One of the major original thinkers of the twentieth century, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo defies clear classification. His book, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples, for example, is a remarkably unusual philosophical treatise because in it Unamuno passionately rejects formal logic and accepts paradox and contradiction as essential to his view of life. Even his style, a rhetoric of passion and intensity, is unlike the calm, detached style of the ordinary philosopher. This passion is a fundamental component of his thought.

A Roman Catholic, Unamuno discarded the Church’s view of God; a Spaniard, he denounced the monarchy and the Falangists; a philosopher, he rejected any and all systems. His thinking reflects the movement that was to grow into Christian existentialism, but he preserves the Romantic duality of body and spirit and refuses to discard the mystery of the Catholic Eucharist. He is, in short, an outspoken exponent of confusionism, the philosophical approach to the human predicament that he felt most accurately described the human experience.

Looking back to his own spiritual crisis, Unamuno begins The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples by stating that the only real person is the affective or feeling one, the one of flesh and bone, not the abstract creature of rationalistic philosophers. This person of flesh and blood has only one problem: the longing never to die. This problem is irrational, so all reason builds upon irrationalities. What intensifies the problem is that the individual wants to be only him- or herself. People want to prolong actual flesh-and-bone existence indefinitely. Reason tells people that this is impossible, despite their feelings. Thus, people are caught in a deadlock between reason, which says that all things must die, and passion, which yearns to live forever. The deadlock is tragic because it has no solution. Unamuno says that disease is anything that disturbs unity; therefore, consciousness itself is a disease, the particular disease that causes people to find some means of self-preservation and self-perpetuation. These two human “instincts”—to survive and to love—are the foundations of the individual and of society.

Through love the imagination creates an ideal world in which it perpetuates itself; this is the realm of knowledge. People seek knowledge only to ascertain whether they are really going to die, because after people become conscious of themselves they do not want to die. This search for knowledge of immortality, the tragic sense of life, is the starting point of philosophy. In a stunning summation, Unamuno alters the Cartesian Cogito, ergo sum into sum, ergo cogito.

Unamuno points out that all religions have sprung from cults of immortality and that people alone of all the animals know themselves distinct from nature. He further points out that the thirst for immortality always stifles the life that passes and never abides. The affirmation of immortality, furthermore, is based only upon the foundation of the desire for immortality. In short, there is no rational, demonstrable basis for religious faith. People cannot escape their tragic fate. Reason attacks blind faith, and faith that does not feel itself secure has to come to terms with reason, but reason and faith can never reach compromise. Each seeks nothing less than the complete destruction of the...

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