- The Tragic Sense of Life by Unamuno


Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) was 38 years of Age when Alfonso XIII ascended the throne in 1902. The political situation was unstable, as it had been in the previous century, but this time, not only because of political factions, but due to the king's incapacity to referee between the three branches of the State: legislative, executive and judicial.

At the beginning of the century new voices were challenging the Spanish establishment of monarchy, church and aristocracy. The contenders were the army, political parties, anarchists, unions, republicans and regionalism. 

The poor masses were attracted by communist, anarchist and socialist ideologies which called for left-leaning governments to redistribute land and wealth. All the theorists on the left wanted a secular society in order to wrest power from the Catholic Church. The minority landowners and the wealthy feared confiscation of their properties and these apprehensions increased after the Russian revolution in 1917.

Regional identities are strong in some areas of Spain and these demanded autonomy or even independence, particularly the Basques and Catalans. These tensions with the central government made for political instability, especially since the parties were unable to agree on solutions. A prime minister was assassinated in 1912 and violence as a solution was on the increase with bombings, attempts on the King's life, strikes and military repression. This was the social and political background to Unamuno's book The Tragic Sense of Life, published in 1913, on the eve of the outbreak of World War I.

Philosophically, Unamuno was influenced by his studies of Pascal, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Bergson, and William James.

Pascal and Unamuno both reject dogmatism and scepticism. Pascal sees a relationship between the dogmatic person who claims to possess the truth and the sceptic who puts all in doubt. He analyses this link by asserting that the dogmatist demands too much of reason and the sceptic not enough:

“Instinct, reason. We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of scepticism can overcome.”

Underlying both incapacities is Pascal's belief that human reason is imperfect because of sin and only faith can overpower this flaw and expose the human condition. His paradox is that proper reason can only come about through faith in God's revelation.

Both authors agree that the rational proofs for God's existence are not enough. Unamuno rejects the impersonal abstractions of scholastic proofs. However, Pascal has a different reason for reproving them. It is because they leave no place for freedom of will. He insists that God does not force acceptance and that individuals have to decide for themselves. However, he warns that if religion contradicts reason it will be judged absurd. Although he does not rule out rationality totally in religion, he deems it insufficient.

For Unamuno religion is a question of sentiments:

"And if I believe in God, or at least I think I believe in Him, it is first of all because I want God to exist, and then because he reveals himself to me, cordially in the Gospel and through Christ and History. It is a thing of the heart.”

Hegel would disagree saying that the demonstration of God's existence depends on reason. If we rely on sentiments the divinity might be an illusion. He thought that religion should overcome its sentimental stage of subjective representations and move on to a level of full development of consciousness.

Unamuno disagreed with Hegel, asserting that God is an object of faith, not reason, since the divinity is outside our comprehension. A God made of concepts and universal statements, without images and historical dates is the opposite of the God of personal experience pursued by Unamuno.

Hegel tends to underline the infinite possibilities of humanity, whereas Unamuno considers that the instinctive animal in humans, with their passionality, leads them to a tragic sense of life.

Hegel believes that humans will find their completeness as a result of a dialectic process. Unamuno feels a dependence on a superior being.

Kierkegaard would agree with Unamuno on the rejection of cartesian rationalism. The Basque author laughs at Descartes' concept of philosophical doubt in order to know. He rather thinks of a passionate doubt provoked by the struggle between reason and sentiments, knowledge and living, logic and life. He underscores that reason and faith are needed to challenge each other, though they cannot reach a synthesis:

"Faith and reason are two enemies that cannot be sustained, the one without the other. That which is irrational demands to be rationalized, and reason can only operate on what is irrational. They have to support each other and associate with each other. But to associate in struggle since struggle is a means of association."

Kierkegaard also criticises Descartes' idea of basing philosophy on doubt. He rejects the hegelian comparison of Greek scepticism with cartesian doubt, too. He dismisses outright doubt as a starting point for thought.

Dogmatism is another point of agreement between Kierkegaard and Unamuno. For Kierkegaard dogmatism denies dialectics, in essence the ability to confront ideas. He includes revelation in his dialectic. Despite its being a message from God the philosopher argues that there is a possibility of confronting it on reception, before embracing it with faith. 

Unamuno offers a classicist example of the coalman who does not question his faith but depends on the doctors of the Church to defend it. This is in the 16th century French tradition of "la foi du charbonnier", praised by cardinal Hosius (1558) and criticised by de Beauvoir. He terms this an absurd faith and extends his criticism to all intellectuals who do not test their assumptions, asserting that they are dogmatic.

On the rational proofs of the existence of God both the Danish and Spanish philosophers also agree that they have a shaky foundation, especially their dogmatic claims of certainty. Unamuno claims that his loss of faith was due to trying to rationalise it. There he found only the logical, conceptual God of abstraction which only proves that the idea of God exists. He was critical of scholastic theology which, he thought, removed the loving God of his feelings. He asserted that the Thomistic proofs converted faith into super rational when in fact it was counter rational. He also declared that the Church defined thinking for oneself as heresy. (He suffered political exile for 6 years and was declared a heretic with two of his books on the Church's heretical Index list.) He refused to be persuaded of God's existence through rational demonstrations, but continued to hold on to his faith, though it involved struggle. 

Kierkegaard opposed rational apologetics, too, not because the proofs are bad but because they offer certainty when the question of God's existence is doubtful. It is an affront, he says, to prove the existence of God to someone who believes he exists.

Kierkegaard also objects to proofs of the Incarnation. He believes that it is an offensive paradox. How can infinity descend into finitud? But he also refuses to simplify the apparent absurdity. He reasons that if rationality alone could make people believe in the incarnation then faith would be useless. This is the kirkegaardian leap of faith. It appears absurd to those who lack faith, but not to believers. Both offense and faith are passionate reactions to paradox.

On the question of existence Kierkegaard shares Unamuno's concern about concrete existence. Unamuno quotes the Danish author insisting that the problem of the soul's immortality does not belong in the realm of reason since rationality does not take this question seriously. However, Kierkegaard was not anxious about the afterlife but rather the human condition of free choice to accept or reject God's relationship. In The Concept of Anxiety he asserts that sin is rooted in anxiety and it destroys relationships between the human and the divine.

Doubt is a central theme in Unamuno's philosophical stance. 

“The way to live, to struggle, to struggle for life and to live from the struggle, to live from faith, is to doubt.”

His doubt is that of Christ on the cross full of pain and struggle, not the resurrection and glory. He makes a distinction between his poetic self that believes and his rational part that disbelieves. He calls the tension between the reason and faith, Christian.

The kierkegaardian view is that both doubt and faith are opposite passions. Faith includes uncertainty as part of belief, however, it excludes mistrust which embraces uncertainty. It is the choice to not doubt. 

Unamuno is less a Christian philosopher and more a searcher for religious truth. He insists on wanting to believe as his aim, which enables him to continue doubting without commiting. Unlike Kikegaard he makes no leap of faith and so remains in a state of doubt, a living struggle between faith and reason. He always proclaimed that he never intended to establish a philosophical system.


The Tragic Sense of Life was published in 1913, the year before the beginning of World War II.

Unamuno begins by defining the individual and how philosophy affects them. He believes that the actual individual must be the subject and the object of philosophy, although he is excluded from most philosophical systems. He understands by philosophy the method of interpreting and understanding the world, or not. The man of flesh and blood is not only a rational animal, he is, in addition and above all, an affective and sentimental animal. Unamuno revindicates the affective as the most human facet of the individual because humans are moved by feelings and desires. However, neither the affective nor the rational dimension of the human can be neglected: humans think, reflect and know, and also live, feel, suffer and desire...

He then reminds the reader that we are always moved by a reason. He gives the example of investigating disease in order to immunise ourselves against it. In the basic questions of life we want to know where we came from so that we can know where we are going. It is necessary to know where my life is heading so as to live it fully.

The author then turns to his great desire for immortality. This is a core question for the writer since existence has little meaning if there is no hereafter.

He tries to offer a solution to the problem of immortality through Catholicism. He advocates faith in a saving God who accompanies you in hard times. This involves an effort to recognise the supra-rational which is counter rational.

Speaking rationally, the immortality of the soul relies on the monistic assumption which distinguishes between body and soul so that the soul can continue to live when the body dies. It has its parallel in the eucharist when the bread becomes the body of Christ. 

Unamuno then argues that despite the conflict between reason and feelings we must accept these tensions since they are created from doubt. It matters little how convinced you may be of the immortality of the soul, doubts may arise. 

Sexual love is egoistic between lovers since they seek continuation for themselves. Religion has condemned it as greed since it takes pleasure, only one part of continuation. Spiritual love is born of pain and compassion since these lovers love through a blending of souls, not bodies. Humans exercise a spiritual love when they suffer the same pain, feel sorrow for another and love each other through personalisation. The Consciousness of the universe is God and personalises everything. The soul feels pity for God, is loved by the divinity and loves it.

The question of God's existence is again raised. There is no simple, rational answer to the question because it depends on a belief which engenders hope and faith.

The author then deals with the three virtues of faith, hope and charity. 

Unamuno amends his school catechism definition of faith to his own:

"Believing what we have not seen, no! but creating what we do not see." 

Belief is based in hope because, ultimately, it relies on uncertainties. It has a personal element since it requires trust in those who tell us about the belief. It also has, as a foundation, the will not to die. We also create God by first loving Him then creating our object of adoration. This is not the God of reason since the idea of God is irrational. 

What is not rational is counter rational, and that is hope. 

Charity, or love, is linked to suffering:

"To believe in God is to love Him, and to love Him is to feel Him suffering, to pity Him."

God suffers, too, and this is the explanation of evil in the world. Evil is not created by God; the divinity suffers because of evil. Reason concludes that God permits evil in the paradoxical concept of a Good God allowing evil. However this is only because by rationalising God reason does not accept a suffering divinity.

Suffering also explains why charity leads to pity: 

"And what is charity but the overflow of pity?"

"The work of charity, of the love of God, is to endeavour to liberate God from brute matter, to endeavour to give consciousness to everything, to spiritualize or universalize everything; it is to dream that the very rocks may find a voice and work in accordance with the spirit of this dream; it is to dream that everything that exists may become conscious, that the Word may become life."

The author then analyses how the religious feeling takes on a concrete form in the hope of immortality. He describes religion as the relationship between humans and the divinity. This marks the destiny of the universe since all must be completed in a final relationship with God. However, Unamuno sees the concept of the beatific vision in the afterlife as unbelievable. It is a mystical vision, ecstasy in a state of alienation: 

"In effect, an eternal life is unthinkable and an eternal life of absolute felicity, of beatific vision, is more unthinkable still."

He wonders if it might be an apocatastasis, the return of all things to God.

Unamuno next writes about ethics which he declares to be the practical side of his discourse. He ends up summarising the whole of Spanish culture as a Quixotic tragicomedy, anything but practical:

"And there is one figure, a comically tragic figure, a figure in which is revealed all that is profoundly tragic in the human comedy, the figure of Our Lord Don Quixote, the Spanish Christ, who resumes and includes in himself the immortal soul of my people. Perhaps the passion and death of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is the passion and death of the Spanish people, its death and resurrection. And there is a Quixotesque philosophy and even a Quixotesque metaphysic, there is a Quixotesque logic, and also a Quixotesque ethic and a Quixotesque religious sense—the religious sense of Spanish Catholicism. This is the philosophy, this is the logic, this is the ethic, this is the religious sense, that I have endeavoured to outline, to suggest rather than to develop, in this work. To develop it rationally, no; the Quixotesque madness does not submit to scientific logic."

The three Rs, Renaissance, Reformation and Revolution, are the transformers which decatholicised Europe. They substituted the ideal of an afterlife for that of reason, progress, Science and Culture. The second part of the 19th. century popularised and vulgarised Science through technology, materialism and specialisation.

Spanish thought, it seems to Unamuno, is diffused in its literature, not in philosophical systems. Jorge Manrique's poetry, The Romancero, Don Quijote, La Vida es Sueño by Calderón, Teresa of Avila's Subida al Monte Carmelo, involve an idea of life. This philosophy of literature could not express itself within the bounds of 19th. century positivism, natural sciences and materialism. The author suggests searching for a hero of Spanish thought, not in an actual philosopher, but in a fictional character. He wonders if the philosophy of the Conquistadors and the Counter-Reformers like Loyola and the Mystics was not, in fact, a quixotic philosophy. Were they knight-errants in a godly war?

Philosophy in Spain appears to Unamuno as an intimate tragedy, just like that of Don Quixote, the conflict between reason and faith. The knight-errant aspired to make the rational irrational and vice-versa. His immortality resides in making himself ridiculous.



Unamuno distinguished between the individual, described as the container and the person, characterised as the content. The individual is the temporality of the human, the sensation of being finite; the person is all that is included in the personal universe and sense of immortality. Unamuno's anxiety has its roots in these internal oppositions: his desire for immortality, conscious that he is mortal. This binary pair are possibly modelled on the concepts of body/soul, matter/form and animal/spiritual.

"The painful tension between mortality and the desire to exist, the root of man, founds the painful opposition between individuality and personality"

Consciousness identifies with existence in the author. It is at the root of personality and anxiety to survive. It is also what defines humans as individuals, and consciousness is conscientcia, shared with others. Con-sent is also pity. It is individual and, in its singularity, is universal.

Pain is what reveals one's individuality and personality. The doctor knows the scientific explanation of my pain but it is only I who feels it. It also reveals my personality since pain is not lived in the same way by the believer and the non-believer. It reveals human finitud.

As a finite being humans look towards God to find their meaning. The tragic sense of life is a feeling of wanting God to exist in order to give meaning to the universe and save humanity from nothingness. Unamuno wants to trap the infinite in the finite, not lose the finite in infinity. This is the danger he sees in the mysticism of Tesesa of Avila and John of the Cross: 

"The mysticism that is an intimate experience of the living God in Christ, an intransmissible experience, and whose danger is, on the other hand, to absorb one's own personality in God, which does not save our vital longing."

He believes that God exists when we experience the divinity as consciousness and not simply as the objective reason for the universe. It is our pain in the quest for immortality that makes us feel that he participates in our pain and suffers with us. 

""Because you are basically nothing but the idea that God has of you; but a living idea, like God alive and aware of himself, like God Consciousness, and apart from what you are in society you are nothing."


Unamuno argues that true Christianity is mysticism. This apparently contradicts his concept of not allowing God to swallow up individuality, as the mystical experiences of Teresa of Avila appear to do. 

However, the seeming conflict of ideas may be understood through his idea of suffering. The path to being united with God, according to the author, is through agony. This is the human attempt to rationalise the pain of mortality caused by the wish for immortality, the natural attraction to the infinite combined with awareness of human finitude. Mystics are able to live this tense paradox though it makes them suffer. Unamuno argues that this tension is also experienced by a suffering God. It is in this uncertain agony that humanity meets the divine. Kierkegaard viewed this tense unity of anxiety in a similar way, through the paradox of the infinite meeting the finite in the Incarnation.

Quixotism as religion

Unamuno had written several anti-Quixote essays before 1902 when the hero of the Mancha became his religious knight of honour. Several Spanish writers had turned to Quixote from 1898 onwards as a way of rebuilding Spain's loss of empire. These were the '98 Generation and included: Valle-Inclan, Azorín, Baroja, Machado as well as Unamuno.

Unamuno presented Quixote's craving for fame as a desire for immortality. He claimed that his defeats were only losses in the eyes of modernists. The author also presented Quixote as Christ. Unamuno argued that Spain could be victorious if the country turned away from technology to the humanities.

The hero of Unamuno's humanities is Don Quixote. For the author this fictional character takes on an aspect of reality when he argues that Cervantes's character is more real than his author. Quixote has a legacy and a history. He is remembered,  which makes him immortal, and immortality is a basic concern for Unamuno.

The knight-errant has lost his wits and thereby achieved a higher perspective on reality. It is because the rest of us do not have a dried-up-brains, like the hero, that we cannot view the world as he does. The suggestion is that less common sense would open our perspectives. This is Unamuno's criticism of intellectualism.

Seriousness is another characteristic of Quixote and Unamuno interprets the character as being aware of his actions. What the philosopher admires in his subject is how he puts up with mockery and sometimes invites it. His conscious ridiculesness is what makes him the wisest of individuals, because he acts out the basic absurdity of living.

Unamuno presents the religious characteristics of Quixote by reinterpreting the scene of the barber's basin which the knight insists is a helmet. The author says that Quixote sees the object with the eyes of faith, the world as he wants it, which Sancho and the other onlookers cannot do. 

Love is represented in the hero's feelings for Dulcinea. She is the human equivalent of the basin. Unamuno sees perfect love in this sentiment because the Knight expects no return for his devotion. Love and faith, both religious terms, mix here, since, like the basin-helmet, Dulcinea is a maiden-peasant.

Justice is treated in the galley slave episode where Don Quixote frees some inmates who are being taken to the galleys. On their release the slaves stone him and rob his coat. Unamuno interprets the scene as a just response of the hero, particularly because gratitude can never be assumed. Good deeds will receive their recompense in the next world.

Unamuno appears to see himself as a quixote-like combatant in a rational world where logic dominates. Quixote is a hero because he fights for the spirit against the imposition of commonsense and the outward appearances of realities like windmills, basins and sheep.

Like Kierkegaard, Unamuno is investigating a new way of being religious in a secular world.

The absurd

Unamuno strives for immortality and the avoidance of death. If we cannot achieve immortality then life is absurd and unjust. He appears to be advocating Pascal's wager: believe in God's existence and if it is true you will attain a reward; if it is untrue it doesn't matter. It is a paradoxical theist-atheist position.

Unamuno's tension arises from the concept that an irrational belief escapes reasoning because it is rationally absurd. However, feeling, instinct and faith can enable communication of an unreasonable idea, such as the immortality of the soul. Kierkegaard invites people to make the leap of faith to overcome the gap between reason and belief. Unamuno finds his hero of irrationality in a fictitious Don Quixote who is able to unite the conflict between reality and perception through his ridiculous actions. 

The Dane jumps over the obstacle; the Spaniard struggles with the tension in a spirit of tragedy.

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