Miguel de Unamuno

I’ve gotten a virtual copy of The Tragic Sense of Life for my summer preceptorial class, and have begun reading it. At St John’s a preceptorial is likened to an elective – but as there are only four of them being offered, and new students get last choice (I got my third choice out of four), I think that claim may be better understood as meaning that they are elective for the professors, not the students.

Until three weeks ago I had never heard of Unamuno, even as a name that people aren’t expected to know much about. I’ve since found that that was my fault, not his. He’s really quite an interesting person and writing, even to such superficial study as one can conduct online in the course of an hour.

Briefly, Unamuno was born in the Basque part of, Spain, in 1864; his father was a baker. He got a good education, married, had 10 children, learned 14 languages, was a professor of philosophy and Greek at the University of Salaminaca, and later rector. For condemning fascism and General Miguel Primo de Rivera he was exciled in 1914, and then 1924, but returned in 1931, and we re-appointed as rector. In 1936 he denounced General Francisco Franco’s Falangists, was placed under house arrest, and died shortly thereafter.

His ideas I don’t understand very well yet. He’s considered existentialist (he learned Danish in order to read Soren Kierkergaard), and was also Catholic. I’d better not say much else at present, since I wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the beginning of The Tragic Sense of Life, The Man of Flesh and Bone:

To be a man is to be something concrete, unitary, and substantive; it is to be a thing—res. Now we know what another man, the man Benedict Spinoza, that Portuguese Jew who was born and lived in Holland in the middle of the seventeenth century, wrote about the nature of things. The sixth proposition of Part III. of his Ethic states: unaquoeque res, quatenus in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur—that is, Everything, in so far as it is in itself, endeavours to persist in its own being. Everything in so far as it is in itself—that is to say, in so far as it is substance, for according to him substance is id quod in se est et per se concipitur—that which is in itself and is conceived by itself. And in the following proposition, the seventh, of the same part, he adds: conatus, quo unaquoeque res in suo esse perseverare conatur, nihil est proeter ipsius rei actualem essentiam—that is, the endeavour wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing itself. This means that your essence, reader, mine, that of the man Spinoza, that of the man Butler, of the man Kant, and of every man who is a man, is nothing but the endeavour, the effort, which he makes to continue to be a man, not to die. And the other proposition which follows these two, the eighth, says: conatus, quo unaquoeque res in suo esse perseverare conatur, nullum tempus finitum, sed indefinitum involvit—that is, The endeavour whereby each individual thing endeavours to persist involves no finite time but indefinite time. That is to say that you, I, and Spinoza wish never to die and that this longing of ours never to die is our actual essence. Nevertheless, this poor Portuguese Jew, exiled in the mists of Holland, could never attain to believing in his own personal immortality, and all his philosophy was but a consolation which he contrived for his lack of faith. Just as other men have a pain in hand or foot, heart-ache or head-ache, so he had God-ache. Unhappy man! And unhappy fellow-men!

On a certain occasion this friend remarked to me: “I should like to be So-and-so” (naming someone), and I said: “That is what I shall never be able to understand—that one should want to be someone else. (To want to be someone else is to want to cease to be he who one is.) I understand that one should wish to have what someone else has, his wealth or his knowledge; but to be someone else, that is a thing I cannot comprehend.” It has often been said that every man who has suffered misfortunes prefers to be himself, even with his misfortunes, rather than to be someone else without them. For unfortunate men, when they preserve their normality in their misfortune—that is to say, when they endeavour to persist in their own being—prefer misfortune to non-existence. For myself I can say that as a youth, and even as a child, I remained unmoved when shown the most moving pictures of hell, for even then nothing appeared to me quite so horrible as nothingness itself. It was a furious hunger of being that possessed me, an appetite for divinity, as one of our ascetics has put it.

Man is an end, not a means. All civilization addresses itself to man, to each man, to each I…. “Why!” the reader will exclaim again, “we are coming back to what the Catechism says: ‘Q. For whom did God create the world? A. For man.'” Well, why not?—so ought the man who is a man to reply. The ant, if it took account of these matters and were a person, would reply “For the ant,” and it would reply rightly. The world is made for consciousness, for each consciousness.

Some may espy a fundamental contradiction in everything that I am saying, now expressing a longing for unending life, now affirming that this earthly life does not possess the value that is given to it. Contradiction? To be sure! The contradiction of my heart that says Yes and of my head that says No! Of course there is contradiction. Who does not recollect those words of the Gospel, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief”? Contradiction! Of course! Since we only live in and by contradictions, since life is tragedy and the tragedy is perpetual struggle, without victory or the hope of victory, life is contradiction.

There are, in fact, people who appear to think only with the brain, or with whatever may be the specific thinking organ; while others think with all the body and all the soul, with the blood, with the marrow of the bones, with the heart, with the lungs, with the belly, with the life. And the people who think only with the brain develop into definition-mongers; they become the professionals of thought.

If a philosopher is not a man, he is anything but a philosopher; he is above all a pedant, and a pedant is a caricature of a man. The cultivation of any branch of science—of chemistry, of physics, of geometry, of philology—may be a work of differentiated specialization, and even so only within very narrow limits and restrictions; but philosophy, like poetry, is a work of integration and synthesis, or else it is merely pseudo-philosophical erudition.

All knowledge has an ultimate object. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is, say what you will, nothing but a dismal begging of the question. We learn something either for an immediate practical end, or in order to complete the rest of our knowledge. Even the knowledge that appears to us to be most theoretical—that is to say, of least immediate application to the non-intellectual necessities of life—answers to a necessity which is no less real because it is intellectual, to a reason of economy in thinking, to a principle of unity and continuity of consciousness. But just as a scientific fact has its finality in the rest of knowledge, so the philosophy that we would make our own has also its extrinsic object—it refers to our whole destiny, to our attitude in face of life and the universe. And the most tragic problem of philosophy is to reconcile intellectual necessities with the necessities of the heart and the will. For it is on this rock that every philosophy that pretends to resolve the eternal and tragic contradiction, the basis of our existence, breaks to pieces.

A pedant who beheld Solon weeping for the death of a son said to him, “Why do you weep thus, if weeping avails nothing?” And the sage answered him, “Precisely for that reason—because it does not avail.” It is manifest that weeping avails something, even if only the alleviation of distress; but the deep sense of Solon’s reply to the impertinent questioner is plainly seen. And I am convinced that we should solve many things if we all went out into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief, and joined together in beweeping them and crying aloud to the heavens and calling upon God. And this, even though God should hear us not; but He would hear us. The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common. A miserere sung in common by a multitude tormented by destiny has as much value as a philosophy. It is not enough to cure the plague: we must learn to weep for it. Yes, we must learn to weep! Perhaps that is the supreme wisdom. Why? Ask Solon.

There is something which, for lack of a better name, we will call the tragic sense of life, which carries with it a whole conception of life itself and of the universe, a whole philosophy more or less formulated, more or less conscious. And this sense may be possessed, and is possessed, not only by individual men but by whole peoples. And this sense does not so much flow from ideas as determine them, even though afterwards, as is manifest, these ideas react upon it and confirm it. Sometimes it may originate in a chance illness—dyspepsia, for example; but at other times it is constitutional. And it is useless to speak, as we shall see, of men who are healthy and men who are not healthy. Apart from the fact there is no normal standard of health, nobody has proved that man is necessarily cheerful by nature. And further, man, by the very fact of being man, of possessing consciousness, is, in comparison with the ass or the crab, a diseased animal. Consciousness is a disease.

For more information, try:

Encyclopedia entry

Rather more interesting but less official encyclopedia entry

Philosophical encyclopedia on exestentialism

The Tragic Sense of Life (Project Gutenberg, full text)


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