Miguel de Unamuno - The Philosophy of Death

Miguel de Unamuno’s earliest memory was of a bomb landing on the roof of his neighbor’s house during Spain’s final Carlist War. 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 1897, tormented by dreams of falling into nothingness. Just a few months earlier, Unamuno’s infant son Raimundo had contracted meningitis. Raimundo’s illness disabled him physically and mentally. 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. That night in 1897, Unamuno’s wife Concha found her husband sobbing. She held him and called out, “My child!” Years later, Unamuno wrote of this experience and the lasting effect of those two words.
In a moment of supreme, of abysmal anguish, wracked with superhuman weeping, when she saw me in the claws of the Angel of Nothingness, she cried out to me from the depths of her maternal being, superhuman and divine: “My child!” I discovered then all that God had done for me in this woman, the mother of my children, my own virgin mother…my mirror of holy, divine unconsciousness and eternity.
This “crisis of 1897” marked the crossroad of Miguel de Unamuno’s spiritual and intellectual journey. 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.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, Miguel de Unamuno published a book called The Tragic Sense of Life. 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. It is a deeply personal account of one man’s anguish in the night.

The book begins with an answer:

“I am a man; no other man do I deem a stranger.”

The questions are the questions we have asked since the dawn of consciousness: Who am I? To what end do I exist? “I,” answered Unamuno, “am a man.” Man — the individual human life — was the beginning of everything for Unamuno. “The man of flesh and bone; the man who is born, suffers, and dies—above all, who dies; the man who eats and drinks and plays and sleeps and thinks and wills; the man who is seen and heard; the brother, the real brother.” This man was not be confused with that other kind of “man” — the homo sapiens of Linneaus, or Aristotle’s featherless biped, or the social contractor of Rousseau. This other kind of “man” is not a man at all. 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. “I am a man” is the answer and it is also the question. Man, wrote Unamuno, is “at once the subject and supreme object of all philosophy, whether certain self-styled philosophers like it or not.” Man, and not ideas. After all, philosophers too are made of flesh and bone, Unamuno reminds us, whether they like it or not.

We think that the task of philosophy, of science, of life, is to ask, “Why?” from some objective faraway place. But “why,” writes Unamuno, only makes sense in view of “wherefore.” Not just “why” but for what purpose? 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. Philosophy, science, industry, morality — “we have filled the world with industrial marvels, with great factories, with roads, museums and libraries” and still we must ask: Was man made for ideas or were we made to serve the products of ideas? Cogito ergo sum, Descartes concluded — “I think” affirms my existence. But where in this statement, Unamuno wanted to know, was the real man behind the philosophy? Where was the René Descartes who loved poetry and mathematics, who desired heaven?

Closer to the truth, wrote Unamuno, is sum, ergo cogito — “I am, therefore I think.” And yet, why don’t we say “I feel, therefore I am?” Or “I will, therefore I am?” We are thinking beings, to be sure, but we also have joy and we suffer. 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.
“I am,” wrote Unamuno 100 years ago. But who am I? All we have is our individuality, wrote Unamuno — if we are something else we are nothing. “They tell me I am here to realize I know not what social end; but I feel that I, like each one of my fellows, am here to realize myself, to live.” All I have is myself, wrote Unamuno, and still he tried to run away. 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. “Consciousness,” wrote Unamuno, “is a disease.” This thing called consciousness, we learn, is simply awareness of one’s own limitations. In other words, it is consciousness of death. And this is the tragic sense of life.

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