MIGUEL DE UNAMUNO Y JUGO (1864 – 1936)
The not too simple life of a philosopher
Born in the Basque region of Spain, gave Unamuno a specific identity provided by a language that is utterly apart from all known tongues. The Basque people belong to a group that considers itself to be culturally autonomous.
Having studied first at Bilbao and then at the University of Madrid, where he received the doctorate in 1883, Unamuno became a college professor. He taught in Bilbao for seven years, and then moved to Salamanca to occupy the chair of Greek Language and Literature before assuming the prestigious duties of rector. Unamuno was a polymath: knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic, as well as several modern languages. In addition, he developed a lifetime interest in philology, linguistics, literature, philosophy, and aesthetic. His contributions to all these fields are to be found not only in his essays, but also in the novels, drama, and poetry.
He lived through many crises: the Carlist war, the bombing of Bilbao in 1873 and 1874, the First World War, and the outbreak of the tragic Civil War in 1936, the year of his death. He was also thrown into political exile from 1924 to 1930, by the dictator Primo de Rivera, landing first on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, then Paris. Twice he was dismissed as rector of the University of Salamanca in 1914 for political reasons, and again, in 1936, for his challenge to General Franco’s regime.
A loving father and family man, Unamuno having married his childhood sweetheart, dedicated his life to his family—wife and nine children.
A spiritual leader
Unamuno was considered by many scholars to be Spain's leading thinker of the twentieth century. Yet, his work —given the polemical nature of it— was often challenged by academicians; in particular, philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. In fact he was considered the spiritual leader of the Generation of 98.
To speak about the ideas of Unamuno is to consider his life in all its aspects, including the familial; life was no abstraction for Unamuno, and philosophy had nothing to do with concepts as if they were bones from which the flesh of living had been stripped. He once said that all his writings, whether essays or poems, were pieces of his heart. He himself was his philosophy; to the extent that we meet him as a man of flesh and blood we understand his thinking.
His first major work, En torno al casticismo (Concerning Purism), published in 1902, shows Unamuno's love for Spain. With this work he begins his search for the soul of Spain. Unamuno, together with other writers of the Generation of '98, discarded the old traditions that tethered Spain to stagnation. His intention was to find the authentic principles that formed the Spanish soul. So we have rejection and acceptance—a paradox. The soul of Spain resides in its pure traditions.
To the antiquated concept of history, he contra posed the novel concept of ‘intra-history.’
While history is the continuum, the unstoppable march of the human race; that is, moments, intervals, and periods of time of notable events and major players, the ‘intra-history’ is an eternal, historical present; a concept that the psychologist Carl Jung was later to coin as the “collective unconscious.”
Unamuno sees in the Castilian land —mountains, poplar trees, and wheat fields, mills, rivers, and lakes— the space that sustains the Spanish people. But it is the energy of the country’s language — epic poetry, drama, mysticism, and the spoken vernacular— what shapes the ‘intra-history,’ making it the repository of all its values and what is good.
For Unamuno, overseas conquests, adventure, honor, and false pride of empire were negative forces, for they were the result of individual efforts desirous of adventure. The authentic value of the Spanish soul was found in the Iberian Peninsula—in its collective soul.
The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho
In his meditation on Cervantes’ novel, The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho (1905), Unamuno develops a vision and a mission for the knight of the sad countenance. Don Quixote is the symbol that unites the Spanish people under one overriding concept: the religion of Quixotism. In other words, Unamuno goes beyond literature —which is what many students, scholars, and critics study and enjoy— assigning to Don Quixote the role of redemptor of goodness with action—the man that struggles to survive and achieve immortality. From symbol, Don Quixote passes to embody the soul of the Spanish nation.
The Tragic Sense of Life
The theme of the book is no other than Unamuno's own crisis of faith, which had erupted in 1897. Doubt assailed him. From 1897 and for the rest of his life, Unamuno lived the tension of opposites: knowledge and faith hope and despair—tensions that he aptly described as the "dark night of the soul."
Yet he found in doubt and despair the indispensable elements of Catholic faith. In as much as he derided the power of reasons, he saw that reason was the only tool he had to to assert the existence of God and the immortality of his soul. He realized that not only he but all persons of flesh and blood live with the perennial and insoluble conflict of opposites: faith and reason and of life and death. That conflict rather than a torture of the human soul is its life—life is a struggle.
Born with the consciousness that physical death is finality, Unamuno made of that realization the major goal for all humans: a struggle not to die. Immortality then is simply not to die, to struggle to escape death.
Unamuno saw in Kierkegaard’s existential writings the same faith he was trying to find and make clear. So passionate was he about the Dane’s works that he taught himself the Danish language.
Because Unamuno was criticized for writing philosophical novels, he coined the term "nivolas," which gave him the freedom to write the fiction he wanted to write regardless of what critics had to say. In San Manuel Bueno, martyr (1930), the protagonist is a priest who has lost his religious conviction. Yet, imbued with compassion and love for his parishioners, he remains a priest —sacrificing his own life— to help his parishioner live the life of their own illusions, which he knew, were futile.
Faith is also a major concern of his poetry. "The Recumbent Christ of Santa Clara," is the cry of a desperate soul who sees the terror of nothingness. "The Christ of Velasquez," is a homage to the faith that the famous painting inspired in all Christian.
A triangle of love —of family, Spain, and God— circumscribed Unamuno’s life, which he sustained by a lifetime of learning.
Major Works: En torno al casticismo (Concerning Purism) (1895), The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho (1905), The Tragic Sense of Life (1913)