Man and His Circumstances: Ortega as Educator

by Robbie McClintock

Chapter X — Scarcity and Abundance

La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, p. 210.

Nineteenth-century civilization permitted the average man to settle himself in a wealthy world, of which he perceived only its abundance of resources and none of its afflictions. He encountered about him marvelous implements, beneficial medicines, perspicacious governments, and convenient rights. At the same time he ignored how difficult it was to invent these implements and medicines, and to ensure their production in the future; he did not notice how instable the organization of the state was; and he scarcely felt any obligations in himself. This disequilibrium falsified him and vitiated the sources of his vitality to the extent that he lost contact with the very substance of life; that is, its absolute danger and radical uncertainty.

Ortega

X — Scarcity and Abundance

Europeans had ceased to share a common system of attaching value to the things about them: that was the crisis, the dissolution of concord in the West. Symptoms of the crisis appeared in the way different groups were apt to divergent models; men frequently lionized individuals who were unsuited to integrating a people, and leaders instead divided the community by symbolizing good for some and evil for others. Furthermore, many important excellences were simply scorned, not only by the ignorant, but also by the educated. For this reason, the student of the human sciences could not follow the student of the natural sciences and profess faith in the continuity of nature: during the twentieth century something had gone wrong with "the law of spiritual gravitation," the belief that the average man would necessarily attend disinterestedly to the optimum. One could not assume that man would, like a stone, act in the future as he did in the past. To understand the contemporary anomaly, the prevalence of inaptness throughout Europe, Ortega had to reflect more deeply on the phenomena of exemplarity and aptness.

Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 42–58, Hugh G. Evelyn-White, trans.

Humanists of Ortega's type hold that the animal man has made himself human by discovering mind and using it to order the chaos that he finds both within and around him. Hesiod celebrated how "the gods kept hidden from men the means of life." Alone among the animals, man was born with instincts insufficient for life; and hence that ingenious god-man, Prometheus, stole the light of reason, the fire in a fennel-stalk that enabled man to become a thinking reed. Since then great humanists have reiterated how man is the creature that is at once blessed and cursed with the task of self-definition; by our own efforts we can rise among the angels or sink among the brutes. Believing that man must make of himself whatever he will become, humanists consequently attach peculiar importance to problems of pedagogy and politics.

Aristotle, Politics, I, ii, 1253a; Ill, vi, 1278b.

Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Ch. 13; and Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, Ch. II, No. 6.

See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, ix, 21–3; and Athenian Constitution.

Not all political and pedagogical theorists have been humanists, however. Many revered thinkers have been naturalists with respect to both the physical and the human sciences. Following Aristotle, they have held that social rationality was a natural, inborn attribute of men and that reason was hence a premise, not a problem, for the political philosopher. Thus both Hobbes and Locke postulated that reason was a characteristic of man in the state of nature; consequently reasonableness was a given element of their political philosophy and the problem was simply to devise a system that would allow men to bring this feature of their necessary nature to bear upon their experience. Naturalism in the human sciences leads logically to a primary interest in the particular procedures of various political systems, and from the particulars the theorist will abstract his principles: hence, Aristotle collected constitutions.

Plato, Republic, 423D–E, Jowett, trans. Cf. Rousseau, Emile, in Oeuvres completes, IV, p. 250.

See Plato, Republic, especially 591–592B.

Following the practical ethics of Heraclitus, Socrates, and Plato, however, humanistic political theorists have not presumed that man is by nature a political animal. Men make themselves political animals by creating one or another rational system by which they can organize their common experiences. Humanists find that social rationality is a practical problem rather than a philosophical premise; before providing for political procedures, the lawgiver must create, elaborate, and disseminate a particular system of political reasoning. Hence, virtue is knowledge, the capacity to take part in a rational community, the willingness to abide by artificial, unnecessary standards of reasoning. Consequently, as Rousseau noticed, Plato perfected the polis in his Republic by attending, not to practical procedures, but to pedagogy. Various laws and customs were not "a number of great principles, but trifles all, if care be taken, as the saying is, of the one great thing,—a thing sufficient for our purpose—education and nurture." For the humanist the basic political problem is the question whether virtue can be taught, whether men can learn to reason in common, whether they can develop the will to accept the discipline of reason. The task of social philosophy is not to apply a given, disembodied power of reason to the theoretical rationalization of the community, but to point the way by which each man can bring to fruition his contingent powers of reason so that he can freely and responsibly direct actual public acts. Humanism in the sciences of the spirit leads logically to a primary interest in pedagogy; therefore Plato showed how the only constitution that truly concerned a man was that of his own character.

Philosophy began in wonder, Plato mused in Theaetetus (155D); yet the beginnings in wonder of social philosophy were neutralized by Aristotle's assumption that man is, by nature, a political animal. Men wonder only infrequently about things that come naturally, for wonder is man's amazement that this or that phenomenon should at once be part of a mysterious world and still be so fraught with human significance. All things are natural; hence ascribing things to nature rarely tells us what differentiates the awesome from the ordinary. We wonder at certain things because it strains our credulity to believe that there could be such virtuosity or such solicitude for man in the works of brute nature. Wonder creates that most marvelous interrogative, the one that calls for reasons rather than for facts. Why? Why is the grass green? Why is man a political animal? How dull to answer "by nature," for this answer, like that of an impatient father plagued by a perplexed child, simply suppressed the wonder without providing an explanation of the fact. Man is a political animal—how extraordinary that man is precisely what he must be in order to thrive in the world! Why is it, then, that man is a political animal?

To ask this question is to go beyond the question of current political science—What leaders, symbols, and powers are actually moving men? It is to ask the Platonic question—Why are these leaders, symbols, and powers able to move men? As we observed, the Platonic tradition does not take political rationality as a given; we wonder how the mastery of certain kinds of reasoning conduces to the creation of human communities. Such curiosity led to Plato's profound analysis of the human psyche, its cardinal excellences, and the power of these abilities to create humane associations. Men made themselves political animals by teaching themselves to think in certain ways. With this recognition one learns to approach politics and pedagogy with reverence and awe: men cannot take political capacities for granted. Yet, for the most part the Aristotelian assumption that man is, by nature, a political animal took the mystery from the matter; it discouraged social philosophers from reflecting on the fundamentals of their subject. Thinkers have wondered only sporadically about the marvelous inspiration that prompts men to invent and maintain the cultural creations, the systems of reasoning that have been responsible for their surprising political capacities.

Ortega's philosophic importance results in part, from his effort to reopen these basic questions. In effect, by asking why the masses, men of ordinary character, responded to leadership by the minorities, men of special character, Ortega asked why man was a political animal. In studying exemplarity and aptness and the way it united the minorities and masses in an open community, Ortega inquired into the human characteristics that made politics—that is, leadership—possible. In seeking to discover reasons for the phenomena of politics, Ortega's goal was not to adopt a single explanation and to use it as a principle for constructing the necessarily perfect society. Ortega had a rich sense of human variety; he was not about to proclaim the reason why. He had something more interesting in mind.

Previously, philosophers had postulated that men had entered into a social compact out of desire for either a rule of law or a division of labor. Ortega sought not only to identify such purposes; he wanted to find out why men entertained such purposes, he wanted to understand why ordinary men were apt before the exemplarity of the unknown genius who first conceived of a rule of law or a division of labor. He did doubt, however, that the response to these principles always came about for the same reason. Perhaps there were many potential reasons why men might respond to leadership; perhaps historical crises occurred when men ceased to accept one reason for responding and began to accept leadership according to a different rationale.If this hypothesis proved true, the fundamentals of political philosophy would be integral to any analysis of the European crisis.

See Rousseau, "Discours sur les sciences et les arts," and "De l'inégalité parmi les hommes," passim. For the distinction between animals and men see the last mentioned, Oeuvres complètes, III, p. 142.

To begin with, one might ask what it means to call man a political animal. Among others, Rousseau has shown that it does not mean merely that men live in the company of other men. Many animals live in groups; the company of men, however, has a unique effect on those who partake in it: the company of men leads to their perfection, to the transformation of each into a more potent being. Despite Rousseau's deep concern for the natural man, he insisted that the basis of man's social and cultural existence was that association could lead to the perfecting of natural man. The corruption caused by culture-misconceived came about because man was "perfectible," for better or for worse, when in the company of other men. For Rousseau, the tension between man and society resulted from an unnatural view of society, one that made it an end unto itself. This unnatural society encouraged a tragic perversion, the suppression of natural man, whereas the only true reason for social bonds was the effort of natural man to perfect himself. Human perfection was the goal of community and a society that corrupted its members was ipso facto illegitimate.

España invertebrada, 1921, Obras 111, p. 106, italics omitted.

Ortega put himself very much in the grand tradition when he observed that "a community is an apparatus for perfecting its members." This matter of perfectibility was essential to his conception of exemplarity and aptness; it meant that his inquiry into why man was a political animal was the same as the study of why man was educable. The basic problem of social philosophy proved, as Plato knew, to be pedagogical: when there are several men, why do certain ones respond to the leadership of others, or, in Ortega's language, why are some men apt and others exemplary?

Owing to the fact that most educational theorists are teachers, examinations of pedagogical situations are usually made from the teacher's point of view. This characteristic holds true even for so-called learning theory, which gives a behavioral description of what a psychologist perceives when he trains animals and humans to perform various tasks. At first, Ortega also paid greatest heed to the teacher in his theory of exemplarity and aptness; recall how aptness was a normal attribute of the average person, "an automatic emotion," and how exemplarity was a function of genius. Soon, however, Ortega had to change this emphasis, for he realized, as many teachers do, that profound instruction will not affect souls unwilling to learn.

If one contemplates the nature of aptness, one finds that it is not a merely passive characteristic. Each man is surrounded by a multitude of potential exemplars; hence each man must choose to contemplate this one and to ignore that one. For this reason a science of teaching is impossible, for the teacher does not possess pedagogical power and initiative. Power, initiative, and responsibility devolve on the students, on the masses; he who learns does so as he decides to attend to this teacher and to that exemplar. Taking these facts into account, one can no longer see exemplarity and aptness as an automatically effective system. The duty of potential minorities was still to perfect their excellences; but the masses could never be merely receptive, a dumb herd blindly forced to follow their shepherd to the shears: the masses willingly committed social power to a chosen few.

What made a man a leader? The masses did by agreeing to follow. This observation permitted important questions to be refined. In asking why man was a political animal, Ortega asked primarily why the average man agreed to follow a particular leader. And in asking why one man agreed to follow another, Ortega found that he had to inquire into the way the follower perceived himself and his circumstances.

Certain views of life, certain patterns of perceiving one's self and one's circumstances, prompted the masses to be apt and to grant allegiance, social power, to the authentic exemplars of the time, to the men of noble, progressive excellence. Other views of life would lead to inaptness, which encouraged the masses to give social power to men of no special worth. Thus, initiative had been shifted from the teacher to those taught. To find why political leadership—civic pedagogy or the system of exemplarity and aptness—would or would not work, one needed to study the character of the masses, to inspect the system from the point of view of the learners. How did life appear to the masses? In particular, was there anything in this appearance that would make the self-satisfied person apt, that would prompt him to present the authentic exemplars with social power?

La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, p. 149.

Ortega addressed himself to these questions in The Revolt of the Masses. Through his answers, he diagnosed the problem of leadership in Europe, which prepared him for his second voyage in which he would seek a cure for the problem of leadership. In a normal community the average person would be the apt student of various excellent types. In a crisis, an abnormal situation, the excellent types were ignored and the community ceased to operate as an apparatus for perfecting its members. Ortega contended that, until recently, European history had described a community that was by and large normal; Western leaders had been effective because men of ordinary character, the masses, attended to the excellent. Something had changed, however. To find what it was, Ortega took the perspective of the average man, to see the show from the inside."10 He looked for a view of life that would suggest aptness to the unprepossessing person. He found one, and another view that would give rise to inaptness.


Ibid,, pp. 180, 180, 165, 191–2.

"To start with, we are what our world invites us to be." The world that a man perceived ineluctably pressed its features into the character he formed in response. To live was to deal with one's circumstances i and thus the world was the sum of impressions that a man received in dealing with the circumstances he found himself in. During the past—for the situation had recently changed—almost everyone had discovered that the world offered them only a narrow range of possibilities. Therefore, the world invited men to become aware of their limitations: "round about him the average man encountered difficulties, dangers, scarcities, limitations of destiny and dependence" that he could neither avoid nor surmount. As a consequence of perceiving scarcity and difficulty in life, the mass man became aware of his dependence on . those who were more competent than himself; hence he became apt and was willing to accept authorities external to himself. "Before anything, our life is our continuous consciousness of what is possible for us"; and in the past men were, at every instant, aware that it was possible to encounter some crushing difficulty. Man's perception of life as an arduous undertaking culminated in "the supreme generosity," liberal democracy, in which the masses freely gave their power to the minorities that offered the best "programs."

Ortega found that a deceptively simple stimulus had traditionally prompted the masses to agree to follow the competent minorities. Throughout most of Western history, leadership had normally been possible because the pedagogy of scarcity had made the masses apt. The contemporary crisis, the abnormal situation, had arisen when the pedagogy of scarcity was so successful that men created a stable, abundant environment. Such a world invited the masses to be inapt. In this way, the very success of industrial democracy caused the European crisis.

Ibid., p. 182,

Scarcity and abundance had decisive effects on a community of exemplars and their connoisseurs. Under any circumstances, exemplarity took care of itself. The special or "noble" man, as Ortega called the exemplar in The Revolt of the Masses, naturally sought to serve something greater than himself. The noble life was never easy: the essence of nobility was service to a demanding ideal—be the ideal ethical as with Plato's philosopher-kings, erotic as with the noble knights of chivalric romance, or cultural as with the "noble man" of Nietzsche. If a man of noble spirit was not invited by his world to transcendent service, then he would invent a new, more demanding standard to which he would aspire sportfully. "This is life as a discipline—the noble life. Nobility is defined by duty, by obligations, not by rights. Noblesse oblige. 'To live as one likes is plebeian; the noble aspires to order and law,' Goethe." In defending the ideal of nobility Ortega did not in the least call for the preservation of privileges; he asked that men preserve their commitment to trying tasks. A remnant always would; and hence in this formulation the exemplar was no longer a problem because he would automatically create himself whenever a man put great demands upon himself.

Ibid., pp. 146, 183, 208.

But noble pedagogues were not alone sufficient; bitter experience had taught Ortega that if exemplars were to have any beneficial influence, they had to be invested with social power by the masses. At this point in a community based on exemplarity and aptness, scarcity became significant. Left to themselves, mass men were inert; "they require nothing special of themselves because they found that to live was to be at each instant what they already were: buoys, which, without effort at perfecting themselves, go wherever they drift." Owing to his inertia, the common man would not present social power to the exemplar unless an external force moved him to do so. The noble was autonomous, the mass conditioned. "Nobility is synonymous with the vigorous life, always set on surpassing itself, on transcending from what presently is towards what is intended as a duty and obligation. In this manner, the noble life stands opposed to the common or inert life, which statically secludes itself within itself, condemned to a perpetual immanence until an exterior force compels it to come out of itself." In past times this superior force had been the rigor of the world; scarcity compelled the common man to confront the danger of life and to heed the example of his betters. Hence, the best situation for perfecting human life was in "struggling with scarcity."

Ibid., pp. 180, 176.

In scarcity Ortega found the explanation why exemplarity and aptness had functioned rather effectively throughout most of European history. Without reference to the historical condition of an exacting environment, his conception of community lacked an explanation that could show why the apt had normally accepted leadership by the exemplary. Thus, in Invertebrate Spain he had fallen back on the dubious assertion that aptness was a law of spiritual gravitation and a feature of a normal temperament. In The Revolt of the Masses he pointed to scarcity as a more palpable, if not palatable, reason for the phenomena of aptness. Men could not escape their fundamental impression of the world: it "converts itself into an interior voice which ceaselessly murmurs certain words in the profundity of the person and tenaciously insinuates a definition of life, which is, at the same time, an imperative ... 'to live is to feel oneself limited and therefore to take account of that which limits.'" Under conditions of scarcity men perceived their own lives in ways suggesting that aptness was the prudent, productive response. "Common men of the past ... perceived life, a nativitate, as a pile of impediments that they were forced to put up with; and lacking sufficient leeway for any other solution than adapting themselves, they lodged themselves on the ledges that were left."

Ibid., p. 168.

Observe the revision of value that began here. We have been accustomed by psychologists to dwell on the destructive results of excessive anxiety, and we have built up rather sophisticated techniques, ranging from elaborate therapy to ingenious pills, to avoid or minimize our feelings of dread. In contrast, Ortega was among those who found great value, and even delight, in anxiety i care was one of the positive, definitive qualities of life. To live was to be anxious, to be concerned with vital problems. "The insecurity essential to all forms of life ... , the anxiety—at once dolorous and delicious—that pervades every moment if we live it to the hilt ... ": this awareness of an uncertain future was the truly healthy outlook towards life; this alertness was the outlook that had enabled civic pedagogy, the system of exemplarity and aptness, to work in European history.

Traditionally, insecurity in a perilous environment had led to the right ordering of the masses and minorities. Anxiety was the intuition that implacably followed from sensing the hazards with which the world confronted men; anxiety made the system of exemplarity and aptness work. Man was a political animal because he was anxious, he was concerned about the future, he was filled with dread of the unknown; therefore, he cooperated with his fellows. A difficult environment stimulated the strong to aspire to live heroically; knowing danger, they would, in Nietzsche's phrase, live dangerously. An inhospitable world moved the mass man to complement exemplary heroes with social power; from those who transcended the habitual, the ordinary would derive better habits. The intuition that life was dangerous, insecure, and uncertain invited the noble spirit to discover his duty. In a tough environment in which not even the privileged could expect, come what may, to be comfortable, the strong would drive themselves to develop to the maximum their powers of creation and leadership. In the same way, the rudeness of life provoked the mass man to accept the authority of excellence, not by slavishly doing as the nobles bid, but by mastering in himself qualities the excellent exemplified. Tremulous with the realization that error could bring disaster down upon himself, and hopeful with the recognition that luck, effort, and competence could lead to better fortune, the average man learned to pay heed to the exemplary few. In short, in the past civic pedagogy had worked because insecurity had taught men to learn their virtue.

Bacon, "Of Adversity," The Essays, or Counsels, Civil and Moral, p. 54.

Man is not anxious by nature; this corollary therefore followed: a community that succeeded in making life secure for its citizens negated its source of social discipline. Here, the perennial dilemma of social policy reappeared as the basis of the European crisis. As Bacon wrote, "prosperity doth best discover vice; but adversity doth best discover virtue." Liberal democracy and industrialism had created a world of relative stability and abundance; Europe ceased to invite its citizens to be apt. Contemporary public affairs were therefore characterized by a revolt of the masses. Mass men were no longer filled with the anxieties that had formerly induced aptness in their spirit, and like truant youths they denigrated every example of excellence. Comfort brought with it the reign of the commonplace, which has come to dominate conversation, culture, and the councils of state. The pedagogy of scarcity had succeeded so well that it produced a society ruled by the pedagogy of abundance; hence, Europe had entered into a crisis, a crisis of the complacent.

Although Ortega's conception of the European crisis was not a theory of necessary decline, it did postulate the possibility, even the likelihood, of real disaster. Ortega based his generalizations about scarcity and abundance on substantive features of European history, and the psychological symptoms of this crisis of complacency correlated well with manifest characteristics of European life in the twentieth century. One can easily miss the intent of these reflections by seeing in them nothing but a prophecy of doom; therefore, it is important to be clear about what they were and what they were not.

Machiavelli, History of Florence and of the Affairs of Italy, p. 204.

At first the interplay of scarcity and abundance may seem to yield a cyclical view of history. The ancients were not the only ones in our tradition to see in history a cycle of advance and regression; no less a figure than the father of modern statecraft found it to be the lesson of the History of Florence: " ... valor produces peace; peace, repose; repose, disorder; disorder, ruin; so from disorder order springs; from order virtue, and from this, glory and good fortune." Ortega certainly considered the possibility of a cycle in the history of Europe similar to that which Machiavelli found in the history of his city. For Ortega, civic pedagogy worked when people perceived the arduousness of life and became anxious about their future; and during the industrial and democratic revolutions, exemplarity and aptness had worked splendidly. Men had been aware that their surroundings, material and civic, were not as congenial as possible; fired by hope for improvement, they disciplined themselves and cooperatively created a more stable, productive, equitable environment. As a result, many no longer worried about what the morrow would bring; and experiencing this complacency among his peers, Ortega feared that the morrow would bring disaster. If a sense of foreboding was the engine of civic pedagogy, then it was likely that history would record a rise and fall as a needy people increased their powers to such a degree that they satisfied their wants, became complacent, and met disaster.

La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, pp. 193–4.

Some words of caution should here be interjected. Ortega sought not merely to frighten men with the specter of an imminent, inevitable decline. In the next chapter we shall study how he thought the cycle of influences playing on human character might be broken; here let us simply stress: he believed that it could be broken. History was not inevitable. But, an understanding of the undesirable prospects that were harbored in historic trends was the basis of any efforts to avoid the actualization of these calamities. "The revolt of the masses can be the transition to a new, unequalled organization of humanity, but as well, it can be a catastrophe in the human destiny. There is no reason to deny the reality of progress, but it is necessary to correct the notion that holds this progress to be secure." Instead, Ortega insisted that the future was open, awaiting determination through the deeds of present man. "There is no sure progress or evolution without the danger of regress and involution. All, all is possible in history—triumphal and indefinite progress as much as periodic regression."

Ibid., pp. 163–9, 173–4.

Snow, The Two Cultures: and a Second Look, pp. 27–32. Snow's second look seems as obtuse as the first, Ibid., pp. 79–89. He insists on a separation in our culture by not granting that the artist can be constructive as a critic. Where would science be, if scientists could only celebrate existing achievements, rather than subject them to unrestrained critical examination?

Foresight was the essence of avoidance. With effort and self-discipline, the preceding generations had overcome the more palpable insufficiencies of the world. Happily, for the first time a significant number of Europeans could anticipate a life of material ease. Ortega thought that this "increase of life" was a wonderful phenomenon; he had no desire to return to a straitened state. Ortega was not what C. P. Snow has called a "natural Luddite"; and, what is more important in studying Ortega's second voyage, those Snow condemned for not understanding the industrial revolution and for willingly seeking to destroy it, were unjustly rebuked. By dismissing men like Emerson, Thoreau, William Morris, Ruskin, and D. H. Lawrence as mere Luddites, men who define their human mission in a mechanical opposition to the machine, Snow displays the narrowness of his own response, blinding himself and his followers to the real problem. In contrast to Snow's undiscriminating enthusiasm, these and similar critics asserted that the industrial revolution was a mixed blessing, and they stressed on the one hand the mixed and on the other the blessing. Like it or not there are destructive demons in industrial dynamism; and if these are to be held in check and kept from undercutting the constructive good produced by material development, we need to dwell on them, we need to use passionate, outraged intelligence to understand the demons so that we may control them. Far from being Luddites, the negative critics of industrialism are the best friends the machine has had, for they were willing to be honest.

Ortega was among the hard-headed social critics; he had the strength of character to risk being called hard-hearted because he treated industrial democracy as a mixed blessing. He wanted to secure the continuation of an abundant world; but to do so, he had to confront the negative concomitants of the positive development. Ortega had no intention of trying to undo the industrial revolution; he warned that unless its power to satisfy appetitive wants was effectively complemented by the ability to satisfy spiritual and moral longings, the industrial revolution would, in all probability, undo itself. Achievement brought changes that had to be mastered. The success of exemplarity and aptness weakened the very forces that had made it successful. Unless a new pedagogy could be found to take the place of scarcity, the masses would abuse their duties of leadership, cause the cultural foundations of industrial civilization to collapse, and thus return men to a condition in which the pinch of hunger and the pang of fear again administered a moral propaedeutic.

Hence, in criticizing the revolt of the masses, Ortega was not venting a reactionary spleen; he was seeking to perpetuate and further the progressive advance of Europe. If we keep this intention in mind, we can follow Ortega's critique of the masses in some detail without falling into the trap of seeing pessimism where optimism ruled: Ortega's realism was his recognition that Europe had serious problems and his optimism was his belief that these problems could be solved without regression to more primitive stages of human organization.

Heraclitus, Fragment 125a, Freeman, trans., Ancilla, p. 33.

By reading this proposition as a statement about the effects of wealth on individual character, with the only social effects seen being certain invidious aspersions on the nouveau riche, one can ignore its most serious import. In such a form, the idea is quite uninteresting; but its more profound exponents have been concerned not with wealth as an individual attribute, but with wealth as a social attribute. Thus Heraclitus wished riches not on his individual enemies, but on Ephesus as a whole. The debilitative effects of wealth may develop even though the wealthiest are very active and far from debauched. What is unhealthy is not the effect of wealth on the particular individuals who hold it, but use of the category "wealth," by both rich and poor, as the basic means of making judgments of human worth. For this practice of making wealth a major standard of value, modern Western civilization has been roundly condemned by a series of critics who have not opposed the existence of material well-being, but who have rejected the common practice of using distinctions between the degree of well-being various persons enjoy as means of judging the relative worth of those persons. Thus the spiritual power of money is decried. Witness Nietzsche: "money now stands for power, glory, pre-eminence, dignity, and influence ... " (The Dawn of Day, #203, J. M. Kennedy, trans.); " ... what was once done 'for the love of God' is now done for the love of money, i.e. for the love of that which at present affords us the highest feeling of power and a good conscience" (Ibid., #204). Witness also Jacob Burckhardt: "money becomes and remains the greatest measure of things, poverty the greatest vice," in his On History and Historians, Harry Zohn, trans., p. 222.

Ortega's criticism of the use of wealth as a criterion for judging our highest values was paralleled by his contemporaries. For instance, in "Mass Civilization and Minority Culture" (1930), F. R. Leavis objected to the practice of denoting the goods that the average man could buy as "the standard of living." Leavis, of course, was not arguing, as critics like Lord Snow seem to suggest, that the poor should be made to persist at poor subsistence; Leavis' argument was against the arbitrary elevation of income statistics into the most common arbiter of values. To argue against wealth as a standard of value is not to argue against the value of wealth. Instead, the concern was with the extra-economic significance attached to economic criteria. No economist had demonstrated that, of all possible standards, the measure of purchasing power was the only valid valuation of life, the standard of living. See: Leavis, Education and the University, pp. 146, 149; cf. p. 119.

Long ago Heraclitus exclaimed at the inaptness of his fellow citizens, "may wealth not fail you, men of Ephesus, so that you may be convicted of your wickedness !" Thus, for ages the wise have known that luxury weakens the will. Less is known, however, about the precise way in which this debilitation occurs; yet any remedial effort would depend on that knowledge. To find it, Ortega studied with some care how the contemporary world invited men to weaken their character.

La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, pp. 168–9.

Remember that mass man was, in Ortega's terminology, a characterological, not a sociological, type. There is potentially a mass man in each of us: that person whom we are when we are complacently content with what we are. This contented person will make no demands upon himself. The increase of life achieved by the industrial revolution did not create the 0 masses11 by causing the complete leveling of social and material distinctions; such leveling was occurring, but it was not decisive, certainly not as a cause producing mass men. Instead, the general enrichment, the stabilization of existence, played upon the ordinary self of each person in every sociological category in a way that made each feel more content with his character as he found it, inert at dead center.

Liberal democracy, science, and industry had not done away with the old social divisions; rather, they had fabulously intensified the scale and diversity of activities open to the members of each division. Recall the chance remark that was a catalyst to Ortega's reflections: a debutante had confided to him that she simply could not bear a ball to which fewer than eight hundred were invited. In each social class, a greater range of possibilities was now within the economic means of its members. Improvement was fundamental: not only did the common man have more creature comforts available than did the very rich of yesteryear, the very rich of today had more wealth than whole nations of former times. Besides an increase i.n wealth, men enjoyed improved public order and even enhanced freedom from natural catastrophe. Both moral debasement and physical disease were relatively under control; there were still rakes, but their progress was less gruesome than that seen by Hogarth, and there was still a dance of death in which all were chosen as a partner, but the choice, on the average, was forborne a longer time for each. To be sure, certain qualifications would have to be put on this description of the general condition; but those limitations were offset for most by the expectation that men could count on further improvements as a matter of course: not even the supposedly progressive parties seriously contemplated the possibility of a future that differed from a linear projection of the present.

Mass man is that person whom we each are when we make no special demands upon ourselves. When life was comfortable, flourishing, this ordinary self would rest content; no upsetting feature of existence would drive mass man out of his natural complacency. In prosperous periods, mass man accepted himself as he found himself and spent his life doing what came naturally. The problem, of course, was that civilization did not come naturally: it was an artifice created through discipline and effort; and of those who were to partake in it, civilization required that they either be exemplary and create their goals freely or be apt and respond authentically to men who could lead them out of themselves.

Ibid, p. 181.

But in revolt, mass man was neither exemplary nor apt. He was satisfied with his mediocrity, which made him inapt, for he saw no reason to respond to leadership. "He was content just being whatever he happened to be; and without being vain and as the most natural thing in the world, he tended to believe and affirm that everything he found within himself—opinions, appetites, preferences, or tastes—was good." The net result was that satisfaction diminished the aspiration to improve. Mass man had a reasonable, if not enlightened, view: with no compulsions to doubt himself, the commonplace man in every class thought that it was a virtue to be commonplace. "Why not, if ... nothing and no one forced him to realize that he was a second-class, extremely limited man who was incapable of creating or conserving the very organization that had given his life the amplitude and contentment on which he based the assertion of his character?"

Ibid., p. 180.

Again, Ortega was not calling for a rigid system of social classes: in each of us there is a first- and second-class man, first if we realize our potential, and second if we succumb to our inertia. Nothing was perverse about the second-class man within us; he merely followed the way of least resistance and took life the way it came to him. The ordinary self accepted appearances, and thus the pedagogy of abundance insinuated a debilitating definition of life into the depth of the spirit. "To live is to meet no limitations, and therefore to abandon oneself peacefully to oneself. Practically nothing is impossible, nothing is dangerous and, in principle, no one is superior to me."

Essentially Ortega's analysis pointed to the danger of ignoring the old adage, "spare the rod and spoil the child." The rod was not desirable in either child rearing or civic pedagogy; but since it had performed important functions, one could not simply dispense with it without engendering difficulties. The many comforts of an industrial environment brought great benefits; yet they brought dangers as well. Spoiled children and intemperate adults perceived life as a snug abundance, and they never learned to discipline themselves because they were never forced by the world around them to become conscious of their limitations. Those who inherited an easy life received all they desired without having to master the abilities requisite for the production of the things they consumed. One prepared disasters, personal or civic, by combining developed tastes with undisciplined talents.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, III, xii, 5–10.

La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, p. 209.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle united in a single group the spoiled child and the self-indulgent, intemperate man. Both were profligates, he found, for profligacy, ακολασια, had the root meaning of unpunished, unpruned, unchastened. Ortega carried this grouping one further. Using "class" in its logical, not sociological, sense, he put the spoiled child, the profligate heir, and mass man in the class señorito satisfecho, the class of sated swingers. In another essay, objecting to the decadent example set by the rich in Spain, he called it "the most despicable and sterile class of humanity," for this type of man produced nothing but had everything made for it and turned all into mere ornamentation. A soft, luxurious environment easily corrupted men by failing to chasten their spirit or to prune their powers so that they could channel and concentrate their vitality. "A world of superabundant possibilities automatically produces serious deformities and vicious types of humanity; we can unite these in the general class, "heir-man,' in which the 'aristocrat,' and the spoiled child, and much more fully and radically the mass man of our time are only particular cases."

Ibid., p. 179.

Indiscipline could easily tear apart a community of heir-men: that was the threat to Europe. Industrialism could induce heedlessness and arrogance to a degree that would jeopardize Europe's future. "The very perfection with which the nineteenth century organized certain orders of life caused the benefited masses to believe that these were natural rather than organized. This explains and defines the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses: nothing preoccupies them like their well-being, yet they are isolated from the cause of that well-being." Confronted by a wealth of sophisticated products and services, the consumer had difficulty appreciating the intricate web of men, ideas, and institutions that provided the "goods." The mass man was the man in each of us who shirked difficult chores; instead, he expected the advantages that others produced as if these boons were his right, yet he was unable and unwilling to provide them for himself.

Nothing exemplifies this outlook better than the cowardly exodus from the American cities by members of the middle class. These people are quite ready to commute to the city to earn high salaries and to enjoy the cultural and commercial benefits of concentration; yet they are unwilling to stand by the city, to live in it and cherish it, to pay taxes and give talents to solve its problems. When urban difficulties make themselves felt, the mass man in each of us counsels us to move out rather than to risk defeat in seeking solutions to manifest complexities. But it is doubtful that the city can survive continual exploitation by the prosperous, able middle class. Yet the suburban masses are blind to their heedlessness; they think of the nearby city as a natural organism that will always be there, offering remunerative employment regardless of their personal actions. They feel fully justified in choosing the wealth the city offers on the one hand and the comfort and security the suburb offers on the other; they see the provision of both resulting merely from their requests, and they never trouble themselves to consider precisely how either an economic and cultural center or a periphery of insentience are created and maintained.

Ibid., p. 179. Cf. "Los escaparates mandan," 1927, Obras III, pp. 459–463.

In this and numerous other examples, we are familiar with the phenomena Ortega observed: people are happy to enjoy the commodities of contemporary civilization, but they are not so ready to preserve the self-discipline and self-sacrifice that brought into being the powers capable of producing these enjoyable things. "Because they do not see the shop windows of civilization as prodigious inventions and constructions that can be sustained only with great force and foresight, they believe their role comes down to demanding peremptorily what seems to them natural rights."

Heedlessness of this sort made severe political and economic disruptions probable. To take the urban example again: in a concentration of people in which the more stable persons have grouped together and isolated themselves from the less stable, one could not expect the less stable remainder to conduct itself according to the exaggerated standard of "law and order" held by the stable isolate—it was only a matter of time before the vivacious would offend the sensibility of the stolid. As with this case, so with innumerable others, the tendency of the comfortably complacent to ignore their unpleasant responsibilities made it probable that unusual, unexpected problems would arise in public affairs: in these matters, nemesis has long had ultimate sovereignty.

To further worsen the dangers that complacency engendered in a seemingly secure environment, the lack of awareness, the indiscipline that underlay the emergence of new public problems, would be a formidable political and intellectual barrier to sound efforts to solve the disruptions. This barrier was a significant aspect of the European crisis.

"No ser hombre de partido," 1930, Obras IV, pp. 75–6.

Being satisfied with himself, mass man had a closed mind; he was content with whatever mental furniture he happened to possess. Traditionally, the mass mind was closed, but humble. In contrast, contemporary mass man was distracted by wealth, yet he still lacked real leisure, and in this state he had begun to believe that he could have theoretical opinions. The effects on intellect were awesome. As Ortega described it in another essay: mass man "meets a partisan fact that passes him by and he catches it as he would an autobus: he takes it in order to travel without fatiguing his own legs." No longer willing to leave culture to the few who had the time for it, the masses lost their sense of intellectual limitation. Thoughtlessly, they made a marketplace of thought. In result, the ideas held by the mass man were not genuine, for they were not achieved by disciplined intellection based on the principles of reason.

La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, p. 190.

Here we meet the contemporary difficulty in the traditional theory of free speech. Free exchange in a quest for truth is not the same as a free exchange in pursuit of profit and power; and habitual participation in the latter exchange has been having dire effects on the standards of the former. As opinion becomes increasingly exploited by non-rational means for unintellectual ends, the relation of opinion to power has been changing in dangerous ways. "To have an idea is to believe that one possesses the reasons for it, and this is to believe that reason, an orb of intelligible truths, exists. Thinking, theorizing is the same as appealing to an instance, submitting to it, accepting its laws and its sentence, believing therefore that the superior form of living together is the dialogue in which we discuss our reasons for our ideas. But mass man feels himself lost if he accepts discussion and he instinctively repudiates the obligation to respect this highest argument that he finds outside himself." Thus, Ortega contended, the masses simultaneously asserted their right to hold theoretical opinions and to deny that the principles of reason should be the arbiter of conflicting theories. Ominously, the definition of thinking that was operational in public affairs was changing: to have an idea was to find that one possessed the power to compel, badger, or bribe others to profess it, and this was to believe that force, an orb of implacable compulsions, existed.

"Direct action" was the political result: the followers of a mass idea imposed their will on the community by the most effective means at hand. Direct action is one of the characteristic symptoms of the revolt of the masses; it cuts across ideologies and manifests itself in diverse forms. In the liberal tradition, force had always been the ultima ratio to which men resorted when discussion, compromise, and law failed intolerably to resolve differences. In contrast to the ultima ratio, civilization was an artificial system of indirect methods for reconciling disagreements while avoiding the conjunction of force with passion and all the havoc this pair could wreak. The prima ratio, civilization, presupposed the willingness to submit to dialogue in which the merits of conflicting claims were honestly and openly discussed in a search for truth and justice. But men who held their ideas without reasons, as mass men did, could not take part in such a dialogue. For them, force in one or another guise was the only means that could produce agreement and win a further allegiance. Direct action denoted all the means by which rational discourse could be by-passed, subverted, or overwhelmed. And the more the mass man pretended to have ideas, the more direct action would become the norm in public affairs.

In Invertebrate Spain Ortega had already indicated the baneful influence of direct action on Spanish politics. But the disease spread further. Throughout Europe a politics of force was dramatically apparent in Fascism, Syndicalism, Communism, and other mass action movements. These partisans were not willing to persuade and to be persuaded in accordance with how the logos manifested itself in open discussion; they had many means to discount in advance all the arguments their opponents might propound. For them, violence was admittedly the prima ratio.

Quoted without source citation by Ortega in Ibid., p. 226.

But a penchant for direct action was not confined to revolutionary groups: the idea of the state had come to be equated with actual extensive, powerful bureaucracies; it was no longer, as it had been for nineteenth-century political thinkers, a symbol of public rationality. Instead, many were coming to believe that the state was a primary reality: the administrative apparatus was there to be taken over by the most powerful. Politicians ceased to believe the liberal premise that government resided in men—of the people, for the people, and by the people; they held that men existed within the government. Listen to Mussolini chant: "All for the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State"; and take heed !

In short, the greatest danger with respect to direct action and public affairs was the state. Statism in action—not in doctrine—was the most serious threat in Ortega's view. This distinction needs to be made because the more serious aggrandizements of the state are accomplished in the name of free men by those who loudly decry statism. Ortega's warning was not similar to that habitually voiced by American conservatives; on the contrary, Ortega cautioned against the static statism practiced by the established powers in well developed political and economic systems. Certain particulars from Ortega's discussion of statism and its dangers show his real concern.

Ibid., p. 225.

First, Ortega did not oppose the state per se, but an imbalance between state power and social power, the power of spontaneous movements within the community. As he saw it, to the degree that the strength of the state overbalanced that of the integral community, social revolutions became impossible and the possibility of internal adaptations and renewals of the community disappeared. Members of established groups would avoid having to change their personal way of life whenever serious issues arose, for instead they would have recourse to the impersonal machinery of the state; at most, social tension would lead to the coup d'état in which the state was taken over and used in favor of a previously excluded group. The danger that Ortega warned against was the negative use of the state to break up any social movement that disturbed the comfortable majority. "The result of this tendency will be fatal. Time and again, social spontaneity will be capped violently by the intervention of the state: no new seed will be able to fructify."

Both quotations: Ibid., p. 226.

Second, the positive uses of the state that Ortega condemned were not those that benefited the unprivileged, but those that served the secure, the complacent, and the well-to-do. By describing the example of the Roman Empire, he called attention to the dangerous relationship between industrial and governmental bureaucracy, the military, and the demand for personal security, "the security that gives birth, remember, to mass man." In order to provide security to the comfortable, bureaucracy is brought into being. With bureaucracy, everything is routinized, and the capacity of a people to provide spontaneously for itself begins to wither from disuse. Still, the unforeseen arises and the bureaucracy must force adaptation, which it does through the militarization of the community. The military and its supporting services become a privileged class that, at all costs, must be placated; the army becomes the highest priority to which the remainder of the community must be sacrificed. "State intervention leads to this: the people are converted into the meat and pasta that feeds the mere artifact and mechanism that is the state."

The Revolt of the Masses, Authorized translation, Anniversary Edition (1957), p. 123.

Third, in his critique of statism Ortega described only one concrete example of how the violence of direct action is being institutionalized in the state. The example he chose was not those favorites of reactionary rhetoricians: it was neither the progressive income tax nor welfare for the poor nor even government regulation of various private industries; the example of statism that Ortega considered most widespread and symptomatic of the revolt of the masses was the marked expansion of police forces at the behest of those who wanted local tranquillity at any price. The price, of course, was liberty, for, as J. R. Carey presciently rendered Ortega's Spanish into English in 1932, "it is foolishness for the party of 'law and order' to imagine that these 'forces of public authority' created to preserve order are always going to be content to preserve the order that that party desires. Inevitably they will end by themselves defining and deciding on the order they are going to impose. . . ." Ortega found the true test of one's attitude towards the state in the issue of controlling crime: the statist looked to the police to repress the criminals whereas the man who truly believed that the state should have limits preferred to take his chances with the criminals in order to keep his civil liberties free from state infringement. The police, who were essential to maintaining a regular flow in the spontaneous activities in cities around the world, were at the same time the major danger to those activities whenever services of facilitation were transformed into powers of enforcement.

La rebelión de las masas, 1930, Obras IV, p. 200, d. p. 174. The phrase "vertical invader" is from Walter Rathenau.

Statism seemed dangerous to Ortega because it could so easily become a static barrier to the spontaneous, vital development of the community. The state would enforce a seeming stasis, which would sooner or later end in collapse. Such a result would probably come sooner rather than later, for the positions of power, both within and without the state, stood at the apexes of well-established organizations, and the rather banal qualities that made for progress through these organizations were not the qualities that would enable men to discover effective solutions to the authentic difficulties. Furthermore, stasis would not preclude continued development in technology and other superficial aspects of life, and the underlying problems that made continued progress problematic would continually become more difficult. Thus circumstances were joining in a way that made disaster imminent: the maintenance of civilization was becoming supremely complex and the men in positions of power were becoming less capable of dealing with complexities. "It is my hypothesis," Ortega wrote, "that the European who begins to predominate will be, in relation to the complex civilization in which he was born, a primitive man, a barbarian emerging through the scuttle, a 'vertical invader'."

In sum, traditionally men had made themselves into political animals because they found themselves in an inhospitable environment and realized that to live well they needed to cooperate with one another. Through cooperation, Western man had accomplished a novel stabilization of his surroundings and the usual anxieties were greatly reduced. An increase in security brought a decrease in the civic discipline of the average person, the ordinary self in each person. More and more people were content with themselves as they happened to be; this weakening in man's desire for self-improvement made the collapse of European civilization probable. Mass movements, ideological conflict, institutionalized direct action, and social rigidity followed by upheaval would become characteristics of European public affairs. Increasingly, men would lack the strengths of mind and character that would enable them to solve the complicated problems that advanced civilization created. This, in short, was the European crisis.

But practical men rightly distrust pundits who are content to expose the imminent demise of man and who are yet too uninterested in life to resist the disaster. The activist senses that any doom foreseen by such pallid souls must be a faint danger, indeed; and the workaday world goes on with its business, singing que sera, sera!

Ibid., p. 174.

Insofar as we stress the spiritual effects of material scarcity and abundance, Ortega's theory seems to be one of these pallid conceptions that counsels a useless despair. But, Ortega repeatedly asserted, the revolt of the masses could lead to either advance or disaster, depending on how men reacted to the possibilities. Man was responsible for his own progress. Improvement was not achieved because conditions made it inevitable; betterment was achieved in spite of conditions. Progress occurred when men overcame the conditions that limited their lives. Hence, in Ortega's view, drama was a constituent of human life because danger, difficulty, and suffering were part of the path to safety, comfort, and joy. The pedagogy of abundance was a dangerous condition; precisely for that reason, the taming of it could lead to a real advance in the quality of human life. "Therefore, it is of great importance to understand a fond this mass man who is pure potentiality for the greatest good or the greatest evil." Understand in order to influence: that was the imperative of the philosopher-king.

While Ortega was preparing The Revolt of the Masses he wrote about Ibn Khaldûn and his philosophy of history; see "Abenjaldun nos revela el secreto: pensamientos sobre Africa menor," 1928, Obras III, pp. 669–687. In The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Ibn Khaldûn developed a cyclic theory of history based on the complementary social systems of the nomads and the city dwellers. On the desert a pedagogy of scarcity, a subsistence economy, maintained the elemental vital virtues of the Bedouin; he remained tough, adaptable, courageous, honest, and religious, as well as brutal, uncouth, and uncivilized. In the city a pedagogy of abundance, a luxury economy, inculcated a hedonistic view of life. The urbanite became sensitive and civilized, as well as wily, dishonest, base, and profane. The pleasures of the city always attracted the Bedouin; and once the urbanite's moral decline went too far, the city would not be able to defend itself from the desert dwellers. The Bedouins would take the city over in stages; and slowly the city would urbanize its barbarian masters, and convert them from their elemental virtues. Eventually, these new city dynasties would fall before the pressures of another wave of nomadic hordes. See The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Franz Rosenthal, trans., especially Vol. 1, pp. 71–86, 249–310, Vol. II, pp. 117–137. Ibn Khaldûn's system was quite similar to Ortega's except that the North African's pedagogy of scarcity and pedagogy of abundance were in effect at the same time but in different places (the desert and the city), whereas Ortega's operated in the same place (Europe) but at different times (nineteenth century and twentieth century). The main difference between the two was that Ibn Khaldûn's cycle was closed, whereas Ortega saw a way to break his.

See Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, 3 vols., Franz Rosenthal, trans., especially, Vol. 1, pp. 71–86, 249–310; Vol. 2, pp. 117–137.

Helvètius, A Treatise on Man, His Intellectual Faculties and His Education, W. Hooper, trans., pp. 77–8.

Yet, it was still not clear that influence was possible. Ortega had studied philosophers of history who thought that scarcity and abundance regulated a close, implacable cycle of rise and fall: thus in the Muslim Middle Ages the great North African, Ibn Khaldûn, perceived how poverty begat virtue, virtue begat well-being, well-being begat weakness, weakness begat poverty, and another round began. For Ibn Khaldûn, history would be an endless exchange as the virtuous Bedouin took over the decadent cities and held them until luxury so weakened him that he became vulnerable to a new wave of desert dwellers. As Ortega knew, many other thinkers had discovered such cycles; and the interesting problem was not to find the cycle, but to find how the cycle might be broken. Helvetius put the question well: "want and poverty are the only instructors whose lessons are always heard, and whose counsels are always efficacious. But if the national manners will not permit [one] to receive such an education, what other must be substituted for it?" One begins to answer this question by reflecting on the critic's power.


Every creature is driven to pasture with a blow.

Heraclitus, 11