This essay is pulled from Libertarian Review , June issue. See full issue. Immortality is at hand. Research proceeds at a dizzying rate, and whether the most important breakthroughs come first in the area of transplants, cloned or artificial replacement organs, cryonics, anti-aging drugs, or simply improved regimens in diet and exercise, the medical path of the future seems clear. Death and aging will be conquered as surely as so many other diseases of the past. There exists, however, a peculiar nonscientific problem that may accompany this progress: Many people are philosophically unprepared—even opposed—to the very idea of immortality.
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The philosopher and poet was born in conflict. Unamuno was a Spanish patriot and one of its most outspoken critics; a Basque who was also a Spaniard; a child who wanted to be a Catholic saint; a philosopher who was suspicious of philosophy. Miguel de Unamuno woke one night in , tormented by dreams of falling into nothingness.
He was not expected to live long. Miguel de Unamuno believed that this tragedy was his fault, divine punishment for turning away from his childhood faith and embracing scientific rationalism. The philosopher would build no system that would eliminate his inner turmoil. He would not turn his back on the Angel of Nothingness. Rather, he would embrace this angel as his wife had embraced him in his grief. Miguel de Unamuno would develop from his nightmare a messy, passionate philosophy of conflict, a philosophy of tragedy.
In short, a philosophy of himself. It was considered — in his time — to be a masterpiece, an influential work of early existentialist philosophy. But The Tragic Sense of Life is more or you might say less than a work of philosophy. The questions are the questions we have asked since the dawn of consciousness: Who am I? To what end do I exist? It is the idea of a man.
This man has no sex, no country, no nightmares — this man is an abstraction. No, it was the real man of flesh and bone who concerned Unamuno. After all, philosophers too are made of flesh and bone, Unamuno reminds us, whether they like it or not. Not merely the cause of life but the end. Man possesses consciousness. But knowing is one thing, writes Unamuno, and living another.
It is a mistake to think that just because people possess consciousness, ideas alone make the man. But where in this statement, Unamuno wanted to know, was the real man behind the philosophy? We think with our whole spirit and body.
We feel in our bodies and our minds. Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly — but then perhaps, also inwardly, the crab resolves equations of the second degree.
But who am I? All we have is our individuality, wrote Unamuno — if we are something else we are nothing. Consciousness, he learned, was not all it was cracked up to be. Consciousness, which has shown us many interesting truths about existence, has brought even more confusion. The more systems of thought we develop — the more equations we prove — the more contradictions we are handed.
The more we learn about life on Earth, the more mysterious the universe becomes. When we back away from this confusion, we become hypocrites, wrote Unamuno. Yet, when we confront the chaos, we suffer. Consciousness is our gift and our enemy. In other words, it is consciousness of death.
And this is the tragic sense of life. Marcus Aurelius, St. They are individuals who chose to embrace the great horrible Doubt that lurks at the heart of modern existence rather than profess a cure. It all sounds a little morbid, Unamuno admitted. But it is nearly always through disease that we pay attention to our health.
And whoever proved, asked Unamuno, that man is either healthy or cheerful by nature? From the darkness of anguish we emerge into the light, just like when Dante came up from the depths of Hell to see the stars again.
It is precisely through the disease of consciousness, the conflict and tragedy of life, that Miguel de Unamuno was able to find his soul. And this, for Unamuno, was worth a million good ideas. Imagine yourself in a small boat that has stopped midway between a river and a raging waterfall below. This is how the man with the tragic sense of life lives.
It is, in any case, how Miguel de Unamuno lived — in a state of existential crisis, hovering over the abyss. Imagine, now, that you are dead.
It is literally impossible, wrote Unamuno, to imagine ourselves as not existing, no matter how great our imagination. Sit for a moment, he suggested, and try to imagine your mind — your consciousness — as it is when you are in a deep, dreamless sleep. It makes your head hurt. Try even harder and you will start to feel crazy. Its lack of air stifles me. More, more, and always more!
I want to be myself, and yet without ceasing to be myself to be others as well, to merge myself into the totality of things visible and invisible, to extend myself into the illimitable of space and to prolong myself into the infinite of time. Not to be all and for ever is as if not to be—at least, let me be my whole self, and be so for ever and ever. And to be the whole of myself is to be everybody else. Either all or nothing! Existence is the longing to live — to live and live and live. And yet, consciousness is the knowledge that we will die.
But to be supremely aware of our mortality is to hunger for immortality. We want to live and yet live forever. The whole thing is a 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.
We affirm life as we question it, and question the more we affirm. For Unamuno, exclamation points and question marks are the same. What is the good of living? Unamuno, of course, had no answer. We want life because we are alive. We want to live because we love life.
There is a kinship between love and life and so there is a kinship between love and death. The more we surrender ourselves to all of life and all of death — the tragedy and joy, the confusion and clarity — the more we love. And love is our consolation. One night in , the poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno woke up sobbing, suffering with love for his son.
Unamuno found in his wife that night a little bit of something divine he had given up on years ago. She was his mirror, and he was hers, and together they dodged the Angel of Nothingness. And if we have no sense of our own self, our own suffering, our own individuality, how can we love another?
Unamuno asked. But we can only know Humanity, thought Unamuno, by knowing the one human being completely available to us — our self. Thus, the more I concern myself with my own life, the more I unite my pitiful, moving-toward-death self with all creation — with men and women and cats and crabs and yes, God too. The more I embrace my mortality, in other words, the more I become, essentially, eternal. As rector of the University of Salamanca, Unamuno had quite a comfortable hideout in which to write his poems and plays.
Yet he made this position a platform to speak out against fascism. Unamuno was removed from his post as rector in and forced into exile until the s by the Rivera dictatorship for publicly opposing the regime. He died of a broken heart ten weeks later.
Miguel de Unamuno was an Existentialist pantheist and a Catholic heretic and a Kierkegaardian mystic in one. Unamuno, in fact, learned Danish to read the then-mostly-unknown philosopher in the original, read American literature at a time when it was considered unserious by European intellectuals, taught himself 14 languages to bring himself closer to the words of others because he loved other writers too. In Salamanca years ago, the beloved Miguel de Unamuno could be seen in the afternoon, drinking his coffee and folding pajaritas , little paper birds.
A famous caricature of Unamuno shows him as part man and part pajarita. The tragic writer had a whimsical side — Unamuno was, paradoxically, an optimistic man. For Miguel de Unamuno, the character that most represented his sense of optimistic skepticism was Don Quixote. One day, while living in exile in France, Unamuno sat folding a menagerie in his garden.
A boy wandered into the garden and was astonished by the paper animals.
Tragic Sense of Life
Opposites attract. He received a doctorate in philosophy and letters from the University of Madrid in He became a professor of Greek language and literature at the University of Salamanca in Although he also wrote poetry and plays, Unamuno was primarily known as an essayist and novelist. He took a controversial, vocal stance on political and social issues.
The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Peoples
The philosopher and poet was born in conflict. Unamuno was a Spanish patriot and one of its most outspoken critics; a Basque who was also a Spaniard; a child who wanted to be a Catholic saint; a philosopher who was suspicious of philosophy. Miguel de Unamuno woke one night in , tormented by dreams of falling into nothingness. He was not expected to live long.
Reason and Meaning
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