The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples

by Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334

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

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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 to exist and emphasize personal survival.

However, Unamuno states, humankind desires more than mere...

(This entire section contains 658 words.)

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survival and seeks dissatisfying paths for fame and immortality. A key source for philosophy is this hunger for an afterlife with a thirst for the eternal. However, philosophers are perverted and misled by intellectualism. By creating distinctions, they create confusion. In a practical and true philosophy, Unamuno asserts, nothing is more universal than individuality, and no human should sacrifice himself or herself. The process of sacrificing oneself for the next generation yields nothing for the individual and is false immortality. Rather, one should integrate society into oneself.

In “The Essence of Catholicism,” Unamuno, like Saint Paul speaking to the Stoics, rejects reason to ponder resurrection. He determines that beauty and art are meaningless consolations, each only a shadow of what true immortality is. Further, human beings prefer to singularize themselves, hoping for fame in lieu of immortality. Philosophers, in Unamuno’s opinion, are not interested in truth as much as they are interested in the systems they propose, gaining immortality by receiving credit for their creations, hoping to outshine their competitors. By attacking old masters, youth intends to capture a place in the pantheon of fame, seeking thereby to immortalize itself. These attempts lead to envy, which is more terrible than hunger, for it is spiritual hunger that matters.

Unamuno’s next essay, “The Rationalist Disillusion,” claims that the thirst for being greater than oneself has led to the creation of religion built on the fear of death. What distinguishes humanity is the need to guard the dead, and human beings can be seen as a series of phantoms going from nothingness to nothingness again. The mind seeks the dead because what is alive eludes understanding; science is the cemetery of dead ideas. There is no consolation in being submerged in the all, so we prefer to cling to the substance of our own selves. For Unamuno, existence in pain is better than oblivion in the Nirvana of Buddhism.

In a section dominated by Unamuno’s characteristic loose ends, he states that philosophy is often abandoned for theology and worries about a new persecution of Christians in the climate of reason fostered by Baruch Spinoza. For Unamuno, the spirit engages in a lifelong battle to build the House of Life. Reason merely gives faith associations, as in war, the devouring of predators, which is how cultures learn to know the other.

Faith and God

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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 universal, transcendent consciousness, God cannot be limited to ethics, dogmas, or personifications.

The heart of The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples appears in the essay “At the Bottom of the Abyss,” in which Unamuno states that because reason cannot explain God, love of God must come first. The primary quest of philosophy is the hunger for God, the wish for God, realizing God does not exist but rather superexists. The keys to finding God are faith, hope, and charity, emphasizing trust in faith. Humanity must love God before knowing God. Embracing hope is noble and tragic, and charity, or doing good, is the important action humans must make to link with the community.

Again returning to biblical themes in “The Practical Problem,” Unamuno states that divinity arises from suffering as in Jesus Christ, the ultimate symbol of suffering. Anguish is what leads us to God, breaking down the barrier of suffering that divides matter from consciousness. Evil is the inertia of the spirit, and each must take up his or her own cross of work and contribute to society.

Unamuno concludes by returning to his focus on Spanish culture, pointing to Miguel de Cervantes’ fictional character Don Quixote as the archetypal symbol of the Spanish soul. Quixote’s quest is parallel to Unamuno’s quest for God, and his suffering is the heroism of comic irrationality. Unamuno restates his idea that spirituality must be sought in solitude, the hero able to withstand the ridicule of others. Quixote, about whom Unamuno wrote extensively in other works, moves beyond reason into superreason. However, his servant, Sancho Panza, is even more heroic, as his faith contains doubts, but he does not fail his course. Here, Unamuno successfully returns to his opening thesis on humanity as flesh and blood with a tragic sense of life, and Don Quixote is for Unamuno both the Spanish icon of soul searching and the universal Everyman, appropriately seeking what is impossible.

Voice of Spain

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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.


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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.