Commentary Magazine

Ortega y Gasset Revisited

Nobody claims that Spain has been at the center of 20th-century thought. In truth, even the more literate among us, pressed to name a major Spanish influence, would likely come up with no more than Un-amuno (Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, 1864-1936) and perhaps “that other Spanish philosopher,” Ortega (José Ortega y Gasset, 1883-1955). Some might reverse the order, but it is not a very long list. Now, however, there is occasion to take a fresh look at Ortega in particular. A new translation of his The Revolt of the Masses1 is of special interest in view of Spain's still-recent turn toward modernity and democracy.

Modernity and democracy are, at best, ambiguous projects in the thinking of Ortega. In his maturity, Ortega had moved well beyond his early Jesuit training in Madrid and the neo-Kantianism he had imbibed at Marburg. He developed a form of existentialism which insisted that basic reality is the decision of individual life here and now (“I am I, and my circumstances”). Against absolute or abstract reason, he posited reason as a function of life. This he called “vital reason” or “historical reason.”

Although his books received critical acclaim, Ortega did not really write books. In keeping with his philosophy, he produced numerous occasional pieces in response to specific circumstances, and these were later gathered between covers. The resulting lack of systematic consistency, compensated in part by a sense of immediacy, is no accident. Despite his suspicion of universals, Ortega did not hesitate to leap from immediate occasion to grand generalization. From observing a Spaniard giving directions to a foreign tourist, or from reading a newspaper account of a divorce proceeding, Ortega proceeds to draw lessons about the crisis of the age. The result is a frequently startling, if not always convincing, insight on a world that, then and now, overlooks some of the most obvious things about itself.

Of the books in English a number still make for rewarding reading, including Meditations on Quixote and Toward a Philosophy of History. But for those who connect Ortega's name with only one book, the one book is likely to be his 1929 collection, The Revolt of the Masses.

The Revolt of the Masses is beyond doubt a classic. In his lively new translation of the work, Anthony Kerrigan takes Ortega at his word when he writes: “There is but one way to salvage a classic: to give up reverence and to use it for our own un-salvaged salvation, to lay aside its status as a classic, to make it contemporary. Its pulse must rebound from an infusion of our own blood.” But it is not easy to give up reverence for a book such as this. Kerrigan in his extensive introduction and notes, and Saul Bellow in his foreword, trace something of the impact that The Revolt of the Masses has had on the way we think about our century. In the literary genre of “what has gone wrong with modernity,” the book has few peers.

What has gone wrong, according to Ortega, is everything that has produced “mass man.” The solution, if there is a solution, lies in the leadership of “select men” in creating a new Europe that will dare to obey its destiny. Ortega is very European. Born to a literary family in Spain, he early attached his fortunes and affections to what he almost calls the Holy Trinity of France, England, and Germany. If Spain could not be a full person in the deity, it would at least have a place near the throne, whereas upstarts like the United States and Russia might be permitted a seat among the lower ranks of angels.

Ortega's extreme Eurocentric view of the universe is not the chief difficulty encountered by interpreters of Revolt who would “make it contemporary.” There is, for instance, the problem that Ortega approves of much that, perhaps inevitably, produced mass man while at the same time he deplores the result. In particular, he approves of technology and liberal democracy; or at least of some technology, and at least of liberalism, if not of democracy. And, although one might make him contemporary, it is hard to make convincing an author who declares that “the real problem” is that “Europe has been left without a moral code,” and then goes on to argue that the solution is for Europe to be more European.

Revolt, however, is a classic not because it convinces but because it convicts. Coherence of argument is subordinated to force of expression as, with brilliant aphorisms and flights of metaphor, Ortega leads the reader to confess that, yes, this is the way it is with us. Or, perhaps more typically, the reader is led to think that this is the way it is with them, the mass men whose barbarity has trampled and vulgarized all that we, along with Ortega, revere as excellent. “It is Ortega's view,” writes Bellow, “that we in the West live under a dictatorship of the commonplace.” The dictator is mass man, who is not to be confused with “the masses” of class conflict. Mass man is not the proletariat but the people of all classes, especially the ruling classes, who have forgotten that civilization consists in repeated decision and new creation. Mass man is the barbarian who, as Alasdair MacIntyre has argued in After Virtue, “has been ruling us for some time now.”


In 1929, when Revolt was first published, Ortega described mass man in this way:

If the psychological structure of this mass man is considered in regard to its social effect we find the following: (1) he is possessed of an inborn and deep-seated belief that life should be easy, plentiful, without tragic limitations; thus the average individual is animated by a sense of power and success which (2) leads him to affirm himself just as he is, and to consider himself complete in his moral and intellectual being. This self-satisfaction leads him to deny any exterior authority, to refuse to listen, to evade submitting his opinions to judgment, and to avoid considering the views of others. He is driven to make his weight felt. He will tend to act as if only he and his kind exist in the world; and thus (3) he will involve himself in everything, putting forth his mediocre view, without hesitancy, reserve, reflection, or negotiation.

Mass man is the “spoiled child” who takes for granted his right to “unhindered expansion of his vital desires” and is marked by “total ingratitude toward all that has made possible the ease of his existence.”

In contrast to mass man is select man. Ortega the prosecutor does not describe select man in such detail; presumably, the vivid description of the vice will illuminate the contrasting virtue. Although Ortega does not put it quite this way, the select man is select by virtue of his selecting and being selected. That is, he both chooses and is chosen; he chooses to keep faith with his fate or destiny. The select man might thus better be called the elect man. He elects to embrace his election, and the form of his election is to be found in his circumstances (“1 am I, and my circumstances”).

In describing the circumstances of the select man, Ortega was fond of the imagery of shipwreck. “For the only authentic ideas,” he writes, “are those of the castaway. The rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. Whoever does not really feel himself lost is lost without remission, that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes upon his own reality.” The exemplar of the select man is the philosopher who is “divinely discontent,” an “amputated being,” always yearning for the truth that is missing. Unlike the mass man of the crowd, the select man knows with Kierkegaard that the crowd is untruth. Only as a castaway, in the full knowledge of his disaster, does he become the “aristocrat” who is able and obligated to take responsibility for who he will be.


Since the first appearance of The Revolt of the Masses more than fifty years ago, some writers on the Left have expressed admiration for it—in some instances, no doubt, because they read only the title and missed the point. But others have liked it because in mass man they see described the product of capitalist consumerist society, the victim of the majoritarian mentality of bourgeois democracy. The more conventional liberal opinion, however, is that Ortega is insufferably elitist. He believed that culture was always and radically insecure, that only an enlightened minority (select man) could reinvent and redefine the social order and then do what was necessary to enlist the obedience of the masses who invariably live without plan or effort. In an earlier work Ortega had written: “There is no political health when the government functions without the active cooperation of majorities. Perhaps this is why politics seems to me a second-class occupation.” In truth, it was not only mass man but the masses—meaning ordinary people—whom Ortega found distasteful. Ortega wrote that he favored democracy; he might even have loved democracy, had it not involved so many people.

In his introduction Kerrigan tries to cleanse Ortega of the taint of elitism. “These select men are not seen to form an elite, as Ortega never tired of repeating in the years after the publication of this book. They are, most simply and naturally, a select minority. Ortega's critics, especially the dogmatically ‘anti-elitist’ elitist liberals, have nevertheless persisted in calling him an ‘elitist.’” Ortega himself writes that “the select individual is not the petulant snob who thinks he is superior to others, but is, rather, the person who demands more from himself than do others.” But to demand more of oneself is, as Ortega makes abundantly clear, precisely the mark of superiority. As for Kerrigan's attempted absolution, a translator's devotion to his author is laudable but cannot change the fact that the brilliance of Ortega's analysis is heavily tarnished by what is most accurately described as snobbery.


“The most important fact in the public life of the West in modern times, for good or ill,” writes Ortega in his opening line, “is the appearance of the masses in the seats of highest social power.” He then goes on at length to make clear that it is entirely for ill, as he rails against the vulgar crowds that have invaded the theaters, restaurants, and coaches that were once reserved for their betters. The problem, he claims, is an excess of population produced by the combination of technology and liberal democracy, and resulting in “the social animal as stray.” Europe is in trouble because “civilization becomes ever more complex and difficult,” and, while there are “very few clear heads” capable of finding solutions, “the plebeian body of Europe does not want this kind of head on its shoulders.”

This sentiment is a commonplace in almost any contemporary faculty club or government bureau. When Ortega writes about people being unwilling to come to terms with their “circumstances,” it is frequently evident that he means they should stay in their place. Of course excellence in any form is always in short supply, and those who cultivate it constitute an elite. But one need not be either a dogmatically anti-elitist elitist or a populist enthusiast to be repelled by Ortega's contempt for forms of excellence other than his own. It is to be feared that over the years many people, both on the Left and on the Right, have relished Revolt for the unlovely reason that it has confirmed them in their feelings of superiority over the common run of humanity.

That is too bad, because there are really very good reasons for liking the book. In 1929 the world was shadowed by totalitarian threats, and few discerned the form of modern barbarism more clearly than Ortega. The fascists, he writes, “were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: ‘the reason of unreason’ “(emphasis added). There was, he notes, an obsession with “direct action.” In a civilized order, violence is the ultima ratio, but for the zealots of direct action it became the prima ratio, even the unica ratio, the prime and only form of reason.

Combined with violence was the adulation of “youth.” Ortega might have been writing about the barbarism of the 60's in Europe and America when he describes the “grotesque” and “almost comical” spectacle of people calling themselves “young” because they have been told that youth has more rights than obligations. “Youth has always considered itself exempt from doing or already having done great deeds or feats. It has always lived on credit.” The astounding thing to behold, he says, is that “nowadays these juniors take it as a definitive right precisely in order to lay claim to all the other rights which belong only to those who have already accomplished something. Though it may appear incredible, ‘youth’ has become a form of blackmail.”

Another passage so perfectly describes strains of our late and un-lamented counterculture that the reader may be surprised to learn that it all happened before:

The fascist will let himself be mobilized against political liberty knowing full well that in the end it will survive in the West along with the substance and essence of Europe, to reappear when it is critically and vitally needed. For this is the mark and keynote of the mass man: his lack of seriousness and his taste for buffoonery and farce. The actions of mass man lack any sense of irrevocability: they are like the pranks and escapades of rich kids. Their penchant for adopting hard, pseudo-tragic attitudes is mere show. They play at tragedy because they think the real tragedy of the civilized world is not to be believed.

The Abbie Hoffmans and Andy Warhols had their precursors among the “super-realists” in “the epoch of ‘currents,’ of ‘letting yourself go.’ “It was also the epoch of “radicalized” writing. “The ‘super-realist’ feels he has gone beyond all literary history when he writes down some complicated excrescence where others wrote ‘jasmines, swans, and fauns.’ What he has really done is to dredge up another rhetoric which lay dormant in the latrines.”


In the course of Ortega's sometimes irascible and sometimes whimsical polemic, the definition of mass man becomes impossibly confused. At one point he is the man religiously devoted to “being just like everybody else,” only to appear later as the man iconoclastically determined to be “unlike anyone who has ever been before.” Saul Bellow is not sure that Ortega's mass man of unwarranted self-confidence and depressing conformity is very much like “the average man” of today. And as for the other mass man, the man of iconoclastic posturing, in today's fragmented culture (which we prefer to call “pluralistic”) there is surely reason for greater sympathy with him.

Ortega himself repeatedly insisted, “Man must choose, must elect continually.” Today almost everyone faces what Peter Berger calls “the heretical imperative,” the inescapability of electing one's social identity. If some people elect bizarre and degraded identities, it is perhaps because there has been a cultural collapse in which worthier alternatives have not been sustained. Ortega speaks of cultural collapse, but his preoccupation with mass man results in his misplacing the blame.

“What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no norms and standards to which our fellow citizens can have recourse,” Ortega writes. But then he goes on to blame the “vertical invasion” of mass man, which means mediocre people refusing to stay in their mediocre places and usurping the seats of the powerful. Or he speaks of the “invading jungle” of outsiders who do not know the rules of civilization. He might more justly put the blame on his elite of select men, of people like himself, who are, after all, to be the guardians of culture.

The Revolt of the Masses is the wrong name for the story Ortega tells. The book might better have been titled The Treason of the Intellectuals, had Julien Benda not beaten him to it by two years. In the course of his argument Ortega betrays some ambivalence about whether the critical problem is the invasion of mass man or the abdication of select man. Unfortunately, he plumps for the former, with the ironic consequence that those who fancy themselves select men are reinforced in their feeling of self-satisfied smugness. Yet that, of course, is precisely the feeling that according to Ortega is characteristic of mass man!

In this respect, and contrary to Ortega's intention, Revolt has no doubt done its share to turn real or potential select men into mass men, thereby contributing to the vulgarization that he deplores. Further compounding the problem, many mass men who enjoy Revolt altogether too much have likely been led to the utterly mistaken conclusion that they are in fact select men. The proof, in their view, is that they wholeheartedly agree with Ortega, who is beyond question a select man. Vigorously applauding the prosecution, the defendants fail to notice that they are in the dock. This is a perennial problem when prophetic indictment is so persuasive in form and so broad in scope.


The solution, according to Ortega, is a recovery of nerve, a vital embrace of destiny. He describes his historical moment as one that feels it is “more than past times, and less than itself. Powerful, and uncertain of its destiny. Proud of its strength and féarful of its might.” The historical moment is emphatically, and éxclusively, a European moment: If there is uncertainty in the world, it is because “a rumor is circulating to the effect that the commandments of the law of Europe are about to be done away with.” The consequence is that peoples attempt to live without imperatives, “for the only imperatives that existed were European.”

Because human beings finally cannot live without imperatives, “soon a cry will go up from around the planet, rising like the howl of an innumerable pack of wild dogs baying at the stars, crying for someone or something to take command and impose a mission.” Europe must respond to that cry, for it is the destiny of Europe to command, “to supply people with a mission, to give them their bearings, to allot them a destiny.” It might be pointed out that soon Adolf Hitler would respond to that cry, but to this Ortega would counter that Nazi conquest was the antithesis of the building of the nation of Europe for which he called. Nazism, it might be argued, was the result of Europe's defaulting on what Ortega believed was its destiny.

The little nationalisms of Europe must give way to the nationalism of Europe. “It is impossible to imagine any more important task for the European today than to fulfill the promise inherent in the concept of ‘European’ during the past four centuries.” This is “the enormous drama” to be played out in the coming years. Upon it depends not only the future of Europe but of the world, for we live in a world in which “one either commands or obeys.” Ortega was an unabashed imperialist. Lesser breeds should not be dominated by compulsion but should be given the opportunity “to take part in an enterprise, in some great historic destiny.” “Hence, there is no imperium without a program for life, without a program for imperial life.” Such a program must be derived from imperatives and, again, all the imperatives are European. Only in facing up to this reality will Europe be able to do for the world what “the great Caesar” did for the Roman empire.


The question is not whether there will be ruler and ruled, but only who will rule and who will be ruled. The next-to-last chapter of Revolt is titled “Who Rules the World?” and begins with the assumption that whoever rules in the world “does, in effect, exert an authoritative influence over the whole of it.” Ruling comes naturally to those who rule, and their right to rule is popularly recognized. “Rule is the normal exercise of authority, and it is always based on public opinion, the same today as it was ten thousand years ago, whether among the civilized English or the Bushmen.” One cannot rule by coercion alone, or by coercion primarily. Ortega approvingly quotes Talleyrand's remark to Napoleon: “You can do everything with bayonets, Sire, except sit on them.” From this Ortega concludes: “In sum, to rule is to sit down, be it on a throne, curule chair, front bench, ministerial seat, or bishop's cathedra. Contrary to the naive melodramatic view, ruling is not so much a question of a heavy hand as a firm seat.” Ruling rests upon “the preponderance of an opinion, and therefore of a spirit,” which means that “ruling is, in the end, a matter of spiritual power.”

The problem, already evident in the late 20's, is that the spiritual power of Europe, and therefore its right to rule the world, was no longer recognized by the rest of the world. Oswald Spengler and others wrote about the exhaustion of Europe and the decline of the West, but Ortega would have none of that. The fault lay rather with the “mass men” of the rest of the world who refused to acknowledge the natural superiority of Europe, and with the “mass men” of Europe who refused to let Europe be Europe. For Ortega, Europe's spiritual power and consequent right to rule were self-evident. The implication is that those who do not recognize the self-evident should at least accept these truths by faith. If there are others who need argument and persuasion, so much the worse for them. Ortega, for one, will not accommodate them. “I am I, and my circumstances.” Europe is Europe, and its destiny is to rule the world.


Ortega knew little about the United States, and apparently would have been content to know a good deal less. He expresses his irritation with “the mass of puerile judgments made on the United States in Europe” by “even the most cultured people.” For instance, it is said that America is the force of the future by virtue of its technology. First, responds Ortega, technology is a European achievement imported by America. Second and more important, people cannot live off technology, which “is a useful, practical precipitate of superfluous, impractical concerns.” America is the epitome of what Ortega most despises, namely, rebellion. Rebellion “consists in not accepting one's own destiny, in rebelling against oneself.” Although Ortega does not say so, one might fairly infer that America rebelled against itself by refusing to be ruled by Europe.

The Revolt of the Masses has over the years been acclaimed as “prophetic” and remarkable in its predictive power. In connection with who rules the world, one naturally looks for what Ortega has to say about Russia. The answer is, not much. The Bolshevik Revolution is a dreary cliché in which “not a single error or defect of previous revolutions has been corrected in the slightest.” Therefore, “what has happened in Russia is of no historical interest.” In any event, revolution or not, the Russians are “living in an age different from ours.” The Russians, like the Americans, are a child-people wearing a historical camouflage. In the case of the Americans the camouflage is technology, in the case of the Russians it is Marxism. “Russia is Marxist in approximately the same measure the Germans in the Holy Roman Empire were Romans.”

This view of the relationship between Russia and Marxism still has adherents today. Solzhenitsyn and many others would not disagree with Ortega's claim that “Russia's strength lies in what is Russian and not in what is Communist.” Unlike Ortega, however, they know that, no matter how ill the match between Russia and Marxism, Marxist Russia has become a force contending for world rule, whereas Ortega believed that Russia “would need centuries” to become such a force, and then it would be such a force because it is Russia and not because it is Communist. Although he had no truck with Communism, Ortega disagreed with those who hoped for the collapse of Bolshevism. “The failure of the Russians would represent a universal failure for one and all, of man as such. Communism is a piece of ‘moral’ extravagance, but it is nonetheless a species of morality.” Rather than hoping for a collapse of “the Slavic morality,” it would be worthier to offer “a new morality for the West, a new program for life on earth.”

But Europe, it would seem, has little to offer since, as Ortega says, “the real problem” is that “Europe has been left without a moral code.” The problem would seem to be insoluble. It forces Ortega back upon his existentialist premise and we come full circle with the proposal that Europe must be Europe. To rule the world is Europe's “circumstance.” It is necessary, and necessity is its own justification. “There is truth in existence only when we feel that our acts are irrevocably necessary.” In his efforts to impose unity, Caesar felt that “subtle, almost mystical” necessity. And so it will be with the formation of the state of Ortega's European nation. “It is pure dynamism—the will to do something in common—and thanks to this feature, the state has no physical limits.” The tragic irony is that in the 1930's others would embrace this vision of “pure dynamism.”

One must ask whether Ortega did not contribute to mass man's insistence upon his right not to give reasons, his embrace of the reason of unreason, the reason of necessity that is its own reason. At an earlier point Ortega affirms that there is no culture where there are no norms and standards by which disputes can be adjudicated. “There is no culture where aesthetic controversy does not recognize the necessity for justifying the work of art.” In the absence of such norms and standards, “there is, in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism.” But surely, if a work of art must be justified, ruling the world must be justified, or else the rulers are barbarians, even if they are Europeans. Yet Europe, according to Ortega, has no moral code, no norms and standards; and the rest of the world has none, either, since all the “imperatives” are European. And thus he falls back upon the necessity of circumstance and pure dynamism which, in a world no longer ruled by Europe, turned out to be a necessity misperceived and a dynamism exhausted.


The Revolt of the Masses remains a classic for many reasons, not least for its classic wrongheadedness. In blaming the masses for what had gone wrong with the world, Ortega was indulging in what has come to be called “blaming the victim.” Treasonous intellectuals complain that those whom they have trained and certified as intellectuals turn out to be traitors to the culture. With respect to who rules the world, the argument might be made that Ortega's mistake was merely in failing to recognize the way in which America would assume the exercise of the European imperatives. Although challenged ideologically and militarily by a Soviet Union perilously seated upon its bayonets, America does today rule in the world in the sense of “exerting an authoritative influence over the whole of it.” But this “circumstance” can hardly be explained as a continuation of Ortega's understanding of the European hegemony.

Yet to the limited extent that America does have a “firm seat” today, it is for reasons quite different from those which Ortega associated with rule. America's is a rule that does not claim a right to rule based in circumstance and necessity, but seeks to justify itself in reason and morality. Moreover, and in sharp contrast to Ortega's anti-idealism, it seeks justification in an idea, the idea of democracy. From the founding period through Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan's “democratic revolution,” it appeals for vindication precisely to those whom Ortega tended to disdain. And, at least formally, it appeals for more final vindication to a higher source from which it believes it has received a moral code.

Ortega claimed that the “spiritual power” of ruling was in the respect that inferiors showed to their natural superiors. The democratic proposition is that such spiritual power is in the respect that rulers show for the ruled, including a readiness to fudge the distinction between ruler and ruled. Of course other, and not always edifying, factors go into ruling the world, factors such as geography, historical accident, and economic and military muscle. In view of how things have turned out so far, however, Ortega's theory and expectations brilliantly depicted the modern world upside down. On the other hand, for Ortega theories were a kind of game in the interplay of reason and historical dynamics and were therefore always revocable. A half-century later the argument of Revolt has been revoked by history, but it remains a scintillating exercise in what might have been and—who knows?—what might have been better.


1 Translated and with an introduction by Anthony Kerrigan, foreword by Saul Bellow, Notre Dame Press, 192 pp., $20.00.

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