Modern History Sourcebook:
The Courage to Be, 1952
Sociological analysis of the present period have pointed
to the importance of anxiety as a group phenomenon. Literature
and art have made anxiety a main theme of their creations, in
content as well as in style. The effect of this has been the awakening
of at least the educated groups to an awareness of their own anxiety,
and a permeation of the public consciousness by ideas and symbols
of anxiety. Today it has become almost a truism to call our time
an "age of anxiety." This holds equally for America
I suggest that we distinguish three types of anxiety according
to the three directions in which nonbeing threatens being. Nonbeing
threatens man's ontic self-affirmation, relatively in terms of
fate, absolutely in terms of death. It threatens man's spiritual
self-affirmation, relatively in terms of emptiness, absolutely
in terms of meaninglessness. It threatens man's moral self-affirmation,
relatively in terms of guilt, absolutely in terms of condemnation.
The awareness of this threefold threat is anxiety appearing in
three forms, that of fate and death (briefly, the anxiety of death),
that of emptiness and loss of meaning (briefly, the anxiety of
meaninglessness), that of guilt and condemnation (briefly, the
anxiety of condemnation). In all three forms anxiety is existential
in the sense that it belongs to existence as such and not to an
abnormal state of mind as in neurotic (and psychotic) anxiety.
The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an
ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings.
This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of
an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the
meaning of existence
The distinction of the three types of anxiety is supported by
the history of Western civilization. We find that at the end of
ancient civilization ontic anxiety is predominant, at the end
of the Middle Ages moral anxiety, and at the end of the modern
period spiritual anxiety. But in spite of the predominance of
one type the others are also present and effective.
The breakdown of absolutism, the development of liberalism and
democracy, the rise of a technical civilization with its victory
over all enemies and its own beginning disintegration-these are
the sociological presupposition for the third main period of anxiety.
In this the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness is dominant.
We are under the threat of spiritual nonbeing.
It is significant that the three main periods of anxiety appear
at the end of an era. The anxiety which, in its different forms,
is potentially present in every individual becomes general if
the accustomed structures of meaning, power, belief, and order
disintegrated. These structures, as long as they are in force,
keep anxiety bound within a protective system of courage by participation.
The individual who participates in the institutions and ways of
life of such a system is not liberated from his personal anxieties
but he has means of overcoming them with well-known methods. In
periods of great changes these methods no longer work. Conflicts
between the old, which tries to maintain itself, often with new
means, and the new, which deprives the old of its intrinsic power,
produce anxiety in all directions. Nonbeing, in such a situation,
has a double face, resembling two types of nightmare (which are
perhaps, expressions of an awareness of these two faces). The
one type is the anxiety of annihilating narrowness, of the impossibility
of escape and the horror of being trapped. The other is the anxiety
of annihilating openness, of infinite formless space into which
one falls without a place to fall upon. Social situations like
those described have the character of both a trap without exit
and of an empty, dark, and unknown void. Both faces of the same
reality arouse the latent anxiety of every individual who looks
at them. Today most of us do look at them.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997