16. Life

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.

Miguel de Unamuno

Miguel de Unamuno was a Spanish writer and intellectual.  One of the 20th century’s greatest Christian existentialists, he served as a professor of classics and later rector at the University of Salamanca before being removed from his post by the Republican government in 1936 for writing that the Manuel Azaña, the president of Republican Spain, should kill himself as an act of patriotism.  Restored to his post when Franco seized power, he was quickly expelled the university a second time for criticizing the Nationalists and shortly thereafter, potentially murdered by a former student for political reasons. 

In his greatest philosophical work, The Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno contends that the foundation of human nature is the drive to maintain the unity and continuity of life.  We are essentially constituted by a desire for eternal life.  “This means that your essence, reader, mine,…and of every man who is a man, is nothing but the endeavour, the effort, which he makes to continue to be a man, not to die.”

It’s an interesting claim, quite plausible when you dig into it, and it triggered a number of associations as I read it that I’d like to discuss.  Neither, perhaps, is particularly fleshed out at the moment, but there’s something important there, nonetheless.

First, briefly, this understanding of humanity’s essence adds resonance to the doctrine of Original Sin.  The primordial sin as the door through which death enters the world, as the great thwarting of human nature, the deepest possible perversion of it.  Herein lies the great tragedy, that having embraced death in sin, we are compelled to thwart our nature through its perpetuation, and pass this embrace on to subsequent generations.  We then find ourselves unable to extricate ourselves from the grasp of death.  Any human attempt to escape this cycle, particularly the ultimate attempt, suicide (whose ever-present possibility is inescapable fact of human existence), only binds us further. 

Second, following Unamuno, if man’s being is essentially constituted by his drive to stay alive, his eternal life must not efface this desire.  It cannot be a sort of stasis, else it would destroy, not perfect his nature.  Instead, our life after life must be a continual striving for Life itself. 

This calls to mind Gregory of Nyssa’s description of spiritual ascent as a sort of endless race in The Life of Moses, half-remembered from a reading many years ago (in the course of researching a repeatedly delayed, ultimately abandoned paper, one of my many incompletes during my less than illustrious graduate school career).  Here too, we see that the desire to attain the divine is never quenched, never static, “the true sight of God consists in this, that the one who looks up to God never ceases in that desire.”

Gregory continues this theme, a few paragraphs later we see life emerge, for God tells Moses that no man can see Him and live, but how can a vision of life cause death?  Because we are not capable of seeing, knowing, life itself (again, the tragedy that we desire nothing more than Life, but it remains outside our grasp):

True being is true life.  This Being is inaccessible to knowledge.  If, then, the life-giving nature transcends knowledge, that which is perceived certainly is not life.  It is not in the nature of what is not life to be the cause of life.  Thus, what Moses yearned for is satisfied by the very things which leave his desire unsatisfied.

My mind turns to another author, Dante.  The narrator of his great Comedy circles his way down through Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and in Paradise continues to loop upward eternally.  Quoting at length from the final canto, because it’s beautiful:

From that point on, what I could see was greater
than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails—
and memory fails when faced with such excess.

As one who sees within a dream, and, later,
the passion that had been imprinted stays,
but nothing of the rest returns to mind,

such am I, for my vision almost fades
completely, yet it still distills within
my heart the sweetness that was born of it.

So is the snow, beneath the sun, unsealed;
and so, on the light leaves, beneath the wind,
the oracles the Sibyl wrote were lost.

Recall the passage I opened this post with, “We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist.”  But we see, that confronted with the immensity of Life, our memory fails, leaving behind only the affective, the felt, imprint of Dante’s vision. Let’s turn quickly to another of Unamuno’s insights, another connection:

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.

This affect drives us.  We live in memory and desire life.  We encounter Life in its fullness and cannot hold it within our memory.  We forget.  We know that we’ve forgotten, retain a vestige of its affect, and rush after it again, eternally.

I think I saw the universal shape
which that knot takes; for, speaking this, I feel
a joy that is more ample. That one moment

brings more forgetfulness to me than twenty-
five centuries have brought to the endeavor
that startled Neptune with the Argo’s shadow!

You’ve felt this, haven’t you?  The pursuit of a memory half-remembered, of a feeling that somehow lingered for an eternal moment and was lost the second you tried to grasp it, the second you allowed time to flood back in.  And the more you seek, almost, maybe wholly desperate now, the further it seems.  A gulf between you and the memory, an absence which is all that remains of your encounter with Presence.  And that only makes you want it more.


To believe in God is to long for His existence and, further, it is to act as if He existed; it is to live by this longing and to make it the inner spring of our action. This longing or hunger for divinity begets hope, hope begets faith, and faith and hope beget charity. Of this divine longing is born our sense of beauty, of finality, of goodness.

Dante gets the last word:

As the geometer intently seeks
to square the circle, but he cannot reach,
through thought on thought, the principle he needs,

so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it—

and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already—like
a wheel revolving uniformly—by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.


One response to “16. Life”

  1. […] of the church.  Memory too is not merely a matter of past.  Recall the passage from Unamuno that I quoted in a previous post, “We live in memory and by memory.” Our present selves, which includes our anticipation […]

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