José Ortega y Gasset on Self-Satisfaction and Specialization

Thomas Bertonneau’s latest essay discusses José Ortega y Gasset’s most well-known work.

José Ortega y Gasset on Self-Satisfaction and Specialization

by Thomas F. Bertonneau

The Revolt of the Masses (1930) by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), like many books openly critical of modern trends, was once celebrated and judged to be something of a contemporary classic, but it has gradually, over the last four or five decades, vanished from awareness even among the supposedly educated. I read it for the first time in the early 1970s when I pursued (rather fitfully, I confess) my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles. The College Library possessed two copies, an indication of how widely the book circulated in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Were one to canvass today’s English or History faculties, familiarity with Ortega’s book would likely be non-existent; it would be a rare incident even if so much as the name Ortega registered with humanities professors in their thirties and early forties.

The Revolt nevertheless speaks to the present moment with increasing pertinence, as do many similar books of its day, such as Oswald Spengler’s Hour of Decision (1934) and Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952), which likewise have lost all currency. The Revolt also describes those who know not of it and who think that knowledge is circumscribed by the syllabus of their graduate studies. The Revolt illuminates a remark made by Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier in their Manifesto for a European Renaissance (2012): “Modernity has given birth to the most empty civilization mankind has ever known.” Two chapters of The Revolt offer themselves as especially relevant to the situation of the West in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century — “The Self-Satisfied Age” and “The Barbarism of Specialization.” First, however, a brief summary of Ortega’s general argument is in order.

The late Nineteenth Century, according to Ortega, saw the sudden rise in Europe of economies of abundance. This mounting wealth resulted, in the first part of the Twentieth Century, in mass man, a social and cultural phenomenon that adapted itself, but in no positive way, to the advent of material ease and comfort. Mass man reaped the benefits of a civilization to which he had in no way contributed, which he failed to understand, and which he took entirely for granted, identifying it as the natural background to his existence. By the power number alone, mass man, in Ortega’s phrase, intervenes everywhere, breaking down the hierarchical aspects of society and culture, while assimilating to himself — that is, to his limitation and incapacity — every institution. Mass man undertakes no projects, but contents himself with diversion. If he were to labor, it would be reluctantly, without commitment, and for the sake of diversion. Ortega defines mass man as “he whose life lacks any purpose, and simply goes drifting along.” This Homo novus has proliferated with such celerity that he overwhelmed any possibility of education. Thus, in Ortega’s words, “heap after heap of human beings have been dumped onto the historical scene at such an accelerated state, that it has been difficult to saturate them with traditional culture.” Mass man experiences a privative consciousness bereft of history, ignorant of the ancestors, and by tendency self-centered. He is egocentric in the extreme, in fact, but with the codicil that his ego remains at an infantile level of development.

A key to grasping mass man, Ortega argues, lies in the discovery of his most fundamental assumption concerning himself, namely that he is “exempt from restrictions.” Mass man also takes a stance of “radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible his existence,” a disposition related to his lack of any historical perspective or knowledge. Whereas “the ordinary man of past times was daily taught… elemental wisdom by the world about him,” because instability continually unbalanced that world; yet, “the new masses find themselves in the presence of a prospect full of possibilities, and furthermore, quite secure, with everything ready to their hands, independent of any previous efforts on their part.” This almost automatic proffering of goods and services in response to mere whim provokes in mass man “the psychology of the spoilt child.” The child of indulgence confidently presumes his priority over everyone else, and his superiority to anyone who thwarts, or attempts to thwart, him in his desires. He “makes no demands on himself, but contents himself with what he is, and is delighted with himself.” Ortega’s phrase — “full of possibilities” — requires qualification. The range of “possibilities” that interests mass man remains quite narrow. What one specimen of mass man wants, every other specimen of mass man also wants. Mass man brings an unprecedented conformity and homogeneity to his milieu.

These trends, including the abrupt dominance of this new, vague variety of human being, have expressed themselves, as Ortega puts it in one of his chapter titles, in “A Self-Satisfied Age.” Let it be said that the label that applied justly to the civilizational scene of Europe in 1930 applies no less justly, but with greater justice than ever, to the civilizational scene of North America ninety years later. Ortega could be sketching a portrait, for example, of the typical college freshman of 2020 in one of the state systems of (so-called) higher education, or of a self-declared “expert” prattling about this, that, or another thing on one of the cable news channels. The current chapter of modernity — or of “post-modernity,” as it preeningly calls itself — is undoubtedly ten times as self-satisfied, as entitled and narcissistic, as its precursor-chapter. What, then, are the basic characteristics of a “Self-Satisfied Age” or, rather, of the constituent personality of that Age? Ortega draws from his previous analysis three chief traits: “An inborn, root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, [and] without any grave limitations”; “contentment with himself [as he is that] leads [mass man] to shut himself off from any external court of appeal”; and a tendency “[to] intervene in all matters, imposing [his] vulgar views without respect or regard for others.” Ortega unites these traits, while emphasizing the third trait or vulgarity, under the damning etiquette of “spiritual barbarism.” Because “all life is the struggle, the effort to be itself,” and because mass man never struggles, but only revels in diversion, spirit or self has no inward grounds on which it might consolidate or exercise itself. It never appears.

The mass man of either the 1930s or the 2020s would not acknowledge the reality of what the word spirit invokes. He has learned in his schooling, or rather in his indoctrination, that physical reality is the sole reality. He participates exclusively in what Ortega calls “the cult of the body” — and thus, “his propensity to make out of games and sports the central occupation of his life,” and his “lack of romance in his dealings with women,” and “his preference for living under an absolute authority rather than under a regime of free-discussion.” Ortega uses the word “romance” in its full, chivalric meaning. Courtship on the traditional model follows a ritual structure informed by spirit. The principle of restraint supplies the form of courtship and originates nowhere else but in spirit. Mass man and his female counterpart, being “exempt from restrictions,” as Ortega remarks, and immersed in corporality, abolish the phase of spiritual communion and avail themselves directly of the physical opportunity. Society urges them to do so. Mass man’s opportunism, no matter whether it is 1930 or 2020, collaborates with his disdain for the “external court of appeal” and his preference for the suppression of debate. “When [the self-satisfied man] becomes the predominant type,” Ortega writes, “it is time to raise the alarm and to announce that humanity is threatened with degeneration, that is, with relative death.” Mass man, in his moral and spiritual deficiency, courts his own inward death (his death-in-life), or rather he never actually grows into the fullness of life, but sacrifices his potential. Ironically, he seeks to stave off his biological death by resorting to the gymnasium and the medicine cabinet.

Ortega asserts that “the tonic that keeps mass man in form is insincerity, ‘the joke.’” Mass man takes nothing seriously except what is essentially banal and in cosmic terms completely unserious. A “Self-Satisfied Age” entails a pervasive mood of disbelief. It also entails a penchant for “farcicality.” Ortega could be describing the existing politics of the Western nations in 2020 when he writes that “almost all the positions taken up and proclaimed are false ones”; and “the only efforts that are being made are to escape from our real destiny, to blind ourselves to its evidence, to be deaf to its deep appeal, to avoid facing up to what has to be.” One might point to the disappearance of genuine curricula in the school and universities. Shakespeare and Cervantes, the one in his plays and the other in his novels, work up a candid anthropology — a study of man that reveals the persistence of human flaws and therefore also the inevitability of the tragic. Shakespeare and Cervantes function in this way as anti-utopians. The university, however, has committed itself to a utopian reorganization of society and civilization, even of human nature itself, never minding that the intellectual consensus on campus denies that such a thing as human nature exists. The professoriate cannot tolerate the anti-utopian science of the Dead-White-Male authors and it acts to scrub them ruthlessly from the reading list. The prevailing mentality — if that were the word — of the university is one of radical corporality. The definition of the human has shrunk to mere physical traits such as skin color and the genitalia. No one is more representative of mass man than a college professor or administrator, and no one is more self-satisfied. To quote a friend, such people blight the genuine study of human existence.

The topic of the professoriate forms a bridge, logically, to Ortega’s discussion of “The Barbarism of Specialization.” In this chapter of The Revolt, Ortega makes the somewhat counter-intuitive claim that mass man finds his prototype in the scientist, as that role modified and institutionalized itself during the period from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. “The development of anything,” Ortega points out, “is not the same as its constitution.” The sciences in the plural — that is, the specializations — have branched off from their trunk, but they remain connected to it, although the practitioners have climbed so far out on their limbs as to lose sight of the axis. In its founding unity, as opposed to its development, science consists in the interconnection, indeed the fusion, of bodies of knowledge into a single body of knowledge. To be true, any scientific claim must, as it were, communicate with the trunk — and with the roots. “Not even empirical science,” Ortega writes, “taken in its integrity, can be true if separated from mathematics, from logic, from philosophy.” With the succession of cohorts, each new practitioner of science, “through having to reduce the sphere of his labour, was progressively losing contact with other branches of science, with that integral interpretation of the universe which is the only thing deserving the names of science, culture, European civilization.” By the end of what to Ortega was the last century, “we meet with a type of scientist unparalleled in history… who, out of all that has to be known in order to be a man of judgment, is only acquainted with one science, and even of that one only knows the small corner in which he is an active investigator.”

Ortega uses the metaphor of the encyclopedia, that collation of knowledge, to pinpoint the specialist in the array of types. The specialist contributes to the encyclopedia, but only to a single entry — or to a single sub-entry of that entry. Of the encyclopedia as a whole, the specialist knows nothing. He advances a science that “he hardly knows,” while remaining “conscientiously ignorant” of any facts beyond the narrow horizons of his diminished awareness. For those few souls who remain conversant with the encyclopedia as a whole, the specialist reserves the contemptuous epithet of “dilettantism.” The specialist’s epistemological isolation, his moral assuredness, and his conviction in himself as “a man who knows,” make him, formally speaking, the pattern of mass man, whose employment, in whatever it consists, also takes place in bureaucratic compartmentalization. When the specialist extends the knowledge-related confidence of his own domain to other domains, which he is wont to do, he behaves like “a learned ignoramus” and “with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special lines.” The specialist submits, not only to the conformism of his institutional niche, but to a general conformism. He has fallen under a renewed pattern of tribal-like totems and taboos, such as the civilized order had previously, after much labor, cast aside. The specialist deserves Ortega’s ascription to him of barbarism because in his mental and moral dispositions he corresponds to the tribesmen of prehistory, living in geographical seclusion, the equivalent of his bureaucratic seclusion, burdened with superstition, and seeing in natural events not the order of law but the arbitrariness of magic.

The social and political epiphenomena associated with the pandemic of 2020 underline the acuity of Ortega’s insights of ninety years past. One thinks only too readily of the endless parade of so-called experts who have, in their half-knowledge and self-satisfied petulance, inexpertly cobbled together the puritanical and totalitarian responses to the disease, shutting down the nation and damaging it economically in ways that might prove irresolvable. One suspects that Ortega, through some weird timeslip, must have been watching Fauci and Birx, Newsom and Cuomo, and all the talking heads of MSLSD, when he wrote: “And such… is the behavior of the specialist,” who “in politics, in art, in social usages… will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man”; and when he added: “By specializing him, civilization has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations… induc[ing] him to wish to predominate outside his speciality.” Science already in 1930 had devolved into scientism. In 2020 that devolution has descended into hadal depths. That what passes itself off as rigorous knowledge is, in fact, only rigid dogma reveals itself in the stern farcicality of the Global Warming hypothesis, which, to defend itself against the cumulus of counter-evidence, has renamed itself the Climate Change hypothesis, a moniker its users that must regard as non-ironic. Even the perverse fantasies of the professoriate — the bizarre claims of “transgenderism,” “structural racism,” “intersectionality,” and all the rest — couch themselves in scientific jargon, as if they were the equivalent of Newton’s laws.

Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books,Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website. For his previous essays, see the Thomas Bertonneau Archives.

19 thoughts on “José Ortega y Gasset on Self-Satisfaction and Specialization

  1. Although I struggled a bit with reading Bertonneau’s article, I get the gist of it. And it’s eye opening that the development of “mass man” has been going on for nigh on 100 years already… or more, since for Ortega to have written extensively about it in the 1930s it must have been brewing for awhile prior to that.

    Let me give a “plug” for a brilliant book right now that deals with truth and postmodernism from a Christian point of view: “Saving Truth – Finding Meaning & Clarity in a Post-Truth World” by the formidable Abdu Murray. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Abdu is an ex-Muslim who is now North America Director of RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries). Fabulous work.

    And for my fellow Christian readers and contributors to this blog: As you know Ravi Zacharias is fighting for his life right now, suffering from inoperable cancer. Doctors have sent him home, there is nothing more they can do. People around the world are praying for him. Please join me in prayer for Ravi – in my estimation one of the greatest Christian teachers and apologists there is (and ever was).

  2. Wow. That was excellent. Will have to get Ortega’s book. Thank you so much.

    • Dear Plum On: Thank you for taking the time to read the essay. Reading Ortega, either The Revolt or other titles will be a rewarding experience for you. Best to you — TFB

  3. @Anne-Kit. One of the lessons that I have learned from my decades-long project of “reading backwards” (that is, rediscovering books that no one reads anymore and reading them) is that the social distortions and the cultural disfigurations that alarm us so when we survey the contemporary scene often have deep historical roots and have been in development (if that were the word) for a long time. Two of my favorite writers, Eric Voegelin and Nicolas Berdyaev, trace the afflictions of modernity as far back as the late medieval period, but no one reads them anymore either!

    I shall certainly join you in prayer for Ravi Zaccharias.

    Thank you for your comment.

    • Eric Voegelins work has really been a revelation. Two other “forgotten” authors I recommend is Aurel Kolnai and Christopher Dawson.

      • I read Voegelin for the first time a few years after I read Ortega, sometime around 1980. My reaction parallels yours: I found Voegelin to be, precisely, a revelation!

  4. I struggled too, while noting that Ortega was not alone; Aldous Huxley’s satire “Brave New World” (1932) considers the future of humanity when dominated by leaders who pander to “Mass man”, if I’ve understood him correctly.

    In defence (?) of the specialists whose word is taken as gospel, it is wellnigh impossible for one individual to encompass the huge, and ever-growing, sum of human knowledge, about ourselves and the planet we inhabit; it was, so to speak, much easier to be a “renaissance man” in the Renaissance! One who has tried, with great distinction, is Jordan Peterson, but he’s gone quiet, I believe due to illness, from which I hope he recovers soon, for his sake (and his family’s) and ours.

    • Orwell’s “2 + 2 = 5” gambit in Nineteen Eighty-Four comes directly out of The Revolt of the Masses, which Orwell must have known. The long epigraph to Brave New World is taken from the writings of Nicolas Berdyaev, who, while writing from a Russian Orthodox perspective has much in common with Ortega. As for the quantity of current scientific knowledge — it seems to me that knowledge is essentially qualitative rather than quantitative. A mass of knowledge that is too massive to be known might stretch the definition of knowledge. Thank you for struggling with my prose — I, too, struggle with it! Sincerely, TFB.

  5. I read somewhere that Peterson has recovered — somewhat, and is at work on a new book. I hope that is true. He is such a distinct and important voice in our lost world.

  6. I thought this culture grew out of mass Welfare and free healthcare. They no longer had to deal with uncertainty and major health problems on a daily basis. Making them lazy and complacent.”the government will provide and solve all my problems I no longer have to solve them myself. I can just enjoy myself playing in the sun like the Eloi in the book The Time machine.” That’s how many live in Australia and occupy their time with ball games. Card games are too cerebral. We’ve never had to deal with a war on our soil.

  7. Thank you, Thomas, that was an excellent review. Whilst I have read Benoist (and with him Faye and others of the Nouvelle Droit) and Spengler, Ortega’s work is new to me and I will be picking up a copy of The Revolt as soon as my bookshop opens again. Rgds, S III.

    • Thank *you,* Seneca. I am now, at the end of the semester, officially retired from teaching, but the teaching impulse has not left me. I like exploring unjustly forgotten books, summarizing them for and recommending them to intelligent people, like those who form the audience of the Baron’s website. My I say, please, that any item with Seneca III in the heading is a must-read for me!

  8. Dear Prof. Bertonneau, that was a brilliant essay. Thank you so much. Going to read it again and again. All the best to you and your family.

  9. Where to begin? Although I understand what can only be described as Ortega’s exasperation at the state of the world he found himself in, the question has to be asked whether the great bulk of humanity, what used to be called the great back of humanity has ever had it within itself to become civilized (as Ortega understood the term). He speaks of the self-satisfied shallowness of Mass Man. Without denying the accuracy of that assessment, isn’t Ortega’s gripe really that the peasants no longer bow to authority? That they no longer acknowledge that there is a hierarchy?

    If the above sounds as though I disagree with Ortega…I don’t. There IS a hierarchy. Which does demand that certain standards be met and maintained. Lacking which there is not even the possibility of civilization.

    Or at least there SHOULD BE such a hierarchy.

    But whether the bulk of humanity can join such a hierarchy, has it within itself to rise and join…that is the question.

    • Ortega was an aristocrat and firmly believed that where no hierarchy was present, no real civilization existed. He praises the feudal structure of the Middle Ages. No doubt he considered the medieval peasantry to be superior to mass man. The peasantry tilled the fields and harvested crop. It had to be in direct touch with nature — and with God. No such praise applies to Ortega’s Mass Man.

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