Masses and Morality

The Revolt of the Masses
José Ortega y Gasset

To read Ortega y Gasset in the midst of an American election cycle is to embrace masochism.

Born in Madrid in 1883, Ortega y Gasset was a member of the generation that led the world into the Second World War. As a Spaniard he hit the trifecta of governments–monarchy, republicanism and fascism–in his lifetime. As a philosopher he lived at perhaps the perfect pivot point, when the ideas of the Enlightment had become widespread enough to begin sowing the seeds of their own neutering, sequestration and (some would argue) destruction.

I was not a philosophy major and I can find myself as befuddled as anyone reading these thinkers. I persist in doing so because I think it’s a disservice to one’s self to read textbooks and recaps. Your really need to get the thinker’s voice in your head.

Perhaps because he’s recognizably modern, Sr. Ortega y Gasset is an easier read than some. The earlier Germans, such as Kant and Hegel, can be especially chewy and others (I nominate Søren Kierkegaard) I find downright impenetrable. My litigator friend, David, who majored as an undergraduate in philosophy, assures me they are all accessible and the importance turns on the finer points. I think he owes his success to discovering his ability to identify and exploit those finer points.

So just who are the masses and why are they revolting? Early on in my reading I wondered if revolt was even the right word. Editors and translators have latitude in word choice and revolt struck me as too strong for what I was reading. I can tell from when I acquired the book (like libraries, I tend to date stamp these things; and no, I don’t have OCD) that I expected a defense of the proletariat and a refutation of the rulers. But when published in Spain the title began La rebelión so revolt it is.

If I follow the argument correctly, it’s roughly this: educated elites (my word not his) working over the course of a couple of centuries laid the foundation for democratic governments. Those democratic governments expanded the franchise to include broader segments of the population. At the same time, technical and economic change allowed the population to grow and have more leisure time, freeing them from behavioral strictures that also served as a common moral structure. Having gotten a taste of both power and freedom, that expanded population–the masses, if you will–is poised to make political choices without proper regard to consequence.

It’s important to remember the state of Europe at the time Ortega y Gasset was writing (and Ortega y Gasset was concerned almost solely with Europe).  Otherwise, he sounds like just another crank wringing his hands over the wrong people being able to vote.  World War I had been the war to end all wars with carnage never before seen. In Russia, the rise of the Bolshevik state put a new stamp on what could be  accomplished by educated elites.  In Italy, the fascist state of Mussolini had been elected to power. Weimar Germany was experiencing the disarray that would lead to the electoral victories of National Socialism.

So there was reason to be concerned. In the words of the philosopher himself, “Europe has been left without a moral code. It is not that the mass-man has thrown over an antiquated one for a new one, but at the centre of his scheme of life is precisely the aspiration to live without any moral code.” We’ve been arguing about society’s moral code ever since it seems. Does our deep thinking guide have an answer? Sadly, no. Morality, he notes, is subjugation to something bigger than oneself. That flies in the face of what freedom offers and celebrates.

And yet, I think, it needn’t. Morality and freedom are not incompatible and morality does not lead willy nilly to a society that is in effect a prison. There’s an argument to be made that hedonic license brings its own imperatives to live and behave in a certain manner. And in the end, I think each decides for himself whether to be subject to the whims and judgments of large groups or to find comfort in accepting some limits inorder to be left alone.


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