Friday, 19 October 2018

Ortega on Cynics, Nihilists, and Fascists

Painting of Diogenes
by John William Waterhouse
There are several passages in The Revolt of the Masses in which José Ortega y Gasset talks about the philosophical thinking and political issues in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages. Here’s an interesting passage in which he is drawing a connection between the ancient cynics and nihilists, and the modern fascists:
The present situation is made more clear by noting what, in spite of its peculiar features, [society] has in common with past periods. Thus, hardly does Mediterranean civilization reach its highest point—towards the 3rd Century B.C.—when the cynic makes his appearance. Diogenes, in his mud-covered sandals, tramps over the carpets of Aristippus. The cynic pullulated at every corner, and in the highest places. This cynic did nothing but saboter the civilization of the time. He was the nihilist of Hellenism, He created nothing, he made nothing. His role was to undo—or rather to attempt to undo, for he did not succeed in his purpose. The cynic, a parasite of civilization, lives by denying it, for the very reason that he is convinced that it will not fail. What would become of the cynic among a savage people where everyone, naturally and quite seriously, fulfils what the cynic farcically considers to be his personal role? What is your Fascist if he does not speak ill of liberty, or your surrealist if he does not blaspheme against art? 
Ortega believed that the intricate political and cultural problems that modern society faces have their roots in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages, and unless we have a good grasp of history we cannot find a viable way for overcoming these problems and clearing the path for society to progress.

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