Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses

Unrepentantly snobbish and of its time, Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses (1930) looks down its nose at proto-fascistic “mass-men” — the spoiled ingrates who never had to suffer for a more liberal world and who “automatically” take its plenitude for granted.

The common man, finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes that it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly-endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed. Still less will he admit the notion that all these facilities still require the support of certain difficult human virtues, the least failure of which would cause the rapid disappearance of the whole magnificent edifice.

As a result, mass men have “two fundamental traits: the free expansion of his vital desires, and therefore, of his personality; and his radical ingratitude toward all that has made possible the ease of his existence.” The mass-man, who is of course “unintelligent,” thinks “everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations.”

Ortega posits two sorts of people, those who drift along contentedly, self-satisfied, and those “noble” souls of gold who are impelled to strive. With characteristic circumspection, Ortega proclaims:

For there is no doubt that the most radical division that it 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 toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.

With the rise of mass-men, the buoys are in position to impose their coarse, common self-satisfaction on liberal institutions and thereby destroy them. The average man are hydraulically injected with “ideas” but he “lacks the faculty of ideation.

He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideas live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words.

Ortega romanticizes at a safe distance the struggle of material deprivation. “There might be a deceptive tendency to believe that a life born into a world of plenty should be better, more really a life than one which consists in a struggle against scarcity. Such is not the case…. The abundance of resources that he is obliged to make use of gives him no chance to live out his own personal destiny, his life is atrophied.”

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