Basque Fact of the Week: Miguel de Unamuno

Sometimes, it seems that the very idea of being Basque is inherently full of contradictions. Perhaps this is a consequence of not having their own country, of being split into two different regimes with two different external cultures influencing them. Miguel de Unamuno is perhaps one of the most important Basque intellectuals, certainly of the 20th century if not of all time. However, he himself was full of contradictions, loving the Basque language but arguing for it to disappear. He loved his native Bilbao but advocated for a unified Spain. His political views shifted often during his life, usually in response to disillusionment with the political reality of the day.

Miguel de Unamuno. Photo found on Goodreads.
  • Miguel de Unamuno Jugo was born on September 29, 1864 in Bilbao. He demonstrated an early talent in drawing, even apprenticing with painter Antonio Lecuona, but didn’t see himself as a painter, so abandoned that path. He also began learning Euskara. By the time he was 16, his first essay, entitled “Union is Strength,” appeared.
  • He traveled to Madrid for his studies and completed his doctorate in Philosophy and Letters in 1883 with a thesis entitled “Critique on the origin and prehistory of the Basque race.” In his thesis, he advanced some controversial ideas, particularly that Euskara was not compatible with modernity, though he did appreciate the language.
  • In 1891 Unamuno married Concha Lizarraga. Together they had nine children. That same year, he became the Chair of Greek Language at the University of Salamanca. He also became more involved with politics, participating in debates with the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana.
  • In 1901, after becoming rector of the University of Salamanca, he made arguments that the Basques should abandon their nationalistic ideas and remain under Spanish rule. He also argued that Euskara should be allowed to die, albeit gracefully, as again he didn’t see it being compatible with modernity. He admitted that the language had scientific interest, stating “And Basque? Beautiful monument of study! Venerable relic! Noble achievement! Let us bury it with a holy, dignified funeral, embalmed in science; Let’s bequeath such an interesting relic to study.”
  • At the same time, he was a staunch critic of the Spanish monarchy, causing him more than a little difficulty. He was sentenced for criticizing the king. Later, he also criticized the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and was removed from several positions as a consequence, ultimately exiled to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. He made his way to France, where he lived until the end of Rivera’s dictatorship, when he returned to Salamanca.
  • He became disillusioned with the Republican government that arose after Rivera’s dictatorship and supported Franco when he began his military coup. But, as he witnessed the brutality of the Spanish Civil War and the executions, torture, and imprisonment of his contemporaries, he again changed his views. In 1936, he gave a lecture in which he expressed his remorse for supporting the Francoists. He was actually there as a representative of Franco himself. The audience was majority Franco supporters, calling Euskal Herria and Catalonia “cancers on the body of the nation,” intellectuals treasonous, and for the dismantling of these regions. Shouts of “Spain: one, great and free!” and “Long live death!” echoed in the room. Unamuno responded with one of his most famous phrases: “This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle.” (There is some controversy as to whether this all really occurred.) Franco’s wife had to escort Unamuno from the room to preserve his safety. Franco removed him from his academic posts later that year.
  • He spent his last days secluded in his home. He died suddenly on December 31, 1936. While no one knows for certain, there is evidence to suggest he was murdered by one Bartolomé Aragón, who posed as Unamuno’s student and was violently opposed to Unamuno’s ideas.
  • Unamuno was an existentialist, a view he expounds upon in his most famous work Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (The Tragic Sense of Life, 1912) where he explores the relationship and conflict between faith and reason. (This work, amongst others he wrote, were on the list of books banned by the Catholic Church.) In his view, “the principle that governs the lives of men is their desire to survive, their desire for immortality, and this causes […] agony and the tragic feeling of life, whose origin turns out to be the conflict between faith and reason.”
  • He was also a prolific writer, with numerous novels, short stories, poems, and theater pieces amongst his body of work, not to mention the philosophical and political essays. Two of his most famous works of fiction are Niebla (Mist, 1914), which explores the reality of literary characters, and Abel Sánchez (1917), where he retells the Biblical story of Cain and Abel and explores themes of envy and hatred. Some quotes from his works are collected here. A few that I particularly like include:
    • Fascism is cured by reading, and racism is cured by traveling.
    • We should try to be the parents of our future rather than the offspring of our past.
    • Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.
    • The less we read, the more harmful it is what we read.
    • The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.
    • Men shout to avoid listening to one another.

Primary sources: Zuloaga San Román, Eneko. Unamuno Jugo, Miguel de. Auñamendi Encyclopedia. Available at:; Miguel de Unamuno, Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “Basque Fact of the Week: Miguel de Unamuno”

  1. With courage guided by logic and reason made and followed his own path. He was a good man.

  2. Greetings,
    Miguel de Unamuno is my favorite author!
    the Basques are not divided by two different cultures. The French Basques and the Spanish Basques are the Basque culture. We share a bond that will never, never and never be broken. The Spanish Basques have nothing to do with the culture of Madrid or Seville any more than the French Basque have anything to do with the culture of Paris, Rouen, Metz.
    They come to us, we do not go to them.

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