Spanish novelist and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno is best known for his conception of the “tragic sense of life,” but was also a noted man of letters. Born in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao, Unamuno studied philosophy and classics in the Spanish capital at the University of Madrid. In 1891, Unamuno was awarded a professorship in Salamanca, where he taught classics. He was later named rector of the University of Salamanca, and although the turbulent politics of Spain led to his having to give up the post between 1924 and 1930, he reassumed it upon his return to Spain in 1930. Unamuno also served a brief stint as a politician, as an independent republican deputy in the Spanish constituent assembly, the Cortes.
Unamuno’s novels center around broadly “existential” themes, just as his philosophical work focuses on the problems pertaining to the human condition. The human being in Unamuno’s novel must labor and toil under the shadow of death. Like condemned men to the gallows who have not been told the date of their execution, we live with death as a constant companion— one which we can neither embrace nor elude. From the tension that comes from being caught somewhere in the middle of life and death emerges a “tragic sense of life,” a theme that echoes throughout his writings. Unamuno’s works revolve around the trials and sufferings of individuals, rather than broader social themes. The characters in Unamuno’s novels do not “stand” for anything greater or larger than themselves, except insofar as they are exemplars of the tragic sense of life itself.
Unamuno pursued the Socratic ideal of the philosopher as a “stinging gadfly” that inspires the large and indolent “horse” of society to appropriate action. Despite his tragic sense of life, Unamuno was fundamentally constructive in his approach to the real problems of daily existence. Rather than encourage him to wallow in despair, Unamuno’s tragic sense inspired him to use his talents and his reason to improve his lot and that of those around him.
Also crucial to Unamuno’s worldview is the tension between reason and faith. Unamuno was both a passionate Roman Catholic, and readily acknowledged the difficulties of living a life of reason that nonetheless recognized and even embraced the need for faith as an integral part of a full and meaningful life. Unamuno’s dedication to the Church may well have had its source in his belief in the necessity of commitment to an ideal—that a good life was one lived in accordance with some ideal. In this Unamuno personally exemplified what he saw as the two sides of the Spanish temperament. Unamuno described Spaniards as at once Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, idealistic and willing to suffer loss in the pursuit of an ideal, yet also at times intolerant and crassly commercial.
During the Spanish Civil War, Unamuno’s early enthusiasm for the nationalists waned, causing him to lose his rectorship at the University of Salamanca. True to his ideas about commitment, truth, and decency, Unamuno refused to change his stance and died while under house arrest in 1936.
- de Unamuno, M. (1954). The tragic sense of life. New York: Dover Publications.
- de Unamumo, M. (1995). The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy. (1995). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Unamuno y Jugo, Miguel de. (1967). The encyclopedia ofphilosophy. New York: Collier Macmillan Publishers.