It is easy for contemporary readers to be put off by the unapologetic elitism of José Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses. Ortega’s book, first published in 1930 in Spain, details the emergence and lays out the defining characteristics of the subject produced by hypertrophied democracy, the mass man. The mass man, who is the product of the prosperity and ease produced by industrialization, is born into a complex and highly refined civilization that he nevertheless believes to be a “spontaneous and self-producing as Nature (64)” Mass man, in other words, is a barbarian or primitive who takes for granted the intellectual labors and historical struggles that underpin the technological breakthroughs of the modern age. He manipulates and uses the instruments of the industrial age as though they were magic wands or flying carpets. The stunning advancement of scientific progress have given rise to a human type that takes for granted the conveniences and affluence that such technological achievements have made possible, remaining steadfastly oblivious to the “artificial, almost incredible character of civilization.”
The mass man is defined by three main interlocking traits:
1. His existence, being free of burdensome constraints and excessive hardship, leads him to believe that this situation of ease and abundance is normal and that, moreover, he is entitled to his conditions of life remaining so.
2. He derives a sense of power and success from this impression, so that he regards himself as content. He is self-satisfied, “delighted with himself” (45). His self-satisfaction and essential complacency lead him to reject any “external court of appeal” (70). He thus feels that his opinions are in no way inferior to those of any other individual, and therefore that he has the right to hold an opinion against any evidence of knowledge or evidence that might contradict it. In other words, learning and wisdom cease to be intelligible for him, since these terms imply that opinions must become subject to the judgment of higher principles.
3. Mass man, in rejecting any higher principle of authority beyond himself, looks naturally to action as the means to resolving conflicts. Taking action means imposing the truth he has found in his opinions directly on the world, disregarding thereby the existence of other ideas and the human beings who espouse them.
In theorizing the emergence of this new human type, Ortega y Gasset had in mind the supporters of mass ideological movements of fascism and Bolshevism, though at this point, he could deride fascism and its followers as something of a joke, a kind of nihilistic venting at liberty by small-minded and petty individuals whose attack on parliamentary democracy depended on their conviction that political liberty was ultimately ineradicable. That is to say, their hatred of democracy rested on the belief that they could in the end do nothing to overturn it — a catastrophic faith indeed. But Ortega’s insight does not pertain only to fascist or other authoritarian political systems, rather it points to a troubling dynamic within democracy itself: the tendency to level any and all distinctions.
Ortega, in defending authority, does not fall back on the distinction between rich and poor, or between the hereditary aristocracy, which he ridicules for being wasteful and feeble-minded. Rather, authority is bound up with the recognition of merit as such, which in philosophic terms takes the form of the search for truth. The superior man, as distinguished from the common or mass man, is the individual who puts his life at the service of a higher principle that places great demands on him. It is instructive to quote at length Ortega’s striking comparison of the two types:
“we distinguished the excellent man from the common man by saying that the former is the one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter the one who makes no demands on himself, but contents himself with what he is, and is delighted with himself. 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) (44-45).”
Ortega’s elitism is not based on existing social hierarchies, but rather on the readiness of an individual to look beyond himself and conquer himself in order to serve a higher aim. Such an individual does not plead and press for his rights but conquers his privileges: “private rights or privileges are not, then, passive possession and mere enjoyment, but they represent the standard attained by personal effort.”
Dedication to such a principle gives one good reasons for not being altruistic, or for not living a life that is gnawed away by guilt over one’s privileges or riddled by resentment. But is it not the case, however, that the image of the man of excellence in postmodern society has become so fantastic as to be discredited? Has not demystification become second nature to mass man in the era of postmodernity, so that any appeal to nobility is typically condemned as a cover for brutality, exploitation, and oppression? In a way in which Ortega might have foreseen with horror, the masses have largely colonized the elites, with the result that the values of the elites are now largely the same as those of the masses, with one crucial exception: the elites are now distinguished by their superiority at making money and achieving technological innovation. Discipline is only good or worthwhile insofar as it enables an individual to make money. Even our more ostensibly intellectual and spiritual occupations bow to this singularly unbending law dictated by the mass man.
So, is the idea of nobility as presented by Ortega altogether obsolete, if not laughable? I suppose it is if one believes that the frivolity and doctrinal resistance to hierarchy of the current age are themselves paradoxically eternal. Nobility, we might say, is always good in and of itself, but only in certain ages does it come to be seen as useful, and thus it meets with approval in those times among those who in prosperous and comfortable times would ridicule it.
For Ortega y Gasset’s defense of elitism, finally, is also a defense of education as such. Since mass man believes he is entitled to his opinions, in rejecting the demands of any external authority, he is immunized against the persuasion of scholars and teachers. When mass man reads, he does not read with the goal of “learning something new” but rather out of the need to pronounce judgment on a work if it is not in accord with the “commonplaces” he holds as his opinions (12). Likewise, progressive liberalism, which has become in the US the preserve of an elite, is more concerned to reinforce its doctrines rather than to face up to harsh truths and the demands they impose.
José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, 1950.
Is the process of political decay irreversible, making it impossible to go back to a more just or simpler form of political order? Does corruption run in one direction only – its levels increasing over time, until there comes a tyrant or empire that deprives the people of their most potent excesses, along with their liberties? Or stated from an opposed, though no less desperate standpoint, do we have no choice but to believe, to hope against hope, that modern democracy possesses self-renewing powers? Must we live in the expectation of miracles, that deliverance will arrive in the form of some force or event that would enable us to undertake the arduous and transformative work of creating a new kind of society?
The irreversibility of corruption could be taken as the lesson of Plato’s Republic, much which of course occupies itself with the foundation and characteristics of the just city: its myth of origin, its division of labor, and the form of education intended for its ruling elite. But in the eighth book, Socrates leads his interlocutors through a process of decline in which the city invented by Socrates and his friends is replaced by a series of inferior regimes, culminating in the emergence of the worst political form, tyranny. It is a startling series of reflections, in which the philosophic construction of the just city is subjected to the forces of time and passion.
Socrates calls the first, and for him the most just, form of government, aristocracy or monarchy, although merit, and not birth, is supposed to be the most significant factor in the composition of the ruling elite. As often goes unmentioned in the routine denunciations of Plato as an apologist for modern totalitarianism, the citizens of the just polis are told that not all children born to parents who are members of the ruling elite will be worthy of following in their footsteps and must become reconciled to an occupation among the lower ranks of society, just as the children of the lower ranks will sometimes exhibit talents and abilities that will allow them to rise into the elite class of the guardians (423c-d).
But this arrangement cannot last forever. The guardians will make mistakes in timing the births of their children, causing offspring of lesser ability and intelligence to be born. The scientific validity and questionable ethics of eugenics aside, Socrates’ point contains the troubling insight that the lowering of standards, especially in matters of the spirit, results in a narrowed and constrained view of reality. What results from the decline of intelligence and capacity is the unsettling of the political hierarchy – the guardians are no longer so self-evidently outstanding in their talents and virtues, whereas the number of the ambitious and restless increases in the lower ranks. Division is introduced into the city, with the guardians and the auxiliaries (foot soldiers) defending the traditional virtues while the men of bronze and iron, the tradesmen, laborers, and craftsmen, pull the community in the direction of commerce and the accumulation of wealth. In the ensuing conflict, the members of the ruling elite win out over those who demand that economic productivity should translate into political influence.
In maintaining their power, however, the ruling elite is forced to introduce several crucial innovations, such as private property and slavery. Whereas in the past, the guardians, whose souls are said to be of gold, and the auxiliaries, who are of silver, regarded the people of bronze and iron as friends and free men, now reduce them to servitude as punishment for their rebellion. Whereas the guardians formerly held all things in common and lived in barracks, being forbidden from possessing any kind of wealth, they now become owners of property expropriated from those they were charged to protect.
The upshot of these changes, which are brought about for the purpose of preserving the established hierarchy, is that the ruling elite, in instituting coercion as the principal factor for maintaining order and stability, loses interest in philosophy. The rulers of the polis, Socrates tells us, have become more passionate and violent, and less complex, than they were before. But in becoming less complex, they become more divided within themselves. For without reason to moderate and channel the spirited desire for victory, the rulers become covetous of wealth, a desire of which they are at the same time ashamed and which leads them to hoard their treasures in secret. Softened by their greed and desire for luxuries, they cast off their martial natures over time and transform into oligarchs.
Plato could have had in mind the ease and readiness with which certain accomplished generals of the Spartans, notably Pausanias, victor over the Persians at Plataea, and Gylippus, who was instrumental in the destruction of the Athenian expedition to Sicily, could break their attachment to the harsh, martial virtues of their city and indulge in greed and the love of luxury after prolonged contact with a people of less austere ways, leading to execution in the case of the first and banishment in the case of the second. The transformation of the city from an aristocracy into a timocracy discloses what Platonic philosophy is meant to cultivate in its adherents: it seeks to implant in its students spiritually and politically healthy desires, in which restraints come from within oneself as the object of one’s own desire instead of being experienced as the chafing bonds imposed by an external authority. Whereas the timocrat is a warrior who secretly lusts after money, the aristocrat is not, at least in theory, inwardly torn and divided by the passions that cause him or her to feel shame.
In the account of the five regimes, it is passion that proves to be the crucial medium for making intelligible social and political transformation in the Republic. The passion for maintaining the traditional hierarchies and virtues leads the defenders of the old order to accept the innovations of private property and slavery as the necessary price for avoiding the ostensibly worse evil of a society ruled by money. But the measures adopted for the sake of preserving the old values merely stave off the inevitable, with the vital twist that the ruling military caste itself becomes as plutocratic and wealth-obsessed as the class it once purported to despise.
What is striking here is that passion does not produce direct and immediate changes to the political order, but rather that it makes its influence felt in the efforts of those under its sway to reach some accommodation with it or arrive at a compromise between it and other demands. Thus, the timocrat, whose chief qualities are arrogance and ambition, turns out to have been the frustrated and ambivalent son of the philosopher. He grew up listening to the complaints of his mother about his father’s lack of concern with status and reputation, her dissatisfaction at the fact that he gives way in conflicts with his rivals for the sake of maintaining his own inner peace. The timocrat also grew up around servants who lament how the father does not retaliate against those who slight him or undertake legal proceedings against those who fail to pay their debts. Although the youth admires his father and the life of reason, he is pulled into a more worldly direction not only by the other members of the household but also by society at large. He resolves this conflict by becoming a man concerned foremost with prestige and status, working out a compromise between reason on the one hand and passion and the appetites on the other.
The next regime is oligarchy, rule by the rich. Oligarchy results from the decay of timocracy – greed gets the better of the warrior princes, who as time passes grow less and less capable of defending their wealth. The subjects of the state grow poorer, and for the first time it becomes possible for citizens to sell off all their property and become reduced to utter destitution. Oligarchy is accordingly far less stable than timocracy. As Socrates points out, it creates two cities, one of the rich and the other of the poor, that are set against each other. The city thus grows ripe for revolution, in which the poor, emboldened by the timidity of their rulers, will rise up and drive them.
The representative individual of the oligarchy, however, is not a soldier who becomes soft and corrupted by the pursuit of prosperity. Rather, the oligarch comes to value money above all else not out of avarice, but rather out of fear. The oligarch is the son of a general or some other man of high rank who was deprived of his possessions by the deceit and false witness of his enemies. His father’s loss of status and wealth teaches him that he must defend himself against a similar fate by accumulating as much wealth as possible. Thus, this man abandons the pursuit of martial glory in favor of earning money. The oligarch is thus a miser rather than a spendthrift – for him, money is a shelter from the malign forces of fate, and not a means to gratify his appetites. The appetites are instead unleashed when the oligarchy is overthrown and the city becomes a democracy.