Friday, April 18, 2008

Anxiety and More Anxiety - That's Modern Life



When I was at college in the late 1970s one of the fine books we read was The Courage To Be (1952) by the German philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965).  This is an impressively profound and scholarly work - a truly Christian existentialist work.  I wish to advert to Tillich before treating of Freud in connection with anxiety here because of the impact this book had on me.  Writing as early as 1952 we find Tillich stating that it is a truism to call our time an "age of anxiety." He went on to point out that this fact holds equally for America and Europe.   As I remember reading and learning for our exams, this scholar contended that essentially there were three types of anxiety viz., (i) the Anxiety of Death - the fear that we may be extinguished at any moment, (ii) the Anxiety of Meaninglessness - the loss of direction, focus or meaning in our lives and (iii)  the Anxiety of Condemnation - let's call it Moral Anxiety 

Tillich went on to point out that these three types of Anxiety were clearly to be seen in human history, viz., (i) at the end of ancient civilization we see clearly that an Ontic Anxiety or an Anxiety of Death or an Anxiety of Extinction is predominant (ii) at the end of the Middle Ages we see a Moral Anxiety or an Anxiety of Condemnation, and at the end of the modern period a Spiritual Anxiety or Anxiety of Meaninglessness reigns supreme. But in spite of the predominance of one type the others are also present and effective at any given time.  In the words I remember from my reading "Nonbeing threatens Being."  In other words modern humankind stands under an existential threat or spiritual threat of nonbeing.  This is as I remember the tenor of Tillich's teaching.  I remember enjoying reading this profound and slim book from his pen!  Now let's turn to our man Freud once again.

Freud on Anxiety:

I have read often over the course of my life the saying that "life is not easy."  Freud even said this, but we won't call him particularly perspicacious for this remark common as it is and always was.  I also like the comment of the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking that "life is all a question of luck!"  I love Hawking's stoicism and his philosophy of getting on with life, of playing the hand of cards you have got because that is all any of us can do.  These are two sensible human beings!  Let's be sensible then and cease our bemoaning our state of being!  As a mere human being I am threatened on all sides - the demands of my own biology or animal nature - all those drives and instincts to which I am subjected as well as the fact that I age, am subject to disease and illness and that finally I'll die (in short this makes up what Freud calls the Id or It of being.)  Then, of course, all those laws and rules and precepts Society has forced on top of me which have all gone to form my conscience or Superego.  My Consciousness or Ego or sense of Self or I tries valiantly, and often fails, to mediate successfully between this conflicting forces.  In short, Freud spoke about three types of Anxiety, viz.,

(i) Realistic Anxiety:  This may be rendered simply as Fear. When I enter a strange house and an angry dog bounds out before me, well Freud would put it technically and not so simply: "Tim is experiencing Realistic Anxiety." (This, I feel, corresponds nicely to Tillich's Ontic Anxiety or Anxiety of Death.)

(ii) Moral Anxiety: This is when our Conscience or Inner World or Superego is in conflict with our basic instincts or our IdTillich calls his particular type of anxiety by the same name. (I'm sure he had read Freud, though he does not advert directly to our founding father)

(iii) Neurotic Anxiety: This is the sheer fear of being engulfed and overcome by our basic instincts and impulses.  We feel that we are about to be not alone floundering in the sea but rather engulfed and in danger of being drowned by the fearful forces of our Id.  We have a fear that we are about to go mad, to lose our minds, or simply as we often say we fear that we are going "to lose it!"  This probably would correspond to Tillich's third type of anxiety to some extent.  However I do not wish to point out a one-to-one correspondence here, merely that Tillich was in my mind as I had read his book, The Courage To Be many years ago and that it had remained in my mind as I began to grapple with this part of Freud's thought.  There are, you will agree, striking correspondences.  Undoubtedly our Tillich had read his Freud and had borrowed a lot.  Who can blame him?


Above I have uploaded a picture I took of one of Rodin's famous Burghers of Calais

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