“It is truly a sickness–and a tragedy–to have an appetite for knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself” (Miguel de Unamuno).
Over the last three weeks I have been making my way through the Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno’s work Del sentimiento tragico de la vida. I’ll share a few of his insights and make some comments on them because they are worthy of attention and deep consideration:
1. “Nothing appears to me as horrible as nothingness itself.”
- Existentialist tendencies were becoming more and more pronounced at the time of Unamuno’s writings; the concept of nothingness features prominently in this book in particular. Whereas fear of eternal condemnation motivated some conversions to the Catholic faith in the Middle Ages, in the post-modern era it is nothingness that pushes humanity to consider religion. The idea of our complete annihilation at the time of death tears us up inside. We can’t cope with the seeming reality of the end of ourselves, both body and mind. Modern scepticism has whittled away at the Catholic and Platonic belief in the eternal soul. We are left only with our existence here and now. (Note how much of our contemporary popular music contains this idea: YOLO, carpe diem, “there’s no tomorrow.”)
2. “A person is an end, not a means. Civilization strengthens the person, each person, each ‘I.’ Or what is that idol, called Humanity, to which each and every person must sacrifice him or herself? Because I sacrifice myself for my neighbours, for my compatriots, for my children, and these in turn for their children, and theirs for their children, and as such in an endless series for generations. And who will receive the fruit of that sacrifice?”
- Unamuno is raising questions about the importance of the individual human person. Is society for the person, or is the person for the society? Likewise, he is challenging utopian visionaries who imagine a world without death, suffering, and selfishness. Doesn’t our freedom to choose entail the possibility of our failure? Can freedom and utopia coexist? (Unamuno is drawing from Kierkegaard here.)
3. “[Consolation] is not being possessed by God, but rather possessing Him, making myself God without discontinuing to be the self that I am now. Monist tricks don’t do anything for us at all; we want the full volume, not the shadow, of immortality.”
- Deification is a central tenet of the Catholic Church, and Unamuno loves it. Catholic divinization (becoming divine) is not falling as a drop of water into an endless ocean; rather, we affirm that we retain our personality and our individuality in heaven. For this reason Catholics, including Unamuno, continue to insist on the existence of the soul. The soul is what makes us “us” even beyond our death.
Thanks for reading! I hope that these quotes and comments on Unamuno have been good sources for some reflection!
David J.W. Inczauskis, n.S.J.
P.S. Below: Here is the painting that Unamuno considers to be Spain’s best piece of art–Velazquez’s Christ, which captures the humanity (flesh and bones) of God. Don’t we want the same…to be human (with bodies) and divine (with spirits)?
(Photo taken from the Telegraph)