Monday, April 15, 2013
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE TRAGIC SENSE OF LIFE” by Miguel de Unamuno (“DEL SENTIMIENTO TRAGICO DE LA VIDA”) (first published in Spanish 1913; first translated into English by J.E.Crawford Flitch, with Unamuno’s active assistance, in 1921)
It is odd how some prominent writers and thinkers are better remembered for events in their life than for anything in their written work.
For much of his lifetime, the Basque-born Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) was regarded as Spain’s greatest philosopher. I do not speak Spanish and am no expert in Spanish writing and philosophy, so I do not know what Unamuno’s reputation is in Spanish-speaking countries now. But I do know that in English-speaking countries, and thanks to nearly every detailed history of the Spanish Civil War, he is best remembered for the circumstances of his death.
A sceptic, but of an essentially conservative temperament, Unamuno agreed with many of the Right’s criticisms of the Spanish Republic (1931-36) and feared the growing influence of the extreme Left. At first he welcomed the Franco revolt. But he was quickly shocked by the violence and extreme rhetoric employed by Francoists. Aged 72 in 1936, he was rector of the University of Salamanca. When the Nationalist forces took over the city, they expected Unamuno to preside at a victory celebration at the university. Instead, and in the face of angry and armed men, Unamuno gave a famous speech in which he denounced the Francoists’ hostility to Spain’s ethnic minorities (especially Basques) and the brutality of their programme. Only his international reputation saved him from being shot on the spot. He was escorted from the hall under the protection of Franco’s wife and was placed in virtual house arrest, where he died (most sources say “broken hearted”) ten weeks later.
Being remembered for this final show of heroism, Unamuno is regarded as an intellectual martyr in the face of Fascism. Those on the Left who have never looked into the matter might even believe he was some sort of “progressive”. So it will be surprising for some to discover that his most famous single work of philosophy The Tragic Sense of Life (Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida), written before the First World War, when he was in his late forties, is essentially an emotional defence of a conservative concept.
I read its 300-odd pages in a 1961 Collins “Fontana Library” paperback reprint of what is, I believe, the standard English translation (by J.E.Crawford Fitch). I give page references according to this translation.
My own summary of the ideas of The Tragic Sense of Life goes like this:
Man’s deepest awareness is of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. Therefore man’s deepest desire is for immortality, which is essentially a rebellion against the fact of death. This desire for immortality drives the greatest creative faculties in human beings. It is the desire for immortality that fires the imagination, makes people create great works of art and fuels our most intense sensual experiences. Immortality means the survival after death of the individual ego, consciousness and feeling. Unamuno will accept no substitutes for this concept, and waves away such ambivalent notions as pantheism or some sort of absorption into God after death. To defy death is to be most fully alive. To create anything of worth is to protest against death.
Only the existence of God can guarantee immortality. Therefore belief in the existence of God is necessary for a fully creative life. Whether God actually exists or not is beside the point. It is the belief in God’s existence that matters, even if God, in objective fact, is merely a product of the human imagination. Attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God are irrelevant to this creative necessity to believe in God, which is intrinsic to the human species. (God is absolutely essential to the world-view of any atheist.) It is also irrelevant whether God is Saviour or Redeemer. All that matters is the fact of the concept of God as Guarantor of life beyond death.
In Chapter Seven, Unamuno argues that love is the desire to perpetuate. Suffering centres on our finiteness. Pity is love extended to our fellow human beings. We are unconnected to the universe if the universe does not have personality. Therefore consciousness must be at the centre of the universe. This is God.
Thus argues Unamuno.
At once it can be seen that, as a philosophy, Unamuno’s thesis is deeply offensive to both believer and non-believer.
To the non-believer it is merely a clever play with words, and an evasion of the necessity to make a rational decision about whether or not God exists. Unamuno obfuscates. He is an obscurantist who enthrones imagination over reason. If you advocate belief in God, and yet suggest that God may not objectively exist, then you are being intellectually dishonest and living in bad faith. (And, inevitably, in trawling the ‘net I find that some of the most facile and bad-tempered of comments about this book came from Neo-Atheists.)
To the believer, Unamuno reduces metaphysics to mere aesthetics and he is just another symptom of the decay of belief. A God who is only imagined is no basis for ethics, piety and goodness. Unamuno’s philosophy is an invitation to religious formalism bereft of belief, and to that tribe of agnostic idiots who go to church because they like the music and the aesthetic traditions but have no time for the message. (And, inevitably, I find that once upon a time this book was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books).
To both believer and non-believer, the existence or non-existence of God is a matter of vital importance and cannot be shuffled aside as a secondary issue. To both believer and non-believer, Unamuno is a successor to the aesthetes, whose religion was organised sensual experience (look up Walter Pater or Marius the Epicurean on the index at right). He is equally a precursor of the mid-20th century atheist Existentialists, who enthroned the ego and asked people to assert themselves by “choosing” in order to render life coherent and to annul the “absurd”, regardless of whether their “choice” pertained to any objective reality. It seems no accident to me that The Tragic Sense of Life (as well as being full of references to now-forgotten early 20th century academic works of theology and philosophy) is peppered with quotations from Pascal and Kierkegaard, the two major Christian thinkers who come closest to an Existential basis for their belief.
It is worth noting that whether or not Unamuno himself believed in God was very much a subject for debate throughout his life. His ambivalence on the matter is seen in passages such as:
“To say that God is eternally producing things is fundamentally the same as saying that things are eternally producing God. And the belief in a personal and spiritual God is based on the belief in our own personality and spirituality. Because we feel ourselves to be consciousness, we feel God to be consciousness – that is to say, a person; and because we desire ardently that our consciousness shall live and be independently of the body, we believe that the divine person lives and exists independently of the universe, that his state of consciousness is ad extra.” (Chapter Seven, Pg.155)
To non-Spaniards who think in ethnic stereotypes, it is very easy to interpret Unamuno as a specifically Spanish phenomenon. After all, aren’t Spaniards the people who make a fetish of defying death in their traditional bullfighting? And isn’t the defining Spanish work of literature Don Quixote, about a man whose imagination redefines mundane material reality? Unamuno wrote many commentaries on Don Quixote, references to which abound in The Tragic Sense of Life. We are told that:
“[Don Quixote] was at heart a man of despair…and because he was a man of an heroical despair, the hero of that inward and resigned despair, he stands as the eternal exemplar of every man whose soul is the battleground of reason and immortal desire. Our Lord Don Quixote is the prototype of the vitalist whose faith is based upon uncertainty, and Sancho is the prototype of the rationalist who doubts his own reason.” (Chapter Six, Pg.128)
The book’s “Conclusion” is entitled “Don Quixote in the Contemporary European Tragi-Comedy”.
Imaginative reaction against banal materialism; rationalism (in the true philosophic sense) rather than empiricism; a tendency to walk on the dangerous edge of life and death, and to laud people who live by extremes (hello machismo) - all these things seem, to the uninformed non-Spaniard like myself, very much in the Spanish grain.
So Unamuno’s most comprehensive philosophical statement can be picked apart. Yet here is a paradox that will be known to any real student: even a deeply flawed philosophy can be very nourishing. And, in its many imaginative insights, The Tragic Sense of Life is a very nourishing book.
One of its most attractive features is Unamuno’s awareness that a valid philosophy has to take cognizance of the whole human being, not just of the (important – but limited) faculties of logic and reason. Throughout The Tragic Sense of Life he insists that philosophy springs from the personalities of philosophers; and the human consciousness is the centre of our reality.
“Philosophy lies closer to poetry than to science.” (Chapter One Pg.22)
“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 have I seen a cat reason than laugh or weep.” (Chapter One Pgs. 22-23)
“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.” (Chapter One Pg.36)
“Philosophy is the product of the humanity of each philosopher, and each philosopher is a man of flesh and bone who addresses himself to other men of flesh and bone like himself. And, let him do what he will, he philosophizes not with the reason only, but with the will, with the feelings, with the flesh and with the bones, with the whole soul and the whole body. It is the man that philosophizes.” (Chapter Two Pg.45)
Being aware that he himself, in his philosophizing, is as much emotion and imagination as he is reason and logic, Unamuno at one point introduces a line of argument in the following charming manner:
“If in what follows you shall meet with arbitrary apothegms, brusque transitions, inconsecutive statements, veritable somersaults of thought, do not cry out that you have been deceived. We are about to enter – if it be that you wish to accompany me – upon a field of contradiction between feeling and reasoning, and we shall have to avail ourselves of the one as well as of the other.” (Chapter Six, Pg.132)
Because he has this deep sense that a valid philosophy is an address to the whole person, and not just to abstract reasoning, Unamuno anticipates and condemns some of the cant of the twentieth century. In the following two quotations, he could almost be talking about Wittgenstein or other mid- and late-20th century philosophers who reduce philosophy to a sterile word game:
“Language, the substance of thought, is a system of metaphors with a mythic and anthropomorphic base. And to construct a purely rational philosophy it would be necessary to construct it by means of algebraic formulas or to create a new language for it, an inhuman language…. in order to avoid preconceptions.” (Chapter Seven Pg.150)
“Clear vision would be only attainable by a pure thinker who used algebra instead of language, and was able to divest himself of his own humanity – that is to say, by an unsubstantial, merely objective being; a no-being, in short. In spite of reason we are compelled to think with life, and in spite of life we are compelled to rationalize thought.” (Chapter Seven Pg.151)
He already knows the intellectual ducking-and-weaving most agnostics indulge in, as they try to avoid the question of the existence or non-existence of an after-life:
“All this talk of a man surviving in his children, or in his works, or in the universal consciousness, is but vague verbiage which satisfies only those who suffer from affective stupidity…” (Chapter One, Pg.35)
Likewise, he knows that an intense hostility to religion is itself a form of religion and has in it the seeds of its own absolutism:
“Philosophy and religion are enemies, and because they are enemies they have need of one another. There is no religion without some philosophical basis, no philosophy without roots in religion.” (Chapter Six Pg.122)
“It is the old story: so called scientific philosophy, the origin and inspiration of which is fundamentally theological or religious, ending in an atheology or irreligion, which is itself nothing but theology and religion.” (Chapter Ten Pg.233)
“The rationalist [in this case the word is not used in the Cartesian sense] acts rationally – that is to say, he does not speak out of his part – so long as he confines himself to denying that reason satisfies our vital hunger for immortality; but, furious at not being able to believe, he soon becomes a prey to the odium anti-theologicum….”(Chapter Five Pg.105)
“Note the greater part of our atheists and you will see that they are atheists from a kind of rage, rage at not being able to believe that there is a God. They are the personal enemies of God. They have invested Nothingness with substance and personality, and their no-God is an Anti-God.” (Chapter Six Pg.129)
In this case he could almost be talking about Hitchens, Dawkins et al, who not only reject God, but devote a lot of energy to being angry with God. (Hitchens called himself not an Atheist but an Anti-theist, which suggests a personal engagement with the not-believed-in.)
Using the word “rationalist” in the loose sense of “one who believes that Reason answers to all human needs”, Unamuno also anticipates a fatal flaw in much 20th century lauding of Reason as the basis for ethics [look up “The Unreason of Pure Reason” on the index at right]. This is the delusion that Reason, in and of itself, can assign value to things. It can’t. Reason always has to lean on axioms, assumptions and presuppositions – in other words, beliefs – before it can even begin to work:
“Just as eunuchs will never know aesthetics as applied to the selection of beautiful women, so neither will pure rationalists ever know ethics, nor will they ever succeed in defining happiness, for happiness is a thing that is lived and felt, not a thing that is reasoned about and defined.” (Chapter Five Pg.110)
“Faith makes us live by showing us that life, although it is dependent upon reason, has its well-spring and source of power elsewhere, in something supernatural and miraculous.” (Chapter Nine Pg.192)
Reason unalloyed can lead only to scepticism:
“The rational isolation ends in dissolving reason itself; it ends in the most absolute scepticism, in the phenomenalism of Hume or in the doctrine of absolute contingencies of Stuart Mill, the most consistent and logical of the positivists. The supreme triumph of reason, the analytical – that is, the destructive and dissolvent – faculty, is to cast doubt upon its own validity.” (Chapter Five pp.113-114)
As you can see, I find it very easy to quote wise things Unamuno said, even if I find his philosophy flawed. That is because I read his book as a species of imaginative literature which in a sense (and as Unamuno himself argues) is what all philosophy is, even that which imagines it is most “objective” and scientific.
I am particularly intrigued by his love-hate relationship with Catholicism. Unamuno affirms the felt and instinctive version of Catholicism as most satisfying our immortal craving, but he accuses the church of substituting rationalism for faith. Thus he is as much the enemy of Aquinas and of Thomism as he is of Voltaire and his heirs.
“The institution whose primordial end is to protect the faith in the personal immortality of the soul is Catholicism; but Catholicism has sought to rationalize this faith by converting religion into theology, by offering philosophy, and a philosophy of the thirteenth century, as a basis for vital belief.” (Chapter Three Pg.71)
“Not by the way of reason, but only by the way of love and suffering, do we come to the living God, the human God. Reason rather separates us from Him. We cannot first know Him in order that we may afterwards love Him; we must begin by loving Him, longing for Him, hungering after Him before knowing Him. The knowledge of God proceeds from the love of God, and this knowledge has little of nothing of the rational in it.” (Chapter Eight Pg.170)
Other, unconnected, reflections of Unamuno appeal to me. “A rabid mania for originality is rife in the modern intellectual world,” he says, very truly, “ and characterizes all individual effort. We would rather err with genius than hit the mark with the crowd.” (Chapter Three Pg.67)
There is his profound insight that “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.” (Chapter Six Pg.117)
Then there is his Chapter Ten, entitled “Religion, the Mythology of the Beyond and the Apocatastasis”. Logically and correctly, Unamuno lists positivist and rationalist philosophies under the heading of mythology, they too being purely imaginative attempts at explaining central realities.
In running through the various ways an afterlife has been conceived, Unamuno makes this pungent comment:
“A beatific vision, a loving contemplation in which the soul is absorbed in God and, as it were, lost in Him, appears either as an annihilation of self or as a prolonged tedium to our natural way of feeling. And hence a certain feeling which we not infrequently observe and which has more than once expressed itself in satires, not altogether free from irreverence or perhaps impiety, with reference to the heaven of eternal glory as a place of eternal boredom. And it is useless to despise feelings such as these, so wholly natural and spontaneous.” (Chapter Ten Pg.225)
Perfectly true. Heaven is seen as a place of boredom. Unamuno’s imaginative counter to this popular feeling is his suggestion that eternity could be the joy of endless discovery and development. As in this whole book, his endeavour is to preserve the uniqueness and vitality of the individual consciousness beyond this life.
You can use your own imagination to accept or reject this.