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Unamuno's 'Tragic Sense of Life'


To: Kate A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Unamuno's 'Tragic Sense of Life'
Date: 8 August 2003 10.46

Dear Kate,

Thank you for your e-mail of 24 July, with your first essay towards the Associate award inspired by Unamuno's 'Tragic Sense of Life'.

I found this to be an honest and deeply felt piece. I am glad that you didn't try to polish it up, because a lot of good ideas can get lost that way. Equally, there are (as I am sure you would be the first to admit) not a few gaps in the argument. (For your Associate portfolio, you will have to do some polishing, but that can be postponed until later.)

What do you think Russell would say about the Grayling's statement that 'God is the name of our ignorance'? He would be quite rightly scathing of the idea that what we don't know or understand we call 'God', stated baldly in those terms. That is what one would expect, given what Russell says about the 'virtue of veracity' (which you explain very well).

I am struck by the fact that Russell, in his essay, 'A Free Man's Worship' (included in the collection 'Mysticism and Logic') makes tragedy the basis for the meaning of life, as a stark alternative to belief in a higher, controlling power. (Russell's essay begins, quite scarily, with an account of a malevolent creator who rejoices in the way human beings bow before him despite all the torture and suffering he has caused them.) It seemed to me, in the latter part of your essay, that you were feeling your way towards something close to Russell's 'solution'. What we can do, in the face of our weakness and ignorance in the face of the overwhelming forces of nature, and the certainty of our own death, is to transform it into art, and to see our lives as meaningful in these terms.

Although Russell would not put it this way, belief in God is not an *explanation* for the unknown, the ultimate theory of everything - an idea which Russell would scorn as vacuous and absurd - but rather an expression of our determination to face, and not turn away, those aspects of our life which most terrify us, in particular the fact of death.

My impression is that this is not so far from Unamuno's position after all. I think that you possibly agree with Russell's 'virtue of veracity too quickly when you say, mockingly, "It could be argued that to suggest that men must 'believe' with their 'hearts' is akin to the popular idea that they often think with certain parts of their anatomy than with their brains." What Unamuno would say to this is that when it comes to ultimate questions, like the fact of death, what we *say* we believe (when we are trying to be, or appear, rational) is not what we *really* believe. If you ask an atheist or agnostic whether they believe that death is the end, they may say, "Sure, when I die, that's it. End of story." We have every right to be suspicious of this. It seems more likely that the person saying this is not really *thinking* it, has not made any serious attempt to think about death at all.

Unamuno and Russell could agree that our determination to see human suffering as 'tragedy' and so endow it with sense has something in common with the religious attitude. For Russell, this is the form of the atheist's (the 'free man's') worship. For Unamuno, the Russellian response would be perceived as inadequate because the personal aspect of worship (God as a person) is missing. (It is wrong to equate the view of God as a 'person' with the crude idea of a man in a grey beard and white robes - an irrelevance so far as this essay is concerned.)

Going back to the earlier part of your essay, I agree with your summary judgement of James comparison of religious faith with the faith of a rock climber as 'risible'. It could be argued, however, that religious faith is much closer to faith in another person, than to faith in oneself. The idea of a faith *in the other* which makes action possible, is less open to ridicule.

In the face of the unknown, the reader is advised in the popular tract 'Desiderata' to see oneself as 'a child of the universe', and this is comforting in a profound way, because it gives a positive face on what we would otherwise perceive as wholly negative, namely, our helpless dependency on forces vastly greater than ourselves.

Some other points:

Hume, in his sceptical 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion' pokes fun at the argument from design, suggesting amongst other things, that the universe was designed by a committee, or that it 'grew' like a plant. Well worth reading.

You might like to look at my essay 'Is it Rational to Fear Death?' (on the Wood Paths website ) as an alternative view to Unamuno's claim that we ought to wish for immortality. Bernard Williams, the celebrated British philosopher who died recently, wrote an excellent essay, 'Reflections on the Makropoulos Case' (reprinted in his collection 'Problems of the Self') which argues that human beings could not 'cope' with indefinite existence.

You say, at one point, "It is not true to say that people believe because they want to..". Well, that is not true. It depends on what you mean by 'because': Advertisers know that people often believe what they want to believe. Our desires make us less critical, more easily susceptible to sophistical arguments. What is true is that the desirability of having a certain belief can never be accepted as an argument in support of that belief. That is a logical point about the concept of 'belief'.

I look forward to reviewing your next piece of work.

All the best,