Every thinker has one idea—and after he formulates it, all his subsequent works are no more than elaboration: developments and revisions of the same basic intuition. Or so, at least, claimed the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and if ever there was a definitive example, it’s José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish writer who lived from 1883 to 1955.
There’s a reason Ortega is remembered for his 1929 book, The Revolt of the Masses. He authored many other works, including History as a System, The Origin of Philosophy, The Dehumanization of Art, and The Mission of the University. But he remains, more than any author I can think of, remembered as the author of a single idea, the one he put forth in his Revolt of the Masses.
Ortega’s accomplishment in that book was to identify a new sociological species: mass man. As The Revolt of the Masses explains, the mass man is not just an ordinary man, and he is not associated with any particular class. He is, rather, a product of European historical development, a kind of human being born for the first time in the nineteenth century.
The description Ortega gives is not particularly enjoyable. The mass man lives without any discipline, and¯as Ortega remembers from Goethe—“to live as one pleases is plebian.” The mass man “possesses no quality of excellence.” He demands more and more, as if it were his natural right, without realizing that what he wants was the privilege of a tiny group only a century ago. He does not understand that technological wonders are the product of an intricate cultural process for which he should be grateful. “What before would have been considered one of fortune’s gifts, inspiring humble gratitude toward destiny, was converted into a right, not to be grateful for, but to be insisted on,” The Revolt of the Masses claims.
What Ortega understood is that the nineteenth century created the kind of human being who would become the dominant social force in the twentieth century—and thus that there is no way back to the aristocratic style of politics that dominated history for millennia. Mass man, fortified by an array of rights, is in charge of historical destiny.
The danger of that fact, however, lies in mass man’s lack of even a rudimentary understanding of culture. Here Ortega draws a critical distinction between civilization and culture. Civilization is the sum of the technical and technological tools that make life as we know it possible. And culture is that civilization’s underpinnings—the set of ideas, motives, and religious truths that gave birth to civilization.
So, for instance, mass man is oblivious to the fact that much of what is known in modern times as science started as a theoretical or theological game in the seventeenth century. The serious underpinnings of science were apparent to René Descartes, for instance. One of the founders of modern science, Descartes points out in several of his letters that his philosophical conception of God is indispensable for his new conception of science—since it is a view of God as capable of changing even the truths of mathematics.
In other words, it was a new theological concept that ignited the scientific project. Ortega admits that scientific civilization can go on living without being continuously propelled by culture. He warns, however, that if we exhaust our cultural resources, we will roll back to the level of barbarism. Civilization is like a vending machine, whose buttons we press to get a desired good, but after a while it requires maintenance: “History tells us of innumerable retrogressions, of decadences and degenerations. But nothing tells us that there is no possibility of much more basic retrogressions than any so far known, including the most radical of all: the total disappearance of man as man and his silent return to the animal scale.”
If anything, the dangers posed by mass man are worse today than when Ortega wrote. Globalization has let other countries into a competitive realm with Europe and the United States. In fact, it has spread around the world all of the cultureless aspects of modernity.
This, in itself, may not be a reason to worry. The technologies exist, and the rising wealth of manufacturing is slowly lifting good portions of the world out of poverty.
At the same time, the countries benefiting from globalization—China, for instance—seem interested only in the civilization of Western technology. The Chinese, on their own admission, are unprepared to accept what Ortega called the cultural underpinnings that created Western technology. The Asian nations have shown little interest in individual freedoms, democratic institutions, the workings of European and American educational institutions, and the free exchange of ideas.
In the West, we cannot think of technological inventiveness without the cultural ideas that stand behind economic civilization. The globalization of mass man may well reveal whether Ortega was right about the possibility of “the total disappearance of man as man and his silent return to the animal scale.”
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.
The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset