Ortega (1883-1955) was born in Madrid within a journalist-political milieu.
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:
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.
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
But a theme emerges nevertheless. Dr Giles sums up part of the Ortegan motif:
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
The highly quotable Ortega on themes felt to be the crux of the book:
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.
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.
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
Several Ortega claims must be examined:
1. "Ortega was an existentialist."
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,
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.
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.
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.
Ortega blamed liberal democracy as propounded by early classical liberals
for the rise of the masses and the resulting consequences.
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:
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:
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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
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.'
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
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).
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.
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
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
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:
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...
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:
Email Dr. Peppe
#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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