Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo’s first purpose in writing The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples was to establish a philosophical voice that was specifically Spanish. As he had in his previous works, he sought to fill a cultural void that unified and synthesized Spanish thought into an internationally recognized ideology. Reacting to the then dominating spirit of modernism, Unamuno hoped to integrate topical issues such as the loss of Spanish colonies, the fear of anarchism, and shifting definitions of Spanish identity into a larger, universal statement on the longing for immortality and the hunger for meaning beyond what was offered by the orthodox church and atheism. Echoing the literature of the period, Unamuno felt Spanish sensibilities would give a new direction in European philosophy, particularly his idea that impassioned personal experience is more important than abstract philosophical systems.

Wishing to free philosophy from old patterns of strict logic and rationality, Unamuno wrote this work in a uniquely subjective and personal style. He modestly referred to the collection as “these essays,” realizing he was not creating a systematic philosophical approach to his subjects. Notable problems have resulted in critical complaints; for example, his approach to religion is often ambiguous and conflicting. He frequently zigzags from point to point, making personal digressions that keep the work from being a logically organized treatise. Still, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples was Unamuno’s most unified synthesis of his thinking, and the book does develop his themes in a largely coherent flow.

Recognizing the book’s problems, Unamuno considered the 1921 English translation of the work an opportunity to clarify and revise the original text, written in 1912, and the English text is superior to the original version. Because much of the work refers to then topical and national issues and because he frequently refers to his other publications, new readers may find it helpful to review Spanish culture at the beginning of the twentieth century to appreciate his points fully.

Humanity and Immortality

Throughout the series of twelve essays, Unamuno both defines his terms and recapitulates the ideas of past philosophic systems and religious doctrines to lead to the conclusions expressed in his final two essays. Unamuno begins with “Man of Flesh and Bone,” emphasizing the theme that philosophy is closer to poetry than science but must be practical and helpful. Rooted in the subconscious, philosophy gives meaning and understanding to what logic explains if it discounts the abstract and is more passionate than reasoned. For Unamuno, analyzing rigidifies thought and kills identity.

In “The Hunger of Immortality,” Unamuno reviews concepts of God put forward by Immanuel Kant, William James, Søren Kierkegaard, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Unamuno states that rationality and perceptions of reality cannot prove an afterlife, but even with demonstrable facts, this reasoning would not support the truth of religion. Humanity is a concrete thing of unity and continuity, combining the memory of the individual and that of society. Identity of the self is dependent on existence within the context of society. To become something other than oneself is to cease to be.

Unamuno then addresses his primary concerns: the fear of dying altogether, the fear of resignation and despair, and the need to know what is true. Contradictions and tragedy create a tragic sense of life that makes humanity aware of health and disease. Consciousness is a disease, as is progress, illustrated by the biblical metaphor of Original Sin. We are dependent on knowledge to understand existence, and it is necessary...

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Faith and God

Unamuno believed it is impossible to have a totally rational world without faith and vice versa. As outlined in “Love, Suffering, Pity, and Personality,” humanity needs love, sorrow, and pity, and we must be interconnected and must come to feel everything personally in order to arrive at universal compassion and universal pity. All consciousness is aware of death and suffering, and it is with pity that we find our common bond.

Unamuno further explores humanity’s concepts of God by tracing deity in historical perspective, noting in “From God to God” that monotheism can be traced like monarchies. The monotheistic God evolved into a head god like the supreme godhead of paganism. Ultimately, God became known as the head of humanity, the God of people, and not of individuals.

Continuing this theme in “Religion, the Mythology of the Beyond and the Apocatastasis,” Unamuno says that concepts of God changed when prophets gave divinity philosophy, which gave God ethics and rationality. However, saying God created everything only begs the question, answering nothing. Unamuno insists that we must move beyond monotheism, as unity is unstable. By defining God, theologians project the ideal into the real, but God is superfluous when we seek the reason for creation. If God is to interact with human lives, Unamuno theorizes, God must be arbitrary rather than rational because he cannot be contemplative. For Unamuno, who elsewhere defines God as...

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Voice of Spain

In the decades after the publication of The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples, Unamuno became internationally famous as the primary spokesperson for the soul of the Spanish people, although most critical response did not appear in print until the end of World War I. Although Unamuno’s perspective clearly embraced Christian thought and was influenced by Saint Paul and the writings of Saint Augustine, his occasional comments on the rituals and trappings of the Catholic Church resulted in the book’s being placed on the Church’s Index as heretical, alongside other writings by Unamuno that failed to support Catholic dogma.

Although not considered an original thinker, Unamuno became known as an incarnation of his time and place, and general interest in his work was first viewed in the light of his political stance during his exile to France in the 1920’s. In his home country, Unamuno’s reputation was built on his work as a whole, and he was noted as a professor, philologist, political thinker, playwright, novelist, poet, as well as essayist, but The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples earned for him an international reputation as a leading figure of the European twentieth century. Although he did not establish a new school of philosophical thought, some saw him as a precursor to religious existentialism, and he is noted as a singular voice in the tradition of writers examining the relationship of the self and organized society. His voice resonates themes that parallel changes in European social and political systems in the first half of the twentieth century, and his freshness and passion have earned for him notice as a reformer and major influence on Spanish culture.

After World War II, Unamuno’s work continued to inspire scholarly interest, notably in his commentary on Don Quixote. On the occasions of the seventieth and hundredth anniversaries of his birth, conferences were held in the United States to assess his impact.


Additional Reading

Baker, Armand F. “The God of Miguel de Unamuno.” Hispania 74, no. 4 (December, 1991): 824-833. Draws upon The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples to explicate Unamuno’s theology of one deity, a “universal consciousness.” Calls attention to similarities of Unamuno’s work to Buddhism and to Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.

Ellis, Robert R. The Tragic Pursuit of Being: Unamuno and Sartre. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988. A short comparison of the existentialism of Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Ferrater Mora, José. Unamuno: A Philosophy of Tragedy. Translated by Philip Silver. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. This book is an excellent, brief survey of Unamuno’s philosophy. The author tries to understand Unamuno as the philosopher understood himself.

Ilie, Paul. Unamuno: An Existentialist View of Self and Society. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. This work considers Unamuno’s contributions to existentialism in relation to Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Marías, Julían. Miguel de Unamuno. Translated by Frances M. López-Morillas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942. This older but still insightful work analyzes Unamuno’s contribution to philosophy, with occasional biographical references.

Nozick, Martin. Miguel De Unamuno. New York: Twayne, 1971. Together with a short biography, this work is an analysis of Unamuno’s thought and an evaluation of his literary art. Contains a good bibliography.

Rudd, Margaret Thomas. The Lone Heretic: A Biography of Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963. At 349 pages, this is the most thorough biography in English but problematic in some of its details and interpretations. The work contains a good bibliography.

Wyers, Francis. Miguel De Unamuno: The Contrary Self. London: Tamesis Books Limited, 1976. This work attempts to make sense of the sometimes violent contradictions in Unamuno’s thought and places him as a precursor to existentialism.