The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples

by Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo

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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 other. The only religion to bridge these contradictory states and thus bring them into any kind of harmony is Catholicism, because only Catholicism is a system of contradictions in which the greatest danger is to attempt to rationalize the paradoxical solution symbolized by the Eucharist.

Rationalism in any of its forms—materialism, pragmatism, agnosticism, empiricism, pantheism, or science—cannot explain...

(This entire section contains 1391 words.)

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the soul. Reason deals with dead things but is unable to deal with living things that never remain the same for two moments. People, however, are prisoners of logic, without which they cannot think. Thus, people tend always to make logic subservient to the desire for immortality. This need for logic or reason is always a stumbling block of faith, always ending in skepticism, which is an antivitalism. Thus, the longing never to die finds no consolation in reason; still, people cannot exclude reason because to do so would be to reduce themselves to an irrational animal. The only thing left is to accept both faith and reason as an association of continual struggle—faith to absorb the world into the self and to overcome time and space, reason to absorb the self into the world and perpetuate the self in love. Through this inner struggle people create God, for to believe in God is to long for His existence and to act as if God existed.

Having fully stated the problem of human existence, Unamuno turns from analysis to synthesis after carefully warning that he has no intention to construct a system. He begins with the Pauline triad of faith, hope, and charity. Love personalizes its object; in discovering the suffering in the self and in the universe, it personalizes the universe; that is, love creates God. Faith is the longing for the existence of God, a movement toward a practical truth that lets one live, and the creative power in the individual insofar as the individual creates God through love. Hope is love directed toward the future and growing from the disillusionment of the past; the fundamental hope is the hope for eternal life. Spirit cannot exist without matter and matter always limits spirit, so the inherent state of a person is to suffer. Charity is the impulse to liberate the self, others, and God from matter, from suffering. In the passionate longing not to die, one’s instinct of living and instinct of knowing thus come into bitter conflict, all the more so because both absolute certainty (faith) and absolute doubt (reason) are denied. Spiritual love is the result of pity, the awareness of suffering in others caused by the death of carnal love; love cannot, for this reason, exist apart from suffering. The personalization of a suffering universe is the highest view of God attainable. This view is the Christian incarnation. This view is necessarily collective and social, although originally it was the subjectivity of an individual consciousness, projected. Reason attempts to define this God created by faith, hope, and charity and in doing so attempts to kill God.

This deadlock between faith and reason reaches its climax in the apocatastasis (the unification of all things, including sinners—even Satan—with God). The essence of religion is the problem of eternal life. People wish to possess God, not to have God possess them because people do not want to lose the ego or the awareness of self, which a complete union with God implies. What people long for is an eternal prolongation of this life; thus any hypothesis of a heaven without change or without suffering must be false because life necessarily posits change and suffering. Eternity must be unending suffering, unceasing faith, hope, and charity, but the New Testament speaks of the apocatastasis, God’s coming to be all in all, and of the anacefaleosis, the gathering together of all things in Christ. Thus, not only must salvation be collective, it must also be the fusion of all things into one person. This is the supreme religious sacrifice, the climax of the human tragedy. People want an eternal Purgatory, however, an ascent that never reaches the climax, an eternity of hope, not of salvation.

Unamuno is not satisfied with speculations upon a mythology of the beyond; he is mainly concerned with life here and now. His system of ethics, however, is ultimately associated to his theology. Good is anything that helps one to satisfy one’s longing for immortality. Bad is anything that makes one satisfied with a temporal state. The purpose of ethics is to act in such a way that each person becomes irreplaceable so that no one can fill the person’s place. A good life is a vital one centered on action for others; thus the apocatastasis is the supreme rule of ethics. Such a life is symbolized for Unamuno by Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, who represents the vitalist whose faith is based on uncertainty, and by Sancho, the rationalist who doubts his own reason. In these two literary figures he sees the epitome of the tragic sense of life, the desperate, unending struggle between faith and reason.