Whenever doubt assails me, I turn to The Tragic Sense of Life and my faith is quickly restored. Faith, reason, the man of flesh and bone, and immortality of body and soul, are themes that Unamuno discusses with the ardent –fanatical I’d say– hunger for God.
After such shoddy fiction as The DaVinci Code, and fake TV Documentaries (The Tomb of Jesus), I find solace, wisdom, respect for God, and much joy as I read pages upon pages of this beloved book–The Tragic Sense of Life.
Such heavy thinkers as Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Spinoza, and Descartes, Unamuno views with distrust. Little value does he place in knowledge–gnosis, rationality– going on the attack against Descartes’ arrogance as well as Spinoza’s atheism. Wither knowledge? He asks: “The end of man is to create science, to catalogue the Universe, so that it may be handed back to God in order….” he answers himself by quoting a thought from one of his novels.
Concluding that the man of reason and wisdom isn’t the true creature that God created, but a shadow (or simulacra), he posits that the man that agonizes on a daily basis and craves for immortality is God’s creation. Undisturbed by what scholars may think, he lavishes praise to man-agon whose lot is to suffer the dread of having been cast into an alien universe.
Like Dostoesvsky’s irrational, irreverent, disdainful Underground Man who says, “After all suffering is the sole cause of consciousness,” Unamuno, sees suffering as the flow of life in this real world. Thus, he prefers passion and suffering to reason, truth, and beauty. Suffering is the prelude to the ideal world of eternity where one returns to God.
Lesser thinkers such as Lucretius, John Stuart Mill, Freud, Marx, Sartre, and other atheists never felt the meaning of the word ‘suffering.’ Freud came close to understanding it when he said that religion comes about because of the human desire to escape death (The Future of an Illusion). That is partially correct. The ultimate truth is that men are the only beings that go through life knowing that death is a certainty–hence his lifetime suffering.
Those who are wise accept that certainty and find consolation in death as a return to God. Those who are knowledgeable seek more knowledge instead of acceptance and live to die alone; and what can be sadder than the utter desolation of a godless man or woman?
With unequivocal voice Unamuno rejects St. Paul’s return to God where one is absorbed into peace and quiet for eternity. No, Unamuno says, the hunger we feel for immortality is for us to go on living in this life and in the other with full consciousness, the very same consciousness we own now. This is a daring view. This is the Unamunian never-ending longing for “a life in which each one of us may feel his consciousness and feel that it is united without being confounded, with all other consciousnesses in the Supreme Consciousness, in God.”
Kindred spirits Unamuno finds:
Among the men of flesh and bone –the suffering ones– there have been typical examples of those who possess this tragic sense of life. I recall now Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, Pascal, Rousseau… Kierkegaard, men burdened with wisdom rather than with knowledge.
You’ll find some fine translations of this book, but I prefer J. E. Crawford Flitch’s who has taken the trouble to add his own Endnotes. Believers as well as unbelievers could well profit from Unamuno’s book.