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Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses (excerpt)

gasset.jpg (12357 bytes)We do not know what is happening to us, and this is precisely what is happening to us, not to know what is happening to us: the man of today is beginning to be disoriented with respect to himself, d�pays�, he is outside of his country, thrown into a new circumstance that is like a terra incognita. (1926)

The Spanish essayist and philosopher, Jos� Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), was born in Madrid of a patrician family. He was educated at a Jesuit college and the University of Madrid, where he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1904. Ortega spent the next five years at German universities in Berlin and Leipzig and at the University of Marburg. Appointed professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid in 1910, he taught there until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war in 1936. He was also active as a journalist and as a politician. In 1923 he founded the Revista de occidente, a review of books that was instrumental in bringing Spain in touch with Western, and specifically German thought. Ortega's work as editor and publisher helped end Spain's isolation from contemporary western culture.

Ortega led the republican intellectual opposition under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923-1936), and he played a role in the overthrow of King Alfonso XIII in 1931. Elected deputy for the province of Le�n in the constituent assembly of the second Spanish republic, he was the leader of a parliamentary group of intellectuals know as La Agrupaci�n al servicio de la rep�blica ("In the service of the republic") and was named civil governor of Madrid. Such a commitment obliged him to leave Spain at the outbreak of the Civil War, and he spent years of exile in Argentina and Europe. He settled in Portugal in 1945 and began to make visits to Spain. In 1948 he returned to Madrid and founded the Institute of Humanities, at which he lectured.

A prolific writer, Ortega was the head of the most productive school of thinkers Spain had known for more than three centuries and helped place philosophy beyond the reach of a centuries-old reproach that it was somehow un-Spanish, and therefore dangerous.

What follows are excerpts from his influential work on social theory, The Revolt of the Masses, first published in 1930.

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There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at its present moment. The fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest general crisis that can afflict peoples, nations and civilization.

Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is "mass" or not. 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.

The mass believes that it has the right to impose and to give force of law to motions born in the caf�. I doubt whether there have been other periods of history in which the multitude has come to govern more directly than in our own.

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. As they say in the United States: "to be different is to be indecent." 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.

It is illusory to imagine that the mass-man of to-day will be able to control, by himself, the process of civilization. I say process, and not progress. The simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers. Ill-fitted to direct it is this average man who has learned to use much of the machinery of civilization, but who is characterized by root-ignorance of the very principles of that civilization.

The command over the public life exercised today by the intellectually vulgar is perhaps the factor of the present situation which is most novel, least assimilable to anything in the past. At least in European history up to the present, the vulgar had never believed itself to have "ideas" on things. It had beliefs, traditions, experiences, proverbs, mental habits, but it never imagine itself in possession of theoretical opinions on what things are or ought to be. To-day, on the other hand, the average man has the most mathematical "ideas" on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence he has lost the use of his hearing. Why should he listen if he has within him all that is necessary? There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which he does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his "opinions."

But, is this not an advantage? Is it not a sign of immense progress that the masses should have "ideas," that is to say, should be cultured? By no means. The "ideas" of the average man are not genuine ideas, nor is their possession culture. Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them, a series of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. These standards are the principles on which culture rests. I am not concerned with the form they take. What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no standards to which our fellow-man can have recourse. There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal. There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred. There is no culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture where aesthetic controversy does not recognize the necessity of justifying the work of art.

When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not deceive ourselves, this is what is beginning to appear in Europe under the progressive rebellion of the masses. The traveler knows that in the territory there are no ruling principles to which it is possible to appeal. Properly speaking, there are no barbarian standards. Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.

Under Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the "reason of unreason." Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the masses, due to their having decided to rule society without the capacity for doing so. In their political conduct the structure of the new mentality is revealed in the rawest, most convincing manner. The average man finds himself with "ideas" in his head, but he lacks the faculty of ideation. He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideals live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words.

To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with appealing to such an authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and its decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed. But the mass-man would feel himself lost if he accepted discussion, and instinctively repudiates the obligation of accepting that supreme authority lying outside himself. Hence the "new thing" in Europe is "to have done with discussions," and detestation is expressed for all forms of intercommunication, which imply acceptance of objective standards, ranging from conversation to Parliament, and taking in science. This means that there is a renunciation of the common life of barbarism. All the normal processes are suppressed in order to arrive directly at the imposition of what is desired. The hermeticism of the soul which, as we have seen before, urges the mass to intervene in the whole of public life.

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