, ">
 8—Homo sum
 9—Ideas and ideals
 10—Reason and faith
 11—A world of tensions
 12—Man as a dreamer
 13—God and the world
 14—The Hunger for Immortality

 8. Homo sum

"Philosophy is the human product of each philosopher, and each philosopher is a man of flesh and blood speaking to other men of flesh and blood." Thus reads the opening sentence of Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life. Never before have the human condition of philosophy and the "earthly" constitution of the philosopher been stated in such radical terms. To be sure, 'human condition' and 'earthly constitution' are hardly expressions that Unamuno would have used himself; he would have shunned both as bloodless abstractions. The individual person, the substance that underlies both philosophy and the philosopher, was what mattered most to Unamuno. He often proclaimed that the individual, concrete human being is the inescapable point of departure for all philosophers worthy of the name.

A "point of departure" as clear and sweeping as Unamuno's implies first the elimination of all idols—particularly the ideological ones. Thus, the first step that Unamuno proposes—especially when writing in a strongly pragmatic vein—is the breaking of and with ideas. Now, Unamuno's pragmatism, unlike the usual variety, is not just a philosophical tendency; it is, in fact, a case of "ideophagy." What Unamuno means to do with ideas is to break them in, "like a pair of shoes, using them and making them mine." As a system of ideas, conventional pragmatism must (in its turn) be dealt with pragmatically; it must be dismantled, used, and, as Hegel would say, "absorbed." Unamuno is against any tyranny of ideas, even the tyranny of those ideas that pose as guides to action. The conventional pragmatist holds that knowledge is meaningless unless its goal is the fostering of life; however, in his preoccupation with life and its exigencies, he ends by bowing to a new idol. By so doing, he sacrifices what to Unamuno mattered most: our own life, pulsating beneath the jungle of ideas about it—that life made up of flesh and blood, but also of anguish, suffering, and hope.

The elimination of all idols is thus Unamuno's first step in the tireless search for himself and, through himself, for all human beings who, like him, enjoy or, in some instances, suffer an authentic life. Here we have the main motive for Unamuno's implacable blows against philosophies and "mere philosophers." Now, contrary to most of the "vitalist" and some of the "existentialist" philosophers, Unamuno did not think that the ideological idols were altogether useless. In his fight against "abstraction," Kierkegaard contended that anyone who thought as Hegel did, and identified being with thought, was less than human. Even more "existentialist" than Kierkegaard himself, Unamuno disagreed with this censure. For Unamuno, even the most abstract systems of thought were permeated with life. They were, in fact, one of man's ways of clinging to existence. Thus to Unamuno, Hegel seemed as human and as much concerned with his own concrete existence as those who expressed their concern more openly. Perhaps for Kierkegaard, living in solitude and anguish, only those who faced the fact of their own imminent annihilation could be saved, whereas for Unamuno, living in tragedy, fellowship, and hope, all could be saved, even those who insisted on substituting life and hope for thought.

Unamuno thoroughly criticized the philosophers' way of thinking, but only because this thinking frequently prevented the philosophers' recognizing what, irrevocably, they were, no matter how earnestly they might struggle to forget it: concrete, unique men of flesh and blood. Philosophers who attempt to reduce all realities to a single principle may try to account for the existence of human beings in purely rational terms, and in so doing they inevitably finish by turning concrete human beings into sheer abstractions. Although they often emphasize the life and the existence of men, they never succeed in reaching "my life" and "my existence." Unamuno could not help using formulas that are definitively impersonal in tone; he used language, and language cannot dispense with abstract terms. Thus, he wrote that the individual concrete life is "a principle of unity and a principle of continuity." But such words as 'principle' should not mislead us. Unamuno, used the term 'principle', but he never identified it with an abstract "postulate." A principle was for him a kind of "fountain" or "spring," apt enough to describe the "source" of a number of human attitudes that are invariably concrete: the instinct of self-preservation, that of self-perpetuation, the awareness of tragedy, the experience of ambiguity, the inextricable mixture of desperation and hope, and so on. He felt that the "classical" philosophies had paid little attention to these attitudes. At best they tried to explain their nature, without meeting them face to face. But explanation is of no avail here; when everything has been accounted for, men realize that the most important things still remain unexplained. Philosophers, Unamuno held, should begin by acknowledging that they are men, and so before they attempt to know "Truth" they ought to inquire about their own "truth."

The laborious search for that supreme reality, the man of flesh and blood, places Unamuno at a vantage point from which all vitalism and all existentialism seem mere theories about a reality that is so "pure" as to be hardly reality at all. But we must not imagine that in Unamuno's philosophical "point of departure" a "preoccupation with man" is at all synonymous with a "preoccupation with all that is human." In absolute contradistinction to Terence's famous dictum—Homo sum et nihil humanum a mihi alienum: puto—Unamuno declared that humanity—the concept of humanity, that is—was foreign to him. Such a concept is as suspect as the concept of human existence with which philosophers attempt to disguise their lofty abstractions. That is why Unamuno, that tireless sapper of philosophies, began by proclaiming his desire to be the exact opposite of a philosopher in the classical or traditional sense of this word. This attitude was adopted as a consequence of his rather vague definition of "a philosopher." Unamuno defined "a philosopher" as "a man who above all else seeks truth," even when this truth forces him to acknowledge the lack of substantial, intimate reality in his own being—or the possibility of its final and complete annihilation in death. Because Unamuno refuses to be annihilated, he rebels against all the forces that contribute to man's destruction. One of these forces is reason, or rather the overemphasis on reason, which he defined, I am sorry to say, with the same lack of precision as the concept of philosopher. Nevertheless, it should be taken into account that Unamuno's rebellion against this supposed annihilation is nothing like a show of stubborn egocentrism. The man Unamuno speaks for is, of course, himself. Yet he also speaks for all men who are not—or cannot be—content with the fictitious comforts of rational philosophy. This includes, paradoxically, the rationalists themselves, for they are, along with everyone else, men of flesh and blood whose "being" cannot be compressed into any abstract concept, not even the concepts of "existence" and "life."

9. Ideas and ideals

Unamuno's pragmatic point of departure is, thus, so radical that it has often been misunderstood, occasionally even by Unamuno himself. He has insisted so much upon the predominance of the "concrete" as against the "abstract" that he has led his readers to believe that the "abstract"—ideas and reason—must be destroyed once and for all. Yet we must embrace pure ideas as well, provided that we do it as concretely existing beings for whom ideas are as necessary to life as life itself. As we shall see later on, men cannot dispense with the "reprisals against life" launched by ideas. For the worst of ideas is not what they really are—the opposites life clings to in order to exist—but what they often pretend to be: comforting explanations that conceal the pangs that accompanied their birth. Therefore, the man of flesh and blood, who thinks in order to live even when thinking confronts him with the fact that he must one day cease to exist, must not simply dismiss ideas and reasons as irrelevant and powerless. He must face these ideas; he must crack them open and penetrate them; he must above all discover the ideals that lie beneath them. In tune with some of Nietzsche's aphorisms, and perhaps influenced by them, Unamuno proclaimed that the substance of any idea is the ideal (the Desire, the Wish, the Will) held by the man who formulated it. Ideas possess an "essential truth," whereas ideals possess an "existential" truth. Even the most absurd of all ideals have a truth of their own that absurd ideas can never have. The brittle truth of a hundred birds on the wing belies the poor truth of a single bird in the hand. An idea may be declared to be true or false; an ideal is beyond the realm of truth and falsehood.

A series of startling paradoxes is the result of these reflections. To begin with, if ideals are the substance of ideas, it must be concluded that ideas have also, at bottom, an "existential" truth; otherwise, ideas could not even be conceived by men. Furthermore, a man of flesh and blood can more willingly accept (or rather, use) ideas than can some philosophers. Unamuno could not sympathize with the philosophers who importunately denounce the limitations of reason and of the ideas that reason produces.

The ideas that philosophers—including antirationalist philosophers—have circulated about man have ever been means of avoiding confrontation with this "man of flesh and blood," despite the fact that this "man" has given such ideas the only life they can ever possess. In defining "man" as "a rational being," "a thinking subject," "a historical reality," and so forth, philosophers have imagined themselves in touch with man's reality; actually, they have never been close to anything but a mere formal principle. And even if we define "man" as "an irrational creature," we will only succeed in laying down another principle, an abstract, philosophical postulate. Now, we should not concern ourselves just with the business of living, and leave sterile definitions to the philosophers. Notwithstanding his claims to the contrary, Unamuno's approach to man is still of a philosophical nature. It enters philosophy by the back door, but enters it nevertheless. In this respect Unamuno is indebted to a well-known tradition (the tradition of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard) which he himself has often acknowledged. The kinship exists, not because his philosophy is literally based on the works of these authors, but because it was in them that he discovered—most often, as with Kierkegaard, after his own position had been formulated—his true "spiritual brothers." But unlike most of them, Unamuno did not want to enslave philosophy. Quite the contrary: he wanted to free it from all idols, those of "irrationality" and "life" no less than those of "reason" and "ideas." The motives for this double objective are at the very heart of his thought, and cast a vivid light on his conception of tragedy. For Unamuno it would be incorrect to speak of a man who existed authentically—in flesh and blood—if he did not also exist tragically, and it would be inadequate to say that he lived tragically if his life were not continually torn by the enmity—which acts through the coexistence—of two series of warring provocations: the will to be, and the suspicion that one can cease to be; feeling and thought; faith and doubt; certainty and uncertainty; hope and desperation; heart and head; or—in terms dear to some philosophers—life and logic.

10. Reason and faith

This enmity is the single but powerful source of man's fundamental tragic feeling: the feeling that his hope and faith are incompatible with his reason, and yet cannot exist without it. For reason subsists only by virtue of its constant war—and therefore its continual embrace—with hope and faith. We must avoid the common error of supposing that Unamuno's thinking was entirely slanted in favor of a complete victory of irrationality over reason. Were this true, neither could exist. Their warring coexistence is the substance of "tragedy," and the prime mover of the "tragic sense of life." If men could entirely escape the so-called "dictates of reason" to such an extent that they might then be defined as "irrational beings" hungering for eternal life, or blindly hopeful of it, there would be no tragedy in their existence. But Unamuno would then wonder whether they deserved to be called "human" at all. For Unamuno, to live as a human being and to live tragically were one and the same thing.

It may be argued here that the question before us is a purely semantic one; that the identification of "human life" with "tragic life" is a linguistic convention that we may take or leave. But Unamuno, does not ask anyone to assent to a proposition; he wants everyone to yield to a fact: the fact that the permanent tension between opposites, and especially between reason and the irrational, is the very core of existence.

There is little doubt, at any rate, that Unamuno would not agree with Leo Chestov's passionate descriptions of man as an essentially irrational creature. According to the Russian philosopher, every authentic human being must renounce all ties with the objective world in favor of his own world of dreams. As a consequence, man's private universe is not disturbed by reason or by the universal and necessary truths—the so-called "eternal truths"—that reason uncovers and formulates. On the other hand, the human universe that Unamuno describes is one in which the victory of dreams over reason is no less precarious than the victory of reason over dreams. It is a universe that offers no final respite, no quietude, no peace. Even when man is most entirely and happily immersed in the irrationality of his dreams, reason comes forward to trouble his life. And thus man comes to realize that the world of reason—of ideas and abstractions—must be cultivated for the sake of life no less than the world of dreams. The man of flesh and blood is not a person who turns from unreason and the dream world to embrace the implacable yet comforting light of reason, nor the person who escapes the rational universe to hide in the warm, trembling cosmos of faith, but one who vacillates incessantly between one and the other; a person who is, in fact, composed of these two elements.

Instead of being principles from which to deduce and define a concrete existence, these two worlds are perfectly alive, active almost pulsating realities. Unamuno has at times called them metaphorically, "whirlpools." And the man of flesh and blood, who lives at war with himself and never relinquishes his desire for peace, appears astride them both, sinking out of sight between them only to rise uncertainly again.

To claim that man must philosophize in order to live is not, therefore, just another formula; it is the faithful description of an experience. Unamuno's pragmatism, his invocation of utility, his insistence that truth tends to become veracity and the idea, an ideal, are thus entirely compatible with his waging war against all things merely pragmatic. Though Unamuno wrote that "the so-called innate desire to know only awakens and becomes active after the desire to know-in-order-to-live is satisfied," he did so only to emphasize, against the rationalists, the importance of irrationality. He also wrote, and here against irrationalists, that "the demands of reason are fully as imperious as those of life."

11. A world of tensions

Because he manifests a revolt of naturalism against the idealism of reason, and of the idealism of reason against pragmatical materialism, all attempts to pigeonhole Unamuno in one definite philosophical system are bound to fail. Unamuno does not advocate the union—which would entail a reconciliation, and eventually, a truce—of life and reason within the framework of a system where the idea of harmony would forever preclude any discord. There can be no harmony in that war which each human being wages against himself and his antagonists, but only perpetual strife, interminable contradiction, and continual—and fruitful incivility. This is the only "formal principle," if that is the proper name for it, which permeates Unamuno's thinking. It may be stated as follows: To be, is to be against one's self.

Unamuno's emphasis on opposition, tension, and contradiction is obviously related to that type of thinking which since Hegel has been customarily called "dialectical." Nevertheless, there are two important differences between the conventional dialectical systems and Unamuno's.

On the one hand, dialectical systems attempt to describe and explain the attributes of the Cosmos as an impersonal being. In such systems, human reality follows the pattern of the cosmic reality. Sometimes "the Reality" is identified with "God," but even then the impersonal traits prevail over the personal ones. Unamuno's dialectic, however, is of an entirely personal nature. Unamuno refers mainly, if not exclusively, to human existence. And when the ideas of God and world are introduced, they are endowed with human characteristics. Even when he uses such abstract terms as 'reason' and 'the irrational', they are to be understood as embodied in unique, concrete human beings.

On the other hand, all the philosophers who have tried to describe reality as a dialectical process of some sort—Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno no less than Hegel—have built conceptual systems in which the opposites end in a reunification in the bosom of some ultimate and all-embracing principle. The war between particulars finds peace in the absolute generality of the essential One, so that the principle of identity overcomes, in the end, all contradictions. The dialectical method is one in which as in Hegel—the total, "superior" truth (philosophical truth) reconciles the partial, "inferior" truths (mathematical and historical truth), one which purports to "save" all within the frame of the Absolute—the only realm in which peace is to be found. But in Unamuno's world, animated by the principle of perpetual civil war and unending strife, there is no place for any final harmony and still less, any identity—which would be, in his opinion, the equivalent of death. Among those thinkers who defended the dialectical approach, there was something akin to a headlong rush toward the very identity they denounced, their attempts to dissemble their own longing for an ultimate unity by calling it an "identity of opposites" notwithstanding. In Unamuno there is not the slightest eagerness to be absorbed in this identity, nor the least desire to pour the past into the future; there is just an everlasting will to abide, "to prolong this sweet moment, to sleep in it, and in it become eternal (etemizarse)." Unamuno wishes to prolong his "eternal past" because only the moment most perfectly expresses what he seeks: a sense of being a man of flesh and blood among other men of flesh and blood, yet still longing to be all that one can long to be, to be "all in all and forever," a finite individual and an infinite reality at the same time.

All identity or even harmony of opposites, all mere submersion of the moment in an intemporal eternity, is undone in the perpetual battle between heart and head. So, for the authentic man, the correct spiritual disposition is not belief in the impossible simply because it is impossible (as some irrationalists would urge), nor yet disbelief because of its impossibility (as most rationalists would recommend), but its affirmation without believing it or, as Unamuno said, by creating it. This is the only means of arriving at that point where man is permitted to walk the floor of the abyss, that "terrible substructure of tragedy and faith," which is the common ground for both skeptics and believers, and where desperation ("the noblest, most profound, most human, and most fecund state of mind") meets and fraternally embraces hope. The embrace is a tragic one, and for Unamuno this means a vital one: a menace of death and a fountain of life. Desperation and doubt can never attain a complete victory over hope and belief, but the reverse is also true. At a time when sentiment and belief ride roughshod, over reason and doubt, "there are reprisals," with "damned logic" clinging, at the same time, to what we may well call "damned feelings." And so the battle goes on forever: reason and faith, doubt and belief, thought and feeling, fact and desire, head and heart are united by an association in war, the only apposition in which they can survive since "each lives on the other," and feeds on the other, there being no third party to rejoice in or benefit from the struggle, no absolute unity or supreme harmony to lay peace between the antagonists. The only attainable peace lies in the eye of this powerful hurricane, but the eye subsists only because the hurricane moves on.

Thus the man of flesh and blood, who seemed to be so plain, simple, and straightforward, becomes a most complex reality seething with confusion and contradiction. No sooner had the philosopher asserted the concrete character of this creature then he injects it with what appears to be infinitely removed from any concrete reality: the pursuit of the impossible, the life of wish and dream. But even though the boundaries of personal unity seem thus to be broken, man never surrenders himself to any absolute being or to any transcendent realm of values. The man of flesh and blood strives to be all in all, while he fights to remain within the limits of his personal unity. He wishes to preserve his own nontransferable self, for being all in all means an infinite expansion of one's own personality rather than ceasing to be what one is.

At any rate, it would be a mistake to enlist Unamuno in the ranks of classical idealism, as it would be inadequate to consider him a naturalist or a realist. To be sure, Unamuno speaks often of "realism," but at such times it is to be understood as an injunction to create reality rather than as an invitation to describe it faithfully and accurately. Also he seems sometimes on the brink of naturalism and even materialsm, but it is only because he wishes to emphasize what is concrete in man's existence. Realism, naturalism, and materialism define man in terms of what he is, which nearly always means, in terms of what he has been. Idealism, on the other hand, defines man in terms of what he ought to be. Unamuno prefers to "define" him in terms of what he will become, or more exactly, in terms of what he wants to become, since "we are lost or saved on the basis of what we wanted to be, and not for what we have been." If a name could be given to Unamuno's philosophical anthropology, "poetic realism" would perhaps be the least inadequate of all.

12. Man as a dreamer

In view of the above, it is only too natural that Unamuno's notion of man should be drawn more successfully in his novels than in his philosophical essays. In Unamuno's novels there is frequent use of such expressions as 'living, suffering flesh', 'the marrow of bone', and 'the panting of the soul'. There is frequent mention of dreams, since it is through dreams that the creatures we imagine, exist. We may say, then, that in the characters of these novels Unamuno's conception of man is truly given flesh. And this, as he writes, "without recourse to theatrical scenery, or other tidbits of realism which invariably lack the true, eternal reality, that of personality." All the "characters" thus described—or, more correctly speaking, created—struggle in order to exist. They fight against everybody, including their author, in order to be men of flesh and blood, for only in the course of such a struggle can they achieve their greatest reality.

Like their creator, all are "men of contradictions," and their goal in life is to "carve themselves a soul." Mist's (Niebla) Augusto Pérez goes so far as to threaten his author. He cannot do it, as the latter can, "with a stroke of his pen"—after all, the character is not an author. But he can menace the author by reminding him that God—a sort of supreme author—may stop dreaming him. As we shall see later on, the so-called fictitious characters in the novels possess a reality of their own. To be sure, they are the consequence of their author's "dreams." But their creator depends on his characters as much as they depend on him. Thus, Unamuno wants to make clear that although each man—"real" or "fictitious"—is truly himself, he cannot live without the others. Unamuno's repeated insistence on the notions of the "dream" and "being dreamed" may be grounded, of course, in his undeniable fondness for paradox; it is indeed a paradox to say that real persons and fictitious characters in novels are equally "men of flesh and blood." But underlying Unamuno's witticisms and puns there is a serious attempt to show that personality is more basic to men—real or fictitious—than any of the other characteristics of human existence thus far devised by philosophers. There is, and most important, the wish to show that all men of flesh and blood are closely interrelated. The so-called "independence" of the solitary man—again, "real" or "fictitious"—is deceptive. "A solitary dream," Unamuno writes, "is illusion, appearance; a dream shared is truth and reality." As Augusto Pérez says to his dog, Orfeo, "The world is the dream we all have in common, the 'communal dream.'"

If we say that the fictitious characters in novels are, in a sense, real, we can also say that real men are fictitious creatures—characters, in a kind of cosmic novel. They too are the products of a dream: God's dream. This is the origin of the anguish felt by man as he becomes aware of the vast dream in which he is immersed, and of the possibility that some day he will awaken; that is, become convinced of the ephemeral nature of his dream, thereby sinking into the "twilight of logic and ratiocination," which can offer no consolation to "the hearts of those condemned to the dream of life." Because the awakening from this dream means that we cease to exist, we implore our Author not to stop dreaming us with a strange prayer: "Dream us, Our Lord!"

Now, just as faith lacks vigor without doubt, and hope becomes sterile without desperation, so we are here confronted with the breathtaking paradox that dream lacks substance without the possibility of awakening from it and rebelling against it. When we rebel against the fact that God is constantly dreaming us, we assist God in His everlastingly creative task—dreaming.

The assistance we render God, analogous to that rendered us by our fictional heroes, makes it possible that just as we are God's children, He is, as Unamuno proclaimed, our child, the child "of poor anguished humanity, since in us the eternal, infinite, Universal Consciousness manifests itself, exists incarnate." As a consequence, the relationship between God and His creations is not one of cause and effect and even less one of action and consequence, but a peculiar relationship best described as "that of dreamer and dreamed." Perhaps this explains why Unamuno surmised that far from being products of a necessary emanation or an arbitrary creation, we are products of a dream. We are not, however, entirely at the mercy of the Dreamer, for we have the power of changing His dreams. We thus dream while awake, being both the object of those dreams in which we are the "creatures" and the subject of those dreams in which the world of what we call "fiction" comes alive.

13. God and the world

Should we say, then, that we have in the notion—or rather, the metaphor—of the dream the unifying principle of the man of flesh and blood, the meeting point of all tensions and all oppositions, the "absolute essence" of human reality and, for that matter, of all reality? If we are God's dreams, and God himself is our dream, can we not conclude that dream is the universal stuff of which all things are made?

It goes without saying that Unamuno does not answer these questions as a philosopher would. He does not use argument, let alone any sort of rigorous proof. He uses a confusing but stimulating method in which bold assertions are blended with series of interrogations. As an example of bold assertion, let me quote the following: "It is not my fragile and transitory self, which feeds upon the earth and upon which the earth will one day feed that must be victorious, but my true eternal self, my archetype and form since before and until after time, the idea that God, the Universal Consciousness, has of me,"—a rather surprising statement, excessively Platonic for one who has so often argued against "ideas," "forms," and "archetypes." The examples of interrogations are so numerous that I need cite no example. But it is illuminating to see that many of them refer to the question of dreams—in the aforementioned sense—and the relationship between "a dreamer" and "that which he dreams." This shows that Unamuno was certain about the real nature of this universal tissue of dreams, and in particular about the role that the Great Dreamer plays in the economy of the universe. If, on the one hand, everything seems to move, in his opinion, toward the Dreamer, on the other hand he maintains that even in His bosom there is conflict, tension, and contradiction, or, to use Unamuno's own terms, strife, struggle, and war.

Since God is the perpetrator of all fecund war, He could be truly called "The Eternalizer," rather than "The Eternal." The war in which all things live has also its roots in the divine reality. Unamuno opposes, then, both rationalists who worship the principle of identity and irrationalists who rejoice in contradiction, so far as all of them agree that God is the Reality in which all opposition is reconciled and all diversity unified. He also opposes those Platonic—and Neoplatonic—philosophies that reduce the sensible world to the status of a copy and reflection of the intelligible world. According to these philosophies, the authentic life consists in a contemplation of the divine world of the Idea. But since such a life would of necessity be a disembodied existence—or, more exactly, would mean living as though one led a disembodied existence—the Platonic emphasis on intelligibility and unity always ends by sacrificing the concrete man who formulated—and longed for—it. An analogous situation occurs, by the way, in those philosophies that, while apparently hostile to the idea of a static intelligible world, are no less eager to set the torch to the particular and the concrete, even though they concoct theories about a supposedly dynamic unity of opposites. Unamuno called these philosophies "monistic catchpennies," because although their main premise is the existence of diversity, in the end (as with Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and Hegel), this same diversity is seen to be the stuff of which unity is made. The proponents of these pseudomonistic systems hailed the idea of contradiction but soon allowed their thoughts to be permeated by a principle of identity. All that is not identity, claimed Giordano Bruno, is vanity, nothingness, illusion, and void. All oppositions, proclaimed Hegel, must be reconciled. The absolute One, the absolute Idea, the pure Identity, thus emerge victorious over all opposition, so much so that in the end all struggles to win an eternal peace are resolved. Peace is at last attained, but with it, Unamuno argued, life itself comes to an end.

There is no reconciliation and no peace in Unamuno's truly dynamic universe, whether it includes only the minds of men or also that of God. Here war plays the part of the Heraclitean "father of all things." But although Heraclitus admitted the existence of a certain cosmic rhythm—the rhythmic alternation according to which the universe travels an Upward and Downward Way—Unamuno dissociates existence from anything that might for so much as an instant diminish its unbending "fury." What we term "Peace" is found only in war. Thus unity and identity are both present in Unamuno's universe. But they exist, as much as anything does, within the framework of an unending battle. They struggle to hold their ground, and they push forward though unsuccessfully—toward ultimate domination. If God can be called the "Universal Consciousness," as Unamuno has sometimes named Him, it is not because He is the World's Reason, but only because He wages an unending struggle to merge with the world—and at the same time to free Himself from it.

It would, of course, be impertinent to ask Unamuno for any rational elucidation of a theme that, more than any other, he has always left adrift in a sea of indefiniteness and paradox. If, on the one hand, Unamuno surmised that this Universal Consciousness is trapped in matter, thus seeming to adhere to a pantheistic and even materialistic monism, on the other hand he declared that God—the eternal and infinite consciousness of the world—is something transcendent. In either event it can be said that He is in the battle. Could we not even say that He is the battle—or the very symbol of it? At any rate, as soon as we try to divorce Him from any struggle, we are in danger of depriving Him of His existence. Then too, this battle presupposes a constant suffering after the manner of Schopenhauer—who probably influenced Unamuno, more than the latter would have been willing to admit. It presupposes that anguish that is the "only truly mysterious mystery" and seems to rise as if it were a cosmic sap from inorganic matter through man to that Person submerged in matter who is its eternal and infinite consciousness. We might almost conclude that each man, each thing, each activity, and even each concept is a member of a sort of "body mystic" tormented by that anguish that is an essential part of the "God who suffers" and is as much a consolation to His creatures as it is to Himself. We are here confronted with a symbiosis of a very particular type—a cosmic symbiosis that concepts such as "interaction," "reciprocal action," and "mutual dependence" can never adequately describe. And yet we are in touch with something quite like an "organic symbiosis" when we read that "in God's bosom consciousnesses are born and die—die?—their births and deaths constituting His life," and especially when we read that "when we say God eternally produces things, and things eternally produce God, we are repeating ourselves."

Are we justified in saying that, after all, Unamuno returns to those very same definitions and formulae which the pantheists of all periods circulated so monotonously? Only if we fail to notice that he at once weakens his definitions and formulae by voicing them in a series of unanswered questions. The method of interrogation of which I spoke before now gains an upper hand. Might not matter itself, Unamuno asks, be the beginning of the unconscious God? Is not God the end rather than the beginning of the universe? Is there a difference in terms of eternity between beginning and end? Are things ideas of the Master Consciousness? Does God the Eternalizer ever forget what He has once thought? Questions of this kind result from a natural dissatisfaction with any definite solution, and show again how pointless is any attempt to contain Unamuno in a single intellectual pigeonhole. Monism, pantheism, materialism, spiritualism, and personalism are some of the best known responses to the above questions. Not one of them is, however, entirely acceptable to Unamuno. God is "the ideal of humanity," "man projected to the infinite power and eternalized in it," but He is also that Highest Person who transcends this human projection, who affirms Himself over and against it. He is the reason of the world and its unreason, its consciousness and unconsciousness, its anguish and pleasure, its spirit and matter. Thus the only really apt name for God is what Unamuno was finally to give Him: "my heretic God." So much a heretic that He looks upon Himself with an heretical eye. God, like man, doubts Himself, and in the process of doubting, creates both Himself and man. This seems to be the meaning implied in "Atheism" and "The Atheist's Prayer," two of Unamuno's sonnets which best reveal his sense of the Divine. If in the first he says that:

God is the unattainable desire we have to be Him; Who knows? Perhaps God Himself is an atheist;

in the second the atheist prays to a God in whom he cannot rationally believe, but whose existence he must affirm unless he wishes to deny his own. That is why this strange atheist exclaims:

Because of You I suffer, Inexistent God, since if You existed I too would really exist.

This is the God who denies and affirms Himself, who desires and fears, who pulsates in the heart of mankind and hovers above it. A God who defies rational proof but welcomes those who approach Him armed with the tools of belief and love. This last point is all-important, since a "belief in God begins with the desire that there be a God, with the inability to live without Him." Such a longing for God is no mere desire—at least, not one that thought can assuage; it is more in the nature of an anguish, a yearning for Him. He who dreams the world is in turn its dream; the Eternalizer is Himself eternalized. Without man and the world, God would not exist. But without God, man and the world would founder in the nightmare of the void from which the only salvation is an unending dream, the perennial memory of the "Master Dreamer." Nietzsche had proclaimed that "God is dead." Unamuno maintains that even the death of God is the life of man.

14. The hunger for immortality

By any standards of religious or philosophical orthodoxy Unamuno's idea of God was a "heretical" one. He refused to apply any of the conventional philosophical categories—"actuality" and "potentiality," "being" and "nonbeing," or "essence" and "existence"—to God. The reasons for this theological and philosophical "heresy" are deeply embedded in his view that all beings tend to sink into the vortex of an unending polemic, a permanent struggle. Since tragedy stirs in the depths of everything, it is also active in the depths of God, whose life is as full of tension and conflict as the life of man and that of the universe.

On this grandiose and turbulent stage, and subject to the same dynamic impulse, Unamuno's other major themes unfold his other major obsessions; and the most insistent of them all is that of immortality. Its role is such a central one that at times it threatens to obscure all the rest. Faced with the question, "What is the most important problem for man?" Unamuno would have declared, in all likelihood, that it was the question of the soul's ultimate destiny, that is, whether or not the soul is immortal. Although, in phrasing the question, he often used the vocabulary of the Platonic-Christian tradition, his purpose was not the same. In fact, it is misleading to speak of Unamuno's idea of the soul in any terms that suggest an entity separate, or separable, from the body. Even though we shall be obliged to use this same terminology, as Unamuno was—the "Soul," "immortality," and "immortality of the soul"—it must be remembered that the real problem that concerned Unamuno was that of the individual human death. Was each man doomed to an eternal death, or could one hope to survive it? This was the obsessive question in Unamuno's concern with the problem of the immortality of the soul.

Unamuno could not avoid thinking of death as both inevitable and frightening. His struggle against the fear of death was so impassioned that in dealing with the problem of immortality he seems to have halted the incessant pendulum movement of his thought at one of its extremes. If in speaking of God and man, negation unfailingly accompanied affirmation, doubt, faith, and despair, hope, in Unamuno's talk of immortality, assent often triumphed over denial. We are tempted to conclude that his desire for immortality blinded him to the misery of death, and that in this instance his heart won its only victory over the mind.

But such a conclusion would be premature, for to the degree that it was authentic—and it most probably was—Unamuno's belief in immortality was also beset by doubt. There can be no other explanation for his frequent use of the expression 'hunger for immortality' instead of 'belief in immortality'—'hunger' being an obviously much less intellectual term than 'belief'. We believe in immortality, Unamuno surmised, primarily because we desire it. Our desire to be immortal, to survive, is even stronger than our desire that there be a God. The hunger for immortality is an almost physiological impulse. Reason teaches us that immortality is highly problematical, if not absurd. Or, to be more exact, reason teaches us nothing in this connection, and thus leaves us in a state of perplexity. That is more disturbing than the certainty of our death. We can accept the Platonic proofs of the immortality of the soul only when we blindly accept their premises—if all that is "simple" does not perish, and if the soul is simple, then the soul does not perish. The premises themselves cannot be proved, either rationally or empirically. Therefore, although reason is in this instance "neutral," it often leads us into skepticism. It is a very peculiar kind of skepticism, one that acts as a stimulant rather than as a palliative. The stronger the conviction that immortality cannot be proved, the more deeply belief in immortality penetrates our minds. But the hunger for survival is tied to the anxiety caused by the imaginative anticipation of death as a complete extinction of our being.

Although Unamuno's thought on the problem of immortality was largely dependent upon Christian theological notions, it was not subservient to them. He struggled against these notions as much as, if not more than, he accepted them. Therefore, let us analyze the meaning of 'immortality' in Unamuno's thought and compare and contrast it with the "immortalities" of the theological and philosophical systems.

To begin with, Unamuno's "definition" of immortality is extremely vague: a thing is immortal when it is limitless in both time and being. 'To be immortal' means to be—or perhaps rather to wish to be—all in all per omnia saecula saeculorum. Unamuno's conception of immortality is related to the notion of impetus, or conatus, which, according to Spinoza (frequently cited by Unamuno, in this respect), "impels" all things to the conservation of their own being. The essence of immortality seems to be, therefore, the struggle to perpetuate one's self. But although Unamuno was extremely sympathetic to the Spinozian notion of conatus, he disagreed with Spinoza in one important respect. Spinoza maintained that nos experimur aeternos esse, that "we feel that we are eternal." As François Meyer has pointed out, however, Unamuno adopts only Spinoza's verbal expression, and makes it serve his own end, quite unlike Spinoza's. As Meyer says, this end is a kind of "ontological greediness." Immortality is not only a conatus directed toward one's own being; it is an impetus to participate in all the other beings while remaining one and the same. Furthermore, immortality must be understood in its widest connotation and not limited to the desire felt by one human individual to survive. All things, and not only human beings, "long" to endure by absorbing the entire universe into themselves. And when this proves impossible, they "Prefer" to be absorbed by the whole rather than remain confined within their own being.

Immortality is, then, a universal "desire" and one that never limits itself in any way. Being immortal means being both one's self and all that is not the self at the same time and forever. It can easily be seen that this "definition" of immortality is based upon the refusal to sacrifice anything. Properly speaking, for Unamuno, to be immortal is to be God. But the impossibility of any finite being's attaining this end leads Unamuno to place the following implicit "restrictions" upon the idea of immortality: (1) immortality is considered to be predominantly "human immortality"; (2) emphasis is placed more and more upon the survival of the human individual as individual, even if this means a diminishing, rather than an expansion, of his being; (3) all possible forms of survival are explored, even the most "unsatisfactory" ones if these are found to be more "verifiable" than others. Thus, the "ontological greediness" originally ascribed to every being is so severely curtailed that we may wonder why Unamuno considered this "greediness" the basic metaphysical drive of all realities. It is still possible, however, to see in this "greediness" at least a general tendency, perhaps a "limiting concept." The innermost core of Unamuno's longing for immortality is still the impetus toward an ontological amplification of individuality and particularity, with each thing in the universe "longing" to become "all in all" and forever. But if a thing cannot be all things for all time, let it be at least itself most of the time. And if man cannot be God, let him at least share in imagination the eternality and omnipresence of God.

The longing for immortality itself oscillates perpetually between a maximum and a minimum. The maximum is "to be all in all while being one's self." The minimum is to subsist and survive, no matter how. This minimum plays an important role in Unamuno's thinking on immortality. Very often he seems to conceive of immortality as man's longing to endure and nothing more; it need only help him to overcome the fear of death. Thus, when no other alternative seems available, Unamuno is willing to accept an idea of immortality which presupposes a sacrifice of individuality and a submersion in a single (ubiquitous) existence. Faced with a choice between a simple annihilation and absorption by a universal reality (God, Nature, Mankind), Unamuno would certainly favor the latter. He would resign himself to a "survival" in the undifferentiated reservoir of an Absolute, even if this Absolute were, like the Buddhist Nirvana, the nearest thing to "Nothingness." For the Buddhistic idea of "Nothingness," similar to the ideas of absolute Will and pure Unconsciousness proposed by Schopenhauer or Eduard von Hartmann, implies some kind of existence; in fact, for those who believe in it, or dream of it, it is true existence as opposed to the falsehood of the individual self, which always dissolves into transitory elements. We may, for the sake of universal Life, sacrifice our private life; we may, for the sake of the Absolute, abandon the relative. To be sure, Nirvana is a lesser evil with which Unamuno could only begrudgingly content himself. But it would still be something. "Something is better than nothing" is Unamuno's commonsensical recommendation when the question of the survival of human beings is at stake.


back to Unamuno | The Expository Philosopher