La Rebelion de las Masas, 1930, by Jose Ortega Y Gasset
There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at the present moment. This fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power….
In order to understand this formidable fact, it is important from the start to avoid bringing to the words “rebellion,” “masses,” and “social power” a meaning exclusively or primarily political. Public life is not solely political, but equally, and even primarily, intellectual, moral, economic, religious; it comprises all our collective habits, including our fashions both of dress and of amusement….
The select man is not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest, but the man who demands more of himself than the rest, even though he may not fulfil in his person those higher exigencies. For there is no doubt that the most radical division that is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection…
I believe that the political innovations of recent times signify nothing less than the political domination of the masses. The old democracy was tempered by a generous dose of liberalism and enthusiasm for law…. Today we are witnessing the triumphs of a hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure….
The present-day writer… has to bear in mind that the average reader, if he reads does so with the view not of learning something from the writer, but rather of pronouncing judgment on him…. 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.
It is precisely because man’s vital time is limited, precisely because he is mortal, that he needs to triumph over distance and delay. For an immortal being, the motor-car would have no meaning.
We live at a time when man believes himself fabulously capable of creation, but he does not know what to create. Lord of all things, he is not lord of himself…. Hence the strange combination of a sense of power and a sense of insecurity….
The mass-man is he whose life lacks any purpose, and simply goes drifting along. Consequently, though his possibilities and his powers be enormous, he constructs nothing. And it is this type of man who decides in our time….
In the schools, which were such a source of pride to the last century, it has been impossible to do more than instruct the masses in the technique of modern life; it has been found impossible to educate them…..
The whole of history stands out as a gigantic laboratory in which all possible experiments have been made to obtain a formula of public life most favorable to the plant “man.” And beyond all possible explaining away, we find ourselves face to face with the fact that, by submitting the seed of humanity to the treatment of two principles, liberal democracy and technical knowledge, in a single century the species in Europe has been triplicated. Such an overwhelming fact forces us, unless we prefer not to use our reason, to draw these conclusions: first, that liberal democracy based on technical knowledge is the highest type of public life hitherto known; secondly, that that type may not be the best imaginable, but the one we imagine as superior to it must preserve the essence of those two principles; and thirdly, that to return to any forms of existence inferior to that of the 19th century is suicidal.
Now it turns out–and this is most important–that this world of the 19th and early 20th centuries not only has the perfections and the completeness which it actually possesses, but furthermore suggests to those who dwell in it the radical assurance that tomorrow it will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneous, inexhaustible power of increase…. This leads us to note down in our psychological chart of the mass-man of today two fundamental traits: the free expansion of his vital desires, and therefore, of his personality; and his radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence. These traits together make up the well-known psychology of the spoilt child….
They are only concerned with their well-being, and at the same time the remain alien to the cause of that well-being. As they do not see, behind the benefits of civilization, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight, they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.
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 does 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)…
The world as organized by the 19th century, when automatically producing a new man, has infused into him formidable appetites and powerful means of every kind for satisfying them…. After having supplied him with all these powers, the 19th century has abandoned him to himself, and the average man, following his natural disposition, has withdrawn into himself…. The masses are incapable of submitting to direction of any kind…. It is illusory to imagine that the mass-man of today, however superior his vital level may be compared with that of other times, 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.
It is not a question of the mass-man being a fool. On the contrary, today he is more clever, has more capacity of understanding than his fellow of any previous period…. This is what in my first chapter i laid down as the characteristic of our time; not that the vulgar believes itself super-excellent and not vulgar, but that the vulgar proclaims and imposes the rights of vulgarity, or vulgarity as a right.
The type of man dominant today is a primitive one… he does not see the civilization of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of his soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible, character of civilization, and does not extend his enthusiasm for the instruments to the principles which make them possible.
Tags: Jose Ortega y Gasset