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.