We Need Ortega y Gasset Back

José Ortega y Gasset is Spain’s best known philosopher and one of the best philosophers of the twentieth century. This article explains through the review of six of Ortega y Gasset’s essays, the relevance still today of his analysis of Spanish society during his lifetime, his identification of the evils of the Spanish character and his proposals for change.

Ortega y Gasset was born in 1883 in Madrid. He studied at the Faculty of Philosophy first at the Jesuit University of Deusto in the Basque Country and subsequently at the Universidad Central de Madrid where he completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1904. He travelled to Germany in 1905, 1907 and 1911, a time during which he studied idealism, the philosophical base on which he grounded his proposal for the ethical and social regeneration of Spain (http://www.ortegaygasset.es/fog/ver/2/jose-ortega-y-gasset). He became Professor of Philosophy at Universidad Central de Madrid (now Universidad Complutense) in 1910 taking over Nicolas Salmerón. He died in Madrid in 1955. Ortega y Gasset’s vision is fundamental to understand what Spain needs to do to leave the current status quo behind once and for all.

Six are the essays reviewed, namely: España Invertebrada (Invertebrate Spain, 1921), La Deshumanización del Arte (The Dehumanization of Art, 1925), La Rebelión de las Masas (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), ¿Qué es Filosofía? (What is Philosophy?, 1929), Misión de la Universidad (Mission of the University, 1930), and Europa y la Idea de Nación (Europe and the Idea of Nation, 1951-1954). These six essays represent the most relevant part of Ortega y Gasset’s analysis of Spain as a society and the Spanish character. The quotes have been left in its original form to maintain the purity of Ortega y Gasset’s thought.

Ortega y Gasset denounces in Invertebrate Spain the inability of the Spanish people to designate capable leaders. Every Premier since Adolfo Suárez has been worse than the previous one. Except for the political leaders in Spain’s virulent Second Republic which only lasted between 1931 and 1936, General Francisco Franco Bahamonde who imposed his technocracts from Opus Dei in the desarrollismo years between 1959 and 1975 and Felipe González Marquez’s First Administration, Spanish leadership has increasingly decreased its quality at the municipal, provincial and national levels. Contemporaneous caciques and oligarchs predominate as a result:

Por una extraña y trágica perversión del instinto encargado de las valoraciones, el pueblo español, desde hace siglos, detesta todo hombre ejemplar, o, cuando menos, está ciego para sus cualidades excelentes. […] Después de haber mirado y remirado largamente los diagnósticos que suelen hacerse de la mortal enfermedad padecida por nuestro pueblo, me parece hallar el más cercano a la verdad en la aristofobia u odio a los mejores.

The Spanish masses have been historically incapable of recognizing and identifying excellence in leadership and as a result to elect representatives based on merit for the management of their affairs. The Spanish blindness or myopia impedes the differentiation of the better from the mediocre with binding consequences. The better man, the better woman is as a result annihilated:

La ausencia de los “mejores” ha creado en la masa, en el “pueblo”, una secular ceguera para distinguir el hombre mejor del hombre peor, de suerte que cuando es nuestra tierra aparecen individuos privilegiados, la “masa” no sabe aprovecharlos y a menudo los aniquila.

The Spaniard is by definition the man-mass, the man who belongs in the masses. In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gasset suggests that the man-mass, incapable of assuming and embracing individual responsibility, delegates any difficulty, conflict or issue in the State, which should resolve everyone’s difficulties:

El hombre masa ve en el Estado un poder anónimo, y como él se siente a sí mismo anónimo –vulgo-, cree que el Estado es cosa suya. Imagínese que sobreviene en la vida pública de un país cualquiera dificultad, conflicto o problema: el hombre-masa tenderá a exigir que inmediatamente lo asuma el Estado, que se encargue directamente de resolverlo con sus gigantescas e incontrastables medios.

“Papá Estado” as it is referred to in Spanish, will take care of anyone and everyone’s issues. The consequence is demolishing: no individual responsibility, no individual initiative, no entrepreneurship, a civil society that remains dead, asleep and moreover a political establishment that dictates what do to and how to proceed in every single aspect of life. Spaniards complain, demonstrate in the streets, demand that someone else resolve their issues. Wild strikes which heavily rely on collective bargaining finally grant oftentimes unfair benefits to a minority at the expense of a majority. Everyone protects its own feud. There is no common good, there is no sense of collectivism.

In What is Philosophy? Ortega y Gasset presents what is perhaps his most relevant innovation: the concept of generation. Another world is possible if… (Susan George, 2004) a new generation takes over:

Para que algo importante cambie en el mundo es preciso que cambie el tipo de hombre y –se entiende- el de mujer; es preciso que aparezcan muchedumbres de criaturas con una sensibilidad vital distinta de la antigua y homogénea entre sí. […] Yo incito a las generaciones nuevas de la intelectualidad española para que sean en este punto sobremanera exigentes, porque ésa es la condición esencial para que en un país llegue a haber en serio y con verdad vida intelectual. “Lo demás no es –como dice el personaje de una novela española- más que carrocería”.

Ortega y Gasset encourages the new generations of Spanish intellectuals to be particularly demanding, the only manner according to the philosopher to embrace a truly intellectual life. If Spanish intellectuals have been demanding, it must have been a minority as the impact has been rather inexistent. Reading and research habits are rare compared to France and Germany. Junk television and junk food are becoming mainstream and taking over. The man-mass is being seduced, alienated, abducted by the new contemporary gods of television and publicity. A fake glamour invades every corner. We show off not because we read literature, but because we watch Big Brother. We are becoming The Great Pretenders (name of a forthcoming article), who constantly pretend they know more than they actually do, who constantly acknowledge they read more than they actually do, a superficial society with no substance but the make up of extreme stupidity which spreads out at the speed of light through Facebook and Twitter.

In Mission of the University Ortega y Gasset emphasizes that the raison d’etre of the University is to shape tomorrow’s professionals, but moreover the future ruling elites:

La sociedad necesita buenos profesionales –jueces, médicos, ingenieros- y por eso está ahí la Universidad con su enseñanza profesional. Pero necesita antes que eso y más que eso asegurar la capacidad en otro género de profesión: la de mandar. En toda sociedad manda alguien –grupo o clase, pocos o muchos-. Y por mandar no entiendo tanto el ejercicio jurídico de una autoridad como la presión e influjo difusos sobre el cuerpo social.

A false perception of intelligence has invaded Spanish society. False intelligence characterizes charlatan politicians who dare to spread out their doctrine holding a High School diploma. False intelligence is to know by heart and to memorize, a principle upon which the Spanish educational fiasco is related. Those who really know remain ignored, sometimes living abroad:

Se juzga inteligentes a esos vanos charladores que llaman “políticos”. Se cree que es buen poeta, buen novelista, buen profesor el que más lugares comunes dice, el que mejor halaga al público repitiendo las tonterías que este pensaba veinte años hace.

Y en tanto los mejores, los que verdaderamente valen son poco conocidos, nadie les hace caso o, tal vez, se les combate en todas formas.

Ortega y Gassets writes Europe and the Idea of Nation in his late years during the 1950s. World War II is over. The Spanish Civil War concluded years back. His wisdom has reached a maximum and he looks to the future being fully aware of the lessons from the past. He reminds that politicians have become independent and interrupted the dialogue with the visionaries, the prophets. Incapable of foreseeing the future, of anticipating it, the political establishment drives us towards the unknown, relying on their ability to improvise, disguise, deceive:

Eludo precisar a qué gremio pertenecían los profetas. Baste decir que en la fauna humana representan la especie más opuesta al político. Siempre será este quien deba gobernar, y no el profeta; pero importa mucho a los destinos humanos que el político oiga siempre lo que el profeta grita o insinúa. Todas las grandes épocas de la historia han nacido de la sutil colaboración entre esos dos tipos de hombre. Y tal vez una de las causas profundas del actual desconcierto sea que desde hace dos generaciones los políticos se han declarado independientes y han cancelado esa colaboración. Merced a ello se ha producido el vergonzoso fenómeno de que, a estas alturas de la historia y de la civilización, navegue el mundo más a la deriva que nunca, entregado a una ciega mecánica.

The man-mass joins the group and is not accountable for any obligations. Individual blame is not to be admitted. The individual remains part of the group, which might accept the blame because there is no one in the group, in the mass who will accept any responsibility whatsoever. The man-mass delegates in the State. The State moves as a result one step forward and steps in everybody’s life. The State becomes an octopus whose arms are the political parties. It is not an alien invasion, but worse than it, a political invasion. No breathing is possible:

La lucha no será fácil, porque precisamente ahora el Estado rebasa por encima de todo lo que hasta el presente pretendía ser, y aun quiere llegar a ser lo que menos puede ser: se ha convertido en un Estado-beneficencia. Es conmovedora esta ternura que el Estado manifiesta hoy como Estado-beneficiencia. En el fondo querría el Estado defender desde el principio, de la mejor manera, al individuo contra los mayores peligros y querría hacer bien las cosas. Pero el resultado es que amenaza con asfixiar al individuo.

Only a miracle could change the landscape. Perhaps if Ortega y Gasset returned we might say “Yes we can”. It was not Robert Kennedy who said why not, it was Barack Obama. Let’s choose to not delegate in the State. Let’s choose to become individually responsible. Let’s choose to look ahead and say why not. A warning for politicians follows suit: you are no longer necessary. You’re fired.

In conclusion, we need Ortega y Gasset back.

4 Responses to "We Need Ortega y Gasset Back"

  1. SOUTHSPANIARD   December 4, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Oh, well, I should have smarted sooner. With 12 out of the last 30 posts in the Europe Channel written by this Monfort guy, I finally realized that probably you can get the soapbox as much as you want, as long as you pay for the privilege. And what we see is what happens when you have too much spare time and too much money in your hands.

    Anyway, this series of posts are for me more and more a reminder that a multilingual, educated, but heartless elite can be as dangerous as the mediocre, monolingual and clueless politicians so frequently found in top charges today.

    Let's remember just a couple of examples: Olli Rehn and our own Luis de Guindos are cultivated, multilingual people, full of degrees, but anyhow they are spreading countless pain and suffering to the whole Eurozone (Rehn) and Spain (Guindos), just for ideological reasons. Two paladins of the Very Serious People so hated by Paul Krugman, able to express themselves in several languages, but absolutely convinced on the curative virtues of pain to straighten out the economy, and totally lacking any empathy for the people who must survive with miserly wages.

    Finally Monfort's posts of late remind me the lines of that film "Down Periscope", when 2nd officer Pascal is mutining against Captain Dodge:

    "So I need, I would like, your support in asking that the captain hand over command of the Stingray …. TO ME ".

  2. Espanol2022   December 10, 2013 at 5:01 am

    After reading several of the post of Pozuelo-Monfort, I do not understand how a group led by Nouriel Roubini Blog allows this man to continue writing. Reviews Pozuelo-Monfort, always negative towards Spain, are not supported by rigorous analysis. Instead, they are simply personal beliefs, far removed from a fair analysis of the Spanish reality.
    Pozuelo-Monfort should be devoted to teaching languages ​​(in his CV says he speaks 6 languages ¡¡¡), because it shows little knowledge of the Spanish economy.
    It's a shame to see such a fellow poured negative, false and baseless opinions, about his country. I wonder what would happen if an American citizen.

  3. Rojoybago   December 13, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Jaime,

    You are so right!!; thinking about the country makes we want to cry. I truly believe that we will never change. Soooooo frustrating it makes me want to scream :).

    Pablo

  4. elpareja   April 10, 2016 at 10:51 am

    I am also amazed that in Roubini's web site someone can call for Ortega y Gasset to come back. This philosopher was an anti-science and anti-technology person (see e.g. http://el-pareja.blogspot.com/2016/03/148-rey-des…. Since he didn't understand the value of science he could not understand economics. There are16 other posts on my blog on Ortega as you can look at him from his book La rebelión de las masas. Best regards.