The Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936) was the earliest 20th-century thinker to arrive at a perspective on man and the world that can be described as existentialist.
The total preoccupation of the philosophy of Miguel de Unamuno was "the man of flesh and bone"—the concrete individual with his passions, needs, hopes, and fears as the context within which human thinking and speaking occur. Unamuno was specifically concerned with the problem of faith in the modern world—"the agony of Christianity." He concluded that the split between faith and reason, heart and head, could not be healed by reason; that modern man must remain in a paradoxical and agonizing tension between faith and doubt, his religious beliefs only passionate hopes in the teeth of skepticism. Unamuno intensely lived out this modern predicament of faith in his own life, and he has been called the Spanish Kierkegaard.
Unamuno was born on Sept. 29, 1864, in Bilbao. Of Basque descent, he was raised and educated in the traditional piety and provincial learning of 19th-century Spanish Catholicism. From 1875 to 1880 he attended the Instituto Vizcaíno de Bilbao. In 1880 he entered the University of Madrid, where for the first time he was thrown into a cosmopolitan world of stimulating and sharply conflicting ideas. He received his baccalaureate degree in filosofía y letras in 1883 and his doctorate in 1884. During his university days Unamuno ceased being a practicing Catholic and espoused the scientific outlook and methods that he found in the works of leading European philosophers of the day. At this time he also began learning a number of languages in order to be able to read books in their original language.
Unamuno returned to Bilbao in 1884 and spent 6 years trying to secure a professorship at a university. During this period he began writing articles in his professional field, philology, but he was also beginning to explore philosophical matters. These years also witnessed a prolonged courtship between Unamuno and his childhood sweetheart, Concepción Lizárraga, whom he was unable to marry until he had secured a university appointment. At this time he began to raise serious questions about the adequacy of scientific positivism as a philosophical outlook and to turn in an existentialist direction. Always centrally concerned with language, he found that the vocabulary of love used by the actual "man of flesh and bone" simply could not be reduced to scientific categories. Even more sharply, it was the acutely personal contemplation of death as the great existential limiter of love and of life that led him to a philosophical outlook and method that concerned itself wholly with the concrete individual and with his rich vocabulary of desires and meanings, of which the language of science was only one.
In 1890 Unamuno secured an appointment as professor of Greek language and literature at the University of Salamanca, and the following year he married Concepción and went immediately to Salamanca to assume his scholarly duties. In 1897 he underwent a decisive religious crisis whose outcome was a return to faith, although not to the traditional teachings of Roman Catholicism but to an intensely personal, lifelong religious struggle that found its resources both in the Spanish mystics and in the great Protestant spiritual leaders Martin Luther and Søren Kierkegaard.
Unamuno's years at Salamanca were tremendously productive. His Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, a study of the literary figure who seemed to Unamuno to symbolize the "soul of Spain, " was published in 1905. His best-known work, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples, appeared in 1913. In it he explored man's "hunger of immortality, " which he found could not be justified or satisfied on purely rational grounds but only through paradoxical and passionate affirmation of God and eternity by a faith and hope that continually battled with doubt and despair.
From 1901 to 1914 Unamuno was rector of the University of Salamanca. He was relieved of this position because he publicly favored the Allies in World War I. Always politically outspoken, in 1924 he was exiled to the Canary Islands because of his forceful opposition to the Spanish military dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. Unamuno managed to escape to France. Although pardoned a short time later, he refused to return to Spain. He lived first in Paris and then, after 1925, in the border town of Hendaye. While in Paris, Unamuno wrote one of his major works, The Agony of Christianity, published in 1925. It presents several variations on one of his favorite Gospel passages, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:23), discussing modern man's agony of faith and doubt.
After the fall of Primo de Rivera, Unamuno returned to Spain in 1930 and was reinstated at the University of Salamanca. When the Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1931, he was officially exonerated and elected a member of the new Parliament. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, he found himself in Falangist territory. For several months he said nothing and was allowed to continue as rector. But in October, when a ceremonial assembly at the university was used by Francisco Franco's spokesmen for vicious political propaganda, Unamuno publicly denounced the Falangist as having only brute force and not "reason and right" on their side. He was immediately removed as rector and kept under house arrest until his death from a heart attack on Dec. 31, 1936.
Unamuno's prolific literary production included essays, novels, and poems as well as technical works on a wide variety of philosophic, artistic, religious, and cultural themes. Very few of his writings have been translated into English. In addition to the books already mentioned, his The Christ of Velásquez (1920), a study, in verse, of the Spanish painter, is available in English, as are a book of poems and a volume of three short novels, Three Exemplary Novels and a Prologue (1920).
A thorough study of Unamuno's thought, which includes a detailed biographical account up to 1900, is Allen Lacy, Miguel de Unamuno: The Rhetoric of Existence (1967). Other critical works include Arturo Barea, Unamuno (1952); Julián Marías Aguilera, Miguel de Unamuno (trans. 1966); Paul Ilie, Unamuno: An Existential View of Self and Society (1967); and José Rubia Barcia and M.A. Zeitlin, eds., Unamuno: Creator and Creation (1967). Unamuno figures prominently in a study of modern Spanish poetry by Howard T. Young, The Victorious Expression: A Study of Four Contemporary Spanish Poets, Miguel de Unamuno, Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Federico Garcia-Lorca (1964).
Ferrater Mora, Jose, Unamuno, a philosophy of tragedy, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981, 1962.
Rudd, Margaret Thomas, The lone heretic: a biography of Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, New York: Gordian Press, 1976, 1963.