My philosophical education, just like everyone else’s, is far from complete, and of course, never shall be. One omission from my readings has been the work of Miguel De Unamuno, whose The Tragic Sense of Life has been adorning my bookshelves for some twenty years now. Recently, I set out to clean up some shelf space and noticing that my paperback copy–picked up from a Broadway bookseller–was in especially ratty condition, resolved to dispose of it, but to do so only after reading it.
As I read The Tragic Sense of Life, a book committed to clarifying and expounding on its central thesis that ‘the essence of man lies in his endeavor to be forever,’ such that ‘faith in human hope, the desire for immortality sustained throughout a lifetime’ can be read as the meaning of the ‘tragic sense’ in question, I wondered about a dimly-remembered description of him as a conservative. While there are streaks of ‘conventional’ conservatism visible in his fulminations against Nietzsche, what really caught my eye were his invocations of war. I was especially struck by these passages as I was reminded of the description–in Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind—of the conservative spirit as one fascinated by violence.
Here is Exhibit Numero Uno:
A human soul is worth all the universe, someone–I know not whom–has said and said magnificiently. A human soul, mind you! Not a human life. Not this life. And it happens that the less a man believes in the soul–that is to say in this conscious immortality, personal and concrete–the more he will exaggerate the worth of this poor transitory life. This is the source from which springs all that effeminate, sentimental ebullition against war. True, a man ought not to wish to die, but the death to be renounced is the death of the soul. ‘Whosoever will save his life shall lose it,’ says the Gospel; but it does not say ‘whosoever will save his soul,’ the immortal–or at any rate, which we believe and wish to be immortal.
What is striking here is the language of ‘effeminate’ and ‘sentimental’ as adjectives to be applied to ‘ebullition.’ Not only is the anti-war sentiment unhinged, it flirts dangerously with effeminacy and sentimentalism; it is weak and pathetic, reeking of bouquets and rosewater. Somehow, inescapably, Frederick the Great‘s lines ‘Dogs, would you live forever?’, snarled at reluctant soldiers at the Battle of Kolin in 1757 come to mind. There, humans were animal-like for fearing violence and death; here they are sentimental, weeping, women.
And here is Exhibit Numero Dos:
In the world of living beings, the struggle for life establishes an association, and a very close one, not only between those who unite together in combat against a common foe, but between the combatants themselves. And is there any possible association more intimate than that uniting the animal that eats another and the animal that is eaten, between the devourer and the devoured? And if this is clearly seen in the struggle between individuals, it is still more evident in the struggle between peoples. War has always been the most effective factor of progress, even more than commerce. It is through war that conquerors and conquered learn to know each other and in consequence to love each other.
This passage is imbued with a very particular romanticism in its invocation of the life-enriching power of violent struggle. More ambitiously, with the ascription of creative and progressive force to war: from destruction and chaos, a new order. That conservative vision certainly sounds familiar in these days and times.