Jose Ortega y Gasset - The Revolt of the Masses

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Reply Sun 27 Jul, 2008 04:08 pm
Excerpts from The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset. Originally published in 1932.

Public life is not solely political, but equally, and even primarily, intellectual, moral, economic, religious; it comprises all our collective habits, including our fashions both of dress and of amusement. (11)

To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand. This is the sport, the luxury, special to the intellectual man. The gesture characteristic of his tribe consists in looking at the world with eyes wide open in wonder. Everything in the world is strange and marvelous to well-open eyes. This faculty of wonder is the delight refused to your football "fan," and, on the other hand, is the one which leads the intellectual man through life in the perpetual ecstasy of the visionary. His special attribute is the wonder of the eyes. Hence it was that the ancients gave Minerva her owl, the bird with ever-dazzled eyes. (12)

The mass is all that which sets no value on itself - good or ill - based on specific grounds, but which feels itself "just like everybody," and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else. Imagine a humble-minded man who, having tried to estimate his own worth on specific grounds - asking himself if he has any talent for this or that, if he excels in any direction - realizes that he possesses no quality of excellence. Such a man will feel that he is mediocre and commonplace, ill-gifted, but will not feel himself "mass." (14-15)

When one speaks of "select minorities" it is usual for the evil-minded to twist the sense of this expression, pretending to be unaware that the select man is not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest, but the man who demands more of himself than the rest, even though he may not fulfill in his person those higher exigencies. For there is no doubt that the most radical division that is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves nay effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves. (15)

Today we are witnessing the triumphs of a hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure. (17)

The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. (18)

The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. And it is clear, of course, that this "everybody" is not "everybody." "Everybody" was normally the complex unity of the mass and the divergent, specialized minorities. Nowadays, "everybody" is the mass alone. Here we have the formidable fact of our times, described without any concealment of its features. (18)

When people talk of life they generally forget something which to me seems most essential, namely, that our existence is at every instant and primarily the consciousness of what is possible to us. If at every moment we had before us no more than one possibility, it would be meaningless to give it that name. Rather would it be a pure necessity. But there it is: this strangest of facts that a fundamental condition of our existence is that it always has before it various prospects, which by their variety acquire the character of possibilities among which we have to make our choice. (40)


It is felt that it was decadent, it would look on other ages as superior to itself, which would be equivalent to esteeming and admiring them and venerating the principles by which they were inspired. Our age would then have clear and firmly held ideals, even if incapable of realizing them. But the truth is exactly the contrary; we live at a time when mane believes himself famously capable of creation, but he does not know what to create. Lord of all things, he is not lord of himself. He feels lost amid his own abundance. With more means at its disposal, more knowledge, more technique than ever, it turns out that the world to-day goes the same way as the worst of worlds that have been; it simply drifts. (44)




The security of periods of "plenitude" - such as the last century - is an optical illusion which leads to neglect of the future, all direction of which is handed over to the mechanism of the universe. (45)

Footnote 1: We shall see, nevertheless, how it is possible to obtain from the past, if not positive orientation, certain negative counsel. The past will not tell us what we ought to do, but it will what we ought to avoid. (47)

Life, which means primarily what is possible for us to be, is likewise and for that very reason, a choice, from among these possibilities, of what we actually are going to be. Our circumstances - these possibilities - form the portion of life given us, imposed on us. This constitutes what we call the world. Life does not choose its own world, it finds itself, to start with, in a world determined and unchangeable: the world of the present. Our world is that portion of destiny which goes to make up our life. But this vital destiny is not a kind of mechanism. We are not launched into existence like a shot from a gun, with its trajectory absolutely predetermined. The destiny under which we fall when we come into this world - it is always this world, the actual one - consists in the exact contrary. Instead of imposing on us one trajectory, it imposes several, and consequently forces us to choose. Surprising condition this, of our existence! (47-48)

To live is to feel ourselves fatally obliged to exercise our libertythe man we are now analysing accustoms himself not to appeal from his own to any authority outside him. He is satisfied with himself exactly as he is. Ingenuously, without any need of being vain, as the most natural thing in the world, he will tend to consider and affirm as good everything he finds within himself: opinions, appetites, preferences, tastes. Why not, if, as we have seen, nothing and nobody force him to realize that he is a second-class man, subject to many limitations, incapable of creating or conserving that very organization which gives his life the fullness and contentedness on which he bases this assertion of his personality? (62)

On the contrary the select man, the excellent man is urged, by interior necessity, to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts. (63)

Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude. Life has no savour for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental. Hence he does not look upon the necessity of serving as an oppression. When, by chance, such necessity is lacking, he grows restless and invents some new standard, more difficult, more exigent, with which to coerce himself. This is life lived as a discipline - the noble life. Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us - by obligations, not by rights. (63)

The privileges of nobility are not in their origin concessions or favours; on the contrary, they are conquests. And their maintenance supposes, in principle, that the privileged individual is capable of reconquering them, at any moment, if it were necessary, and anyone were to dispute them. Private rights or privileges civisrepresent the other man, consequently, to be neither that other nor himself. (98-99)

Inevitably his life loses all authenticity, and is transformed into pure representation or fiction of another life. The abundance of resources that is obliged to make use of gives him no chance to live out his own personal destiny, his life is atrophied. All life is the struggle, the effort to be itself. (99)

So in the "aristocratic" heir his whole individuality grows vague, for lack of use and vital effort. The result is that specific stupidity of "our old nobility" which is unlike anything else - a stupidity which, strictly speaking, has never yet been described in its intimate, tragic mechanism - that tragic mechanism which leads all hereditary aristocracy to irremediable degeneration. (99)

The form most contradictory to human life that can appear among the human species is the "self-satisfied man." Consequently, when he becomes the predominant type, it is time to raise the alarm and to announce that humanity is threatened with degeneration, that is, with relative death. (102)

For, previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is "a scientist," and "knows" very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line. (112)


And such in fact is the behaviour of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of - this is the paradox - specialists in those matters. By specialising him, his civilisation has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty. The result is that even in this case, representing a maximum of qualification in man - specialization - and therefore the thing most opposed to the mass-man, the result is that he will behave is almost all spheres of life as does the unqualified, the mass-man. (112)

Society begins to be enslaved, to be unable to live except in the service of the State. The whole of life is bureaucratised. What results? The bureaucratisation of life brings about its absolute decay in all orders. (121)

Human life, by its very nature, has to be dedicated to something, an enterprise glorious or humble, a destiny illustrious or trivial. We are faced with a condition, strange but inexorable, involved in our very existence. On the one hand, to live is something which each one does of himself and for himself. On the other hand, if that life of mind, which only concerns myself, is not directed by me towards something, it will be disjointed, lacking in tension and in "form." In these years we are witnessing the gigantic spectacle of innumerable human lives wandering about lost in their own labyrinths, through not having anything to which to give themselves. All imperatives, all commands, are in a state of suspension. (141)

Given over to itself, every life has been left empty with nothing to do. And as it has to be filled with something, it invents frivolities for itself, given itself to false occupations which impose nothing intimate, sincere. Today it is one thing, to-morrow another, opposite to the first. Life is lost at finding itself all alone. Mere egoism is a labyrinth. This is quite understandable. Really to live is to be directed towards something, to progress towards a goal. The goal is not my motion, not my life, it is the something to which I put my life and which is outside it, beyond it. If I decide to walk alone inside my own existence, egoistically, I make no progress. I arrive nowhere. I keep turning round and round in the one spot. That is the labyrinth, the road that leads nowhere, which loses itself, through being a mere turning round within itself. (142)

A creative life implies a regime of strict mental health, of high conduct, of constant stimulus, which keep active the consciousness of man's dignity. A creative life is energetic life, and this is only possible in one or other of these two situations: either being the one who rules, or finding oneself placed in a world which is ruled by someone in whom we recognize full right to such function: either I rule or I obey. By obedience I do not mean mere submission - this is degradation - but on the contrary, respect for the ruler and acceptance of his leadership, solidarity with him, an enthusiastic enrollment under his banner. (144-145)

There is no possible creation of a State unless the minds of certain peoples are capable of abandoning the traditional structure of one form of common life, and in addition, of thinking out another form not previously existing. That is why it is a genuine creation. The State begins by being absolutely a work of imagination. Imagination is the liberating power possessed by man. A people is capable of becoming a State in the degree in which it is able to imagine. Hence it is, that with all peoples there has been a limit to their evolution in the direction of a State; precisely the limit set by Nature to their imaginations. (155)

Once again, I repeat: the reality which we call the State is not the spontaneous coming together of men united by ties of blood. The State begins when groups naturally divided find themselves obliged to live in common. This obligation is not of brute force, but implies an impelling purpose, a common task which is set before the dispersed groups. Before all, the State is a plan of action and a programme of collaboration. The men are called upon so that together they may do something. The State is neither consanguinity, nor linguistic unity, nor territorial unity, nor proximity of habituation. It is nothing material, inert, fixed, limited. It is pure dynamism - the will to do something in common - and thanks to this the idea of the State is bounded by no physical limits. (162)

Whether we like it or not, human life is a constant preoccupation with the future. In this actual moment we are concerned with the one that follows. Hence living is always, ceaselessly, restlessly, a doing. Why is it not realized that all doing implies bringing something future into effect? Including the case when we give ourselves up to remembering. We recall a memory at this moment in order to effect something in the moment following, be it only the pleasure of re-living the past. This modest secret pleasure presented itself to us a moment ago as a desirable future thing, therefore we "make remembrance of things past." Let is be clear, then, that nothing has a sense for man except in as far as it is directed towards the future. (172-173)

Online English version of The Revolt of the Masses


(Moderator edit: moved to more appropriate forum at poster's request. jgw)

 
Pepijn Sweep
 
Reply Mon 19 Apr, 2010 02:42 am
@Theaetetus,
I wanted to start thread to appeal for a revolt against the corporate-political system in western Europe but could never do it so well as Jose Ortega did. You would wish our local nobility would stand up again and remember why their ancestors were selected and rewarded in the first place.

Nowadays the masses are suppressed without realizing how. There is very little charisma left in Europe. Our wealth goes in all directions; military toys from the US, gas from Russia and oil from the middle East we import. Manual labor is done by immigrants and consumer goods come from Asia. Masses won't revolt if they are comfortable.

We have little honor left. I think the situation is not very different in the rest of the western world. IMO Corporate Capitalism is on the verge of breaking down and who dares to present an alternative ? I wish we in Holland would reinstal the Republic and help make the European Union a democratic post-modern country. I rather live in one country with Germany and Belgium than in a Anglo-Saxon partnership based on fear and hostility.
 
Pepijn Sweep
 
Reply Tue 20 Apr, 2010 03:12 am
@Theaetetus,
Theaetetus;19896 wrote:
Excerpts from The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset. Originally published in 1932.

Public life is not solely political, but equally, and even primarily, intellectual, moral, economic, religious; it comprises all our collective habits, including our fashions both of dress and of amusement.


I thought this post interesting enough to pick up. Certain developments in european societies remind me of this period in history. Writers / philosophers should be more socially engaged IMHO. Jose Ortega died fighting for his cause. Hopefully this sort of dictatorship doesn't come back.

I watched (part) of the debate between the politacal leaders in Brittain and thought them all three pretty much right wing. Seems there is not real alternative anymore. I just wonder houw many of us philosophers share these feelings about loosing freedoms and the shift to the right in politics.
 
Pepijn Sweep
 
Reply Fri 30 Apr, 2010 03:20 pm
@Pepijn Sweep,
Pepijn Sweep;153885 wrote:
I wanted to start thread to appeal for a revolt against the corporate-political system in western Europe but could never do it so well as Jose Ortega did. You would wish our local nobility would stand up again and remember why their ancestors were selected and rewarded in the first place.

Nowadays the masses are suppressed without realizing how. There is very little charisma left in Europe. Our wealth goes in all directions; military toys from the US, gas from Russia and oil from the middle East we import. Manual labor is done by immigrants and consumer goods come from Asia. Masses won't revolt if they are comfortable.

We have little honor left. I think the situation is not very different in the rest of the western world. IMO Corporate Capitalism is on the verge of breaking down and who dares to present an alternative ? I wish we in Holland would reinstal the Republic and help make the European Union a democratic post-modern country. I rather live in one country with Germany and Belgium than in a Anglo-Saxon partnership based on fear and hostility.


Once again I bring this thread ...Laughing
 
 

 
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