[EN, ES] The Revolt of the Masses (Rebelión de las Masas), by José Ortega y Gasset — Book Review from a Stoic perspective

This was my first attempt at a complete book review: I wrote it in March 2016 and posted it only in the Traditional Stoicism FB group, and recently rediscovered in a stroke of chance — or Fate. I decided to refurbish it and make it the first post in this… blog… of mine.

A close Stoic friend from Spain very kindly bought a copy of this book and shipped it all the way to Brazil as a gift to me. He had been strongly recommending it to me a few days before, sending me some excerpts as teasers. When the book finally arrived, I immediately set off to read it. As I delved into the book, I quickly understood why my friend had been so certain I would like it.

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BOOK AND INTRODUCTION TO THE THESIS

José Ortega y Gasset’s magnum opus is a panoramic treatise on ethics. It manages to be both broad in its range of topics and deep incisive is a more accurate description in the exposition and discussion of each topic that is covered, and all in the short space of 322 pages in the original edition!

Ortega

Portrait of author José Ortega y Gasset. Source

The author proposes to analyze the human condition specifically in Spain in the interwar period (1920s to early 1930s), but what basically happened is that, in doing so, it was soon discovered that his analysis extrapolated both the time and the space he had meant to write about. Thus, Rebelión became a universal book, translated to dozens of languages, earning a place as the best known and most influential Spanish book from the 20th Century within the West.

Despite being widely circulated, Rebelión was also widely misinterpreted, by no fault of Ortega’s as the reader will find many disclaimers by the author himself throughout the text but by the general tenor of many readers, which, in one of Fate’s humorous ironies, only served to strengthen his thesis. Many readers of Rebelión arrive at it believing it to be a mere political treatise, and try to assign some partisan label to Ortega who disclaims time and time again that his view is informed by philosophy, which encompasses politics, or rather, approaches it from a more holistic front (from above, if you will), integrating it with other essential elements of human existence: culture, ethics, religion, science all of them vital (and as we Stoics know, strongly interwoven), in order to capture a realistic snapshot of human existence. This was, of course, lost to all these uni-dimensional readers.

The main argument of the book is that, from the Industrial Revolution onward, a new type of human being began to predominate: the mass-man (hombre-masa in the original). They had always existed, but the peculiar conjuncture of the 20th century caused them to believe themselves “knowledgeable enough” about the most varied subjects of life, “shutting their souls” to those persons who are truly knowledgeable, and have been responsible throughout history for shaping events: statesmen, scientists, traders, inventors, doctors, lawgivers, diplomats, warriors, philosophers.

(I cannot come close to Ortega in his exposition: I can only give a very rough idea of it)

THE EXCELLENT MAN: STOIC ASKESIS

What most grabbed my attention and this is perhaps where we arrive at Stoicism proper was his strong description of this latter sort of human, which he used various adjectives to describe throughout the text: the excellent man, the individual man, the noble man, the singularized man, the select man. (respectively: el hombre excelente, el hombre individualizado, el hombre nobre, el hombre singularizado, el hombre selecto). I will let the excerpts speak for themselves, merely providing my own translation to English:

Mas el hombre selecto no es el petulante que se cree superior a los demás, sino el que se exige más que los demás.

[But the select man is not that petulant man who believes himself superior to the rest, but he who demands more from himself than the rest.]

Para mí, nobleza es sinónimo de vida esforzada, puesta siempre a superarse a sí misma, a trascender de lo que ya es hacia lo que se propone como deber y exigencia. De esta manera, la vida noble queda contrapuesta a la vida vulgar o inerte, que, estáticamente, se recluye a sí misma, condenada a perpetua immanencia, como una fuerza exterior no la obligue a salir de sí. De aquí que llamemos masa a este modo de ser hombre, no tanto porque sea multitdinario, cuanto porque es inerte.

Conforme se avanza por la existencia, va uno hartándose de advertir que la mayor parte de los ombres – y de las mujeres – son incapaces de otro esfuerzo que el estrictamente impuesto como reacción a una necesidad externa. Por lo mismo, quedan más aislados y como monumentalizados en nuestra experiencia los poquísimos seres que hemos conocido capaces de un esfuerzo espontáneo e lujoso. Son los hombres selectos, los únicos activos, y no sólo reactivos, para quienes vivir es una perpetua tensión, un incesate entrenamiento. Entrenamiento = áskesis. Son los ascetas.”

[For me, nobility is equal to the strenuous life*, always working to best itself, to transcend what it is towards what it proposes to be, as duty and demand. In this manner, the noble life is opposed to the vulgar or inert life, which statically confines itself within itself, condemned to perpetual immanence, lest an external force compel it to exit itself. We shall call this mode of living “mass”, not mainly because it is numerous, but because it is inert.

As one advances throughout existence, one gets tired of warning that the great majority of men — and women — are incapable of any other effort except that which is strictly imposed as a reaction to an external need. For the same reason, those very few beings which we have known to be capable of spontaneous and profuse effort become as if isolated and monumentalized within our experience (memory). They are the select men, the only active ones, as opposed to reactive, to whom to live is perpetual tension**, incessant training. Training = askesis. They are the ascetics.]

* with due credit to Theodore Roosevelt for the fitting term — his motto —, which I took the liberty of using in my translation.
** Stoic pneuma’s tonos!

THE NATIONALIZING IMPULSE: STOIC OIKEIOSIS

Do not be alarmed by the title! The nationalizing impulse (impulso nacionalizador) Ortega speaks about is not the excludent nationalism which still causes such strife in the world (2019 note: even more now than when this review was written), but rather its opposite, an old friend of us Stoics: the gradual widening of our circles of affection, oikeiosis! While he does not describe it in Stoic terms, the impulso nacionalizador is in all effects equivalent to the Stoic notion.

Oikeiosis MountainStoic

Illustration of the circles of concern in Stoic oikeiosis. Borrowed from fellow Stoic author Kevin Patrick’s great blog post

Ortega unravels the history of the formation of nations, using his Spain as one of the examples, but not the only one — he also writes at length about Europe as a whole unit. How León and Castille, two separate kingdoms, united in the Middle Ages, how this union then united with Aragón in the 15th century, and so on. He shows the reader about how these unions surprisingly occur from the bottom up, first and foremost in the minds of the population — as distinct populations mature across generations and see themselves with more and more similarities, and less and less differences, with their neighbors — which is then translated into political action.

He defended that these gradual integrations across history (the widening of the circles!) are the natural inclination of humanity, and that there soon would be a time in which nation-states would give way to transnational units. He wrote the book in 1938. He predicted the European Union in it, but was not alive to see it consummated…

… whereas nationalism, the dividing one, is but a symptom of the ‘revolt of the masses’, which is to say of those human beings with “shut souls” — but I will leave this as a teaser.

CIRCUMSTANCE AND DECISION: STOIC FATE

Ortega’s musings on the nature of Fate are also remarkable in their clarity and balance — the product of a man with great practical wisdom (the classical virtue of phronesis).

Here too I will let one excerpt speak for itself:

“La vida, que es, ante todo, lo que podemos ser, vida posible, es también, y por lo mismo, decidir entre las posibilidades lo que en efecto vamos a ser. Circunstancia y decisión son los dos elementos radicales de que se compone la vida.

La circunstancia —las posibilidades— es lo que de nuestra vida nos es dado e impuesto. Ello constituye lo que llamamos el mundo. La vida no elige su mundo, sino que vivir es encontrarse desde luego en un mundo determinado e incanjeable: en éste de ahora. Nuestro mundo es la dimensión de fatalidad que integra nuestra vida. Pero esta fatalidad vital no se parece a la mecánica. No somos disparados sobre la existencia como la bala de un fusil, cuya trayectoria está absolutamente predeterminada. La fatalidad en que caemos al caer en este mundo —el mundo es siempre éste, éste de ahora— consiste en todo lo contrario. En vez de imponernos una trayectoria, nos impone varias, y, consecuentemente, nos fuerza… a elegir.

¡Sorprendente condición la de nuestra vida! Vivir es sentirse fatalmente forzado a ejercitar la libertad, a decidir lo que vamos a ser en este mundo. Ni un solo instante se deja descansar a nuestra actividad de decisión. Inclusive cuando desesperados nos abandonamos a lo que quiera venir, hemos decidido no decidir.

Es, pues, falso decir que en la vida «deciden las circunstancias». Al contrario: las circunstancias son el dilema, siempre nuevo, ante el cual tenemos que decidirnos. Pero el que decide es nuestro carácter.”

[Life, which is, above all, what we can be, possible life, is also, for the same reason, to decide among the possibilities what we will in effect become. Circumstance and decision are the two radical elements of which life is composed.

Circumstance — the possibilities — is what is given and imposed to us by life. It constitutes what we call the world. Life does not choose its world; rather, to live is to find oneself suddenly in a determined and unchangeable world: this current one. Our world is the dimension of fatality that integrates our life. But this vital fatality is not like the mechanical. We are not fired at existence like a rifle bullet, whose trajectory is absolutely predetermined. The fatality into which we wall as we fall into this world — the world is always this one, this current one — consists in all the opposite. Instead of imposing a trajectory on us, it imposes several, and, as a consequence, forces us… to choose.

Surprising condition of our life! To live is to feel fatally forced to exercise liberty, to decide what we are going to be in this world. Not even for an instant does it let our activity of decision rest. Even when, desperate, we abandon ourselves to come what may, we have decided not to decide.

It is, therefore, false to say that “circumstances decide” in life. The contrary: circumstances are the dilemma, always new, at the threshold of which we must decide ourselves. But it is our character that decides.]

In another excerpt, Ortega affirms that life is lived “from the inside out, not from the outside in”. But let that also be a teaser to read the book. 🙂

CONCLUSION

This is one of the few books I have read which have had an immediate intense, strong, resonating impact within my core as I read them***. It immediately entered my canon of ‘core books’, which are even physically kept on a distinct shelf when possible.

As you can probably tell from my review, I categorically recommend this book. It will enrich our discussions with fresh perspectives and even help to counterbalance the many misinterpretations of it that lie out there — since this is a space for select men and women, not hombres-masa or mujeres-masa. In fact, no Stoic that I know of is an hombre-masa, maybe because no Stoic today stumbles upon Stoicism: it is a worldview adopted deliberately and, far more often than not, after much study and ponderation.

It seems to me that part of becoming a Stoic (or recognizing oneself as one, as it often happens to many people who discover the philosophy and feel they have always ‘kind of lived like this’) is intrinsically linked to this singularization, this individuation that Ortega so eloquently describes.

Rebelión indeed is not a book on politics at all. It strikes a far deeper vein of human experience, and we all have much to gain from studying it.

And to my friend, I merely say this:
¡Muchísimas gracias por el regalo, caro amigo!

————

*** other books on the ‘Core shelf’ are:

This is not an exhaustive list, but its contents are quite fixed and not at all in flux. New arrivals come rarely already, and few if any titles are ever removed from it.

LINKS TO THE REVIEWED BOOK