Books by Ortega y Gasset, Josť

Ortega y Gasset, Josť. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, [1930, 1932, 1964] 1993. ISBN 0-393-31095-7.
This book, published more than seventy-five years ago, when the twentieth century was only three decades old, is a simply breathtaking diagnosis of the crises that manifested themselves in that century and the prognosis for human civilisation. The book was published in Spanish in 1930; this English translation, authorised and approved by the author, by a translator who requested to remain anonymous, first appeared in 1932 and has been in print ever since.

I have encountered few works so short (just 190 pages), which are so densely packed with enlightening observations and thought-provoking ideas. When I read a book, if I encounter a paragraph that I find striking, either in the writing or the idea it embodies, I usually add it to my “quotes” archive for future reference. If I did so with this book, I would find myself typing in a large portion of the entire text. This is not an easy read, not due to the quality of the writing and translation (which are excellent), nor the complexity of the concepts and arguments therein, but simply due to the pure number of insights packed in here, each of which makes you stop and ponder its derivation and implications.

The essential theme of the argument anticipated the crunchy/soggy analysis of society by more than 65 years. In brief, over-achieving self-motivated elites create liberal democracy and industrial economies. Liberal democracy and industry lead to the emergence of the “mass man”, self-defined as not of the elite and hostile to existing elite groups and institutions. The mass man, by strength of numbers and through the democratic institutions which enabled his emergence, seizes the levers of power and begins to use the State to gratify his immediate desires. But, unlike the elites who created the State, the mass man does not think or plan in the long term, and is disinclined to make the investments and sacrifices which were required to create the civilisation in the first place, and remain necessary if it is to survive. In this consists the crisis of civilisation, and grasping this single concept explains much of the history of the seven decades which followed the appearance of the book and events today. Suddenly some otherwise puzzling things start to come into focus, such as why it is, in a world enormously more wealthy than that of the nineteenth century, with abundant and well-educated human resources and technological capabilities which dwarf those of that epoch, there seems to be so little ambition to undertake large-scale projects, and why those which are embarked upon are so often bungled.

In a single footnote on p. 119, Ortega y Gasset explains what the brilliant Hans-Hermann Hoppe spent an entire book doing: why hereditary monarchies, whatever their problems, are usually better stewards of the national patrimony than democratically elected leaders. In pp. 172–186 he explains the curious drive toward European integration which has motivated conquerors from Napoleon through Hitler, and collectivist bureaucratic schemes such as the late, unlamented Soviet Union and the odious present-day European Union. On pp. 188–190 he explains why a cult of youth emerges in mass societies, and why they produce as citizens people who behave like self-indulgent perpetual adolescents. In another little single-sentence footnote on p. 175 he envisions the disintegration of the British Empire, then at its zenith, and the cultural fragmentation of the post-colonial states. I'm sure that few of the author's intellectual contemporaries could have imagined their descendants living among the achievements of Western civilisation yet largely ignorant of its history or cultural heritage; the author nails it in chapters 9–11, explaining why it was inevitable and tracing the consequences for the civilisation, then in chapter 12 he forecasts the fragmentation of science into hyper-specialised fields and the implications of that. On pp. 184–186 he explains the strange attraction of Soviet communism for European intellectuals who otherwise thought themselves individualists—recall, this is but six years after the death of Lenin. And still there is more…and more…and more. This is a book you can probably re-read every year for five years in a row and get something more out of it every time.

A full-text online edition is available, which is odd since the copyright of the English translation was last renewed in 1960 and should still be in effect, yet the site which hosts this edition claims that all their content is in the public domain.

June 2006 Permalink