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.