Miguel de Unamuno

Miguel de Unamuno

"At times to be silent is to lie. You will win because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: Reason and Right."

Unamuno in a confrontation with fascist General Milan-Astray
at the University of Salamanca on October 12, 1936.

      Milan-Astray shouted in reply, "Death to intelligence! And long live Death!" whereupon he drove the elderly Unamuno out of the university at gunpoint. Writer and independent thinker, original mind and rector of the University of Salamanca, Unamuno consequently suffered a heart attack and was dead within a week.

      He was not the only intellectual to fall victim in that bitter Spanish Civil War better known for its massacres than for its epic battles or heroism. The conflict was more a fratricide than a war, with both the Fascist and Loyalist sides steeped in murder - rifle shots ringing out over the city from dawn to dusk as "enemies" are lined up against the wall and summarily shot. The Spanish Civil War was the tragic coming of age for many idealistic young Western intellectuals like George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, etc. In retrospect, look at the following quote from the famous Spanish poet and playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca, himself murdered by Franco's Fascists in 1936:

"And yet, hope pursues me, encircles me, bites me;
like a dying wolf tightening his grip for the last time."

General Franco      That "dying wolf" closing in for the kill was actually Generalissimo Francisco Franco himself; his dictatorial reign of the Iberian peninsula after his victory in 1937 would last uninterrupted until his death in 1975. The lies and enormous crimes of the tyranny of Josef Stalin would prove to be an even bigger blow for those Leftists dreaming of a better world in the mid-twentieth century. "I believed in anti-fascism and international solidarity and brotherhood and the liberation of man," claims unrepentant ex-American Communist Party member Walter Bernstein, "and the Soviet Union stood for all these." The Soviet Union of Stalin (corrupt and murderous to the bone) stood for all that? In a more cynical age, we are tempted to see such highly naive persons as dupes - perhaps even fools!

      It is this same boneheaded ultra-idealism untempered by careful consideration which led Jane Fonda to travel to North Vietnam towards the greater glory of Ho Chi Minh, and others to embrace the Nicaraguan sandanistas as the saviors of that country. To the naive and uninitiated, the presence of a certain evil in a place logically means that there must be some corresponding good fighting against it. Real life shows us more often than not both sides are of varying degrees of evil. Those who "fought the good fight" in Spain and elsewhere prove that, in the post-modern age, blind obedience to an -ism will get you killed for no good reason at all.

      And after the civil war ended many of those who had fought - or even vociferously supported - the Spanish Loyalist side (the "communists") were in the United States declared persona non grata for a perceived betrayal of their country to the enemy (the Soviet Union). Yes, it was a hard coming of age in the Spain of the 1930's for so many of those Western idealists used by everyone - so many who set out with the best of intentions to make things better only to eventually make them worse. (I do not mean to belittle the potential for improvement through political action, but to do so like some untutored youth unlearned in the world's false subtleties is akin to the lamb going off to the slaughter: Die Politik ist die Lehre von M÷glichen.*) Some of those betrayed emerged from the crucible of youth chastened and wizened; some kept their eyes closed shut and stayed that way for the rest of their lives.

      An individual should hold nothing so dear to him as the independence and integrity of his own thought; and it is precisely this that has been so violated by "true believers" with a social agenda, whether they be German Nazis of the Third Reich, or the Italian or Spanish fascists, quasi-religious "brainwashing" messianic cults and consequent mass suicides, the Soviet commissars during the great Stalinist purges, the Red Guards during the schizophrenic "Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution" in China, the Roman Catholic Church during the Inquisition, the cult worship of North Korean "Supreme Leader" Kim Il Sung, the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts in the United States, the inciters of ethnic hatred and civil war in the former-Yugoslavia, the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, so many of the radical fundamentalist Islamic movements and their countless acts of terror, or a plethora of other scoundrels and atrocities in our time and earlier which all evidenced such hysterical, erroneous, and dangerously seductive radical group-think. It is precisely when an individual becomes capable of explaining away stubbornly inconsistent facts or realities in the name of hidden "truth" or "dogma" that a person becomes fair game for demagoguery and savagery.

      It really has nothing to do with the Left and the Right; the poles of both sides begin of the political spectrum begin to resemble each other in thuggery when they become extreme. Look at the following quote by American "black-power" revolutionary leader George Jackson:

There are thousands of ways to correct individuals. The way is to send one armed expert. I don't mean to outshout him with logic, I mean correct him. Slay him, assassinate him with thugee, by silenced pistol, shotgun, with a high powered rifle shooting from four hundred yards away and behind a rock. Suffocation, strangulation, crucifixion...
George Jackson
"Blood in My Eye"

In their natural roles as "warriors," radical revolutionary figures like George Jackson and Malcolm X have always hated scholarly and skeptical men of letters and learning like Unamuno. They have truthfully seen them as their natural and most deadly enemies.

      Men like Unamuno think independently and pose questions, revealing the oceans of ignorance that surround even the most learned of us in our islands of knowledge. They defy the facile and easy slogans that revolutionaries bander about all too easily. George Jackson is the spiritual brother of Milan-Astray in their mutual intolerance and readiness to reshape reality in their minds to make the world correspond to an idea. And they are similar in their acceptance of violence in quelling dissenting voices, confident they know exactly the bold course which need be charted and the enemies to be destroyed. Instead of answers, thinkers like Unamuno pose questions which are more interesting and enriching. As another erudite champion of the mind, Daniel Boorstin, put it: "It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress. No agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, heretic, or an unbeliever."

      Young people of course are the least likely to think individually and independently. Because they are still young and relatively malleable, young people are at the most risk to be manipulated by such "leaders" offering romantic dreams to those bold enough to reach aggressively for them. History - especially recent history! - is full of young people committing crimes unaware of the true gravity of what they were doing and regretting/paying for it for the rest of their lives! The 1960s in the West were the purest example of this trend, being truly a childish if tragic decade. Look at the Spanish Civil War, where nobody emerges with any semblance of innocence. Yet the murder of innocence should always be looked upon as especially regrettable since once gone it never really returns.

      So much evil done in the name of good - perhaps the legacy of so much political violence in the 20th century will be betrayed idealism! Communism had at heart a theory of history and political struggle designed to bring about social justice. Claiming to unleash the downtrodden from their chains, communists nevertheless (where they achieved power) proceeded to crush the common man in millenarian one-party States more thoroughly brutal and pervasively oppressive than those seen before. That megalomaniac leader of Red China Mao Tse-Tung put it best when he claimed: "Communism is not love. Communism is a hammer which we use to crush the enemy." The enemy of course proved to be everyone except for a tiny core of potentates living in luxury; and the overwhelming majority of the people, in the words of David Horowitz, languished in "misery and human squalor, deprived of the life chances afforded the most humble members of the 'enemy' industrial democracies the Marxists had set out to destroy." Altruistic communist goals (not surprisingly) of social justice found themselves forsaken as the all-encompassing "scientific" validity of Marxism led to ideological absolutism (in theory) and the terror of totalitarian government (in practice).

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Years
The Second Coming

      If the blood-drenched 20th century should teach us anything, it should teach us this: There need be an affirmation of the sovereignty of the individual and the ability to choose, lest a person become a beast of the herd again ready to blindly perform some new barbarity. We should teach this well to the young so that they might arrive at adulthood able to think independently and critically in such a way as to prevent being duped by the less scrupulous among us. Look at the alternative (fantacism!) in the Spanish Civil War, where madness gripped the country and after the blood began to flow there was no going back. The world is never lacking in scoundrels willing to call people to do evil in the name of an ancient and unquestioning loyalty to the ties of blood, tribe and tradition.

      It should not surprise us that so many like Unamuno who thought independently and with integrity did not survive the war. Conversely, it should astonish no one that Milan-Astray and his ilk thrived as sycophants and/or executioners, it being a bad time for original and independent thinkers and a good time for secret policemen and toadies. The Spanish Civil War is a perfect historical example of the victory of unreason over reason and men acting little better than beasts. It is the victory of thugs ("men of action") like Milan-Astray over retiring men of learning like Unamuno. All thinking men and women of civilization should mourn such a "victory."

      Yet regardless of who "won" between the two on that grim day in Salamanca more than fifty years ago, we clearly today think more of Unamuno and his ideas than we do of Milan-Astray and his. Milan-Astray will be remembered as a flunky of a soldier/dictator who "conquered" his own populace and Unamuno as a voice in the darkness who said things that still resonate as strongly today as when he first said them. As Euripides said more than two thousand years earlier: "When good men die their goodness does not perish, but lives though they are gone. As for the bad, all that was theirs dies and is buried with them." Let this webpage live on to tell the story of a distinguished poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, run out of the university at gunpoint!

      The elderly professor from Salamanca shows one more time how the pen is ultimately mightier than the sword; how in the end it is not really possible to kill an idea by pulling a gun and threatening the old man who thought of it. Through his example and words, Miguel de Unamuno demonstrates that, yes, thoughts and thinking really do matter in this world. What is obedience or loyalty based on fear or force? To persuade or to teach someone else to see a better way for themselves is the work of God. As Time magazine recently described the subtle but immensely important ability to be influential as opposed to only powerful:

"They [the influential among us] have got other people to follow their lead. They don't necessarily have the maximum in raw power; instead, they are people whose styles are imitated, whose ideas are adopted and whose examples are followed. Powerful people twist your arm. Influentials just sway your thinking."

It may be much more difficult than simply commanding obedience, but it is infinitely more effective in the long-run in changing the way people think and live their lives.

      "Death to intelligence and long live Death?" Milan-Astray and others like him might all too often win the temporal struggles during their lifetimes, but I would argue that it is teachers (in whatever form) such as Miguel de Unamuno whose ideas ultimately shape the world.

...What are numbers knit
By force or custom? Man who man would be,
Must rule the empire of himself; in it
Must be supreme, establishing his throne
On vanquished will, quelling the anarchy
Of hopes and fears, being himself alone.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Political Greatness

* Politics is the art of the possible. Lord Bismark

Some discussions....

Lo Bueno, lo Malo, y lo Feo
"...la guerra civil espa˝ola, gente civilizada, y el caer en la barbarie..."