The Private World

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2239

This book may be mistitled, Miguel de Unamuno did not make any distinction between his private and public worlds. He joined a handful of other philosophers, including Saint Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and Søren Kierkegaard, in maintaining that an understanding of an author’s personal history is indispensable to an understanding of that author’s work. As he says in his introduction to Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y en los pueblos (1913; The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Peoples, 1921):In most of the histories of philosophy that I know,philosophic systems are presented to us as if growing out of one another spontaneously, and their authors, the philosophers, appear as mere pretexts. The inner biography of the philosophers, the men who philosophized, is assigned a secondary place. And yet it is precisely that inner biography which can mean most to us.

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The Diario íntimo constitutes a part of the author’s “inner biography.” Its themes will be familiar to those who know Unamuno’s philosophical works; nevertheless, the book illuminates a five-year period during which Unamuno endured an intense spiritual crisis.

This crisis was precipitated by the severe illness of his third son, Raimundo. In November, 1896, Raimundo, age ten months, contracted acute meningitis. The disease left the child hydrocephalic, partially paralyzed, and virtually unconscious until he died in 1902. At the onset of his son’s illness, Unamuno fell into a deep depression and began to fear for his physical and mental health. One night in march, 1897, his wife awoke to find Unamuno weeping. To comfort him, she spoke two words—“My child!”—that were to have a profound effect on the course of his life and thought.

Raimundo’s illness was only the catalyst for a spiritual crisis that had been building in Unamuno for years. Apparently he found in his wife’s words the beginnings of a resolution for both the immediate and the long-term crisis.

The latter, a crisis of faith dating in a sense from Unamuno’s own childhood, is another part of his “inner biography.” His devoutly religious parents had raised him as a Roman Catholic; as a youth he often dreamed of becoming a saint. In his adolescence, however, he developed an intense interest in rationalistic philosophy that in time led him to abandon the faith of his family. Orthodox philosophers, such as the Catholic apologist Jaime Balmes, who had previously fascinated him, came to seem intellectually shallow and narrowly dogmatic. Later, at the University of Madrid, where he arrived in 1880 at age sixteen, he stopped attending Mass and began avidly reading works of positivistic philosophy and physiological psychology. (He also began his lifelong practice of learning foreign languages in order to read authors in the original: German for Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, English for Herbert Spencer and Thomas Carlyle. At age twenty, he knew eleven languages. Twenty years later, he taught himself Danish so that he could read Kierkegaard.)

By the time he was graduated in 1884, Unamuno appeared almost totally committed to positivism. His doctoral thesis was a pioneering effort to apply scientific method to the question of the origin and history of the Basque people. (He had been born in Bilbao, in Spain’s Basque country.) He denounced all previous treatments for their failure, in his opinion, to define the Basque question with sufficient clarity. As further evidence of his predilections during this period, there is a scrap of manuscript in which he wrote, “Seek the kingdom of science and its righteousness, and all the rest will be added unto you.”

Unamuno, however, never disposed of the religious-scientific conflict in the fashion that many other people do—that is, by coming down squarely and permanently on one side or the other. By the late 1880’s, he had begun to encounter problems that neither rationalistic philosophy nor orthodox faith could resolve. For example, he wrote to his then fiancée, Concepción Lizárraga, about a dream that turned out to have been prophetic: “I dreamed that I was married, that I had a child, that this child died, and that over its body, which seemed to be made of wax, I said to my wife: ’Behold our love! Shortly it will decay: this is the way everything ends.’” This presented a question particularly disturbing to a person deeply concerned with words and their import: How does one committed to the concrete language of science and positivism express what is significant about a tragedy that besets a loved one? Unamuno was still confronting limitations such as this more than seven years later, when illness struck Raimundo and the strange dream became a reality.

It was at this point—1897—that Unamuno began the Diario íntimo. Both this journal and a handful of his letters bear evidence that Concepción’s words—“My child!”—eventually induced her husband to identify her with Mary and to see himself as symbolically her child and as literally a child of God. This was to open the door for him to view Christian faith in a new and wholly personal way. The diary, for example, contains many references to “Padre nuestro” (“Our Father”) and meditations on Mary, “the node of Christian life.”

Unamuno’s initial impulse, however, was not to embrace any such organic concept of Christianity but to retake his childhood faith by storm. Although implicitly he was striving to accept the tragedy that had befallen his son, most of the diary passages deal explicitly with Unamuno’s attempts to resolve the dilemma into which his philosophical wanderings had led him. At times, this struggle is beautifully expressed, as in this passage: “He who wants everything to happen that does happen brings it about that everything happens as he wishes. Human omnipotence, by means of resignation. But I did not understand that such resignation is reached only through grace, through faith and love.” At other times, he can only manage a wistful tone: “If I come to believe, what better proof of the truth of faith? It will be a miracle, a true miracle.” “But now that I am back in the Christian community, I find myself with a faith which consists in wanting to believe, rather than in believing.”

Unamuno rejects his former dispassionate scientific, rationalistic approach as a vain and shallow pursuit: “Human reason, left to itself, leads to nihilism.” “To rationalize faith. I wanted to become its master and not its slave—and thus I fell into slavery instead of gaining freedom in Christ.” “Intellectualism is a terrible disease, and all the more terrible when one lives in it in unknowing tranquillity.”

Attempting to force himself back into an old mold, he often finds himself in a psychological doldrums. One Holy Wednesday, he laments, “A deathly calm, an enormous aridity. I see my case only intellectually. All of my feeling has dried up.” At other times, simply the quest for faith is enough: “We ask for signs, ignoring the fact that the most evident sign is that we ask for them.” In still other passages, he is able to rejoice in his progress: “Every day I make new discoveries in the old faith.” Later in the journal, he asks in wonder, “How is it that suddenly, today, the 9th of May, 1899, in the midst of my studies, I am overcome by a craving to pray?” The last passage of the diary, dated January 15, 1902, ends: “Thy will be done”.

Despite his belief in the connection between the “inner biographies” of authors and their published work, Unamuno’s own Diario íntimo was only circulated privately among a few friends between 1898 and 1901; it then disappeared until 1950, when it was rediscovered by a Peruvian scholar and critic examining Unamuno’s papers in preparation for his doctoral thesis. Though discussed in scholarly journals as early as 1957, the full text of the diary was not published in Spanish until 1966, and not in English until this translation appeared in Princeton University Press’s selected edition of Unamuno’s works.

The unpolished, often strident and repetitive meditations of the Diario íntimo lack the literary force of Saint Augustine’s Confessions or Pascal’s Pensées, yet they are important for two reasons. First, they introduce themes that were to become prominent in Unamuno’s later works, especially The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Peoples and La agonía del Cristianismo (1931; The Agony of Christianity, 1928, 1960). Unamuno kept his gaze on man’s common end in death and “the whole point: whether or not there is a life beyond the grave.” That, he asserts, is the only valid basis for philosophy.

Second, the Diario íntimo is important because it demonstrates the growing organicity of thought within this intellectual-in-spite-of-himself. He was never fully able to return to the neat simplicities of his abandoned faith—“Under the impact of that inner blow [Raimundo’s affliction] I returned, or tried to return, to the ancient faith of my childhood”—but it helped Unamuno develop a new philosophical fluidity which ultimately led him to reject orthodoxies of all types, despite the discomfort of doing so.

In the diary, Unamuno reports, “In this calm, I seek inner agitation,” and years later, in The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Peoples, he was to write:But the truth is that my work—my mission, I was about to say—is to shatter the faith of men, left, right, and center, their faith in affirmation, their faith in negation, their faith in abstention, and I do so from faith in faith itself. My purpose is to war on all those who submit, whether to Catholicism, or to rationalism, or to agnosticism. My aim is to make all men live a life of restless longing.

One of Unamuno’s vehicles for attacking orthodoxy—political, religious, or philosophical—was his extensive correspondence. This volume includes sixty-four letters (out of some forty thousand): They begin in 1890, when he was surviving on odd tutoring jobs while he vainly sought a university teaching post; they end in 1936, the year of his death, when he was an internationally famous author but had also recently lost his beloved Concepción and was under house arrest for his vehement protests against the new regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

In his letters, more than in his diary, Unamuno kept open the channel between his private and public lives. The sheer volume of his letters aside, many were never published in Spain because of his outspokenness against the succession of despots who seized control of that country during the final years of his life. As it was, Unamuno was exiled to the Canary Islands in 1923, when an unidentified professor thoughtlessly published in Argentina one of Unamuno’s most scathing letters: It denounces the dictator Primo de Rivera, who had recently staged a coup d’état, and calls King Alfonso XIII a “Royal Gander,a cricket-brain,a sack of vile abject passions.”

Although politics is his main subject in many of these letters, Unamuno still applied a spiritual yardstick to political systems. To him, the measure for any form of government was the extent to which it allowed the people to make spiritual progress in their private lives. Indeed, this was what justified civilization itself. On May 25, 1898, he wrote to Pedro Jiménez Ilundain:The entire point of civilization is to protect the evolution of the Christian soul, to help it loosen the impure bond to the pagan past; if civilization does not serve this end, why then it serves no human end at all. The Christian soul must rid itself of the warlike impulses of military heroism, of narrow patriotism, and of all earthly attachments. Heroism must give way to sanctity, and patriotism to brotherly compassion.

He defined living faith in ways inimical to despotic government, whether civil or ecclesiastical: “Faith, true faith, is the enormous drive of the soul which engenders dogma, a living, moving, flexible dogma, a dogma that evolves, not that poor dead scrap of flesh, that mummified corpse which is handed down by tradition.”

Unamuno’s last public act was also a highly personal act—and one of despair. It was his “Last Lecture,” delivered at the University of Salamanca on October 12, 1936, and reported by Luis Portillo (then a young professor of civil law) in an appendix to this volume. Unamuno spoke in response to an address in the same forum by the Fascist General Millán Astray, a supporter of Franco. In July, 1936, the Spanish Civil War had begun with Franco leading an army revolt in Morocco. By the time of Unamuno’s speech in October, Franco’s insurgents controlled a large part of Spain, including Salamanca. Before the faculty and other important personages at Salamanca, he told Millan Astray:You will win, but you will not convince. You will win, because you possess more than enough brute force, but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade. And in order to persuade, you would need what you lack—reason and right in the struggle. I consider it futile to exhort you to think of Spain. I have finished.

For this speech, Unamuno was condemned to death, but the sentence was never carried out—perhaps because Franco’s government realized that such an act would destroy whatever support the nascent “Movement of Salvation” had been able to garner. Instead, Unamuno was placed under house arrest. He died at home of a brain hemorrhage on December 31, 1936.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5

Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 57.

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