expression of essential being, an act of self-affirmation22. According to Spinoza, striving for self-preservation makes a being what it is23. This aspiration reflects the essence of the being. From this point of view, courage is a reasonable desire that motivates a person to preserve his or her being. In the given context, the capability for self-preservation acquires a spiritual significance, and courage is regarded as a universal quality of being.


Tillich’s courage to be is an ability to resist nonbeing given to the human by the power of being. The essence of courage is contained in its existential origins. It is possible to say that courage in the theologian’s framework is equal to absolute faith and acceptance of God. To be courageous is to have a sense of connectedness with an unlimited source of being, to be aware of it. At the same time, courage serves as proof of the presence of God. This proof can be reached only within and cannot be rationalized. Thus, although the category is rooted in existentialism, it contains a share of meta-existentialism as well

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The findings of the literature review make it clear that Tillich’s look on courage largely differs from the classical ethical perspectives. For instance, in the Aristotelian framework, courage is the quality that can be cultivated only in the context of fulfilling the duty, that is serving the greater goal of achieving universal happiness. From Kant’s point of view, courage is not a virtue as such, and the philosopher emphasized its purely functional quality which has nothing o do with nobility and morality. Kant suggested that courage can be demonstrated during some unethical activities. However, similarly to Plato’s perspective, Tillich’s courage is related to the cosmic being, and like Spinoza’s definition of courage, it is related to individual self-affirmation.

Still, we cannot find an apparent trace of ethical implications in Tillich’s stance regarding courage but only can suppose they are implicitly included. Based on the findings, it is possible to conclude that courage refers to the beauty of committing an act that affirms some values but Tillich does not imply that courage necessarily requires some a sacrifice. The only requirement is the acceptance of existential anxiety. The major difference between Tillich’s perspective from the ethical one is its internal orientation and centeredness on the person. Courage is not directly related to serving humanity but is connected to individual self-realization. It is not directly concerned with other people and their welfare although at some points the individual and collective goals may cross at one point or another. Courage implies the development of self-awareness, personal growth, and movement towards the ultimate peak of self-realization in multiple domains of life, and mainly the spiritual one. For this reason, the ontological value prevails over the ethical one in Tillich’s courage but does not exclude it.


Dobbs, Darrell. “For Lack of Wisdom: Courage and Inquiry in Plato’s ‘Laches’.” The Journal of Politics 48 (1986): 825-849.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated and edited by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

King, Martin Luther. “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” PhD diss., Boston University, 1955.

Lord, Beth. Spinoza’s Ethics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Miller, Rielle. “Moral Courage: Definition and Development.” Research paper, Ethics Resource Center, 2005.

Palmer, Karen. “Paul Tillich and Carl Jung: A Dialogue Between Theology and Psychology.” Thesis, McMaster University, 1996.

Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

Vater, Michael. “Ultimate Concern and Finitude: Schelling’s Philosophy of Religion and Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology.” Paper presented at the Second Conference of the North American Schelling Society, Western University London, Canada, August 29-September 1, 2013.

Walton, Douglas. Courage, a philosophical investigation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Watkins, Lamar. “Paul Tillich’s Analysis of the Existential Condition of Man and Its Implications for Social Casework Theory and Practice.” Thesis, Atlanta University, 1968.

Zavaliy, Andrei, and Michel Aristidou. “Courage: A Modern Look at an Ancient Virtue.” Journal Of Military Ethics 13, no 2 (2014): 174-189.


  1. Andrei Zavaliy and Michel Aristidou, 2014, “Courage: A Modern Look at an Ancient Virtue,” Journal Of Military Ethics 13, no 2: 174.
  2. Ibid., 175.
  3. Ibid., 176.
  4. Darrell Dobbs, 1986, “For Lack of Wisdom: Courage and Inquiry in Plato’s ‘Laches’,” The Journal of Politics 48: 832.
  5. Rielle Miller, “Moral Courage: Definition and Development” (Research paper, Ethics Resource Center, 2005), 2.
  6. Ibid., 3.
  7. Douglas Walton, Courage, a Philosophical Investigation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 18.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 1.
  10. Ibid., 17.
  11. Michael Vater, “Ultimate Concern and Finitude: Schelling’s Philosophy of Religion and Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology” (The Second Conference of the North American Schelling Society, Western University London, Canada, 2013), 3.
  12. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 209.
  13. Martin Luther King, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman” (PhD diss., Boston University, 1955), 359.
  14. Lamar Watkins, “Paul Tillich’s Analysis of the Existential Condition of Man and Its Implications for Social Casework Theory and Practice” (Thesis, Atlanta University, 1968.), 7.
  15. Martin Luther King, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman” (PhD diss., Boston University, 1955), 400.
  16. Ibid., 401.
  17. Karen Palmer, “Paul Tillich and Carl Jung: A Dialogue Between Theology and Psychology” (Thesis, McMaster University, 1996), 1.
  18. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 67.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 66
  21. Ibid., 13.
  22. Ibid., 67.
  23. Beth Lord. Spinoza’s Ethics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 90.

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