Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) was a Spanish writer and thinker from the early 1900s. He stood between two Spains: the old Spain of faith and the new Spain of Western science and reason. He was torn between the two – neither fully satisfied him. His thought was an early form of existentialism. He said, “Faith without doubt is dead.”
Unamuno was the head of the University of Salamanca, where he had once taught Greek. Twice he stood up to the generals who wanted to rule Spain. The first time he was sent to the Canary Islands, later escaping to France. The second time, against Franco, he was put under house arrest but died a few months later just as the civil war was starting.
His greatest work was “The Tragic Sense of Life” (1913). Unamuno said the root of every philosophy and every religion – in fact, of every human action and thought – is the fear of death and the desire for immortality, to live forever. It why people have children, why they want to get rich, why they want to be famous or powerful. The fear of the death and the desire to live forever drives them, whether they know it or not. It stands behind everything like a shadow.
In the past men have tried to prove that the soul is immortal, using reason alone and not religion. Aquinas tried, so did Spinoza and others. They failed.
Because it cannot prove immortality, reason becomes the enemy of man, of life. What is more, reason, which began as the golden road to the truth, in the end destroys the truth through doubt and scepticism.
Like Tolstoy, Unamuno wished he had the simple religious faith of country people. But he does not. Reason has destroyed his faith. Yet reason itself has also destroyed the truth and any hope for an afterlife. It is a dead end.
His head could not believe in Christianity, but his heart still did. In the end he followed his heart and his faith over his head. It did not make sense, but it was the only way out that he could see.
Unamuno once wrote a story about a country priest called “Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr” (1931). Every Sunday he told the simple country people about the afterlife, but he believed none of it. Yet he did not have the heart to tell them the truth – it would kill them, he said. The story tells about his fight between faith and doubt in his own soul. Just like Unamuno himself.
Unamuno also wrote an excellent character study of Don Quixote. Of course, it was about more than just a character in a book. It was about Spain itself.
Some wanted all of Spain to become like Castile in the centre of Spain. Unamuno, being a Basque, opposed it.
Unamuno knew 14 languages. He learned Danish so he could read Kierkegaard in his own language.