Man and His Circumstances: Ortega as Educator

by Robbie McClintock

¡Pensar en Grande!

Ortega, remarks in the discussion of "Pasado y porvenir para el hombre actual," at the conference "La connaissance de l'homme au xxe siècle," Rencontres internationales de Genève, 1951, as printed in Hombre y cultura en el siglo XX, pp. 351-2.

In this half-light in which the very principles of our civilization have disappeared beneath the horizon, we must try to see things clearly. Every crepuscule ... is a light that can be equally either the last hour of the day or the beginning of the dawn. Therefore it divides us into two groups: on one side there are those whom I call the "vespertine," who believe that all is concluding, and on the other there are those who believe, like myself, that it is necessary to be "matutinal." This is not pessimism, but the contrary. It is the announcement that something great is going to begin: that is to say, it is not yet here, it is not yet known, it is still problematical and difficult; and for persons who accept life only as a convenience, it is still dead. But any man whose veins throb with a bit of blood has a need for the opposite: a perpetual inconvenience and inquietude, and, with an imperative sense of creation, a going towards something new. These new principles are not Utopian matters, they have here and now begun to be.

Ortega

¡Pensar En Grande!

Sensitive, capable youths are being oppressed by a mood of déja vu; we have already seen and rejected the obvious options before us and our minds are swollen by a plethora of abstractions that blot from view our authentic, novel possibilities. As a consequence, those who might be the fount of a significant future are turning to the bizarre, the extreme, and the frivolous. Why not? In the absence of stirring aspirations, extravagance is next best, for at least it permits an exuberant examination of all modes of modishness. But unstructured experiments at living by turned-on imaginations have their own discontents; and when the rock group, the Jefferson Airplane, closed their high-flying version of Alice in Wonderland with the insistent suggestion— "FEED YOUR HEAD!"—they may unwittingly have been pushing a stimulant more lasting and humanizing than pot or LSD.

We are starving from mental malnutrition because we have been fed a steady diet of indigestible abstractions. Most ideas recommended as very important matters are useless in an individual effort to form one's personal character; yet one's character, not the ubiquitous abstractions, is what each person is destined to live with and by. The young are not anti-intellectuals—far from it! For them, intellect has ceased to be the sum of disembodied truths about things out there. Intellect is the intellect of each person, the sum of skills and principles that each has mastered and that each can bring to bear in continually making his encounters with the world and other people as significant, just, and joyful as possible. In this sense, intellect thrives on principles, not abstractions; yet academe has lost itself in abstractions and offers mainly these.

Principles are unapologetically mere conceptions that men are free to use hie et nunc to guide their actual acts in the flesh and blood immediacy of life. Abstractions, in contrast, serve to define within the immediacy of particular lives a more inclusive, diffuse sphere of activity in which both natural and civic processes seem to follow courses all their own. Here is the difference: a man may have recourse to principles as he sires and raises a child, whereas officials must rely on abstractions if they are to resolve problems of overpopulation. The malaise is not that we lack abstractions by means of which we can define significant public problems: we have been surfeited as pundits pronounce on the problems of population, peace, poverty, progress, and pollution. But the more immediate problem, which is felt by those who combine a generous impulse with critical awareness, is that these and other serious difficulties are defined in ways that make it almost impossible for any particular person to act on them out of principle with any definite, significant effect.

Abstract generalities about pressing problems of public affairs do not define a Kinderland. The constant call to public action does little to help any man define his personal aspirations with respect to the definite realities of his life. In our actual lives, the great, established institutions—the corporation, union, church, school, and state—are all too often experienced as imperious, bumbling intruders. Thus men have ceased to experience the state as a mere idea, a hope, that they can freely use in their personal lives to orient their independent activities. Instead, men have grown accustomed to experiencing the state as a deficient monolith, a magisterial entity beset by overriding needs. Hence authority is on the verge of dissolution, for a deficient monolith is absurd. Delenda est imperium! Sentient men cannot live as self-respecting human beings by solely aspiring to solve abstract difficulties, those of the public and its problems, the one that, as officials might say, "functional analyses and statistical projections reveal as threats to the viability of the complex, dynamic processes that sustain modern societal and economic systems." Ecce homo! Our task is to nurture our spontaneity and to channel it towards a Kinder/and of common, personal significance.


See La idea de principia en Leibniz,1948, 1958, Obras VIII, pp. 281–5.

Emerson, "Politics," Works, Vol. 1, p. 368.

We reach the climax of Ortega's thought. Throughout his later works, he spread prophetic utterances inviting men to turn away from concern for sustaining the established order and to join in founding radically new forms of life. Recently, we have become surfeited by the frivolous use of such phrases by professional puffers and are nearly incapable of seriously contemplating substantial changes in our way of life. We expect the newness of the new to be described in attractive detail and our empirical sensibility rebels at expecting the unexpected. Those modern augurs, the futurologists, assure us that the year 2000 will be much more like 1970 than 1984. Ortega, instead, foresaw aspects of the future, not by projecting present trends ahead, but by anticipating trends that were not now present. He called explicit attention to the radicalism of his views, for his radicalism, which was based on the only real radicalism possible, a philosophical revision of first principles, was easily overlooked. If first principles were transformed, a coherent yet spontaneous transformation of everything else becomes probable especially in the seemingly fundamental realm of politics. This Emerson understood: "the history of the State sketches in coarse outline the progress of thought, and follows at a distance the delicacy of culture and aspiration."

The twentieth century was a time of true transition into a yet unknown, indeterminate way of living, Ortega believed. The external forms of living that would characterize the coming era might be as different from those of the nineteenth century as were the concerns of the nineteenth from those of the thirteenth. Real change was afoot. Anything could happen. Men no longer had faith in the realities in the midst of which their predecessors had for millennia lived. All was possible, even stasis. Faith in a new reality might spontaneously develop, bringing an unexpected transformation in its train, or one or another relic of the outworn authorities might use the state to impose a sterile, empty order on the world. The state might overwhelm our spirit. Our spirit might rise above the state. There was no assurance of anything, except whatever would happen, be it renewal or collapse, would happen because of what each man did freely, responsibly, and finally in the particular life he lived.

"Pedagogía y anacronismo," 1923, Obras III, p. 133.

Ortega rejected any claim that the established order deserved positive allegiance. He equally denied any assertion that the established order merited negative opposition. Western man was in the midst of another great, historic transformation; in the face of the impending metamorphosis, the course of events with respect to established institutions paled into insignificance. Involvement in the state, with it or against it, could end only in statism. The significant developments depended on how each cultivated his own character; and to direct attention to this concern, Ortega was quite willing to slight traditional conceptions of public affairs. In his late work, the former political commentator was silent about practical events. He barely mentioned World War II or the Cold War; and despite his strongly voiced interest in a supranational mode of life, he showed no concern for the Marshall Plan, NATO, or the United Nations. A remark from the 1920's perfectly characterizes his later attitude: "I hope that our century will react against the belittling of educative work. There will arrive in Europe an exemplary devaluation of all politics. Having been in the first rank of human preoccupations, it will decline in status and end as the lowliest. And to everyone it will be evident that it is politics that must adapt itself to pedagogy, which will then achieve its sublime and proper goals."

Una interpretación de la historia universal, 1948, 1960, Obras IX, p. 155.

A social order could be legitimate, Ortega contended, only when founded on a living faith, a common belief about the character of reality. Only from a shared belief about reality could a system of reasoned discourse about common problems gain sufficient authority to harmonize—freely, without external compulsion—the conflicting interests of men. In the absence of a common belief, even the best intentioned, most scrupulously legal rule could do nothing but force its will upon men who did not share the beliefs of those in power. Since men in the industrial world lacked a concord about fundamental realities, no system of rule was legitimate and there was no way to legitimate any system of rule until one or another conception of reality spontaneously became a common belief. The illegitimacy of the present order, however, did not legitimate disobedience, dis-obedience, which in a paradoxical way affirmed the established order. "The very first thing that is to be done with illegitimacy is to swallow it." One wastes one's effort warring against a doomed order, for the cause of the doom is not in the strength of those who oppose the order, but in the weaknesses of the order itself: hence many an ancient regime has preserved itself by sucking vigor from its vocal opponents.

For Ortega, all systems of order were radically illegitimate; none had an iota of power to make itself legitimate, for the source of the illegitimacy was not in the government, but in the people, in their lack of common beliefs about fundamental matters. Consequently, the upshot of Ortega's theory of illegitimacy was not an engage argument, one holding that all governments were illegitimate, but that some were less illegitimate than others and that these might, given support, evolve into legitimate ones. Such reasoning, which persuaded Merleau-Ponty and Sartre to support Soviet communism, carried no weight with Ortega. No government could cause itself or be caused to become legitimate, for legitimacy rested on authentic beliefs of the people, not on attributes of the government. The lack of such beliefs could not be solved by any form of group manipulation, for even though men could be temporarily forced to profess allegiance or momentarily beguiled into believing that they believed, a living, enduring faith existed only as an unmoved mover.

Ibid., pp, 224–5,

Faith could not be produced in others; each man, on communing with himself, found that deep within him, either he had it or he did not. In a time of disbelief, men could only search within themselves. Thus, the illegitimacy that Ortega found characteristic of our time did not justify aggravating the unscrupulous competition between groups for the control of organized force; rather it showed the competition to be null. Contemporary illegitimacy threw each man back upon himself; it drove each man to seek out his beliefs and to manifest these in his personal conduct of life. "! have nothing to do with politics and nothing of what I speak is political, but something enormously more profound and more grave than all politics."

Let us soar free with Ortega. We are in the midst of a radical transvaluation of values. Reality itself is changing. Hence, in the interim, man has no authority outside himself upon which he can rely for justification; each determines what it is that he shall stand for, and that determination is final: for good or ill, it is the ethic he will have lived by in the reality of his life. Life is self-realization, and to realize one's best self one needs to recognize his endeavor as an exuberant, sporting lark. This joviality was the very essence of the transvaluation of values that Ortega foresaw. The serious could not stand against the expedient; values could be upheld only for the joy of it. The established order harbored little joy; if left alone, it would fall into disuse as more and more men found it void. But Ortega did not see the old order tumbling in a dramatic collapse; Rome no more fell in a day than it was built in a day. Although the old would persist, a new order would ineluctably emerge as persons recognized that the demands of the old were illegitimate and turned within themselves, searching for ways to perfect their immediate lives.

Men will develop a new order through self-education. Historic spontaneity is a function of man's capacity for self-culture. The configuration of the future will develop as diverse persons take responsibility for themselves and develop in themselves qualities that, by their exemplarity, will become the basis of a new system. In the end, Europe is not for the Europeans; the Europeans, whomever they may be, will make Europe. To change our world we must discover how to change ourselves; and if we learn to change ourselves, no power on earth or in the heavens can prevent us from changing our world. Here is Ortega's optimism: self-education is the most fundamental of all historic determinants. It is a fact of life: each man is individually free to orient all his cultural surroundings to the concern of self-formation. By doing so, Ortega thought, men would break with the familiar line of development. Progress would cease to mean improving the institutionalized performance of economic, social, and political functions. The national histories that stretched from the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment up to our recent past would close. With this break, men would rediscover that to live was to aspire to an uncertain future.

Needless to say, one could criticize the anticipation of such a crisis as the advocacy of cultural discontinuity. Ortega was not awed by institutions or offices; he was willing to see venerated ones decline, contract, and disappear. In matters of civilization, too, he was venturesome: he foresaw a marked revision in the hierarchy of valuations that underlay contemporary materialism. But even in his most apocalyptic moments, Ortega did not advocate historical discontinuity.

Previously, Western man had experienced historic changes as sharp as those that Ortega envisaged; yet there remained a Western tradition. In precisely that fact one touched on the true genius of the men who had made Western history: they never gave themselves over entirely to a single way of life, to a static set of institutions, or to an unchanging pattern of thought. Historical continuity does not require stasis; the deeper one sinks one's roots the higher one can raise one's character and stand steady in the midst of howling change. Ortega showed no frivolous anti-intellectualism; unlike those who feel that their most banal surroundings are naturally new, he held that the men who could make their future were the ones who could master their past. To the degree that in his late writings he ignored the present and prophesied about the future, he studied his past, especially the record of classical politics and philosophy, for continuity would be created in the course of change by men who understood the principles of their predecessors.

"Pasado y porvenir para el hombre actual," 1951, 1962, Obras IX, p. 661.

In believing that Ortega argued for a break with his tradition, one not only misinterprets Ortega, one more seriously misunderstands the continuity characteristic of our tradition. When Ortega asserted that "Western civilization has died! Long live Western civilization!" he asserted the very opposite of historical discontinuity. There is no continuity in stasis. A tradition, like a bicycle, is stable only when moving. The culture by which men have lived in the West rests on the principle of the infinite profundity of the person. When the chips were down, the human person has always been considered to be greater than any of his creations. The fixity of external characteristics has continually given way to transformations in internal character. What binds Socrates, Jesus, Abelard, Sir Thomas More, and Albert Schweitzer is not the government they recognized, the ways they earned a living, similarities in their choice of friends, the conventions they heeded, or their style of dress; they are bound together by their willingness to think through their convictions and to live or die in fidelity to their conclusions. Up to now in the West, institutions have remained protean forms, allowing any person who has the will to break loose, not without cost but with effect, to explore the endless possibilities of his character. As a consequence, each man in each successive generation has found himself with a richer heritage to draw from and with greater goals to aspire to, should he so wish it.

Institutional discontinuity has been the price of characterological continuity. Should our external way of life become fixed, then we will deprive our progeny, each one in his particularity, of the glorious quest for the whole man, for the fullness of life, that we have inherited from our forebears. The continuity of our culture develops from an eternal recurrence. Our culture continually comes back to life when particular men find themselves unable to rely satisfactorily on the established externals. Our culture will die only when the established externals are exalted mindlessly into rigid molds for human conduct. Hence, to see Ortega's disdain for existent institutions as a desire to renounce the accomplishments of ages is unjust. Quite the contrary. The surest way to renounce our past is to be content with our present, to elevate a passing instant into a timeless standard, and to be so dull as to be unable to imagine a world in which great nations and immense industries had become minor matters. Continuity is an attribute of change; and to appreciate our fatherland, we need the strength to aspire to our Kinderland.

Heraclitus, Fragment 45 (OK), Wheelwright trans., Heraclitus, Fr. 42, p. 56.

Western history has been dynamic because the men who made it shared a conviction, well expressed by Heraclitus, that the human spirit is infinitely deep and inexhaustible. In the face of each person's profundity, no particular way of life can claim finality. "You could not discover the limits of soul, even if you traveled every road to do so; such is the depth of its meaning." This conviction has been a standing invitation to each man in every age to plumb his spirit ever more deeply. So far, whenever our forefathers seemed to settle onto a static level of life, this invitation has been courageously renewed.

So it was by Ortega. Surveying the existing forms of civilization, he found them exhausted; the going patterns of politics, science, and art offered little hope to any particular person that he could travel further through them towards the limits of soul. As a result, Western man had begun to doubt the forms of his civilization, which was a most healthy sign, for civilization did not die from doubt. Let us free ourselves from servile attendance to sterile forms. Let us return to the Heraclitean spirit. Let us have faith that man is more than his accomplished works. When present forms were exhausted, the past and the future invited men to invent new ones. Facing his audience, as he had done at Bilbao over forty years before, the aged master again invited the young to meet the challenge before which their elders were faltering.

We have arrived at a moment, ladies and gentlemen, in which we have no other solution than to invent, and to invent in every order of life.

I could propose no task more delightful. One must invent! Well then! You the young—lads and lasses.

Go to it!

Ortega
"Pasado y porvenir para el hombre actual,"
1951, 1962, Obras IX, p. 663.