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The Interpretation of History by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

II: The Two Roots of Political Thinking


It is not always necessary to inquire about the roots of a spiritual or social phenomenon. When sturdy growth shows us that the roots are healthy, an inquiry is superfluous. But if the plant appears bent or twisted, if life begins to wither away, the question of the roots’ condition becomes inevitable. This is the situation of Socialism, particularly of its strongest branch, German Socialism. The political events of the past months found it in a greatly weakened state.(These words were written about half a year before the final catastrophe of German Socialism in the spring of 1933.) This condition is founded not only on the events of recent years. The causes are more far-reaching; they go back to the second half of the nineteenth century, partly even to the historical situation at the time of its origin. The most pressing task is to seek the causes of this weakening. This can be accomplished only by examining the roots.

As soon, however, as we ask the question regarding the roots of Socialistic thought, the necessity of proceeding further arises. Socialism is a counter-movement, in a double sense: it is directly a counter-movement against bourgeois society, and indirectly—like bourgeois society itself—a counter-movement against the feudal-patriarchal forms of society. Therefore, in order to understand Socialism from its beginning, it is also necessary to uncover the roots of the political thought that opposes it

The roots of political thought must be sought in human existence itself. Without having a picture of man, of his powers and tensions, it is impossible to make any statement about the bases of political existence and thought. Without a theory of man there can be no theory of political tendencies that is more than the presentation of their external appearance. A theory of man, however, cannot be worked out here. It is presupposed, and the best it can do is to create for itself a favorable prejudice by its capacity to illuminate political thought.

Man differs from nature in that he is a creature with an internal duality. No matter where nature ends and man begins, no matter whether there be slow transitions or a sudden leap between the two, somewhere the difference becomes visible. In nature, there is a wholly unified life-process which unfolds itself without question or demand, determined by what it finds in itself and its environment. In man there is a life-process which questions itself and its environment, which therefore is not at one with itself but is divided, at the same time being within itself and confronting itself from without, thinking about itself, knowing about itself. Man has a consciousness of himself; or, expressed in relation to nature: man is the being who is dualized so that he has himself at the same time as subject and object. Nature lacks this dualization. Nevertheless man is not—this is implied in these statements—a creature compounded of two independent parts, for example of nature and mind, or of body and soul; he is one being, but doubled within himself, in his unity.

Even these very general definitions are of consequence in every examination of political thought. They make it impossible to derive political thought from pure thinking, from religious or moral demands or philosophical judgments. Political thought starts out from man in his unity. It is rooted simultaneously in the pure being and in the self-conscious being of man, to be more exact, in the indissoluble unity of the two. Therefore it is impossible to understand a system of political thought without uncovering the human reality in which it is rooted; that is, the interrelation of impulses and interests, of compulsions and strivings, that constitute human and social existence. It is just as impossible, however, to separate this reality from thought and, depriving thought of its independence and power, make it a merely accidental product of social and economic realities. Man’s individual and social being is formed by consciousness in each of its elements down to the most primitive instincts. The attempt to dissolve this connection passes over the first and most important essential trait of man and therefore results in the distortion of the total picture of man. To point out that there is a consciousness not fitted to reality, a so-called "false consciousness," proves nothing against the unity of reality and consciousness, for the concept of "false consciousness" itself is only possible if there be a true consciousness. True consciousness, however, is consciousness that arises out of being and at the same time determines being. It is neither one without the other, for man is unity in his dual form and from the soil of this unity grow the roots which nourish all political thought.

Man finds himself in existence; he finds himself as he finds his environment as established for him. To find oneself in existence means that one does not originate from oneself, that one has an origin outside of oneself, or to use the expressive word of Martin Heidegger "Geworfensein": "being thrown" into the world. From this situation follows the human question, "Whence ?" It does not appear as a philosophical question until very late. It was always asked, however, and its first answer is given in mythology and sets a standard for the whole future.

The origin is creative. Creation produces something new, which did not exist and which, after being produced, represents something independent and singular. Our life has this tension between dependence on the origin that has produced us and the independence of it through individuality and freedom. The origin does not leave us free from itself, since it is not past only but present in every moment. It gives us existence again and again; it reproduces us and holds us fast through its omnipresence: We are created by the origin as something new and singular, but we are returned to it at the same time. In being born, the having to die is implied. Our life passes in birth, development, and death. Nothing living, as living, can break though that which is implied in its original being. Development is the growth and the decay of that which comes from the origin and returns to it. Mythology has expressed this experience in infinitely different ways according to the character of things and events, which are considered by a certain group of men as their origin. In all mythology, however, we find the law of the circular motion between birth and death. Every myth is a myth of origin, is an answer to the question: Whence. And every myth expresses the dependence on the origin and on its everlasting power. The consciousness of being dependent on the origin is the foundation of every conservative and romantic thought in politics.

But man not only finds himself in existence; he not only knows himself to be created and recalled in the circular movement of birth and death like everything living. He experiences a demand which frees him from being simply bound to that which he finds existing and forces him to add to the question, "Whence?" the question, "Wherefore?" With this question the circle is broken in principle and man is raised above the sphere of the merely living thing, for the demand asks something that is not yet here, that should be, that should come to fulfillment. A creature that experiences a demand is no longer simply bound to his original state. Man has to achieve something more than merely to unfold what he already is. Through the demand he is directed to that which he should be. And what should be, is not included in the unfolding of what exists; otherwise it would really exist, not be demanded. This means, however, that the demand which is made on man is unconditioned. The "wherefore" is not included in the limits of the "whence." It is something absolutely new which lies beyond the new and old of mere unfolding. Through man something absolutely new is to be realized; that is the meaning of the demand which he experiences, which he can experience because of his dual quality. He not only is himself, but he also has knowledge about himself, and consequently the possibility of passing beyond what he finds in himself and round about himself. This is human freedom, not that man has a so-called free will, but that as a man he is not bound to that which he finds in existence, that he is subject to a demand that something absolutely new shall come into being through him. Therefore the circle of birth and death is broken in him; therefore his presence and his actions are not completed in mere unfolding of his original state. Where this consciousness wins out, the bond or origin is fundamentally dissolved, the myth of origin fundamentally broken. The breaking of the myth of origin by the unconditioned demand is the root of liberal, democratic, and socialistic thought in politics.

Yet it is not enough to point out the simple contrast of the two factors of human being. The demand which man receives is unconditioned, but it is not strange to him. If it were strange to his nature, it would not concern him; he could not perceive it as a demand on him. It strikes him only because it places before him, in the form of a demand, his own essence. Only thereon rests the absoluteness, the inevitability, with which the demand approaches man and must be affirmed by him. But if the demand is man’s own essence, it is based on his origin; the "Whence" and "Wherefore" do not belong to two different worlds. And yet what is demanded is something new in contrast to the origin. This means that origin is ambiguous. In it is a cleavage of true and real origin. The really original is not the truly original. It is not the fulfillment of that which is intended with man from his origin. The fulfillment of his origin is, on the contrary, that which confronts man as a demand, an obligation. The "Wherefore" of man is that in which his "Whence" fulfills itself. The real origin is criticised by the true origin; not straightway and in every respect, for the real origin, in order that it can be reality, must have a share in the true origin. It is its expression, but. it is also its concealment and distortion. The myth of origin knows nothing of this ambiguity of origin. Therefore it holds fast to the origin and feels that it is a sin to pass beyond it. Only when consciousness is freed of its bond with origin by the experience of the unconditioned demand is the ambiguity of origin revealed.

The demand seeks the fulfillment of true origin. Man, however, receives an unconditioned demand only from other men. The unconditioned demand becomes manifest in the meeting of "I and You." The general content of the demand therefore, is that dignity equal to that of the "I" be accorded the "You," the dignity of the true origin of human essence. The recognition of the "you" as having a dignity equal to that of the "I" is justice. The demand which breaks away from the ambiguous origin is the demand of justice. From the unbroken origin follow powers which struggle with one another, seek sovereignty and destroy one another. From the unbroken origin comes the might of being, the growth and death of powers which "mete out to each other punishment and atonement for their sins in accord with the order of the times," the first known words of Greek philosophy. The unconditioned demand raises one above,this tragical circle of being. It opposes justice to the power and impotence of existence. And yet it is no mere opposition, for the obligation is a fulfillment of being. Justice is the true power of being. In it the intention of the origin is fulfilled. In regard to the relation of the two elements of human existence and the two roots of political thought, we may conclude that the demand is superior to mere origin, justice superior to the mere power of being. The question "Wherefore" is of higher rank than the question "Whence." The myth of origin may enter into political thought, only when the power of origin has been broken, its ambiguity revealed.

A. Observation and decision

The relationship between the two roots of political thought is not one of simple juxtaposition. The demand is ranked superior to the origin. Therefore a consideration of political trends cannot start with the premise that it deals with typically human attitudes of equal justification. The concept of the typical is not applicable where decisions are required. But this is so when an unconditioned demand is made. One cannot do it justice by a consideration which places it side by side and makes it typical. By this very consideration, we have tried to escape the demand, have admitted that the opponent is right, if we place the former on the same plane with the latter in an allegedly neutral description. At bottom this is true of every attempt to understand mental things. One cannot watch the mind as a mere spectator; it makes demands; it demands decisions. No one can understand Socialism who has not experienced its demand for justice as a demand made on himself. Whoever has not striven for the spirit of Socialism, can speak of Socialism only from without and therefore not at all. It is different with political trends in which the myth of origin is predominant. They, too, must be understood; in them, too, mind and meaning are considered and force a decision, but this decision implies the demand to renounce decision and purpose and to return to mere being. In deciding for the unbroken origin one tries to ward off the demand. To be sure, one uses mind, but in opposition to mind; one questions, but in opposition to questioning; one demands, but in opposition to demanding. One tries with the might of mind to fetch the mind back into the servitude of pure being. That is the inner contradiction in all the expressions of political Romanticism. Therefore it is fundamentally impossible to decide intellectually in its favor. As long as the bond of the origin is unbroken, no decision can be reached, because no choice exists. But if it is broken, the decision in favor of the origin can mean only the destruction of all free decision. No attempt to lay an intellectual foundation for political Romanticism disposes of this contradiction.

The roots of political thinking are not in thoughts, but in the human being, that is, conscious being; being which is dual in itself. Therefore political thought is necessarily the expression of a special political existence, of a special historical and social situation. No thought can be understood without reference to the social actuality from which it arises. The principles of political thought cannot be effective with the same force in different groups and periods. The predominance of one or another principle is dependent on a special situation, on special groups and forms of power; further it is dependent on special sociological and psychological attitudes, growing out of the actual situation of a social group. The economic, social, and political institutions of a period have resulted in a different psychological and sociological behavior, and this behavior again results in strengthening those institutions. In this way different attitudes are produced, which provide a different realization of the basic elements of human thought, especially of political thought. This interconnection of social existence and political consciousness leads to a question which must be answered before political, especially socialistic, problems can be dealt with. We shall see that Socialism is to be interpreted as the direct expression of the proletarian situation. Hence it could be asked: How is it possible to criticise and to build up Socialism in a social position that is removed from proletarian existence? The answer is that consciousness, although dependent on social existence, is not dependent on it in a biographical, but in an objective way. Some thoughts, no matter whether spoken by aristocrats or bourgeois, had the objective meaning of expressing the bourgeois existence. And some thoughts, no matter whether pronounced by bourgeoisie or proletarians, have the objective meaning of expressing the proletarian existence. The fact that aristocrats first prepared the bourgeois society, and that bourgeois gave the proletariat its social self-consciousness, shows how unimportant the biographical relationship is. Even more, the distance between being and consciousness can become the very premise for the raising of being to consciousness. To knowledge belongs not only relationship with being but also separation from being. Therefore the one whose confidence in his original group and class is shaken is best suited to give a strange class self-consciousness; The best examples of this are Marx and Lenin. They suffice for us to raise the interdependence of social situation and political thinking from the biographic to the objective sphere.

B. Principle and reality

To summarize the characterization of political groups the word "principle" is used. The following considerations were decisive in the choice of this word: It is the task of thinking to select from a variety of phenomena the one which makes them belong together, and which makes possible therefore an understanding of the individual through an understanding of the whole. This task is usually solved with the help of a concept grasping the essence or nature of things. The relationship of essence and existence has governed Occidental epistemology since Plato. But now it has been shown that with respect to historical realities the logic of essence is inadequate. The essence of an historical phenomenon is an empty abstraction, from which the living strength of history has been expelled. Nevertheless we cannot dispense with a summarizing characterization, when we deal with a coherent movement. The reference to historical continuity does not suffice, since a selection must be made from the infinite abundance of continuously linked events. Therefore we must seek another method of historical characterization: in conformity with the character of history, a. dynamic concept must replace the concept of essence, derived from knowledge of nature. That concept is dynamic which contains the possibility of making new, unexpected realizations of an historical origin comprehensible. Such concepts I should call principles. A principle does not contain the abstract universal quality of a large number of individual phenomena, but contains the actual possibility, the dynamics, the power of an historical reality. The principle can never be abstracted from the multitude of its individual realizations, for it always faces, reality, critically and judicially, besides substantiating and supporting it. It is difficult, although not impossible, to assume a contradiction between essence and existence; but it is not difficult at all to assume a contradiction between principle and realization. The approach to the principle is therefore possible only through an understanding which always contains a decision. No one understands, e.g., the principle of Protestantism apart from the totality of what has ever happened in and to Protestantism. It is to be understood only on the basis of a decision by means of which the whole history of Protestantism is not only comprehended but also criticised. This consideration accords with the other, that mind can be understood only in mental decisions. Thus Socialism is to be understood only by means of a socialistic principle which is gained in a socialistic decision and through which socialistic reality is at once understood and judged.

Principle must not be confused with idea, universal concept or the like. Principle is the real power which produces an historical phenomenon and makes it possible for it to be realized in a new form and yet in continuity with the past. The principle of political romanticism is the inner might of the groups supporting political romanticism, expressed in concepts. The principle of Socialism is not a socialistic idea, but is the proletarian situation, interpreted in dynamic concepts on the basis of a socialistic decision.

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