Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Revolt of the Masses

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy. In his best known book The Revolt of the Masses, he defends the values of meritocratic liberalism against the attacks of communists and fascists. He is critical of the ordinary masses and is horrified by the idea that they may attain political power.

He begins his book by asserting that the rise of the masses is the greatest crisis that Europe faces. “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 crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilization. Such a crisis has occurred more than once in history. Its characteristics and its consequences are well known. So also is its name. It is called the rebellion of the masses.” (Chapter 1, "The Coming of the Masses")

Ortega upheld “a radically aristocratic interpretation of history.” As he explains in Chapter 2, “The Rise of the Historic Level”: “Radically, because I have never said that human society ought to be aristocratic, but a great deal more than that. What 1 have said, and still believe with ever-increasing conviction, is that human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.”

In Chapter 7, “Noble Life and Common Life, or Effort and Inertia,” he establishes the difference in the character of the “mass-man” and the “noble man” and reveals his debt to the Ancient Greek thinkers:

"The mass-man would never have accepted authority external to himself had not his surroundings violently forced him to do so. As today his surroundings do not so force him, the everlasting mass-man, true to his character, ceases to appeal to other authority and feels himself lord of his own existence. 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. Let us recall that at the start we distinguished the excellent man from the common man by saying that the former is the one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter the one who makes no demands on himself, but contents himself with what he is, and is delighted with himself. 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 docs 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. Noblesse oblige. “To live as one likes is plebeian; the noble man aspires to order and law ” (Goethe)."

After a few paragraphs, Ortega specifies why the mass-man is not noble: “For me, then, nobility is synonymous with a life of effort, ever set on excelling itself, in passing beyond what one is to what one sets up as a duty and an obligation. In this way the noble life stands opposed to the common or inert life, which reclines statically upon itself, condemned to perpetual immobility, unless an external force compels it to come outside itself. Hence we apply the terms mass to this kind of man—not so much because of his multitude as because of his inertia.”

Ortega blames the rise of mass-men on three factors which came together in the 19th century: “liberal democracy, scientific experiment, and industrialism.” His description of the mass man and noble man is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s contrast between the “overman” and the general mass of humanity. He recognizes that the progress of human civilization requires people who are striving to achieve transcendent goals. The noble man, who is motivated by transcendental goals, is, according to Ortega, truly alive, whereas the mass man is decadent and spiritless.

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