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.