Unamuno y Jugo, Miguel de (1864–1936)

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The Spanish philosopher of life Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo's concern was neither with the problems of linguistic clarification and conceptual analysis nor with speculative metaphysical constructions but, rather, with coming to terms with life both intellectually and emotionally. The symbols Unamuno used are related to Spanish life and destiny and his way of thinking was Spanish, but his message is universal. He expressed himself symbolically, through poetry, religious writings, and the novel, and through the general evocative and emotive character of his prose. However, his efforts to give literal articulation to the mystery and anguish of his existence make him a philosopher rather than exclusively a novelist or poet. The style of philosophy that Unamuno represents must at all times emanate from the world situation and the life situation of the individual philosopher. It follows that Unamuno's philosophy is to be found not only in his writings but also in his general mode of life, particularly in his conspicuous political actions at a time of serious turmoil in Spain.

In view of this it is quite proper to call Unamuno an existentialist. First, his philosophy clearly wells up from his own human situation in space and time. Second, his writings tend to be emotive rather than intellectual. He wished to express not exact ideas but feelings; and feelings are often more accurately expressed in the turgid and quasi-sentimental language of Unamuno than in logical exegesis. Third, his subject matter was existentialdeath and anxiety, doubt and faith, guilt and immortality. Fourth, he traced the sources of his thought to such existentialist precursors as Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaard and found kinship with anyone who stressed intuition and subjectivity in the life of man and in the construction of worldviewswith men like Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William James. Finally, Unamuno's philosophy, like Kierkegaard's, was deliberately unsystematic, an expression of his wrestling with existence, and any systematic account of that expression must falsify or at least distort the facts of experience.


Don Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was born in the Basque city of Bilbao. He studied philosophy and classics at the University of Madrid and moved to Salamanca in 1891 as professor of Greek at the university there. He was associated with the university for most of the rest of his life, being appointed rector in 1901 and named rector for life in 1934. Unamuno's first published work, En torno al casticismo (On purism; 1895), was a historical and political work that questioned and examined the place of Spain in the modern world. His first novel, Paz en la guerra (Peace in war; 1897), sometimes called the first existentialist novel, was based on his early memories of the siege of Bilbao in 1873. In the novel Amor y pedagogía (Love and pedagogy; 1902) Unamuno tried to show the basic failure of science in dealing with human and humanistic problems. Amor y pedagogía describes a man's attempt to educate his family scientifically and the dismal failure of this attempt. Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho (Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, 1905) foreshadowed many of the themes of Unamuno's masterpiece, Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos. The Vida de Don Quijote is a plea for salvation through the anguish and passion experienced by the man of flesh and blood. Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (The Tragic Sense of Life ), which appeared in 1913, expresses Unamuno's intemperate longing for eternal life and his desperate search for some solace in the exploration of the tension and conflict that exists between faith and reason. The novel Niebla (Mist ) was published in 1914, and in 1917 Unamuno's modern version of the problem of Cain, Abel Sánchez, appeared. In 1924 Unamuno was deported to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands for his unrelenting attack on the totalitarianism of General Primo de Rivera. He managed to escape to France and remained in exile until 1930, when Rivera's dictatorship fell. Unamuno was reinstated as rector of the University of Salamanca the next year.

From 1931 to 1933 Unamuno served in the Cortes, the constituent assembly of the Spanish republic, as an independent Republican deputy. His last and greatest novel appeared in 1933. San Manuel bueno, mártir (Saint Emanuel the Good, martyr) describes the agony of a priest who finds it impossible to believe. Unamuno's independence, individualism, and patriotism led to his being dismissed from his rectorship in 1936. He at first favored the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, but he came to feel that neither side was working for the best interest of either Spain or humanity. During the last year of his life he was under house arrest in Salamanca.

Central Themes

To characterize Unamuno's basically unsystematic philosophical position is difficult. A few themes can be isolated from his philosophy, however, and may be generalized as follows:

  1. Unamuno's interest was primarily in the individual rather than in social reality, and thus his philosophy extols the agony and the importance of the individual. In this context Unamuno's Spanishness becomes not a social ideal but the expression of his individuality.
  2. He emphasized the importance of personal integrity. Truthfulness to oneself and total honesty in ideals are the hallmarks of the philosophical man.
  3. He saw his functionand that of philosophers generallyas that of a Socratic gadfly to the community. The philosopher is needed to reawaken us to our genuine nature, to our authentic problems, and to the honest attempts to resolve them.
  4. Much of Unamuno's life was spent in agony over the conflict between faith and reason. Reason alonewhich Unamuno invariably associated with skepticismcannot lead to any kind of fundamentally hopeful knowledge. Faith can do so, but faith exists only in the shadow of the despair that is reason; it has no independent and positive existence. Faith can never totally dispel reason, and reason always leads to despair. The logic of the heart is hopeful and gives meaning to life, but it is never strong enough to fully set aside the darkness of the logic of the head.
  5. Unamuno's general conception of religion was related to the tension between faith and reason. Although Catholicism did not fully satisfy either his emotions or his reason, Unamuno felt that religion is a necessity of life. We must risk faith in the way that Pascal wagered, James willed, and Kierkegaard leaped. We must, for profoundly pragmatic reasons, live as if God does in fact exist.
  6. The above views led to the doctrine that commitment is one of the central features of the authentic life. An authentic life is dedicated to and identified with an ideal, an ideal that genuinely emanates from the depths of each man. The truth of such a commitment can be vindicated and confirmed only by the heart; but since reason casts permanent doubt on that commitment, a blind, courageous leap of faith is needed for authentic human existence.
  7. Life thus becomes a vague, brittle, and tenuous cluster of experiences between two awesome, incomprehensible, and impenetrable barriers of nothingness: birth and death. Only through a foundationless but fervid commitment can man escape, at least temporarily, the despair of meaninglessness.
  8. Unamuno loved Spain and was an impartial observer and recorder of the Spanish temperament. According to Unamuno, the Spaniardlike his paradigm Don Quixotewants adventures, willingly risks revolution for the establishment of utopian societies, and is impractical. But there is also a practical side to the Spaniard, symbolized by Sancho Panza, which often degenerates into blind formalism, intolerance, religious bigotry, and unprincipled commercialism.

Unamuno's commitment to Spain embraced his commitment to the Catholic Church. However, it was only his heart that pulled him toward the church; his reason pulled him away from it. This excruciating tension between his fervent emotional need and hope for the presence of an enveloping and supporting God and for certainty with respect to the immortality of the soul on the one hand, and the fact that he found this world picture rationally untenable on the other hand, was central to Unamuno's philosophy.

God and Existence

The problem of human existence, in Unamuno's famous formulation, is el sentimiento trágico de la vida (the tragic sense of life); it is the fact that there is sorrow that has no resolution and evil that has no redemption. We should weep, not because it helps but precisely because it avails us nothing. If we recognize the pervasiveness of hopelessness and despair, we can at least experience the brotherhood of man. Without disease or defect (be it sin in paradise, a weak species of apelike man, or immunizationthe momentary creation of an illness for the sake of health) there can be no progress. Philosophy in this sense is eminently practical: Primum vivere, deinde philosophari "man philosophizes in order to live." "He philosophizes either in order to resign himself to life or to seek some finality in it, or to distract himself and forget his griefs, or for pastime and amusement" (The Tragic Sense of Life, p. 29).

The most attractive solution to the problems of human existence, to "the tragic sense of life," is the hope for eternal life expressed in man's perennial hunger for immortality. This hunger has two dimensionsit refers either to the nondestruction of the soul or to the merger of the soul with the universe or the totality of being. In connection with the first of these dimensions, Unamuno seems to have held that the destruction of a man's consciousness is an a priori impossibility: We cannot even conceive of the nonexistence of consciousness, since that conception is itself an act of consciousness. In connection with the second, he concluded that man is nothing if he is not everythingto exist is yearning to reach all space, all time, all being. To be a man is to seek to become God. Unless man is God, he is not even man: "Either all or nothing!" was Unamuno's motto.

Catholicism promises immortality, but modern rationalism denies it. As a consequence, fundamental doubt sets in, doubt that is both passionate and rational. Such tense but mature insight, however, does lead to some solace: "But here, in the depths of the abyss, the despair of the heart and of the will and the skepticism of reason meet face to face and embrace like brothers" (ibid., p. 106). Man must reach the depths of despair, doubt, and agony in order to arrive at the solid "foundation upon which the heart's despair must build up its hope." Furthermore, the agony that arises out of the tensions of passionate doubt and total rational skepticism when both are focused on the problem of eternal life may also form "a basis for action and morals."

Tension is the essence of life, and the tension that leads to agony is also the tension that allows man to feel his existence; pure consciousness deserves only suicide. Life, to be felt as real, as there, as existing, must be a life of passion. This truth is well illustrated by love, which for Unamuno is basically sexual love. In the tensions and paradoxes of loveas well as in compassion and pityman experiences the richness, concreteness, and fullness of his existence. Consciousness, in this sense, is knowledge through participation; it is "co-feeling."

The hope for immortality is supported by the notion of God. The traditional arguments for the existence of God prove nothing other than that we have the idea of God. The God who is the idea of excellence and the first mover is a fleshless and passionless abstraction and cannot soothe the anguish of man's existence. This abstraction is not what the heart craves. The strongest conclusion of reason is that we "cannot prove the impossibility of His existence." Belief in God is an expression solely of man's longing for the rich and concrete experience of his existence and of his determination to live by this longing and make it a basis for action. Man's agonizing hunger for the divineeven though it cannot be satisfied directlyleads to hope, faith, and charity, and eventually to his sense of beauty and of goodness.

There are other typically existentialist themes in Unamuno's philosophy:

  1. Man is painfully aware of his contingency. That he exists or that he is the particular person he happens to be is neither necessary nor permanent.
  2. To assuage his anguish, man must feel his existence, even if he is led to suffering. He must learn to experience his uniqueness by expanding the range and the self-consciousness of his perceptions of the world.
  3. All existence is a mystery: Consciousness is a mystery, contingency is a mystery, absurdity is a mystery, and anguish is a mystery.
  4. Love is the basic force of human existence. It encompasses all the conative relations of man to being and enables him to overcome the anguish of his contingency by giving him the rich feeling of his own existence.
  5. The central temporal dimension of human existence is the future, which leads to a desire for immortality and to a concern with death. This focus on the future is expressed in Unamuno's use of esperar : It means both the joys of hope and the anguish of eternal waiting. The structure of the future expresses both man's determination to continue to live and his permanent dissatisfaction and despair concerning existence.
  6. Goals are self-created and are permanent commitments.
  7. Finally, Unamuno's views on the nature of language foreshadow those of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger. Language is a mode of being. Living, not only knowing, is expressed in certain basic forms, one of which is language. Language thus is not symbolic but the actual embodiment of an idea. Without language an idea could not exist.

Epistemology and Metaphysics

Truth, according to Unamuno, is subjective; it exists only as it is manifested in authentic belief. Belief, in turn, is an expression of man's total being and consequently is realized in action. Objective truth is, strictly speaking, a meaningless conception. Through its identity with belief and action, truth is ultimately an act of will. It is a will to create; and the will as creator wants and loves at the same time. Because of this personal and volitional factor in truth, the opposite of truth is not error but the lie. This subjective view of truth gives a distinct idealistic, even mystical, cast to Unamuno's thought. All knowledge about man and the world is subjective in the sense that it begins with first-person experience. To think of truth as transcending first-person experiences is, strictly speaking, a contradiction, because the very program of transcending first-person experiences is a first-person project and concept and a construction. There is, however, another kind of truth, illustrated by mathematics, which is the function of reason alone, whereas true belief is a function of man's whole being.

Unamuno followed Heraclitus in holding that reality is a state of permanent flux, so that no two experiences are ever the same. There are two metaphysical alternatives. Reality may be a vast sea of consciousness with my subjectivity at the center. There is no easy way to distinguish this consciousness from a mere dream. Its sole foundation is the fact that I experience it and that I will it to be real. Unamuno ultimately rejected this view. The other view is that the focus of our being may be outside ourselves. We may identify ourselves with the realities of other people, with trees, flowers, and mountains. This orientation, to which Unamuno did not accede fully but which he preferred, is close to objective idealism and to naturalism. In either view, man and world are intimately meshed.

See also Common Consent Arguments for the Existence of God; Existentialism; Faith; Heidegger, Martin; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Immortality; James, William; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Life, Meaning and Value of; Love; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Pascal, Blaise; Reason; Schopenhauer, Arthur.


works by unamuno

En torno al casticismo. Madrid, 1895.

Paz en la guerra. Madrid: F. Fe, 1897; 3rd ed., Madrid, 1931.

Amor y pedagogía. Barcelona, 1902; 2nd ed., Madrid, 1934.

Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho, según Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, explicada y comentada. Madrid, 1905; 2nd enlarged ed., Madrid, 1914. Translated by H. P. Earle as Life of Don Quixote and Sancho according to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Expounded with Comment. New York: Knopf, 1927.

Poesías. Bilbao, 1907.

Por tierras de Portugal y España. Madrid, 1911.

Rosario de sonetos líricos. Madrid: Imprenia española, 1911.

Contra esto y aquello. Madrid: Renacimiento, 1912; 4th ed., Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe Argentina, 1941.

El espejo de la muerte. Madrid, 1913.

Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos. Madrid, 1913. Translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch as The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples. London, 1921.

Niebla. Madrid, 1914. Translated by Warren Fite as Mist. A Tragi-comic Novel. New York, 1928.

Ensayos, 7 vols. Madrid, 19161918.

Abel Sánchez. Madrid: Renacimiento, 1917. Translated by Anthony Kerrigan in Abel Sanchez and Other Stories. Chicago: Gateway, 1956.

Andanzas y visiones españolas. Madrid: Renacimiento, 1922; 2nd ed., Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe Argentina, 1941.

De Fuerteventura á París. Paris: Editorial Excelsior, 1925.

La agonía del cristianismo. Madrid: Renacimiento, 1931. Translated by K. F. Reinhardt as The Agony of Christianity. New York: Ungar, 1960.

San Manuel bueno, mártir y tres historias más. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1933.

Epistolario á Clarín. Madrid, 1938.

La ciudad de Henoc. Comentario 1933. Mexico City: Editorial Séneca, 1941.

Obras completas, 7 vols. Edited by Manuel García Blanco. Madrid: Aguado, 19501959.

Poems. Translated by Eleanor Turnbull. Baltimore, 1952.

Cancionero, diario poético. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1953.

Teatro. Barcelona, 1954.

España y los españoles. 2 vols. Madrid: A. Aguado, 1955.

Inquietudes y meditaciones. Madrid: A. Aguado, 1957.

Cincuenta poesías inéditas (18991927). Madrid: Ediciones de los Papeles de Son Armadans, 1958.

Our Lord Don Quixote: The life of Don Quixote and Sancho, with Related Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Desde el miradol de la guerra. Paris: Centre de recherches hispaniques, 1970.

The Last Poems of Miguel de Unamuno. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Ficciones: Four Stories and a Play. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Escritos socialistas, 18941922. Madrid: Ayuso, 1976.

Artículos olvidados sobre españa y la primera guerra mundial. London: Tamesis Book, 1976.

El torno a las artes. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1976.

Crónica política española (19151923). Salamanca: Grupo Editorial Ambos Mundos, 1977.

República española y españa republicana (19311936). Salamanca: Almar, 1979.

La vida literaria. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1981.

Ensueño de una patria. Valencia: Pre-Textos, 1984.

The Private World: Selections from the Diario Intima and Selected Letters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Dos articulos y dos discursos. Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos 1986.

El resentimiento trágico de la vida. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1991.

Artículos en 'la nación' de buenos aires, 19191924. Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1994.

works on unamuno

Ferrater Mora, José. Unamuno. Translated by Philip Silver. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Meyer, François. L'ontologie de Miguel de Unamuno. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1955.

Oromi, Miguel. Pensamiento filosófico de M. de Unamuno. Madrid, 1943.

Rudd, Margaret Thomas. The Lone Heretic. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963.

Peter Koestenbaum (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Nenon (2005)