The Philosophy of Death

Miguel de Unamuno was a man of contradictions. He saw tragedy and death in life, and that was why he loved it.


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Miguel de Unamuno’s earliest memory was of a bomb landing on the roof of his neighbor’s house during Spain’s final Carlist War. The philosopher and poet was born in conflict. Unamuno was a Spanish patriot and one of its most outspoken critics; a Basque who was also a Spaniard; a child who wanted to be a Catholic saint; a philosopher who was suspicious of philosophy.

Miguel de Unamuno woke one night in 1897, tormented by dreams of falling into nothingness. Just a few months earlier, Unamuno’s infant son Raimundo had contracted meningitis. Raimundo’s illness disabled him physically and mentally. He was not expected to live long. Miguel de Unamuno believed that this tragedy was his fault, divine punishment for turning away from his childhood faith and embracing scientific rationalism. That night in 1897, Unamuno’s wife Concha found her husband sobbing. She held him and called out, “My child!” Years later, Unamuno wrote of this experience and the lasting effect of those two words.

In a moment of supreme, of abysmal anguish, wracked with superhuman weeping, when she saw me in the claws of the Angel of Nothingness, she cried out to me from the depths of her maternal being, superhuman and divine: “My child!” I discovered then all that God had done for me in this woman, the mother of my children, my own virgin mother…my mirror of holy, divine unconsciousness and eternity.

This “crisis of 1897” marked the crossroad of Miguel de Unamuno’s spiritual and intellectual journey. The philosopher would build no system that would eliminate his inner turmoil. He would not turn his back on the Angel of Nothingness. Rather, he would embrace this angel as his wife had embraced him in his grief. Miguel de Unamuno would develop from his nightmare a messy, passionate philosophy of conflict, a philosophy of tragedy. In short, a philosophy of himself.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, Miguel de Unamuno published a book called The Tragic Sense of Life. It was considered — in his time — to be a masterpiece, an influential work of early existentialist philosophy. But The Tragic Sense of Life is more (or you might say less) than a work of philosophy. It is a deeply personal account of one man’s anguish in the night.

The book begins with an answer:

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

The questions are the questions we have asked since the dawn of consciousness: Who am I? To what end do I exist? “I,” answered Unamuno, “am a man.” Man — the individual human life — was the beginning of everything for Unamuno. “The man of flesh and bone; the man who is born, suffers, and dies—above all, who dies; the man who eats and drinks and plays and sleeps and thinks and wills; the man who is seen and heard; the brother, the real brother.” This man was not be confused with that other kind of “man” — the homo sapiens of Linneaus, or Aristotle’s featherless biped, or the social contractor of Rousseau. This other kind of “man” is not a man at all. It is the idea of a man. This man has no sex, no country, no nightmares — this man is an abstraction. No, it was the real man of flesh and bone who concerned Unamuno. “I am a man” is the answer and it is also the question. Man, wrote Unamuno, is “at once the subject and supreme object of all philosophy, whether certain self-styled philosophers like it or not.” Man, and not ideas. After all, philosophers too are made of flesh and bone, Unamuno reminds us, whether they like it or not.

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

Closer to the truth, wrote Unamuno, is sum, ergo cogito — “I am, therefore I think.” And yet, why don’t we say “I feel, therefore I am?” Or “I will, therefore I am?” We are thinking beings, to be sure, but we also have joy and we suffer. We think with our whole spirit and body. We feel in our bodies and our minds.

Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly — but then perhaps, also inwardly, the crab resolves equations of the second degree.

“I am,” wrote Unamuno 100 years ago. But who am I? All we have is our individuality, wrote Unamuno — if we are something else we are nothing. “They tell me I am here to realize I know not what social end; but I feel that I, like each one of my fellows, am here to realize myself, to live.” All I have is myself, wrote Unamuno, and still he tried to run away. Consciousness, he learned, was not all it was cracked up to be. Consciousness, which has shown us many interesting truths about existence, has brought even more confusion. The more systems of thought we develop — the more equations we prove — the more contradictions we are handed. The more we learn about life on Earth, the more mysterious the universe becomes. When we back away from this confusion, we become hypocrites, wrote Unamuno. Yet, when we confront the chaos, we suffer. Consciousness is our gift and our enemy. “Consciousness,” wrote Unamuno, “is a disease.” This thing called consciousness, we learn, is simply awareness of one’s own limitations. In other words, it is consciousness of death. And this is the tragic sense of life.

Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, Pascal, Rousseau, Rene, Obermann, Thomson, Leopardi, Vigny, Lenau, Kleist, Amiel, Quental, Kierkegaard — these are just a few men of flesh and bone who had a bad case of the disease, wrote Unamuno, men “burdened with wisdom rather than with knowledge.” These diseased men are Unamuno’s kindred spirits, men for whom the tragic was a constant companion. They are individuals who chose to embrace the great horrible Doubt that lurks at the heart of modern existence rather than profess a cure. “It is not enough,” wrote Unamuno, “to cure the plague; we must learn to weep for it.”

It all sounds a little morbid, Unamuno admitted. But it is nearly always through disease that we pay attention to our health. (And whoever proved, asked Unamuno, that man is either healthy or cheerful by nature?) From the darkness of anguish we emerge into the light, just like when Dante came up from the depths of Hell to see the stars again. It is precisely through the disease of consciousness, the conflict and tragedy of life, that Miguel de Unamuno was able to find his soul. And this, for Unamuno, was worth a million good ideas.

“A miserere sung in common by a multitude tormented by destiny,” he wrote, “has as much value as a philosophy.”

Imagine yourself in a small boat that has stopped midway between a river and a raging waterfall below. This is how the man with the tragic sense of life lives. It is, in any case, how Miguel de Unamuno lived — in a state of existential crisis, hovering over the abyss.

Imagine, now, that you are dead. You can’t do it; no matter how hard you try. It is literally impossible, wrote Unamuno, to imagine ourselves as not existing, no matter how great our imagination. Sit for a moment, he suggested, and try to imagine your mind — your consciousness — as it is when you are in a deep, dreamless sleep. It makes your head hurt. Try even harder and you will start to feel crazy. “It is like a cramped cell,” wrote Unamuno, “against the bars of which my soul beats its wings in vain. Its lack of air stifles me. More, more, and always more!”

I want to be myself, and yet without ceasing to be myself to be others as well, to merge myself into the totality of things visible and invisible, to extend myself into the illimitable of space and to prolong myself into the infinite of time. Not to be all and for ever is as if not to be—at least, let me be my whole self, and be so for ever and ever. And to be the whole of myself is to be everybody else. Either all or nothing!

Existence is the longing to live — to live and live and live. And yet, consciousness is the knowledge that we will die. We are, as Martin Heidegger wrote (himself influenced by Unamuno), Beings-toward-Death. But to be supremely aware of our mortality is to hunger for immortality. We want to live and yet live forever. The whole thing is a contradiction.

“Contradiction?” wrote Unamuno. “To be sure! …Of course there is contradiction! …Contradiction! Of course! Since we only live in and by contradictions, since life is tragedy and the tragedy is perpetual struggle, without victory or the hope of victory, life is contradiction.” This surrender to contradiction, for Unamuno, is what it means to be a man, to live as a whole man. We affirm life as we question it, and question the more we affirm. For Unamuno, exclamation points and question marks are the same. There ought to be an entirely new punctuation mark called an “unamuno” to express passionate, affirmative doubt.

“Eternity, eternity! — that is the supreme desire!” But why? Isn’t it this hunger for immortality that stifles our enjoyment of life? Unamuno asked: Isn’t it the “frenzied love of life” that most often urges us to long for death? If we are to die, why shouldn’t we all just die as soon as possible and for good, so that no more doomed consciousnesses tormented by their own mortality may come into being? What is the good of living?

Unamuno, of course, had no answer. We want life because we are alive. We want to live because we love life. There is a kinship between love and life and so there is a kinship between love and death. The more we surrender ourselves to all of life and all of death — the tragedy and joy, the confusion and clarity — the more we love. And love is our consolation.

One night in 1897, the poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno woke up sobbing, suffering with love for his son. And then Unamuno’s wife, his childhood sweetheart, came to him, and put her arms around him and said “My child!” because she was suffering too. Unamuno found in his wife that night a little bit of something divine he had given up on years ago. She was his mirror, and he was hers, and together they dodged the Angel of Nothingness.

We are taught, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” wrote Unamuno, but this assumes we love our self. And if we have no sense of our own self, our own suffering, our own individuality, how can we love another? We are taught, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” but we are not even sure that we know what love is — is it sacrifice to home or country or to one’s work or children? We are told “Live for the True, the Good, the Beautiful!” wrote Unamuno, but what is more vain and insincere? I love my neighbor, wrote Unamuno, not because he is good or beautiful, nor because I have sacrificed myself for him, but “because he lives in me and is part of my consciousness, because he is like me, because he is mine.”

“I am a man,” wrote Miguel de Unamuno, a man concerned only with his own life. Egotistical? Unamuno asked. Maybe. But we can only know Humanity, thought Unamuno, by knowing the one human being completely available to us — our self. Thus, the more I concern myself with my own life, the more I unite my pitiful, moving-toward-death self with all creation — with men and women and cats and crabs and yes, God too. The more I embrace my mortality, in other words, the more I become, essentially, eternal. “The thirst of eternity,” writes Unamuno “is what is called love among men, and whosoever loves another wishes to eternalize himself in him.” Contradiction? Yes!

“Love thy neighbor” was not mere theory for Unamuno. Unamuno’s Spain was a country almost perpetually at war. As rector of the University of Salamanca, Unamuno had quite a comfortable hideout in which to write his poems and plays. Yet he made this position a platform to speak out against fascism. Unamuno was removed from his post as rector in 1901 and forced into exile until the 1930s by the Rivera dictatorship for publicly opposing the regime. In 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Unamuno was again removed from his post as rector (and practically lynched) by Franco’s Falangists. He died of a broken heart ten weeks later.

You can hear the strains of the Upanishads as much as the Gospels in The Tragic Sense of Life. Miguel de Unamuno was an Existentialist pantheist and a Catholic heretic and a Kierkegaardian mystic in one. (Unamuno, in fact, learned Danish to read the then-mostly-unknown philosopher in the original, read American literature at a time when it was considered unserious by European intellectuals, taught himself 14 languages to bring himself closer to the words of others because he loved other writers too.)

“I am a man,” Miguel de Unamuno began his book, “no other man do I deem a stranger.”

In Salamanca 100 years ago, the beloved Miguel de Unamuno could be seen in the afternoon, drinking his coffee and folding pajaritas, little paper birds. Unamuno was an enthusiastic and celebrated paper folder — he wrote a mock “scientific” treatise on paper folding and origami shows up in a number of his novels and poems. A famous caricature of Unamuno shows him as part man and part pajarita. The tragic writer had a whimsical side — Unamuno was, paradoxically, an optimistic man. “Whosoever does not suffer does not enjoy,” Unamuno might have said to you if you joined him at the café, “just as whosoever is insensible to cold is insensible to heat.” Unamuno once considered writing a companion to The Tragic Sense of Life that would investigate the comic sense of life.

For Miguel de Unamuno, the character that most represented his sense of optimistic skepticism was Don Quixote. Quixote’s philosophy, he wrote, “can hardly be called idealism, since he did not fight for ideas; it was spiritualism, for he fought for the spirit.” And what was the philosophy of Miguel de Unamuno? After all, the man was a self-proclaimed ‘ideoclast.’ Perhaps it can be found in a story recorded long ago by his friend Eduardo Ortega y Gasset. One day, while living in exile in France, Unamuno sat folding a menagerie in his garden. A boy wandered into the garden and was astonished by the paper animals. The boy turned to Unamuno and asked, “Don Miguel, do the little paper birds speak?” Unamuno was moved by the question. All at once, the paper birds became illuminated. One might call The Tragic Sense of Life a philosophy of little paper birds. A paper bird is a contradiction; it is sublime as it is simple. A paper bird is tragic; it is light but cannot fly. A paper bird is protest against the injustice of a blank sheet of paper. And it is made of paper too. • 6 December 2013


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at