Miguel de Unamuno: Tragic Sense Of Life - In The Depths Of The Abyss

Parce unicæ spes totius orbis.—TERTULLIANUS, Adversus Marcionem, 5.

We have seen that the vital longing for human immortality finds no consolation in reason and that reason leaves us without incentive or consolation in life and life itself without real finality. But here, in the depths of the abyss, the despair of the heart and of the will and the scepticism of reason meet face to face and embrace like brothers. And we shall see it is from this embrace, a tragic—that is to say, an intimately loving—embrace, that the wellspring of life will flow, a life serious and terrible. Scepticism, uncertainty—the position to which reason, by practising its analysis upon itself, upon its own validity, at last arrives—is the foundation upon which the heart's despair must build up its hope.

Disillusioned, we had to abandon the position of those who seek to give consolation the force of rational and logical truth, pretending to prove the rationality, or at any rate the non-irrationality, of consolation; and we had to abandon likewise the position of those who seek to give rational truth the force of consolation and of a motive for life. Neither the one nor the other of these positions satisfied us. The one is at variance with our reason, the other with our feeling. These two powers can never conclude peace and we must needs live by their war. We must make of this war, of war itself, the very condition of our spiritual life.

Neither does this high debate admit of that indecent and repugnant expedient which the more or less parliamentary type of politician has devised and dubbed "a formula of agreement," the property of which is to render it impossible for either side to claim to be victorious. There is no place here for a time-serving compromise. Perhaps a degenerate and cowardly reason might bring itself to propose some such formula of agreement, for in truth reason lives by formulas; but life, which cannot be formulated, life which lives and seeks to live for ever, does not submit to formulas. Its sole formula is: all or nothing. Feeling does not compound its differences with middle terms.

Initium sapientiæ timor Domini, it is said, meaning perhaps timor mortis, or it may be, timor vitæ, which is the same thing. Always it comes about that the beginning of wisdom is a fear.

Is it true to say of this saving scepticism which I am now going to discuss, that it is doubt? It is doubt, yes, but it is much more than doubt. Doubt is commonly something very cold, of very little vitalizing force, and above all something rather artificial, especially since Descartes degraded it to the function of a method. The conflict between reason and life is something more than a doubt. For doubt is easily resolved into a comic element.

The methodical doubt of Descartes is a comic doubt, a doubt purely theoretical and provisional—that is to say, the doubt of a man who acts as if he doubted without really doubting. And because it was a stove-excogitated doubt, the man who deduced that he existed from the fact that he thought did not approve of "those turbulent (brouillonnes) and restless persons who, being called neither by birth nor by fortune to the management of public affairs, are perpetually devising some new reformation," and he was pained by the suspicion that there might be something of this kind in his own writings. No, he, Descartes, proposed only to "reform his own thoughts and to build upon ground that was wholly his." And he resolved not to accept anything as true when he did not recognize it clearly to be so, and to make a clean sweep of all prejudices and received ideas, to the end that he might construct his intellectual habitation anew. But "as it is not enough, before beginning to rebuild one's dwelling-house, to pull it down and to furnish materials and architects, or to study architecture oneself ... but it is also necessary to be provided with some other wherein to lodge conveniently while the work is in progress," he framed for himself a provisional ethic—une morale de provision—the first law of which was to observe the customs of his country and to keep always to the religion in which, by the grace of God, he had been instructed from his infancy, governing himself in all things according to the most moderate opinions. Yes, exactly, a provisional religion and even a provisional God! And he chose the most moderate opinions "because these are always the most convenient for practice." But it is best to proceed no further.

This methodical or theoretical Cartesian doubt, this philosophical doubt excogitated in a stove, is not the doubt, is not the scepticism, is not the incertitude, that I am talking about here. No! This other doubt is a passionate doubt, it is the eternal conflict between reason and feeling, science and life, logic and biotic. For science destroys the concept of personality by reducing it to a complex in continual flux from moment to moment—that is to say, it destroys the very foundation of the spiritual and emotional life, which ranges itself unyieldingly against reason.

And this doubt cannot avail itself of any provisional ethic, but has to found its ethic, as we shall see, on the conflict itself, an ethic of battle, and itself has to serve as the foundation of religion. And it inhabits a house which is continually being demolished and which continually it has to rebuild. Without ceasing the will, I mean the will never to die, the spirit of unsubmissiveness to death, labours to build up the house of life, and without ceasing the keen blasts and stormy assaults of reason beat it down.

And more than this, in the concrete vital problem that concerns us, reason takes up no position whatever. In truth, it does something worse than deny the immortality of the soul—for that at any rate would be one solution—it refuses even to recognize the problem as our vital desire presents it to us. In the rational and logical sense of the term problem, there is no such problem. This question of the immortality of the soul, of the persistence of the individual consciousness, is not rational, it falls outside reason. As a problem, and whatever solution it may receive, it is irrational. Rationally even the very propounding of the problem lacks sense. The immortality of the soul is as unconceivable as, in all strictness, is its absolute mortality. For the purpose of explaining the world and existence—and such is the task of reason—it is not necessary that we should suppose that our soul is either mortal or immortal. The mere enunciation of the problem is, therefore, an irrationality.

Let us hear what our brother Kierkegaard has to say. "The danger of abstract thought is seen precisely in respect of the problem of existence, the difficulty of which it solves by going round it, afterwards boasting that it has completely explained it. It explains immortality in general, and it does so in a remarkable way by identifying it with eternity—with the eternity which is essentially the medium of thought. But with the immortality of each individually existing man, wherein precisely the difficulty lies, abstraction does not concern itself, is not interested in it. And yet the difficulty of existence lies just in the interest of the existing being—the man who exists is infinitely interested in existing. Abstract thought besteads immortality only in order that it may kill me as an individual being with an individual existence, and so make me immortal, pretty much in the same way as that famous physician in one of Holberg's plays, whose medicine, while it took away the patient's fever, took away his life at the same time. An abstract thinker, who refuses to disclose and admit the relation that exists between his abstract thought and the fact that he is an existing being, produces a comic impression upon us, however accomplished and distinguished he may be, for he runs the risk of ceasing to be a man. While an effective man, compounded of infinitude and finitude, owes his effectiveness precisely to the conjunction of these two elements and is infinitely interested in existing, an abstract thinker, similarly compounded, is a double being, a fantastical being, who lives in the pure being of abstraction, and at times presents the sorry figure of a professor who lays aside this abstract essence as he lays aside his walking-stick. When one reads the Life of a thinker of this kind—whose writings may be excellent—one trembles at the thought of what it is to be a man. And when one reads in his writings that thinking and being are the same thing, one thinks, remembering his life, that that being, which is identical with thinking, is not precisely the same thing as being a man" (Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift, chap. iii.).

What intense passion—that is to say, what truth—there is in this bitter invective against Hegel, prototype of the rationalist!—for the rationalist takes away our fever by taking away our life, and promises us, instead of a concrete, an abstract immortality, as if the hunger for immortality that consumes us were an abstract and not a concrete hunger!

It may indeed be said that when once the dog is dead there is an end to the rabies, and that after I have died I shall no more be tortured by this rage of not dying, and that the fear of death, or more properly, of nothingness, is an irrational fear, but ... Yes, but ... Eppur si muove! And it will go on moving. For it is the source of all movement!

I doubt, however, whether our brother Kierkegaard is altogether in the right, for this same abstract thinker, or thinker of abstractions, thinks in order that he may exist, that he may not cease to exist, or thinks perhaps in order to forget that he will have to cease to exist. This is the root of the passion for abstract thought. And possibly Hegel was as infinitely interested as Kierkegaard in his own concrete, individual existence, although the professional decorum of the state-philosopher compelled him to conceal the fact.

Faith in immortality is irrational. And, notwithstanding, faith, life, and reason have mutual need of one another. This vital longing is not properly a problem, cannot assume a logical status, cannot be formulated in propositions susceptible of rational discussion; but it announces itself in us as hunger announces itself. Neither can the wolf that throws itself with the fury of hunger upon its prey or with the fury of instinct upon the she-wolf, enunciate its impulse rationally and as a logical problem. Reason and faith are two enemies, neither of which can maintain itself without the other. The irrational demands to be rationalized and reason only can operate on the irrational. They are compelled to seek mutual support and association. But association in struggle, for struggle is a mode of association.

In the world of living beings the struggle for life establishes an association, and a very close one, not only between those who unite together in combat against a common foe, but between the combatants themselves. And is there any possible association more intimate than that uniting the animal that eats another and the animal that is eaten, between the devourer and the devoured? And if this is clearly seen in the struggle between individuals, it is still more evident in the struggle between peoples. War has always been the most effective factor of progress, even more than commerce. It is through war that conquerors and conquered learn to know each other and in consequence to love each other.

Christianity, the foolishness of the Cross, the irrational faith that Christ rose from the dead in order to raise us from the dead, was saved by the rationalistic Hellenic culture, and this in its turn was saved by Christianity. Without Christianity the Renaissance would have been impossible. Without the Gospel, without St. Paul, the peoples who had traversed the Middle Ages would have understood neither Plato nor Aristotle. A purely rationalist tradition is as impossible as a tradition purely religious. It is frequently disputed whether the Reformation was born as the child of the Renaissance or as a protest against it, and both propositions may be said to be true, for the son is always born as a protest against the father. It is also said that it was the revived Greek classics that led men like Erasmus back to St. Paul and to primitive Christianity, which is the most irrational form of Christianity; but it may be retorted that it was St. Paul, that it was the Christian irrationality underlying his Catholic theology, that led them back to the classics. "Christianity is what it has come to be," it has been said, "only through its alliance with antiquity, while with the Copts and Ethiopians it is but a kind of buffoonery. Islam developed under the influence of Persian and Greek culture, and under that of the Turks it has been transformed into a destructive barbarism."[31] ...

translator, J.E. CRAWFORD FLITCH

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