Paul Tillich was a German-American theologian whose work helped to revolutionize Protestant theology in light of a philosophical analysis of existence. Born in a small Prussian town, the son of an authoritarian Lutheran minister, Tillich attended universities in Berlin, Tübingen, and Halle before receiving a doctorate from Breslau in 1911, as well as a licentiate of theology from Halle in 1912. As an ordained Lutheran minister and chaplain in the German army, Tillich joined forces with the religious social movement, which struggled to expand social opportunity and justice while opposing both the utopian delusions of Marxism, as well as the individualism and otherworldliness of the dominant forms of Christianity.
Tillich’s early work examined how tradition could coexist with autonomy and freedom. In The Religious Situation (1932), Tillich viewed religion as the ultimate concern of humanity that underlies 20th-century changes in art, politics, and philosophy. Because of his criticism of Hitler, in 1933, he was barred from teaching, and he emigrated to the United States to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich continued to publish sermons and articles on theology and history. Systematic Theology (1951–63), his three-volume magnum opus, presents God not as a being—an anthropomorphic, personal God—but as Being-itself, or ultimate reality; this work attempted to integrate traditional Christianity with contemporary concerns including existential uncertainty, the scientific method, and psychoanalysis. Christian doctrines are seen as resolutions of practical human problems.
In this selection from Tillich’s popular The Courage to Be (1952), suicide is explored in relation to anxiety and despair. Suicide only partially liberates the soul from anxiety, Tillich says; the inescapable guilt and condemnation of despair frustrate the attempt to escape them through this finite act.
Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 54-57.
from THE COURAGE TO BE
The Meaning of Despair
Despair is an ultimate or “boundary-line” situation. One cannot go beyond it. Its nature is indicated in the etymology of the word despair: without hope. No way out into the future appears. Nonbeing is felt as absolutely victorious. But there is a limit to its victory; nonbeing is felt as victorious, and feeling presupposes being. Enough being is left to feel the irresistible power of nonbeing, and this is the despair within the despair. The pain of despair is that a being is aware of itself as unable to affirm itself because of the power of nonbeing. Consequently it wants to surrender this awareness and its presupposition, the being which is aware. It wants to get rid of itself—and it cannot. Despair appears in the form of reduplication, as the desperate attempt to escape despair. If anxiety were only the anxiety of fate and death, voluntary death would be the way out of despair. The courage demanded would be the courage not to be. The final form of ontic self-affirmation would be the act of ontic self-negation.
But despair is also the despair about guilt and condemnation. And there is no way of escaping it, even by ontic self-negation. Suicide can liberate one from the anxiety of fate and death—as the Stoics knew. But it cannot liberate from the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, as the Christians know. This is a highly paradoxical statement, as paradoxical as the relation of the moral sphere to ontic existence generally. But it is a true statement, verified by those who have experienced fully the despair of condemnation. It is impossible to express the inescapable character of condemnation in ontic terms, that is in terms of imaginings about the “immortality of the soul.” For every ontic statement must use the categories of finitude, and “immortality of the soul” would be the endless prolongation of finitude and of the despair of condemnation (a self-contradictory concept, for “finis” means “end”). The experience, therefore, that suicide is no way of escaping guilt must be understood in terms of the qualitative character of the moral demand, and of the qualitative character of its rejection. Guilt and condemnation are qualitatively, not quantitatively, infinite. They have an infinite weight and cannot be removed by a finite act of ontic self-negation. This makes despair desperate, that is, inescapable. There is “No Exit” from it (Sartre). The anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness participates in both the ontic and moral element in despair. Insofar as it is an expression of finitude it can be removed by ontic self-negation: This drives radical skepticism to suicide. Insofar as it is a consequence of moral disintegration it produces the same paradox as the moral element in despair: there is no ontic exit from it. This frustrates the suicidal trends in emptiness and meaninglessness. One is aware of their futility.
In view of this character of despair it is understandable that all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. And this attempt is mostly successful. Extreme situations are not reached frequently and perhaps they are never reached by some people. The purpose of an analysis of such a situation is not to record ordinary human experiences but to show extreme possibilities in the light of which the ordinary situations must be understood. We are not always aware of our having to die, but in the light of the experience of our having to die our whole life is experienced differently. In the same way the anxiety which is despair is not always present. But the rare occasions in which it is present determine the interpretation of existence as a whole.