Miguel de Unamuno

By: Marilyn Berlin Snell
September 29, 2013

One of the many delicious paradoxes served up by Spanish philosopher MIGUEL DE UNAMUNO (1864–1936) comes from the title his masterpiece Tragic Sense of Life. The book is, in fact, not a buzz killer but a vibrant celebration of what it means to be fully human. Exiled by two different dictators over the course of his tenure as Rector of the University of Salamanca for calling bullshit on violent and “necrophilic” rule, Unamuno despised dogmatic and ignorant belief systems of any kind. He chose to dwell and to thrive in the in-between, with a rich intellectual life fed by his constant interrogation of faith and reason. In Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno grapples with Nothingness, despair, and even “the depths of the abyss” (that’s actually a chapter head) before championing our capacity to harness a muscular skepticism and existential suffering in the service of the good life. For him, the clash between reason and desire produces “that holy, that sweet, that saving incertitude, which is our supreme consolation.” His path to the good life is, of course, very un-American. Reading him in a country propelled by the pursuit of happiness and sustained by blind faith in its own exceptionalism can be kind of disorienting if not distasteful. It’s so much easier to have all the answers and God on your side. But unsettling the mind was Unamuno’s raison d’etre. “My aim is to agitate and disturb people,” he wrote. “I’m not selling bread; I’m selling yeast.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Michelangelo Antonioni, Jerry Lee Lewis, Alexandre Jacob.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Plutonian (1854-63) and Anarcho-Symbolist (1864–73) Generations.