In an essay published in 2002, Nathan Jun “regards sadness as intimately related to the basic metaphysical condition of human beings.”  --  He argues that “the fundamental human condition involves a conflict between the desire for permanency and the inevitability of loss.  Inasmuch as sadness is a response to loss, and inasmuch as loss is the defining aspect of the universe in which we live, it follows that sadness is the most basic and fundamental human emotional response.  All other emotional responses seem to be temporary interludes between otherwise inevitable losses.  Therefore, sadness is not a deviation from a normal psychological state at all; rather, the tragic sense of being is the normal psychological state from whence all other emotional states deviate.” ...


By Nathan J. Jun, Loyola University of Chicago

Carleton University Student Journal of Philosophy
Vol. 20, No. 1
Fall 2002


Throughout history, sadness has typically been regarded as an undesirable abnormality, the most severe cases of which can and should be counteracted through behavioral modification or medical treatment. Contemporary discussions of the neurochemical basis of emotion have reinforced this view by presenting sadness and depression as neurological flukes easily managed and cured through the use of serotonin-boosting anti-depressant medications. As a result, it is now commonly believed that one can overcome sorrow merely by taking a pill.

Against this view, some philosophers have argued that sadness is neither a disease to be cured nor a passing emotional quirk but rather a fundamental and constitutive aspect of being. Miguel de Unamuno, for example, has suggested that sadness "is the path of consciousness, and by it living beings arrive at the possession of self-consciousness." [1] For Unamuno and other existentialists, sadness is an innate condition which arises out of the conflict between human aspirations for order, meaning, and immortality and the reality of a meaningless, inconstant world. Seen in this way, sadness is not something to be overcome, but embraced with a kind of stoical resolve.

Taking Unamuno as a point of departure, my aim in this paper is to defend a view which regards sadness as intimately related to the basic metaphysical condition of human beings. As I will argue, sadness is not chiefly a response to particular losses or failures. Rather, it is a deep-seated, numinous feeling shared universally by all human beings who continue to desire permanency in spite of the inevitability of loss.


Sadness has been defined and understood in a variety of different ways over the centuries. Most classical accounts tend to regard it as a temporary, irregular disposition or mood marked both by internal feelings as well as externally manifested modes of behavior. In some cases, as in the medieval view, melancholic feelings (such as fatigue or restlessness) and behaviors (such as crying or frowning) are physiological symptoms related to an overabundance of certain humors. [2] According to certain views along these lines, the melancholy person feels ill, cries, frowns, etc. because he is weighted down by an excess of moisture within his body.

In addition to these physiological explanations, classical theorists have also discussed melancholy as a kind of psychological or intellectual response. Descartes, for instance, terms sadness a "disagreeable languor in which consists the discomfort and unrest which the soul receives from evil." [3] Spinoza, similarly, refers to sadness as "pain arising from the idea of something past or future, wherefrom all cause of doubt has been removed." [4] In both cases, sadness involves a "felt" response (i.e., languor and pain) to a perception or idea. More important, this response is considered "disagreeable" and painful -- an unpleasant abnormality.

Both forms of explanation distinguish between the internal feeling of sadness and its external manifestations. For most classical theorists, the former are generally far less significant than the latter in considering the nature of sadness itself. This notion is particularly evident in Shakespeare's Hamlet, who is without a doubt one of the most famous melancholic figures in the Western literary tradition. As Hamlet points out to Queen Gertrude:

'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed "seem",
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show --
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. [5]

Here, Hamlet makes it clear that his feelings are far deeper and more significant than the external manifestations of these feelings. While anyone can make himself "appear" sad, true sadness is something which dwells deep within the human soul. This is an important point because it underscores the extent to which sadness, whatever it is, has very little to do with "acting" sad. If being sad were merely a matter of a certain mode of behavior, it seems that one could very easily ameliorate his sadness simply by adopting an alternative mode of behavior. But this obviously runs contrary to our common experiences of sadness.

In the classical view, then, the actual experience of sadness, whether physiological or psychological, subsists chiefly within the individual human psyche. Moreover, it is considered an atypical condition -- a painful, disagreeable feeling which rises up sporadically and temporarily in response to certain ideas or perceptions. The question then becomes, what sorts of ideas or perceptions trigger sadness? As we have seen, both Descartes and Spinoza suggest that these usually involve some sort of loss or privation. For the former, sadness is a response to the privation of moral goodness (i.e., evil); for the latter, in contrast, it is a response to the privation of hope.

Modern theorists have generally agreed with the idea that sadness is a response to loss or privation. John Dewey, for instance, refers to experiences of sadness as "phenomena of loss." [6] J.-P. Sartre similarly contends that sadness is a response to the loss or disappearance of certain potentialities in life. [7] In most cases, the losses in question are particular, and the severity of the resultant sadness corresponds to the severity of the loss. Pathological depression, according to this paradigm, involves feelings of sadness which do not correspond proportionately to related experiences of loss. Either the feelings are far more severe than the corresponding loss, or else they do not correspond to any particular loss at all.

Contemporary neurochemistry has reinforced many of these ideas by suggesting that sadness is part of an elaborate system of psychological homeostasis. [8] According to this view, certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin help us maintain our awareness of the fulfillment or lack of fulfillment of certain basic psychological needs. When faced with the loss of something which has hitherto contributed to the satisfaction of such needs, the brain responds by decreasing the availability of the neurotransmitter serotonin. The resultant awareness of the loss, triggered by the change in brain chemistry, creates feelings of sadness which are ultimately directed at replacing the lost factor.

In all these cases, sadness is construed as a temporary response to a particular loss. The loss may be material (e.g., sadness at the loss of money), or it may be more intellectual in nature (e.g., sadness at the loss of a loved one). In general, however, the loss is seen as something irregular and abnormal, and this is precisely why sadness is regarded as a "mistake" to be overcome. Its sole "purpose," as it were, is to call attention to a particular privation with a mind to replacing whatever has been lost. Once this is accomplished, the feelings of sadness are supposed to be quelled.

As we have suggested, one of the corollaries of this view is that sadness will vary according to the quality and quantity of a given loss. In some cases, certain types of loss seem to give rise to very special forms of sadness. For example, the loss of a loved one creates a very intense form of sadness commonly referred to as grief. [9] In this case, the loss in question is in some sense irreversible, but even here the feelings of grief are overcome by the "replacement" of the loss with something else (e.g., a favorable memory of the deceased, a renewed appreciation for loved ones still living, etc).

Although these views of sadness carry a certain common sense appeal, they are not without certain difficulties. For one thing, if sadness is taken to be an atypical emotional response to atypical circumstances, it follows that there must be some kind of "typical" or "normal" psychological state from whence sadness (and, indeed, all other emotions) deviates. Moreover, if sadness is only occasioned by feelings of loss or dissatisfaction, it follows that there are some points at which we are completely satisfied and otherwise unaware of any loss whatsoever. But it seems clear that no human being is ever completely free of loss and/or dissatisfaction, which means either that (a) not all loss triggers sadness or (b) sadness is the typical or normal state from whence all other emotional states deviate.

In general, I do not take issue with the idea that sadness is a response to loss. I do not agree, however, that sadness qua sadness constitutes a deviation from some sort of "normal" psychological state. Miguel de Unamuno has argued, on the contrary, that "normal" human experience is chiefly the experience of loss or failure. Working off this assumption, I want to suggest in the next section that sadness is not a deviation or fluke at all, but rather the most basic and fundamental human emotional state.


Miguel de Unamuno's masterpiece The Tragic Sense of Life is a complex, multi-faceted book which discusses a wide range of subjects. As such, I want to limit my attention to a few of Unamuno's remarks on the nature of sadness, particularly as it relates to the fundamental human condition. In the foregoing discussion, we saw that sadness is typically regarded as a kind of disease or affliction. Just as disease is considered an abnormal and undesirable deviation from a standard healthy state, so, too, is sadness viewed as an aberration from a standard "contented" state. According to Unamuno, however, "apart from the fact that there is no normal standard of health, nobody has proved that man is necessarily cheerful by nature." [10] In fact, he goes on to argue, exactly the opposite is the case -- man is fundamentally sad.

This seems somewhat counterintuitive in light of the aforementioned idea that sadness is a response to particular losses. Unamuno's point, however, is that there really is no such thing as a particular loss. As he puts it, "we should solve many things if we all went out into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief." [11] The idea, here, is that the experience of loss is not the exception but the rule; the human condition is defined by the experience of loss, such that experiences of gain or success are the true deviations from the norm.

It is appropriate at this point to elaborate somewhat on the idea of a "loss." Common sense suggests that one can only lose what one possesses. Thus, it follows that one in some way "possesses" the love of another person, and subsequently "loses" that love when that person dies or otherwise disappears from one's life. Of course, as Unamuno points out, death -- which is usually taken to be the paramount source of loss and sadness -- is the foremost "organic necessity" of life. [12] The "losses" occasioned by death are far more natural and inevitable than any particular feelings of love allowed for in life. To this extent, then, loss is a central feature of human experience, while the "possessions" destroyed by that loss are abnormal, atypical, and idiosyncratic.

This relationship forms the basis of what Unamuno famously terms "the tragic sense of life." [13] According to this view, loss is the fundamental, constitutive aspect of the universe. This is precisely because the universe is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, a "Heraclitean fire" where all is inconstant and nothing lasts forever. Human beings, by virtue of being rational and self-conscious, naturally desire our own well-being, and this well-being is attained chiefly through the possession of various things (e.g., material comforts, the love and respect of other human beings, etc). But because nothing lasts, all of these desires for possession are ultimately and inevitably thwarted at some point in time. The result, as Unamuno puts it is that "the gorilla, the chimpanzee, the orang-outang, and their kind, must look upon man as a feeble and infirm animal, whose strange custom it is to store up his dead." [14]

The tragic sense of life, then, is the eternal and unalterable conflict between man's innate desires and the natural and inevitable frustration of those desires. Sadness is not a disease which plagues an otherwise healthy existence; on the contrary, existence itself is the disease, and sadness is its principal symptom. Happiness and contentment, in turn, are essentially abnormal feelings of numbness enjoyed during a particularly favorable moment in the Heraclitean flux. We want them to continue indefinitely, even though they are contingent upon conditions which inevitably change. As such, all possession gives way to loss and all happiness gives way to sadness; loss and sadness alone are the explicit norms which constitute our existence.

Unamuno would readily agree with Descartes and Spinoza that sadness is painful and disagreeable. But he would not agree that sadness is an intrusive aberration in an otherwise happy existence. Sadness is a response to loss, but loss is all we know. To this extent, then, sadness is the basic emotional state of man, and all other emotional states constitute a temporary reprieve from sadness. Does this mean that people feel sad most of the time? If we continue to accept the conventional understanding of sadness, then the answer is clearly no. However, if we expand the definition of sadness to mean a perpetual awareness of the inevitability of loss and failure (the so-called "tragic sense"), then people most certainly feel a kind of enduring sadness. I am not suggesting that this feeling is always acutely present to the human psyche -- indeed, it is often purposefully subdued or even ignored. The point is that it is always there, lurking below the surface and affecting nearly all of our important decisions in life.

Assuming that this understanding of sadness is accurate, what are we to make of the findings of modern neuroscience regarding human brain chemistry? To begin with, it seems perfectly plausible that serotonin and other neurotransmitters help maintain a kind of psychological balance, and that excesses and deficiencies of these may result in mental illnesses. However, I do think it is necessary to distinguish between an acute awareness of loss and the more general tragic sense previously mentioned. The difference between these, I believe, is comparable to the difference between sensing the presence of another person in an adjacent room and directly perceiving this presence with one's own eyes. In both cases, the object is basically the same; what differs is the intensity of the sensation as well as the faculties responsible for the sensation. Similarly, the sadness I feel at the loss of a loved one differs from the fundamental sadness of being, but only in terms of intensity as well as the particular mental faculties involved.

To recapitulate briefly, the fundamental human condition involves a conflict between the desire for permanency and the inevitability of loss. Inasmuch as sadness is a response to loss, and inasmuch as loss is the defining aspect of the universe in which we live, it follows that sadness is the most basic and fundamental human emotional response. All other emotional responses seem to be temporary interludes between otherwise inevitable losses. Therefore, sadness is not a deviation from a normal psychological state at all; rather, the tragic sense of being is the normal psychological state from whence all other emotional states deviate.


It may be argued that the foregoing analysis, even if accurate, implies a highly morbid and pessimistic view of human life. After all, if loss is inevitable, what is the point of doing anything at all? I respond that this view is only pessimistic if one chooses to regard the tragic nature of the universe as an inescapable hindrance to the living of a noble and passionate life. It seems to me, on the contrary, that the inevitability of loss is a profound impetus toward enjoying things while they last.

True, it will always be tragic and sad that all beauty fades and all good things die, but this does not mean that we are unable to imbue each moment with meaning and to regard things as ends in themselves. We cannot be happy indefinitely, for this would mean that the things which make us happy last indefinitely. But we can be happy in the short term, in between the losses, by living heroically, passionately, and authentically. Camus' Sisyphus is heroic precisely because he performs his duty heroically. Even though this duty lacks any ultimate meaning or telos, it is nonetheless beautiful and noble precisely because Sisyphus makes it as such. The tragic sense of life, then, is a clarion call for us to bear the responsibility of making things good and beautiful in spite of their impermanence.

The foregoing essay is not intended to be an exhaustive explication, but rather a preliminary gesture toward a broader, deeper understanding of sadness. Among other things, such an understanding would bring our emotional life into a much more intimate proximity with our metaphysical condition. I have suggested here that an omnipresent sadness or tragic sense underlies our own awareness of that condition. This does not imply that our emotional life is ultimately frivolous or impoverished; it does mean, however, that we need to reconsider what constitutes a "deviation" versus a "norm." Ultimately, our findings in this regard will have seriously implications not only for philosophy but also for experimental and clinical psychology.


[1] Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, trans. J.E. Crawford Flitch (New York: Dover, 1954), p. 140.

[2] Mario Maj, Despressive Disorders (New York: Wiley and Sons, 1999), pp. 12-15.

[3] Rene Descartes, "The Passions of the Soul", in What is an Emotion?, ed. Chesire Calhoun and Robert C. Solomon (New York: Oxford, 1984), Article XCII, p. 70.

[4] Benedict Spinoza, "Ethics," Article XV, ibid., p. 80.

[5] William Shakespeare, "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2000), 1:2:77-86, p. 1674.

[6] John Dewey, "The Theory of Emotion," in Calhoun and Solomon, p. 156.

[7] Jean-Paul Sartre, "The Emotions: A Sketch of a Theory," ibid., pp. 248-9.

[8] For a detailed discussion of current clinical views, see A. Honig, Depression: Neurobiological, Psycopathological, and Theraputic Advances (New York: Wiley and Sons, 1997); cf. Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error (New York: Avon, 1994), pp. 76-8.

[9] cf. Robert C. Solomon, The Passions (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993), pp. 297-98.

[10] Unamuno, p. 18.

[11] Ibid., p. 17.

[12] Ibid., p. 19.

[13] Ibid., p. 17.

[14] Ibid., p. 20.


Calhoun, Chesire and Robert C. Solomon, eds. What is an Emotion? New York: Oxford, 1984.

Damasio, Antonio. Descartes' Error. New York: Avon, 1994.

Honig, A. Depression : Neurobiological, Psychopathological, and Therapeutic Advances. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Maj, Mario. Depressive Disorders. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2000)

De Unamuno, Miguel. The Tragic Sense of Life, trans. J.E. Crawford Flitch. New York: Dover, 1954.