Miguel De Unamuno: Conservative War-Lover?

My philosophical education, just like everyone else’s, is far from complete, and of course, never shall be. One omission from my readings has been the work of Miguel De Unamuno, whose The Tragic Sense of Life has been adorning my bookshelves for some twenty years now. Recently, I set out to clean up some shelf space and noticing that my paperback copy–picked up from a Broadway bookseller–was in especially ratty condition, resolved to dispose of it, but to do so only after reading it.

As I read The Tragic Sense of Life, a book committed to clarifying and expounding on its central thesis that ‘the essence of man lies in his endeavor to be forever,’ such that ‘faith in human hope, the desire for immortality sustained throughout a lifetime’ can be read as the meaning of the ‘tragic sense’ in question, I wondered about a dimly-remembered description of him as a conservative. While there are streaks of ‘conventional’ conservatism visible in his fulminations against Nietzsche, what really caught my eye were his invocations of war. I was especially struck by these passages as I was reminded of the description–in Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mindof the conservative spirit as one fascinated by violence.

Here is Exhibit Numero Uno:

A human soul is worth all the universe, someone–I know not whom–has said and said magnificiently. A human soul, mind you! Not a human life. Not this life. And it happens that the less a man believes in the soul–that is to say in this conscious immortality, personal and concrete–the more he will exaggerate the worth of this poor transitory life. This is the source from which springs all that effeminate, sentimental ebullition against war. True, a man ought not to wish to die, but the death to be renounced is the death of the soul. ‘Whosoever will save his life shall lose it,’ says the Gospel; but it does not say ‘whosoever will save his soul,’ the immortal–or at any rate, which we believe and wish to be immortal.

What is striking here is the language of ‘effeminate’ and ‘sentimental’ as adjectives to be applied to ‘ebullition.’ Not only is the anti-war sentiment unhinged, it flirts dangerously with effeminacy and sentimentalism; it is weak and pathetic, reeking of bouquets and rosewater. Somehow, inescapably, Frederick the Great‘s lines ‘Dogs, would you live forever?’, snarled at reluctant soldiers at the Battle of Kolin in 1757 come to mind. There, humans were animal-like for fearing violence and death; here they are sentimental, weeping, women.

And here is Exhibit Numero Dos:

In the world of living beings, the struggle for life establishes an association, and a very close one, not only between those who unite together in combat against a common foe, but between the combatants themselves. And is there any possible association more intimate than that uniting the animal that eats another and the animal that is eaten, between the devourer and the devoured? And if this is clearly seen in the struggle between individuals, it is still more evident in the struggle between peoples. War has always been the most effective factor of progress, even more than commerce. It is through war that conquerors and conquered learn to know each other and in consequence to love each other.

This passage is imbued with a very particular romanticism in its invocation of the life-enriching power of violent struggle. More ambitiously, with the ascription of creative and progressive force to war: from destruction and chaos, a new order. That conservative vision certainly sounds familiar in these days and times.

4 thoughts on “Miguel De Unamuno: Conservative War-Lover?

  1. It was an early work. I think Unamuno will be best remembered for his assessments of Spanish literature and culture. You might also cringe at some of the things Ortega y Gasset wrote. But Spain had its own, very isolated (peninsular?) way of thinking.

  2. Spain was a great bastion of right-wing thought until the death of Franco. Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset were relatively moderate by the standards of their time in that they were republicans at heart, but both supported Franco’s rebellion once it became obvious that the Second Republic was an abject failure.

    Other great Spanish thinkers from the last two centuries: Juan Donoso Cortés, Jaime Balmes, Ángel Ganivet, Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, Eugenio d’Ors, Vicente Risco, and Pedro Laín Entralgo. Also the journalism of Azorín, Ramiro de Maeztu, and Josep Pla.

    Argentina also has an interesting right-wing scene during the interwar period that included Leopoldo Lugones, Manuel Gálvez, Leonardo Castellani, Nimio de Anquin, and Hugo Wast. Over in Colombia, Nicolás Gómez Dávila is essential.

    There are many writers of poetry and fiction one could list too, among them José María de Pereda, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, José Zorrilla, Gerardo Diego, Dionisio Ridruejo, Luis Rosales, Manuel Machado, and Lorenzo Villalonga,

    Do not underestimate the right-wing.

  3. And if you think those Unamuno quotes are something, check out these passages from the Tory John Ruskin:

    “Young soldiers, I do not doubt but that many of you came unwillingly to-night, and many in merely contemptuous curiosity, to hear what a writer on painting could possibly say, or would venture to say, respecting your great art of war. You may well think within yourselves, that a painter might, perhaps without immodesty, lecture younger painters upon painting, but not young lawyers upon law, nor young physicians upon medicine—least of all, it may seem to you, young warriors upon war. And, indeed, when I was asked to address you, I declined at first, and declined long; for I felt that you would not be interested in my special business, and would certainly think there was small need for me to come to teach you yours. Nay, I knew that there ought to be no such need, for the great veteran soldiers of England are now men every way so thoughtful, so noble, and so good, that no other teaching than their knightly example, and their few words of grave and tried counsel should be either necessary for you, or even, without assurance of due modesty in the offerer, endured by you.

    But being asked, not once nor twice, I have not ventured persistently to refuse; and I will try, in very few words, to lay before you some reason why you should accept my excuse, and hear me patiently. You may imagine that your work is wholly foreign to, and separate from mine. So far from that, all the pure and noble arts of peace are founded on war; no great art ever yet rose on earth, but among a nation of soldiers. There is no art among a shepherd people, if it remains[Pg 67] at peace. There is no art among an agricultural people, if it remains at peace. Commerce is barely consistent with fine art; but cannot produce it. Manufacture not only is unable to produce it, but invariably destroys whatever seeds of it exist. There is no great art possible to a nation but that which is based on battle.

    Now, though I hope you love fighting for its own sake, you must, I imagine, be surprised at my assertion that there is any such good fruit of fighting. You supposed, probably, that your office was to defend the works of peace, but certainly not to found them: nay, the common course of war, you may have thought, was only to destroy them. And truly, I who tell you this of the use of war, should have been the last of men to tell you so, had I trusted my own experience only. Hear why: I have given a considerable part of my life to the investigation of Venetian painting and the result of that enquiry was my fixing upon one man as the greatest of all Venetians, and therefore, as I believed, of all painters whatsoever. I formed this faith, (whether right or wrong matters at present nothing,) in the supremacy of the painter Tintoret, under a roof covered with his pictures; and of those pictures, three of the noblest were then in the form of shreds of ragged canvas, mixed up with the laths of the roof, rent through by three Austrian shells. Now it is not every lecturer who could tell you that he had seen three of his favourite pictures torn to rags by bombshells. And after such a sight, it is not every lecturer who would tell you that, nevertheless, war was the foundation of all great art.

    Yet the conclusion is inevitable, from any careful comparison of the states of great historic races at different periods. Merely to show you what I mean, I will sketch for you, very briefly, the broad steps of the advance of the best art of the world. The first dawn of it is in Egypt; and the power of it is founded on the perpetual contemplation of death, and of future judgment, by the mind of a nation of which the ruling caste were priests, and the second, soldiers. The greatest works produced by them are sculptures of their kings going out to battle, or receiving the homage of conquered armies.[Pg 68] And you must remember also, as one of the great keys to the splendour of the Egyptian nation, that the priests were not occupied in theology only. Their theology was the basis of practical government and law, so that they were not so much priests as religious judges, the office of Samuel, among the Jews, being as nearly as possible correspondent to theirs.

    All the rudiments of art then, and much more than the rudiments of all science, are laid first by this great warrior-nation, which held in contempt all mechanical trades, and in absolute hatred the peaceful life of shepherds. From Egypt art passes directly into Greece, where all poetry, and all painting, are nothing else than the description, praise, or dramatic representation of war, or of the exercises which prepare for it, in their connection with offices of religion. All Greek institutions had first respect to war; and their conception of it, as one necessary office of all human and divine life, is expressed simply by the images of their guiding gods. Apollo is the god of all wisdom of the intellect; he bears the arrow and the bow, before he bears the lyre. Again, Athena is the goddess of all wisdom in conduct. It is by the helmet and the shield, oftener than by the shuttle, that she is distinguished from other deities.

    There were, however, two great differences in principle between the Greek and the Egyptian theories of policy. In Greece there was no soldier caste; every citizen was necessarily a soldier. And, again, while the Greeks rightly despised mechanical arts as much as the Egyptians, they did not make the fatal mistake of despising agricultural and pastoral life; but perfectly honoured both. These two conditions of truer thought raise them quite into the highest rank of wise manhood that has yet been reached; for all our great arts, and nearly all our great thoughts, have been borrowed or derived from them. Take away from us what they have given; and I hardly can imagine how low the modern European would stand.

    Now, you are to remember, in passing to the next phase of history, that though you must have war to produce art—you must also have much more than war; namely, an art-instinct[Pg 69] or genius in the people; and that, though all the talent for painting in the world won’t make painters of you, unless you have a gift for fighting as well, you may have the gift for fighting, and none for painting. Now, in the next great dynasty of soldiers, the art-instinct is wholly wanting. I have not yet investigated the Roman character enough to tell you the causes of this; but I believe, paradoxical as it may seem to you, that, however truly the Roman might say of himself that he was born of Mars, and suckled by the wolf, he was nevertheless, at heart, more of a farmer than a soldier. The exercises of war were with him practical, not poetical; his poetry was in domestic life only, and the object of battle, ‘pacis imponere morem.’ And the arts are extinguished in his hands, and do not rise again, until, with Gothic chivalry, there comes back into the mind of Europe a passionate delight in war itself, for the sake of war. And then, with the romantic knighthood which can imagine no other noble employment,—under the fighting kings of France, England, and Spain; and under the fighting dukeships and citizenships of Italy, art is born again, and rises to her height in the great valleys of Lombardy and Tuscany, through which there flows not a single stream, from all their Alps or Apennines, that did not once run dark red from battle: and it reaches its culminating glory in the city which gave to history the most intense type of soldiership yet seen among men;—the city whose armies were led in their assault by their king, led through it to victory by their king, and so led, though that king of theirs was blind, and in the extremity of his age.

    And from this time forward, as peace is established or extended in Europe, the arts decline. They reach an unparalleled pitch of costliness, but lose their life, enlist themselves at last on the side of luxury and various corruption, and, among wholly tranquil nations, wither utterly away; remaining only in partial practice among races who, like the French and us, have still the minds, though we cannot all live the lives, of soldiers.

    ‘It may be so,’ I can suppose that a philanthropist might exclaim. ‘Perish then the arts, if they can flourish only at[Pg 70] such a cost. What worth is there in toys of canvas and stone if compared to the joy and peace of artless domestic life?’ And the answer is—truly, in themselves, none. But as expressions of the highest state of the human spirit, their worth is infinite. As results they may be worthless, but, as signs, they are above price. For it is an assured truth that, whenever the faculties of men are at their fulness, they must express themselves by art; and to say that a state is without such expression, is to say that it is sunk from its proper level of manly nature. So that, when I tell you that war is the foundation of all the arts, I mean also that it is the foundation of all the high virtues and faculties of men.

    It was very strange to me to discover this; and very dreadful—but I saw it to be quite an undeniable fact. The common notion that peace and the virtues of civil life flourished together, I found, to be wholly untenable. Peace and the vices of civil life only flourish together. We talk of peace and learning, and of peace and plenty, and of peace and civilisation; but I found that those were not the words which the Muse of History coupled together: that on her lips, the words were—peace and sensuality, peace and selfishness, peace and corruption, peace and death. I found, in brief, that all great nations learned their truth of word, and strength of thought, in war; that they were nourished in war, and wasted by peace; taught by war, and deceived by peace; trained by war, and betrayed by peace;—in a word, that they were born in war, and expired in peace.

    Yet now note carefully, in the second place, it is not all war of which this can be said—nor all dragon’s teeth, which, sown, will start up into men. It is not the ravage of a barbarian wolf-flock, as under Genseric or Suwarrow; nor the habitual restlessness and rapine of mountaineers, as on the old borders of Scotland; nor the occasional struggle of a strong peaceful nation for its life, as in the wars of the Swiss with Austria; nor the contest of merely ambitious nations for extent of power, as in the wars of France under Napoleon, or the just terminated war in America. None of these forms of war build anything but tombs. But the creative or foundational[Pg 71] war is that in which the natural restlessness and love of contest among men are disciplined, by consent, into modes of beautiful—though it may be fatal—play: in which the natural ambition and love of power of men are disciplined into the aggressive conquest of surrounding evil: and in which the natural instincts of self-defence are sanctified by the nobleness of the institutions, and purity of the households, which they are appointed to defend. To such war as this all men are born; in such war as this any man may happily die; and forth from such war as this have arisen throughout the extent of past ages, all the highest sanctities and virtues of humanity.”

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