Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo

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Article abstract: Unamuno, an existentialist, described his struggle for faith and longing for immortality in his poetry, novels, drama, cultural criticism, and philosophy. He depicted a world in which people’s desire for meaning and faith comes into conflict with science and rationality.

Early Life

Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was born September 29, 1864, in Bilbao, Spain, the first son and third of the six children of Félix de Unamuno and Salomé de Jugo. His father had gone to Mexico as a young man, accumulated some money, and then returned to marry his much younger niece, Salomé. He had also acquired several hundred books on philosophy, history, and the physical and social sciences, which helped form his son’s mind. From an early age, death preoccupied Miguel. His father, two of Miguel’s sisters, and a school friend died by 1873, producing fear in the young boy. Unamuno’s struggle to accept his own mortality became one of the major themes of his religious, philosophical, and literary work.

Miguel completed a traditional Catholic secondary education at sixteen and then was enrolled in the Central University of Madrid, torn between his love for his childhood sweetheart, Concepción (“Concha”) Lizárraga, and a mystical belief that God wanted him to become a priest. Fascinated with language since listening to his father talk with a man in French, Unamuno wrote his doctoral dissertation on the origins and prehistory of the Basque race. In Madrid, he applied reason to his religious faith and lost his faith. He struggled for the remainder of his life to overcome his doubt. After receiving his doctorate in 1884, he returned to Bilbao, competed for a university teaching position, taught private classes, and wrote for local periodicals. Impatient to wait until securing a permanent teaching position, he married Concha on January 31, 1891, and, under the influence of his wife and his mother, began religious observance again. In 1891, he also won a competition for the chair in Greek language and literature at the University of Salamanca.

Life’s Work

In the provincial university town of twenty-three thousand, with the faded glory of its medieval university and magnificent, café-lined central plaza, Unamuno found the tranquillity to read voraciously and widely, ponder the human condition, write insatiably, and rear his family. Yet he soon lost interest in teaching Greek: Given the desperate problems facing Spain, he decided that the nation really did not need more Hellenists. Although he conscientiously met his pedagogical responsibilities, Unamuno devoted the rest of his time to writing novels, poetry, and essays intended to illuminate the solution to Spain’s problems and his own concerns about the human condition. He also associated himself with Spanish socialism, believing it offered the best hope of liberty through a religion of humanity, but refused to join the party. In fact, his interest in socialism was primarily religious and ethical; Unamuno in his heart was an anarchist.

Transcendental questions troubled Unamuno. In 1896, Raimundo Jenaro, the third of his nine children, was born, but shortly after birth the infant contracted meningitis, which produced fatal encephalitis, although the child lingered until 1902. His child’s condition agonized Unamuno. Why was God punishing an innocent child? Was it because of Unamuno’s own sins, perhaps for having abandoned his Catholic faith? He was desperate for consolation, spent days in meditation and prayer, yet remained anguished. God did not answer, and Unamuno was obsessed with suicide and beset with angina, insomnia, and depression. Not only was reason unable to bring him to a knowledge of God, but it told him that God did not exist, that death brought the finality of...

(This entire section contains 2267 words.)

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nothingness. Yet Unamuno’s despair at the inevitability of death forced him to hope and led him to the paradoxical solution of creating God for himself through his own faith. When he began reading the works of Søren Kierkegaard in 1900, he discovered a kindred being, although Unamuno had already developed the fundamentals of his own thought.

Meanwhile, Unamuno poured forth articles for Spanish and Latin American periodicals, as well as novels, plays, and criticism to supplement his meager academic salary. In 1895, he published a series of essays, later reedited as En torno al casticismo, which urged a return to the bedrock of tradition, to the study of the Spanish people, as the first step in confronting the nation’s decadence. Peace in War, sometimes called the first existentialist novel, reflected his experiences during the Carlist siege of Bilbao (1874-1876). Two plays, La esfinge and La venda, and an analysis of Spanish higher education, De la enseñanza superior en España, soon followed, as did Nicodemo el fariseo, which used Saint John’s account of Nicodemus’s meeting with Christ as a dramatic vehicle for stating the basic theme of all his remaining work: human beings’ desire for God and their existential will to believe.

In 1900, Unamuno became rector of the university, despite opposition from conservatives who disliked the outsider from Bilbao for his socialist rhetoric and his unorthodox religious views. On taking office, he appointed himself to a new chair of the history of the Spanish language, declared that Spain was ready to be discovered, and urged that the students study popular culture. Dressed idiosyncratically in his “uniform,” he appeared a cross between a Protestant minister and an owl; he wore a dark suit, with vest and white shirt buttoned to the top but no tie, and metal-rimmed eyeglasses. He had an aquiline nose and a closely cropped and pointed graying beard.

Unamuno energetically joined in the campaign of the Generation of 1898 to renew Spain following the loss of its last overseas colonies in 1898. Yet while others called for Spain to emulate the science, technology, and democracy of northern Europe and the United States, Unamuno rejected mass society and focused on the potential of the individual. He considered his essays, collected in The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho According to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Expounded with Comment by Miguel de Unamuno, to articulate a genuinely Spanish philosophy. Subjectively choosing parts of Cervantes’s novel and ignoring relevant scholarship, Unamuno resurrected Quixote in his own image, a man who re-created the world around him through his own will to believe. Although some Spanish republicans looked to Unamuno to lead, or at least to participate in, a revolution against the decadent monarchy, he opposed all revolution except in the individual heart. He found José Ortega y Gasset and other Spanish intellectuals too enamored of modern science and declared that Spain should let the northern Europeans invent and then apply their inventions.

Unamuno’s religious thought received its fullest expression in The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Peoples. Then, in 1914, the government unexpectedly and without explanation removed him as rector. Liberals and socialists supported him in the ensuing controversy. During World War I, he supported the Allied powers. His novel Abel Sánchez portrayed Cain as Abel’s victim and questioned why God accepted the latter’s smug offerings while rejecting those of his brother. In his powerful The Christ of Velázquez, art and spiritual longing seek in Christ the possibility of redemption from death, while Unamuno eschews all dogma and cult.

For publishing an article critical of the monarchy, a court in Valencia condemned Unamuno in 1920 to sixteen years of imprisonment. At the same time, he was presented in both Bilbao and Madrid as a candidate for the national parliament but refused to campaign and was not elected. With his sentence under appeal, the faculty at Salamanca elected him vice-rector in 1922. Then, to the dismay of his supporters, he agreed to meet with the king, leading to criticism that he was self-serving and only wanted the rectorship. While awaiting appeal of his sentence, he took care to avoid offending the monarchy but became convinced that Spain was headed for dictatorship. Time bore out his forebodings, and General Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power with the connivance of Alfonso XIII. In early 1924, Primo de Rivera exiled Unamuno to the Canary Islands, stripping him of his salary and positions at Salamanca despite national and international protests. At Fuerteventura, he planned with some French friends to escape, but Primo de Rivera granted him amnesty, although subjecting him to certain restrictions upon his return. Unamuno refused to return and went into voluntary exile in France to wait for the fall of the dictatorship.

Unamuno passed the years of exile first in Paris and then in Hendaye along the Basque border. They were years of despair and loneliness because he refused to let members of his family take turns living with him, wanting his exile to be a moral protest. While in Paris, he published The Agony of Christianity, a difficult but intense and poetical restatement of his anguish caused by loving an unreachable God, from which torment the only respite was death. With Primo de Rivera’s fall, Unamuno reentered Spain on February 9, 1930, and returned to Salamanca. Faculty, students, and workers demanded his reinstatement as rector. His greatest novel, Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr, soon appeared. It tells the story of a priest who loses his faith but assumes the ethical obligation of protecting his parishioners from disbelief by setting an example of saintliness, teaching them to pray, and consoling himself by consoling them.

With the abdication of Alfonso XIII, Spain became a republic on April 14, 1931, and the municipal government of Salamanca named Unamuno an honorary magistrate for his role in the triumph of republicanism. The university cloister also appointed him rector, and some rumored that Unamuno wanted to be president of Spain. On April 27, the republic designated him president of the Council of Public Instruction, and Salamanca elected him as one of its representatives to the constituent assembly. Unamuno rarely participated in its deliberations except to stress unity, hoping to ward off regionalism. Increasingly disturbed by the factionalism and the anti- or irreligious stance of the leftists, he became openly critical of the republic, refused to be a candidate in the 1933 elections, and resigned from the Council of Public Instruction. Adding to his despondency were the deaths of his wife and eldest daughter in 1934. He retired from his university chair that September at age seventy, but the president of Spain decreed Unamuno rector of Salamanca for life and created a special chair in his name for him. The following year, the republic named him a citizen of honor, and in 1936, the University of Oxford gave him an honorary doctorate.

After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July, 1936, the government removed Unamuno as rector because of his criticism of the republic. The Nationalists, however, soon captured Salamanca and rewarded Unamuno’s support by reappointing him rector. Yet Unamuno had come to see the war as national insanity. In a ceremony on October 12, attended by faculty, some Nationalist military leaders, and townspeople, he courageously denounced the speech of a general who had exalted anti-intellectualism and death. Confined to his home for his protest, Unamuno died on December 31, 1936.


Paradoxical and prickly, egocentric and sincere, Unamuno inevitably generated controversy. In his fiction and poetry, he sacrificed art to philosophical concerns, especially his religious despair and struggle for faith. His philosophy was not systematic and careful, and his assertions were sometimes outlandish and exaggerated. Scholars and critics even disagree regarding Unamuno’s religious views, some arguing that he was an atheist and others that his belief was sincere. Certainly, he constituted a thorny problem for Spanish Catholicism, which eventually banned several of his works.

Yet through the paradox, the rant, and the self-preoccupation, Unamuno’s energy, determination, despair, and hope are unmistakable. The volume of his work was tremendous, and its breadth and weight placed him in the vanguard of Spanish intellectual life. With Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, he laid out the existentialist dilemma, preparing the way for Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre. He loved Spain deeply, despite its flaws, and became a sort of Quixote himself, tilting at transcendental windmills and giants that few had the courage or will to perceive.

Additional Reading

Ellis, Robert R. The Tragic Pursuit of Being: Unamuno and Sartre. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988. A short comparison of the existentialism of Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Ferrater Mora, José. Unamuno: A Philosophy of Tragedy. Translated by Philip Silver. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. This book is an excellent, brief survey of Unamuno’s philosophy. The author tries to understand Unamuno as the philosopher understood himself.

Ilie, Paul. Unamuno: An Existentialist View of Self and Society. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. This work considers Unamuno’s contributions to existentialism in relation to Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Marías, Julían. Miguel de Unamuno. Translated by Frances M. López-Morillas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942. This older but still insightful work analyzes Unamuno’s contribution to philosophy, with occasional biographical references.

Nozick, Martin. Miguel De Unamuno. New York: Twayne, 1971. Together with a short biography, this work is an analysis of Unamuno’s thought and an evaluation of his literary art. Contains a good bibliography.

Rudd, Margaret Thomas. The Lone Heretic: A Biography of Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963. At 349 pages, this is the most thorough biography in English but problematic in some of its details and interpretations. The work contains a good bibliography.

Wyers, Francis. Miguel De Unamuno: The Contrary Self. London: Tamesis Books Limited, 1976. This work attempts to make sense of the sometimes violent contradictions in Unamuno’s thought and places him as a precursor to existentialism.

Bibliography updated by Patrick S. Roberts