Miguel de Unamuno 1864-1936: A Life of Struggle

Eighty-two years have passed since the heated public exchange between Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno and Nationalist General José Millán Astray in the Paraninfo of the ancient University of Salamanca of which Unamuno was Rector, just three months into the Spanish Civil War and in the final weeks of Unamuno’s life.

Rarely far from public earshot or view in the Spain of his day, Miguel de Unamuno, Professor of Greek, was a voracious reader and prolific writer, a persistent speaker and essayist, and a provocative voice in the press. Having cast himself as an awakener of minds and spirits, an ‘agitador de espíritus’, he was exiled by dictator Primo de Rivera in 1924 and continued to attract attention; he was ‘rescued’ by ship from the island of Fuerteventura and transferred to Paris at the behest of French newspaper Le Quotidien.

Unamuno remained outside Spain for six years and continued to write until his return in 1931. The encounter in Salamanca with Millán Astray took place five years after this, on 12 October 1936, and was followed by a house arrest that was only to draw to a close with his death on 31 December of the same year.  Unamuno’s very public, complex life has fascinated critics since, engendering conflicting interpretations.

In a curious twist of recent history, some of the words for which Miguel de Unamuno had become arguably most famous appear to have been repatriated. Included is the iconic phrase believed until now to have been uttered by him on behalf of individual liberty in the face of tyranny: ‘¡Venceréis, pero no convenceréis!’ (‘you may overcome but you will not convince’). Thus, eight decades after his death, this great and enigmatic Spanish thinker is still making the headlines. The Guardian, reflecting the literary storm brewing in the Spanish press, reported on Friday, 11 May 2018 the claims of Spanish historian Severiano Delgado. [1]

Delgado makes the case that Michael Portillo’s father, Luis, who took refuge in England after the Spanish Civil War, redacted Unamuno’s actual words on the basis of hearsay. Although Portillo knew and admired Unamuno, he had not in fact witnessed the event in question in 1936 but had rather crafted a ‘bombastic’ speech of his own, had it published in an English magazine, and effectively placed it in Unamuno’s mouth.

According to Delgado, British historian Hugh Thomas subsequently took Portillo’s speech and circulated it, so that it became widely accepted as the true version of events. In another curious development, The Guardian reports that Michael Portillo commissioned a painting from a Spanish artist entitled Unamuno’s Last Lecture in which, in the spirit of poetic licence, he had his father, absent on the famous occasion itself, painted in.

On first glance, this is a story in which history and the literary appear to collide, a story that asks questions about the relationship between history and art. To temper things, writing in El País, Rabaté and Rabaté, Unamuno’s recent biographers, have stressed that, although the speech was indeed redacted, the press reports of the past week don’t in fact change very much. Importantly, whatever Unamuno’s exact words on 12 October 1936, the significance of his dramatic intervention to stand for freedom against tyranny on that day remains unchanged. [2]

For me, this recent journalistic episode has served as a renewed reminder that Unamuno’s life was marked by conflict. It is no secret that he loved a good argument and he often provoked them. I’m not sure, though, that all of the struggles he faced were self-inflicted. The reasons for this continue to intrigue.

It could be said that Millán Astray and Unamuno were both combatants but in very different wars. One was physical and political, and the other spiritual. According to Stephen Roberts, Unamuno styled himself as the first Spanish public intellectual. [3] He certainly claimed to seek to the spiritual reform of Spain. Moreover, in his Diario Intimohe declared his personal mission to be that of a writer who must use his pen in a battle for Christ: ‘tendré que cultivar la vida activa del escritor, hacer de la pluma un arma de combate por Cristo’. [4]

Unamuno’s writing was strongly intertextual. He read extensively, and his work was interwoven with quotations from eclectic sources; Unamuno earned Alison Sinclair’s apt description of him as an intellectual magpie. [5] However, in 1914 he wrote in ‘De vuelta a Madrid’ that the one book he carried with him everywhere was his Greek New Testament. [6] Unamuno’s spoken and written public engagement with Scripture was remarkable. In 1899 he addressed the intellectual centre of Madrid, the Ateneo, drawing attention to three Gospel passages: John 3:1-27, John 7:45-53; and John 19:38-48.

He read the passages aloud and interspersed them with personal reflections about faith and grace, doubt, time and eternity, the impact of the actions of one individual upon another, about repentance and forgiveness.

In his literary work he drew on the Bible as a source throughout his life. A prolific letter writer, he corresponded with the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado on the subject of Biblical reflections. His library featured versions of the Bible in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Spanish, and German, as well as commentaries and theological works.

Unamuno was countercultural; such public discussion of biblical texts flew in the face of accepted practice in the Catholic Spain of his day. He saw writing as spiritual action and refused to keep silent. Arguably, he faced the consequences. As Jan Evans points out, ‘already in 1903, Unamuno was condemned by the Bishop of Salamanca, Fray Tomás de la Cámara, early in his career at the University of Salamanca’. She notes that according to the Rabatés he did not attend the ceremony for the conferral of his doctorate, quite possibly because this involved swearing allegiance to the Catholic Church and upholding its dogmas. [7]

With respect to the fractious encounter in Salamanca in 1936, one key detail should not be overlooked: the piece of paper on which Unamuno scribbled his notes. The series of forty words that offers the only written record of the event was written on the back of a personal letter that lay in Unamuno’s coat pocket throughout the confrontation. It was a letter addressed to Unamuno by the wife of the local Protestant pastor, Atilano Coco. Fearing for her husband’s life, she had written to ask Unamuno for help. Unamuno did indeed act as advocate. Yet despite Unamuno’s efforts to defend freedom in the face of personal cost (he was subsequently placed under house arrest), Mary Vincent notes that Atilano Coco Martín was one of four Protestant pastors executed by the Nationalist authorities in Spain during the Civil War. [8]

In 1907 Unamuno expressed his reluctance to be pigeonholed according to the parameters of any accepted religious orthodoxy. He wrote:

‘Mi religión es buscar la verdad en la vida y la vida en la verdad, aun a sabiendas de que no he de encontrarla mientras viva; mi religión es luchar incesantemente, e incansablemente con el misterio; mi religion es luchar con Dios desde el romper del alba hasta del caer de la noche, como dicen que con El luchó Jacob’.

‘My religion is to look for truth in life and life in truth, albeit knowing that I am not to find them this side of the grave; my religion is to struggle incessantly and tirelessly with the mystery; my religion is to struggle with God from the breaking of dawn to nightfall, as they say that Jacob did’. [9]

If struggling was indeed Unamuno’s religion, he lived it until the end, and certainly in the midst of the event under current scrutiny at the eventide of his life. How does this struggle speak to us? The restless searching of Unamuno’s work can be exhausting, even frustrating. Notwithstanding, he didn’t give up on Scripture. He didn’t give up on the search for truth in life and life in truth. He stood firm in the face of personal risk to defend freedom of thought and conviction, faith and speech. He wrestled like Jacob, with God and with men. As Jan Evans so eloquently put it, he:

‘challenges his individual reader to take stock of his or her life and calls us all to live our lives meaningfully, facing the fact of our death unflinchingly. His insistence on the contradictions being held in tension and sustaining the struggle may not be persuasive or attractive to many, but his life was a model of authentic existence, with engaged, deliberate attempts to put his faith into action in service of his university, his country and the world. His philosophy and his quest for faith are instructive for any person who cares about existence and living beyond the demands of the day toward a higher calling’. [10]


The image of Miguel de Unamo, taken in May 1936 with his grandson, was kindly provided by CASA-MUSEO UNAMUNO. UNIVERSIDAD DE SALAMANCA.

[1] Sam Jones, ‘Spanish civil war speech invented by father of Michael Portillo, says historian’, The Guardian, 11 May 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/11/famous-spanish-civil-war-speech-may-be-invented-says-historian.
[2] Patxo Unzueta, ‘Miguel de Unamuno: la carta de la mujer del pastor’, El País, 12 May 2018, https://elpais.com/cultura/2018/05/11/actualidad/1526053641_420466.html.
[3] Stephen Roberts, Miguel de Unamuno, o, La creación del intelectual español moderno(Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 2007), 118.
[4] Miguel de Unamuno, Diario íntimo, (Madrid: Escelier, 1970), 102.
[5] Alison Sinclair, Uncovering the Mind: Unamuno, the Unknown and the Vicissitudes of Self (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 5.
[6] Miguel de Unamuno, Obras completas, 16 vols. (Madrid: Afrodisio Aguado, 1950), 10:269.
[7] Jan Evans, Miguel de Unamuno’s Quest for Faith: A Kierkegaardian Understanding of Unamuno’s Struggle to Believe (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2013), 12-13.
[8] Mary Vincent, ‘Ungodly Subjects: Protestants in National-Catholic Spain, 1939-53’, European History Quarterly45, no. 1 (2015): 111.
[9] Miguel de Unamuno, ‘La agoníq del cristianismo; Mi religión y otros ensayos’ (New York: Las Americas Publishing Co., 1967), 206.
[10] Evans, Miguel de Unamuno’s Quest for Faith, 128.

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