Joy, Anger, Polarity, and Transcendence


A Review
The Courage to Be (Third Edition)
Paul Tillch
Yale University Press (1952), 233 pages

Joy, Anger, Polarity, and Transcendence
By Wade Lee Hudson

How to handle polarities, related opposites, is tricky. In some cases, poles are symmetrical, of equal value, and can be balanced, as with positive and negative poles on a battery. Symmetrical polarity often applies to behavior, as with the tension between work and home. In this case, balance is appropriate. 

But with inner tensions, as with the conflict between love and hate, poles may be asymmetrical. One may be more powerful than the other. 

Paul Tillich, the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century, argued that the fundamental polarity between being and non-being, which includes the tension between life and death, calls for integration, rather than balance. This perspective seems to apply to love and hate, as well as trust and fear.

Tillich studied ontology, the nature of existence, what it means for beings to exist. In The Courage to Be, he wrote: “The structural universe of being” is part and parcel of the world in which humanity participates. “Man can affirm himself only if he affirms...the structure of being in which he finds himself.” 

He focused on the “characteristics of being-itself,” rejected the medieval “forms of metaphysical and religious dualism [that] are tied up with the ascetic ideal — the negation of matter,” and affirmed the “active shaping of the material realm.” 

Understanding being requires understanding nonbeing, which has been an “inescapable content” of human thought, as seen in reflections on death, the “demonic,” human limits, and finitude. 

Concerning how being relates to nonbeing, Tillich wrote metaphorically: “Being ‘embraces’ itself and nonbeing. Being has nonbeing ‘within’ itself.” ...The ground of everything that living creativity. Creatively it affirms itself, eternally conquering its own nonbeing.” He spoke of “the priority of being over non-being…. Nonbeing is dependent on the being it negates…. There could be no negation if there were no preceding affirmation to be negated.” 

Tillich argued that nonbeing threatens being with three types of anxiety: fate and death; emptiness and loss of meaning; and guilt and condemnation. Confronting those anxieties requires “the courage to be” — to be as oneself and to be a part of something larger.

“The basic polar structure of being” consists of self and world. 

The first polar elements are individualization and participation…. Man’s self-affirmation has two sides which are distinguishable but not separable: one is the affirmation of the self as a self… [The other is the] world, a structured universe…. Self and world are correlated, and so are individualization and participation…. The whole is what it is only with the part.

From Tilich’s perspective, “the courage to be as a part” led to “the loss of the self” in collectivism and democratic conformity. And “the courage to be as oneself” led to the loss of the world in Existentialism and cynicism. However, “neither of these forms of the courage to be gives the final solution.” Instead of only one of those options, Tillich affirmed “a going ahead or above to a source of courage which transcends both the courage to be a part and the courage to be as oneself.”

To take the three-fold anxiety of life into itself and “find the power of being-itself and a courage to be that is beyond the threat of nonbeing,” the courage to be “must be rooted in a power of being that is greater than the power of oneself and the power of one’s world” — “the ground of being” — “the power of the God that is above the God of theism” — which enables us to better understand being-itself. This process is a “paradoxical act in which one is accepted by that which transcends one’s individual self.” 

This transcendence is possible because

being includes nonbeing but nonbeing does not prevail against it…. Being embraces itself and that which is opposed to it, nonbeing. Nonbeing belongs to being, it cannot be separated from it. We could not even think “being” without a double negation: being must be thought as the negation of the negation of being…. 

Being could not be the ground of life without nonbeing. The self-affirmation of being without nonbeing would not even be self-affirmation but an immovable self-identity…. Nonbeing drives being out of its seclusion, it forces it to affirm itself dynamically…. The infinite embraces itself and the finite, the Yes includes itself and the No which it takes into itself, blessedness comprises itself and the anxiety of which it is the conquest.

Tillich’s theology argued that the poles of being and nonbeing, though they are interwoven and interdependent, are not equal, or symmetrical. Nonbeing serves being. It drives being to action, engagement, and creativity. Being is the ground of life. The power of being is greater than the power of nonbeing. Being is primary and nonbeing is secondary, subservient. 

In “Charles Hartshorne: Neoclassical Metaphysics," Donald Wayne Viney reported that Charles Hartshorne, the American philosopher, reached a similar conclusion. According to Viney, Hartshorne argued, “the principle of dipolarity does not justify metaphysical dualism. One should distinguish between asserting that a metaphysical concept requires a contrary polar conception in its definition, and asserting that two polar concepts have an equivalent metaphysical status.”

These arguments apply to joy and anger, two polar opposites. Joy is primary and anger is secondary, subservient. Anger serves to protect and promote joy, prevent and stop injustice, and create an environment that will enable joy to flourish. A balance between anger and joy is not desirable. That would place too much value on anger. Exaggerating the value of anger in that way is counterproductive. When we use anger, we can keep joy in mind and remember.that our purpose is to advance joy. Rather than balance them, we can integrate the two poles so that anger serves joy.

Fear and anger lead humans to be selfish, materialistic, domineering, individualistic, and competitive. At the same time, however, even deeper instincts, trust and love lead to altruism, spirituality, partnership, community, and cooperation. The trick is to face our emotions and integrate them so the negative serves the positive. 

We become fearful and angry after we first experience trust and love in the womb and as infants. Then, as we mature, we want to recover and preserve trust and love. When we rebel with negativity, it’s on behalf of positivity. 

Moreover, until about 10,000 years ago, humans were hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands in which they formed strong social bonds, were loyal to one another, took care of the vulnerable, respected their traditions, embraced their spirituality, were committed to fairness, and were largely peaceful. As the anthropologist James Suzman said, our DNA gives all humanity an “inner hunter-gather.” With intention, we can liberate those primal potentialities.

If we integrate conflicting emotions, we can transcend them to serve a higher reality rather than merely balance them. The virtues of each emotion can blossom, and individuals can better manage their emotions and be more rational

The highest purpose of fear and anger is to advance trust and love, but the highest purpose of trust and love is not to advance fear and anger. They are not symmetrical, in need of balance. Fear and anger serve trust and love, but not the converse. 

 A false equivalency that seeks a balance between the two poles can exaggerate the value of fear and anger and inflame them. Another approach is to root fear and anger in trust and love, allow trust and love to embrace fear and anger, and use fear and anger to serve trust and love. This understanding of the relationship between the poles can contribute to a more fruitful integration, a more rewarding transcendence.


NOTE: For more and excerpts from the book, see “The Courage to Be.