Unamuno’s, The Tragic Sense of Life

I was re-reading a small part of Miguel de Unamuno‘s, Tragic Sense of Life (1910) when I came across these haunting lines:

Why do I wish to know whence I come and whither I go, whence comes and whither goes everything that environs me, and what is the meaning of it all? For I do not wish to die utterly, and I wish to know whether I am to die or not definitely. If I do not die, what is my destiny? and if I die, then nothing has any meaning for me. And there are three solutions: (a) I know that I shall die utterly, and then irremediable despair, or (b) I know that I shall not die utterly, and then resignation, or (c) I cannot know either one or the other, and then resignation in despair or despair in resignation, a desperate resignation or are resigned despair, and hence conflict.

For the present let us remain keenly suspecting that the longing not to die, the hunger for personal immortality, the effort whereby we tend to persist indefinitely in our own being, which is, according to the tragic Jew (Spinoza), our very essence, that this is the affective basis of all knowledge and the personal inward starting-point of all human philosophy, wrought by a man and for all men. And we shall see how the solution of this inward affective problem, a solution which may be but the despairing renunciation of the attempt at a solution, is that which colours all the rest of philosophy. Underlying even the so-called problem of knowledge there is simply this human feeling, just as underlying the enquiry into the “why,” the cause, there is simply the search for the “wherefore,” the end. All the rest is either to deceive oneself or to wish to deceive others; and to wish to deceive others in order to deceive oneself.

And this personal and affective starting point of all philosophy and all religion is the tragic sense of life.

Unamuno’s sublime description of the tragic sense of life is reminiscent of the sentiments of Blaise Pascal. Both convey a (seeming) lostness regarding our place in an indifferent cosmos. When I used to teach existentialism—Unamuno is an early existentialist—students complained that it was both tragic and depressing. They saw little value in the longings of someone like Unamuno, or in Dostoevsky’s “suffering is the origin of consciousness,” or in Sartre’s “Life begins on the other side of despair.” Some even found Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning too depressing.

Now I do not believe there is any intrinsic value in suffering; I do not believe in pain, suffering, war, death, or in any of the other limitations and evils that surround us. But the recognition of how terrible, tragic, and absurd life is compared with how good it could be has a redeeming feature—the possibility that this recognition may motivate us to eliminate these evils. This is the value of Unamuno’s recognition of the tragic sense of life.

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11 thoughts on “Unamuno’s, The Tragic Sense of Life

  1. I think eliminating these evils is sort of an inevitable side effect of the coming future of humanity, specifically augmenting our intelligence. The “lostness concerning our place in an indifferent cosmos” as you put it (which is great wording) seems to be a pervasive thought process even among the laymen when presented with the idea of an over all lack of meaning, but why is that? I tend more to agree with guys like Simon Critchley in that meaningless is awesome! Yeah, the cosmos is indifferent! All that means is that we have been granted access to this amazing, possibly infinite sandbox to play in for as long as we allow ourselves to do so! Maybe that’s just me.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I really wish I could embrace possible meaninglessness the way Critchley does; eschew all salvation narratives as he suggests. Perhaps this is what Kazantzakis had in mind when he called hope “the last temptation.” But as you would say “maybe its just me” but that doesn’t seem totally satisfying. Of course then the question whether this suggests that there is something wrong with me, that i can’t accept the finitude of life. I suppose I may be forced to accept it soon as I’m aging. But then another part of me wants to rebel as Dylan Thomas put it:

    “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

  3. I think that sort of misses the point of Unamuno. His point is precisely that we seek to obliterate the tragedy and the tragedy still remains. It is the condition of man; without it, he would cease being man.

  4. 99% of people never have any anxiety over the philosophical issue of eternal non-existence vs. eternal existence. Rather, they are entirely concerned with biological matters such as sex, food, having enough money to get by, having enough money to have high social status, safety, comfort, entertainment, recreation, etc.

    Anxiety over the philosophical issue of eternal non-existence vs. eternal existence–isn’t that really something like a neurotic condition, calling for psychological treatment, not respect and exaltation?

  5. As a person immersed in an ecotone between European Judeo-Christian and Native American/Asian philosophies, I see the tragic sense of life as a sad acknowledgement of the suffering inherent in the self-consuming snake eating its own tail that allows life on earth to exist. The dance of Shiva is entrancing and beautiful. Our purpose: to balance on our toes on the knife-edged ridge while carrying on our backs the lamb selected for slaughter away from its awful fate for a day or maybe more.

  6. “When I used to teach existentialism—Unamuno is an early existentialist—students complained that it was both tragic and depressing….”

    And that is one of the great differences between philosophers and everyone else: the latter are like children, they just can’t take it, which is why they have to create all the preposterous and artificial excuses about this omnipotent and brilliant guy who created everything and gave everything a purpose that none of them are capable of explaining convincingly anyways, or if they explain it, it is the most preposterous and insane explanation anyways.

    As for Frankl, I think one of the biggest lesson he taught was: if HE could live a meaningful life, after all the devastating that happened to him, and the things he saw happening to others, then it would certainly be a shame for me to be TOO depressed about anything. There’s no escaping the fact that the truth is what it is, but I don’t simply complain about it, like the people mentioned before.

    I had been curious about this book. Thanks for your excellent article.

  7. I think the biggest comfort I get , is to know that all my favourite thinkers did not believe in an afterlife (which is the main reason why this life doesn’t score big in the meaning department). Not even the Stoics believed in the afterlife. I almost feel like these people, their essence, is around me, so to speak. And their thought lives on. I know they would understand how it feels, for they surely have felt the same.

    Another observation I have is: finitude seems so sad now, but afterwards this problem will cease, too. In a sense, there’s no problem: let’s just live, and when we will be gone, these problems will have ended, too. But of course a philosopher has to think about all this, too, just not all the time, although it seems hard not to.

    As the saying goes: let’s enjoy the journey, as far as possible, rather than constantly thinking of the destination.
    Otherwise we fall into what Plato described as “Always becoming, but never being.”.

    But of course, we cannot just pretend that these other things aren’t there. That’s what most people do, in one way or another.

  8. I am 82-years old and only recently discovered the metaphor that ones life is a journey, one in which one has some say in the direction it takes. I wish I had thought of the metaphor much sooner, but since I did not, I take solace in the notion one must give ones life (journey) purpose, if one is seeking purpose. I sometimes envy those who don’t seem to care about their life’s purpose. They seem to be happy.

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