Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Tragic Sense of Life by Unamuno

"The Western theology," Dean Stanley wrote, "is essentially logical in form and based on law. The Eastern theology is rhetorical in form and based on philosophy. The Latin divine succeeded to the Roman advocate. The Oriental divine succeeded to the Grecian sophist."

And all the laboured arguments in support of our hunger of immortality, which pretend to be grounded on reason or logic, are merely advocacy and sophistry.
(from The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno )

Eastern in this excerpt means Eastern Orthodox. There are some references to transmigration but it is the personal post mortem Christian survival that Unamuno is interested in; not paradoxically to resolve the question but to use his uncertainty to remain in a state of heroic suspension.

The absolute and complete certainty, on the one hand, that death is a complete, definite, irrevocable annihilation of personal consciousness, a certainty of the same order as the certainty that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or, on the other hand, the absolute and complete certainty that our personal consciousness is prolonged beyond death in these present or in other conditions, and above all including in itself that strange and adventitious addition of eternal rewards and punishments—both of these certainties alike would make life impossible for us. In the most secret chamber of the spirit of him who believes himself convinced that death puts an end to his personal consciousness, his memory, for ever, and all unknown to him perhaps, there lurks a shadow, a vague shadow, a shadow of shadow, of uncertainty, and while he says within himself, "Well, let us live this life that passes away, for there is no other!" the silence of this secret chamber speaks to him and murmurs, "Who knows!..." He may not think he hears it, but he hears it nevertheless. And likewise in some secret place of the soul of the believer who most firmly holds the belief in a future life, there is a muffled voice, a voice of uncertainty, which whispers in the ear of his spirit, "Who knows!..." These voices are like the humming of a mosquito when the south-west wind roars through the trees in the wood; we cannot distinguish this faint humming, yet nevertheless, merged in the clamour of the storm, it reaches the ear. Otherwise, without this uncertainty, how could we live?

Faith for Unamuno is no sort of knowledge and it has no aspect of self confirmation in the sense that living by it opens up vistas and capacities that are beyond the personal. He could not put off the old rationalist man and go into the unmapped territory of grace.

In any case it is not irrational to have a natural intimation of immortality. In the Kena Upanishad II.4:

It (i.e. Bhahman) is really known when It is known with (i.e. as the Self off) each state of consciousness, because thereby one gets immortality. (Since) through one’s own Self is acquired strength, (therefore) through knowledge is attained immortality.

Shakara’s Commentary: Pratibodha-videtam known with reference to each state of intelligence. By the word bodha are meant the cognitions acquired through the intellect. the Self, that encompasses all ideas as its objects, is known in relation to all these ideas. Being the witness of all cognitions, and by nature nothing but the power of consciousness, the Self is indicated by the cognitions themselves, in the midst of cognitions, as non-different from them. There is no other door to its awareness

There is no other door to its awareness. The natural path to the intimation of immortality is via the simultaneous synchronic and diachronic awareness of the self.

Unamuno being still under the influence of positivistic philosophy writes:

Also a principle of continuity in time. Without entering upon a discussion—an unprofitable discussion—as to whether I am or am not he who I was twenty years ago, it appears to me to be indisputable that he who I am to-day derives, by a continuous series of states of consciousness, from him who was in my body twenty years ago. Memory is the basis of individual personality, just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.

This is the theory whereby memory has the magical power of creating its own subject. Memory does however show the reality of self-identity. That reality is best approached through a focus on the underlying structure of any state of consciousness. It is clear that all intimations of immortality and enhanced realizations of the self come about through an intense immersion in the present moment. Taking thought in a discursive way will not achieve that. We need to be still. Unamuno had no doubt a fine intellect but reading his way into self-realization simply dug the hole he was in deeper. Miguel, put down that shovel!

A wise counsellor, a discerner of souls is what he needed but I surmise, and I may be absolutely wrong, that this was something he dispensed with fearing that his authentic solution would be compromised. Still, I read on and it is a rescue remedy for the peevish smallness of Nothing to be Frightened Of.

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