Reading Unamuno reminded me of Nietzsche’s emphasis that every person live as a life-affirming and meaning making beings, despite the fact that there is no objective meaning to life. One of my favorite examples of the existential skepticism towards objective truth and meaning is in Nietzche’s book The Birth of Tragedy. He writes that we live just like we dream, as “in our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous.” Just like in a dream where strange things happen that make perfect sense to the dreamer, life is a strange happening that we somehow are able to comfortably accept. When something odd happens it is often easy, and easiest on us, to expect that there is a reason for it to have happened, similar to our dreams where strange things happen but still make sense. Nietzsche goes on to say, though, “even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance...that another, quiet different reality lies beneath it.” The most thorough skeptic, then, must not only doubt objective meaning and truth in our dream lives, but also doubt reality itself. For Nietzsche, this doubt leads the terrifying appreciation that chaos and chance are the abyss over which we walk, that we can be confident of no objective meaning, have no control over any part of our lives, and finally, that there is nothing we can do to change this. Despite the resulting horror of realizing and appreciating this chaos that underlies our falsely comforting and constructed truths, Nietzsche writes that “perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally said to themselves in self-encouragement, and not without success: “It is a dream! I will dream on!”
This stance towards life and death seems like one of at least three possible ways that Unamuno and Nietzsche assert a person can approach a life that lacks objective meaning and purpose. One is to try and deny death by falsely attributing objective meaning to other objects in life. Believing in an objective God does this by relegating death as less important—instead of death being the primary concern of living, it is overcome by the attributed purposes and power that is given to God. Another approach to live is to not act at all. Recognizing that death is staring one in the face, the horror of the unknown and the magnitude of the oblivion of death might cause a person to lose faith that any of their actions have enough meaning to constitute a life worth living. Instead, that person would be resigned to giving up their life because they believe nothing can overcome an objectively meaningless existence. The third approach is the one advocated by Unamuno and Nietzsche. Instead of approaching death through a life of denial, or being horrified by the prospects of death and rendered incapable of action, both assert that life should be lived bravely and with conviction, because, and in spite of, the recognition that death renders all of one’s actions absolutely meaningless.
In regards to this third approach, I think that Nietzsche’s description of the dreamer and the overwhelming-ness of chaos complement Unamuno’s principle that every person should “act as if you were to die tomorrow, but only in order to survive and become eternal.” Unamuno’s example of the captain whose boat is sinking is similar to Nietzsche’s dreamer. Even with the deck of the boat giving way, the captain asserts with conviction—in the face of his own death—that his actions are purposeful despite his recognition that there is no objective purpose to what he is doing. Even in dying, he chooses to embrace his living and to live on. As a result, the second half of Unamuno’s principle that one should act is if “to survive and become eternal” seems more to mean that one should live as if their actions made death irrelevant, or because one believes their actions to be worthy of having meaning in a meaningless world. It is not the thought of eternal life that motivates a person to act meaningful and live, but rather is the possibility of creating, believing, and living with purpose that makes one want to believe in eternity. As a result, despite the horror, despair, and anxiety of being alive in a life without meaning, the person most worthy to live is that person who Unamuno suggests acts as if their convictions are worthy of acting out forever, and who Nietzsche claims has conviction enough to recognize life as a merely a terrifying and illusory dream, and yet chooses to dream on.