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IC's Top 25 Philosophical and Ideological Conservative Books
No. 19 - Jose Ortega y Gasset: The Revolt of the Masses
by Dr. Enrico Peppe
20 February 2004The Revolt of the Masses

Four clear conceptions of Ortega's thinking, as reflected by the book under review, can be found in the writings of Albert Jay Nock, Michael Oakeshott, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard.


Ortega (1883-1955) was born in Madrid within a journalist-political milieu.

His father was a popular newspaperman and novelist. In his mother's family were many politico-ideologues and ministers of sundry Spanish government agencies.

He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Madrid in 1904, and subsequently continued his studies in Germany, when the philosophic emphasis was Kantian analysis.

Eventually he secured a post at Central University in Madrid. He became an exile during the Spanish Civil War, finding teaching refuge at the University of San Marcos in Lima. After World War II, he returned to Spain where he founded the short-lived Institute of Humanities. He lectured frequently during his later years (including a stint at the Center for the Humanities in Aspen). He died in 1955. At the time of his death, he could quite accurately be described as Spain's premier thinker.

His genre was the essay. His Castilian was vibrant, and as such he is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, regardless of language. As a philosopher he is considered neo-Kantian and existentialist.

Professor Mary E. Giles summarizes his conceptions as follows. For Ortega:

Human beings and their circumstances exist in a dynamic interplay ('Yo soy yo y mi circumstancia')...How an individual influences his circumstances is his creative action ('quehacer vital')...The hero...creates the noble life by exerting his will to go beyond the ordinary...The opposite of the hero, the mass man, is content with his own mediocrity and relies on opinion rather than reason...Though each individual sees truth from a unique perspective, truth itself is absolute.

A synopsis of Ortega's "The Revolt of the Masses" is in order. This work easily belongs on the IC "Top 25" list.  (For reasons that will become clear later, however, Ortega makes the grade for reasons not in accordance with past ideological emphases as applied to Ortega's most popular book).

The fifteen chapters are best understood as fifteen essays (Ortega's thought-pattern tends toward the personal rather than the
thematic).

But a theme emerges nevertheless. Dr Giles sums up part of the Ortegan motif:

(He)...elaborates the theory of two classes, the masses and creative minorities...societies advance...when the creative minority is allowed to govern. Mass man is without direction, self-satisfied, and preoccupied with his own well-being...(he) is identifiable by an attitude opposite of the dynamic man of excellence... (who)...exerts his will in service to values and goals that are larger than himself...

The highly quotable Ortega on themes felt to be the crux of the book:

The multitude has suddenly become visible, installing itself in the preferential positions in society...Before it passed unnoticed, occupying the background of the social stage; now, it has advanced to the footlights and is the principal character. There are no longer protagonists; there is only the chorus.

We are, in fact, confronted with a radical innovation in human destiny, implanted by the 19th century. A new stage has been mounted for human existence, new both in the physical and the social aspects. Three principles have made possible this new world: liberal democracy, scientific experiment, and industrialism. The two latter may be summed up in one word: technicism.

Ortegan excerpts, out of context, like the brief quotations cited above, serve to place Ortega in the long line of aristocratic-metaphysical-Carlist thinking best expressed in European and American traditional conservatism (Frederick Wilhelmsem, L Brent Bozell, and Russell Kirk, the chief spokesmen). Only a pallid case can be made.

The reviewer interprets Ortega's grand book within a different frame.

It has been customary to read Ortega in bits and then extrapolate for ideological justification. Even George H. Nash in his classic refers to Ortega as a "traditionalist saint."

Several Ortega claims must be examined:

1. "Ortega was an existentialist."

A few years ago the reviewer translated Ortega's "La Rebelion..." alongside Carmen Laforet's "Nada" in order to analyze the figurative language in both; alongside the hyper-angst emitting from Laforet, Ortega read like a proposition from Bertrand Russell's "Principia Mathematica." Part of the problem rests with his "Meditations on Quixote" whereby Ortega cries, "I am I and my circumstance." But he rejected the "I." He did not glorify it. For this Spanish empiricist, the "I" refers to one who lives in the world, and works out circumstances (step-by-step) for positive gains. There is great similarity between Ortega's stance and Misesian (step-by-step) economic analysis (See my IC review #22).

2. "Ortega was a disciple of Burke."

Burke wistfully looked back to the day of the aristocracy, of the day before the secular, of the day before "progress." Ortega's approach is subtle and different. In his words,

No one can imagine that, in the face of this fabulous seething of the masses, it is the aristocratic attitude to be satisfied with making a supercilious grimace, like a fine gentleman of Versailles - the Versailles of the grimaces - does not represent aristocracy; it is the death and dissolution of a magnificent aristocracy. For this reason, the only element of aristocracy left in such beings was the dignified grace with which their necks received the attention of the guillotine; they accepted it as the tumour accepts the lancet.

3. Ortega was anti-science -- a regressivist.

Ortega pays homage to scientific and technical innovation. He is totally aware that the Masses enjoy great gains in personal and social development due to the capabilities of highly intelligent individuals. It's just that the common man doesn't get it.

...[the mass man]...finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes that it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly-endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed. Still less will he admit the notion that all these facilities still require the support of certain difficult human virtues, the least failure of which would cause the rapid disappearance of the whole magnificent edifice.

4. Ortega blamed liberal democracy as propounded by early classical liberals for the rise of the masses and the resulting consequences.

The problem here has been that critics have discussed Ortega in terms of the symptoms he wrote about, and have not zoned in on what he considered the root cause.

Not that he hid the fact:

...the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention -- the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State, that is to say, of spontaneous historical action, which in the long run sustains, nourishes, and impels human destinies...This is what State intervention leads to: the peel are converted into fuel to feed the mere machine which is the State. The skeleton eats up the flesh around it. The scaffolding becomes the owner and tenant of the house.

Capaldi interprets the above statement:

Precisely because mass man does not recognize any sense of personal responsibility and does not care to distinguish between the intended and actual consequences of any action, he acquiesces in the control of all social efforts on the part of the state. Deceived into thinking that he is the state, mass man does not see that he will soon be living for the state (or the government), and not it for him.

Nicholas Capaldi, in his magnificent 1988 piece, "Ortega on the Crisis of Western Civilization," carefully and accurately explicates Ortega on the "liberal democracy" issue. He makes five points that go a long way toward creating a correct Ortegan hermeneutic.

Point #1 -- The modern era, the period of rationalist humanism, saw the rise of technicism. While the ascendancy of such was a favorable process for the welfare of mankind, the philosophy behind it was extended to man qua man.

Man consequently believed than he was the center of all things -- that he could discover structure itself.

Capaldi:  "Carried into the social and political realm, rationalistic humanism ultimately leads to political radicalism. Utopian social engineering is the social counterpart of industrial technology."

Point #2 -- John Locke's original conception of freedom and equality, by natural law, had a clear religious basis. In subsequent history, the religious element died. Rationalist humanism took over.

Capaldi: "...rationalist humanism amounts to the attempt to construct civil and political society from an ethical vacuum...Ortega...stressed that a prior normative context was indispensable."

Point #3 -- As rationalist humanism evolved, the pure, "Lockean" concept of liberal democracy did also, into a negative abyss. A paradox ensued.

Capaldi: "The paradox of liberal democracy is that it destroys the foundations on which it itself exists...The danger faced by the society of mass men is that 'barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.'"

Point #4 - Liberal democracy must be superceded. It should not be destroyed.

Capaldi: "Liberal democracy emerges in the pages of Ortega as a noble sentiment served by a shallow theory."

Point #5 -- For Ortega, there are no viable alternatives to liberal democracy other than superceding it. Certainly the "isms" of history don't qualify.

Capaldi: "In a prescient remark Ortega lumps bolshevism and fascism together as retrogressive movements based upon failure to take history seriously. Nationalism is dismissed as a 'passing phase of self-conceit on the part of the least developed of the nations.'"

Thomas Fitzgerald, in a 1996 "First Things" piece, "The Future of Belief," offers a beautiful arpeggio. Ortega used the term "creencias" to name embedded certitudes and core convictions mankind takes for granted, stuff under your skin, that needs no discussion or elaboration. In what the reviewer feels is one of the best few words ever written on Our Demise, Fitzgerald writes,

The Enlightenment, in breaking with archaic and biblical forms of understanding, had asserted that things are wholly accessible to scrutiny -- and hence could be known, described, and explained in direct, comprehensive, and reliable forms. When narrowed into its instrumental uses, however, rationality...fell into the service of a state apparatus and became a means for designing 'rationalized' exploitation of man and nature...Dispossessed of our "creencias," people are left (as Ortega puts it) with a feeling of 'shipwreck.'...Rushing to make new shrines of the natural environment, or computers, or space travel, or ethnicity, or nationalism, we find only ramshackle, one-owner cosmologies offering poor shelter.

The ongoing policy studies and continuous writings associated with the superceding of liberal democracy today, as understood and advocated by Ortega, are only to be found in the libertarian wing of the conservative movement. Even as recently as 20 years ago, Ortegan formulations could be distinguished on the pages of National Review. As William F. Buckley supped with the Kristols, the Ortegan connection waned, and finally ceased. The reviewer does not hold lightly the enormous contributions both NR and Buckley have given to the movement -- it's just a matter of "la vida politica."

Four clear conceptions of Ortega's thinking, as reflected by the book under review, can be found in the writings of Albert Jay Nock, Michael Oakeshott, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard.

Albert Jay Nock, the "forgotten man of the right," read Ortega correctly as the anti-statist that he was (for a superb article on Nock, IC readers would do well to read Mises Institute's Jeffrey A. Tucker's piece.

In Our Enemy,The State, Nock points out that...the "state . . . whether primitive, feudal, or merchant is the organization of political means."  Nock on Ortega:

...[Ortega]...gives a good idea of what may be expected when a third, economically composite, class takes over the mechanism of the state, as the merchant class took it over from the nobility. Surely no better forecast could be made of what is taking place in this country at the moment than, [in Ortega's words]...'The mass-man in fact believes that he is the state, and he will tend more and more to set its machinery working, on whatever pretext, to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it --
disturbs it in any order of things, in politics, in ideas, in industry.'

Kenneth Hoover, author (with others) of "Ideology and Political Life," accurately identifies Ortega with Michael Oakeshott, but fails to gauge the ideological spectrum in which both
properly belong:

In traditional conservative thought the mass man was the conceptual opposite of the individual living in a properly constituted society. (Reviewer's note: Hoover should have distinguished between the Old Right and Traditional conservatism. For more on rightist distinctives, see my IC review #20).

As Michael Oakeshott suggests,(spirited by Ortega), ...the mass man is not necessarily ignorant, often he is a member of the so-called intellegentsia; he belongs to a class which corresponds exactly with no other class.

Hoover goes on to synthesize both men of the right as believing that, "The mass man has no character: a nation-state of mass men would fall prey to tyranny because they could not supply order in their own lives. Insensitive to authority, they would become slaves to power."

Aynist Gregory Johnson, writing in the "Daily Objectivist," creates a tremendous case for Ortegan influence on the protolibertarian Rand. Johnson displays two paragraphs from Ms. Rand's journal for May 16, 1934. Having copied passages from the last chapter of "The Revolt of the Masses," she then writes in two paragraphs:

The new conception of the State that I want to defend is the State as a means, not an end: a means for the convenience of the higher type of man. The State as the only organization. Within it -- all have to remain individuals. The state, not as a slave of the great numbers, but precisely the contrary, as the individual's defense against great numbers. To free man from the tyranny of numbers."

The fault of liberal democracies: giving full rights to quantity (majorities), they forget the rights of quality, which are much higher rights.

On her notes for The Fountainhead, she writes, "Until man's 'self' regains its proper position, life will be what it is now: flat, gray, empty, lacking in all beauty, all fire, all enthusiasm, all meaning, all creative urge. That is the ultimate theme of the book -- Howard Roark as the remedy for all modern ills."

Gregory Johnson: "It is seldom possible to make an airtight case for intellectual influence, but if Rand first conceived the moral project of "The Fountainhead" (and all of her subsequent works) while writing her journal entries for May 15 and 16, 1934, she did so in dialogue with Ortega."

The late genius-economist Murray Rothbard nails down the Libertarian-Ortegan connection by melding Mises and Ortega on "The Romantic as Primitive" (how this man could work so well, and exhibit such understanding, within interdisciplinary frameworks is a marvel). First Mises:

Romanticism is man's revolt against reason, as well as the condition under which nature has compelled him to live. The romantic is a daydreamer; he easily manages in imagination to disregard the laws of logic and nature. The thinking and rationally acting man tries to rid himself of the discomfort of unsatisfied wants by economic action and work...The romantic...imagines the pleasures of success, but he does nothing to achieve them...

Then Ortega:

This is what happens in the world which is mere Nature. But it does not happen in the world of civilization which is ours. Civilization is not 'just there,' it is not self-supporting. It is artificial...if you want to make use of the advantages of civilization, but are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilization -- you are done.

(The IC reader would do well to read the Rothbard piece in its entirety.)

The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset is a classic in the Old Right-Libertarian-Paleoconservative tradition.

It should be read that way.

The Revolt of the Masses is available on Amazon.com.

Other books in the series:

#20. Gregory L. Schneider -- Conservatism in America since 1930: A Reader
#21. Richard Weaver -- Ideas Have Consequences
#22. Ludwig von Mises -- Method, Money, and the Market

#23. Eric Voegelin -- Science, Politics and Gnosticism
#24. Frank Meyer -- In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo
#25. Leo Strauss -- Natural Right & History

Dr. Enrico Peppe is a retired educator who runs the website The Third Way. A widower with too much time on his hands, he spends most of his time reading and thinking about the conservative movement, studying Catholic theology, working on his "Third Way" website, listening to Sinatra and Miles Davis, and admiring Ann Coulter.

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