“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 writers convey a 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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5 thoughts on ““The Tragic Sense of Life”

  1. I am unfamiliar with this thinker. Awhile back, there were some comments made on temperament, by Mr. Currie-Knight and another contributor. I remarked on this, saying that philosophers, like many other humans, may suffer either for their erudition or through other aspects of their lives. I mentioned Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Kafka as among this cadre. Gloom is a creative force just as are joy and tragedy. Those who channel it well are remembered.

  2. Along similar lines to Unanmuno is Otto Spengler. “Man is the only being that knows death; all others become old, but with a consciousness wholly limited to the moment which must seem to them eternal…[this knowledge instills the] essentially human fear in the presence of death [and] every religion, every scientific investigation, every philosophy proceeds from it.”

    My own book, “Wellsprings of Work,” discusses how this awareness of mortality is a root motivation for all sorts of work– a driver for seeking “something beyond our transient, limited selves, something more universal and enduring.”

  3. I agree with what you say about work. And of course Becker agreed too—consciousness of death is a motivator.

  4. If you have ever stared into the abyss and resisted moving thru that thin veil that separates hope from hopelessness, you will probably emerge a more enlightened person–like a Bodhisattva that delays Nirvana in order to help others from despair. Fear and despair are strong feelings, but I’ve found hope and love stronger, thank goodness.

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