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Jun 1, 1975

Unamuno, “Tragic Sense of Life”

“The attack on death has not been organized properly, for the simple reason that we have not dared announce it as an over-all objective.”

Immortality is at hand. Sciences such as gerontology, biophysics, and biochemistry promise prolonged life-extension in the near future and a probable “cure” for aging and death within the lifetimes of people alive today.

Research proceeds at a dizzying rate, and whether the most important breakthroughs come first in the area of transplants, cloned or artificial replacement organs, cryonics, anti-aging drugs, or simply improved regimens in diet and exercise, the medical path of the future seems clear. Death and aging will be conquered as surely as so many other diseases of the past.

There exists, however, a peculiar nonscientific problem that may accompany this progress: Many people are philosophically unprepared—even opposed—to the very idea of immortality. Unbelievably, there are living persons who fear not death, but life itself—if it is to be extended beyond some traditional limit. Such a position affects not only those that desire death sometime for themselves, but everyone else as well. For as Alan Harrington has observed:

The attack on death has not been organized properly, for the simple reason that we have not dared announce it as an over-all objective. Still unconsciously afraid of antagonizing the gods (in this regard, the medical profession being as superstitious as the rest of us), we cannot bear to “speak the word,” let the hubris out, that we have a secret intent to do away with death entirely. Having no word, we have no program.

There are several books out that present viable cases for eternal life—Ettinger’s Prospect of Immortality, F.M. Esfandiary’s Optimism One, Harrington’s own Immortalist, and Jerome Tuccille’s exuberant Here Comes Immortality. However, one of the most stirring and beautiful arguments onwhy people should desire immortality comes from a very strange and unusual book, Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life.

The book is strange in that it was written over 60 years ago—at a time when the state of the bio-medical arts offered no chance for personal survival beyond normally “allotted” life spans. Unusual, in that Unamuno—one of Spain’s greatest philosophers and writers—developed his plea for immortality almost as an aside in the wider context of his overall religious view of life. This broader view is unfortunately filled with a great many errors. Objectivists and other atheists will find little of value in it—though others may enjoy its’ lovely style and wide literary erudition.

Unamuno was professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca and possessed a most profound “classical and humanist education. He was a proudly self-proclaimed individualist who set his goals high and thought little of those who did not do the same: “Only the feeble resign themselves to final death and substitute some other desire for the longing for personal immortality.”

Despite his religious orientation, Unamuno felt that “the individual is the end of the Universe,” and, even more startling, felt it important to state in the clearest possible language that:

I do not want to die—no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever. I want this “I” to live—this “I” that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now. I am the centre of the universe… . Each man is worth more than the whole of humanity… . That which we call egoism is the principal of psychic gravity, the necessary postulate.

Though human freedom is in the final analysis always a volitional matter, always subject to individual choice and action, there have existed external barriers to its achievement. Mortality is the last and greatest of these. It will soon be removed from the human scene. The tragedy of Unamuno’s title need be tragic no more. When science permits human beings to live forever, their sense of life will no longer have any excuse not to be transformed into one of eternal happiness, joy, and triumph. Reviewed by William Danks /Philosophy (330 pages) / LR Price $2.50