Jose Ortega Y Gasset - The Revolt of the Masses

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Revolt of the Masses


There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at the present moment. This fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilisation. Such a crisis has occurred more than once in history. Its characteristics and its consequences are well known. So also is its name. It is called the rebellion of the masses.

In order to understand this formidable fact, it is important from the start to avoid giving to the words “rebellion,” “masses,” and “social power” a meaning exclusively or primarily political. Public life is not solely political, but equally, and even primarily, intellectual, moral, economic, religious; it comprises all our collective habits, including our fashions both of dress and of amusement. Perhaps the best line of approach to this historical phenomenon may be found by turning our attention to a visual experience, stressing one aspect of our epoch which is plain to our very eyes. This fact is quite simple to enunciate, though not so to analyse. I shall call it the fact of agglomeration, of “plenitude.” Towns are full of people, houses full of tenants, hotels full of guests, trains full of travellers, cafes full of customers, parks full of promenaders, consulting — rooms of famous doctors fun of patients, theatres full of spectators, and beaches full of bathers. What previously was, in general, no problem, now begins to be an everyday one, namely, to find room. That is all. Can there be any fact simpler, more patent more constant in actual life? Let us now pierce the plain surface of this observation and we shall be surprised to see how there wells forth an unexpected spring in which the white light of day, of our actual day, is broken up into its rich chromatic content. What is it that we see, and the sight of which causes us so much surprise? We see the multitude, as such, in possession of the places and the instruments created by civilisation. The slightest reflection will then make us surprised at our own surprise. What about it? Is this not the ideal state of things? The theatre has seats to be occupied — in other words, so that the house may be full — and now they are overflowing; people anxious to use them are left standing outside. Though the fact be quite logical and natural, we cannot but recognise that this did not happen before and that now it does; consequently, there has been a change, an innovation, which justifies, at least for the first moment, our surprise. To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand. This is the sport, the luxury, special to the intellectual man.

The gesture characteristic of his tribe consists in looking at the world with eyes wide open in wonder. Everything in the world is strange and marvellous to well-open eyes. This faculty of wonder is the delight refused to your football “fan,” and, on the other hand, is the one which leads the intellectual man through life in the perpetual ecstasy of the visionary. His special attribute is the wonder of the eyes. Hence it was that the ancients gave Minerva her owl, the bird with ever-dazzled eyes. Agglomeration, fullness, was not frequent before. Why then is it now? The components of the multitudes around us have not sprung from nothing. Approximately the same number of people existed fifteen years ago. Indeed, after the war it might seem natural that their number should be less. Nevertheless, it is here we come up against the first important point. The individuals who made up these multitudes existed, but not qua multitude. Scattered about the world in small groups, or solitary, they lived a life, to all appearances, divergent, dissociate, apart. Each individual or small group occupied a place, its own, in country, village, town, or quarter of the great city. Now, suddenly, they appear as an agglomeration, and looking in any direction our eyes meet with the multitudes. Not only in any direction, but precisely in the best places, the relatively refined creation of human culture, previously reserved to lesser groups, in a word, to minorities. The multitude has suddenly become visible, installing itself in the preferential positions in society. Before, if it existed, it passed unnoticed, occupying the background of the social stage; now it has advanced to the footlights and is the principal character. There are no longer protagonists; there is only the chorus. The concept of the multitude is quantitative and visual. Without changing its nature, let us translate it into terms of sociology. We then meet with the notion of the “social mass.” Society is always a dynamic unity of two component factors: minorities and masses. The minorities are individuals or groups of individuals which are specially qualified. The mass is the assemblage of persons not specially qualified. By masses, then, is not to be understood, solely or mainly, “the working masses.” The mass is the average man. In this way what was mere quantity — the multitude — is converted into a qualitative determination: it becomes the common social quality, man as undifferentiated from other men, but as repeating in himself a generic type. What have we gained by this conversion of quantity into quality? Simply this: by means of the latter we understand the genesis of the former.

It is evident to the verge of platitude that the normal formation of a multitude implies the coincidence of desires, ideas, ways of life, in the individuals who constitute it. It will be objected that this is just what happens with every social group, however select it may strive to be. This is true; but there is an essential difference. In those groups which are characterised by not being multitude and mass, the effective coincidence of its members is based on some desire, idea, or ideal, which of itself excludes the great number. To form a minority, of whatever kind, it is necessary beforehand that each member separate himself from the multitude for special, relatively personal, reasons. Their coincidence with the others who form the minority is, then, secondary, posterior to their having each adopted an attitude of singularity, and is consequently, to a large extent, a coincidence in not coinciding. There are cases in which this singularising character of the group appears in the light of day: those English groups, which style themselves “nonconformists,” where we have the grouping together of those who agree only in their disagreement in regard to the limitless multitude. This coming together of the minority precisely in order to separate themselves from the majority is a necessary ingredient in the formation of every minority. Speaking of the limited public which listened to a musician of refinement, Mallarme wittily says that this public by its presence in small numbers stressed the absence of the multitude. Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is “mass” or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself — good or ill — based on specific grounds, but which feels itself “just like everybody,” and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else. Imagine a humble-minded man who, having tried to estimate his own worth on specific grounds — asking himself if he has any talent for this or that, if he excels in any direction — realises that he possesses no quality of excellence. Such a man will feel that he is mediocre and commonplace, ill-gifted, but will not feel himself “mass.” When one speaks of “select minorities” it is usual for the evil-minded to twist the sense of this expression, pretending to be unaware that the select man is not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest, but the man who demands more of himself than the rest, even though he may not fulfil in his person those higher exigencies.

For there is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves. This reminds me that orthodox Buddhism is composed of two distinct religions: one, more rigorous and difficult, the other easier and more trivial: the Mahayana — “great vehicle” or “great path” — and the Hinayana — “lesser vehicle” or “lesser path.” The decisive matter is whether we attach our life to one or the other vehicle, to a maximum or a minimum of demands upon ourselves. The division of society into masses and select minorities is, then, not a division into social classes, but into classes of men, and cannot coincide with the hierarchic separation of “upper” and “lower” classes. It is, of course, plain that in these “upper” classes, when and as long as they really are so, there is much more likelihood of finding men who adopt the “great vehicle,” whereas the “lower” classes normally comprise individuals of minus quality. But, strictly speaking, within both these social classes, there are to be found mass and genuine minority. As we shall see, a characteristic of our times is the predominance, even in groups traditionally selective, of the mass and the vulgar. Thus, in the intellectual life, which of its essence requires and presupposes qualification, one can note the progressive triumph of the pseudo-intellectual, unqualified, unqualifiable, and, by their very mental texture, disqualified. Similarly, in the surviving groups of the “nobility”, male and female. On the other hand, it is not rare to find to-day amongst working men, who before might be taken as the best example of what we are calling “mass,” nobly disciplined minds. There exist, then, in society, operations, activities, and functions of the most diverse order, which are of their very nature special, and which consequently cannot be properly carried out without special gifts. For example: certain pleasures of an artistic and refined character, or again the functions of government and of political judgment in public affairs. Previously these special activities were exercised by qualified minorities, or at least by those who claimed such qualification. The mass asserted no right to intervene in them; they realised that if they wished to intervene they would necessarily have to acquire those special qualities and cease being mere mass.

They recognised their place in a healthy dynamic social system. If we now revert to the facts indicated at the start, they will appear clearly as the heralds of a changed attitude in the mass. They all indicate that the mass has decided to advance to the foreground of social life, to occupy the places, to use the instruments and to enjoy the pleasures hitherto reserved to the few. It is evident, for example, that the places were never intended for the multitude, for their dimensions are too limited, and the crowd is continuously overflowing; thus manifesting to our eyes and in the clearest manner the new phenomenon: the mass, without ceasing to be mass, is supplanting the minorities. No one, I believe, will regret that people are to-day enjoying themselves in greater measure and numbers than before, since they have now both the desire and the means of satisfying it. The evil lies in the fact that this decision taken by the masses to assume the activities proper to the minorities is not, and cannot be, manifested solely in the domain of pleasure, but that it is a general feature of our time. Thus — to anticipate what we shall see later — I believe that the political innovations of recent times signify nothing less than the political domination of the masses. The old democracy was tempered by a generous dose of liberalism and of enthusiasm for law. By serving these principles the individual bound himself to maintain a severe discipline over himself. Under the shelter of liberal principles and the rule of law, minorities could live and act.

Democracy and law — life in common under the law — were synonymous. Today we are witnessing the triumphs of a hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure. It is a false interpretation of the new situation to say that the mass has grown tired of politics and handed over the exercise of it to specialised persons. Quite the contrary. That was what happened previously; that was democracy. The mass took it for granted that after all, in spite of their defects and weaknesses, the minorities understood a little more of public problems than it did itself. Now, on the other hand, the mass believes that it has the right to impose and to give force of law to notions born in the cafe. I doubt whether there have been other periods of history in which the multitude has come to govern more directly than in our own. That is why I speak of hyperdemocracy. The same thing is happening in other orders, particularly in the intellectual. I may be mistaken, but the present-day writer, when he takes his pen in hand to treat a subject which he has studied deeply, has to bear in mind that the average reader, who has never concerned himself with this subject, if he reads does so with the view, not of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader carries in his head. If the individuals who make up the mass believed themselves specially qualified, it would be a case merely of personal error, not a sociological subversion. The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: “to be different is to be indecent.” The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. And it is clear, of course, that this “everybody” is not “everybody.” “Everybody” was normally the complex unity of the mass and the divergent, specialised minorities. Nowadays, “everybody” is the mass alone. Here we have the formidable fact of our times, described without any concealment of the brutality of its features.
Niccolo and Donkey
Chapter II
Such, then, is the formidable fact of our times, described without any concealment of the brutality of its features. It is, furthermore, entirely new in the history of our modern civilisation. Never, in the course of its development, has anything similar happened. If we wish to find its like we shall have to take a leap outside our modern history and immerse ourselves in a world, a vital element, entirely different from our own; we shall have to penetrate the ancient world till we reach the hour of its decline. The history of the Roman Empire is also the history of the uprising of the Empire of the Masses, who absorb and annul the directing minorities and put themselves in their place. Then, also, is produced the phenomenon of agglomeration, of “the full.” For that reason, as Spengler has very well observed, it was necessary, just as in our day, to construct enormous buildings. The epoch of the masses is the epoch of the colossal. We are living, then, under the brutal empire of the masses. just so; I have now twice called this empire “brutal,” and have thus paid my tribute to the god of the commonplace. Now, ticket in hand, I can cheerfully enter into my subject, see the show from inside. Or perhaps it was thought that I was going to be satisfied with that description, possibly exact, but quite external; the mere features, the aspect under which this tremendous fact presents itself when looked at from the view-point of the past? If I were to leave the matter here and strangle off my present essay without more ado, the reader would be left thinking, and quite justly, that this fabulous uprising of the masses above the surface of history inspired me merely with a few petulant, disdainful words, a certain amount of hatred and a certain amount of disgust. This all the more in my case, when it is well known that I uphold a radically aristocratic interpretation of history. Radically, because I have never said that human society ought to be aristocratic, but a great deal more than that. What I have said, and still believe with ever-increasing conviction, is that human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.

Of course I am speaking now of society and not of the State. No one can imagine that, in the face of this fabulous seething of the masses, it is the aristocratic attitude to be satisfied with making a supercilious grimace, like a fine gentleman of Versailles. Versailles — the Versailles of the grimaces — does not represent aristocracy; quite the contrary, it is the death and dissolution of a magnificent aristocracy. For this reason, the only element of aristocracy left in such beings was the dignified grace with which their necks received the attentions of the guillotine; they accepted it as the tumour accepts the lancet. No; for anyone who has a sense of the real mission of aristocracies, the spectacle of the mass incites and enflames him, as the sight of virgin marble does the sculptor. Social aristocracy has no resemblance whatever to that tiny group which claims for itself alone the name of society, which calls itself “Society”; people who live by inviting or not inviting one another. Since everything in the world has its virtue and its mission, so within the vast world this small “smart world” has its own, but it is a very subordinate mission, not to be compared with the herculean task of genuine aristocracies. I should have no objection to discussing the meaning that lies in this smart world, to all appearance so meaningless, but our subject is now one of greater proportions. Of course, this self-same “distinguished society” goes with the times. Much food for thought was given me by a certain jeune fille en fleur , full of youth and modernity, a star of the first magnitude in the firmament of “smart” Madrid, when she said to me: “I can’t stand a dance to which less than eight hundred people have been invited.” Behind this phrase I perceived that the style of the masses is triumphant over the whole area of modern life, and imposes itself even in those sheltered corners which seemed reserved for the “happy few.”

I reject equally, then, the interpretation of our times which does not lay clear the positive meaning hidden under the actual rule of the masses and that which accepts it blissfully, without a shudder of horror. Every destiny is dramatic, tragic in its deepest meaning. Whoever has not felt the danger of our times palpitating under his hand, has not really penetrated to the vitals of destiny, he has merely pricked its surface. The element of terror in the destiny of our time is furnished by the overwhelming and violent moral upheaval of the masses; imposing, invincible, and treacherous, as is destiny in every case. Whither it leading us? Is it an absolute evil or a possible good?

There it is, colossal, astride our times like a giant, a cosmic note of interrogation, always of uncertain shape, with something in it of the guillotine or the gallows, but also with something that strives to round itself into a triumphal arch. The fact that we must submit to examination may be formulated under two headings: first, the masses are to-day exercising functions in social life which coincide with those which hitherto seemed reserved to minorities; and secondly, these masses have at the same time shown themselves indocile to the minorities — they do not obey them, follow them, or respect them; on the contrary, they push them aside and supplant them. Let us analyse what comes under the first heading. By it I mean that the masses enjoy the pleasures and use the instruments invented by the select groups, and hitherto exclusively at the service of the latter. They feel appetites and needs which were previously looked upon as refine. ments, inasmuch as they were the patrimony of the few. Take a trivial example: in 1820 there cannot have been ten bathrooms in private houses in Paris (see the Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne ). But furthermore, the masses to-day are acquainted with, and use with relative skill, many of the technical accomplishments previously confined to specialised individuals. And this refers not only to the technique of material objects, but, more important, to that of laws and society. In the XVIIIth Century, certain minority groups discovered that every human being, by the mere fact of birth, and without requiring any special qualification whatsoever, possessed certain fundamental political rights, the so-called rights of the man and the citizen and further that, strictly speaking, these rights, common to all, are the only ones that exist. Every other right attached to special gifts was condemned as being a privilege. This was at first a mere theory, the idea of a few men; then those few began to put the idea into practice, to impose it and insist upon it. Nevertheless, during the whole of the XIXth Century, the mass, while gradually becoming enthusiastic for those rights as an ideal, did not feel them as rights, did not exercise them or attempt to make them prevail, but, in fact, under democratic legislation, continued to feel itself just as under the old regime. The “people” — as it was then called — the “people” had learned that it was sovereign, but did not believe it. To-day the ideal has been changed into a reality; not only in legislation, which is the mere framework of public life, but in the heart of every individual, whatever his ideas may be, and even if he be a reactionary in his ideas, that is to say, even when he attacks and castigates institutions by which those rights are sanctioned.

To my mind, anyone who does not realise this curious moral situation of the masses can understand nothing of what is to-day beginning to happen in the world. The sovereignty of the unqualified individual, of the human being as such, generically, has now passed from being a juridical idea or ideal to be a psychological state inherent in the average man. And note this, that when what was before an ideal becomes a component part of reality, it inevitably ceases to be an ideal. The prestige and the magic that are attributes of the ideal are volatilised. The levelling demands of a generous democratic inspiration have been changed from aspirations and ideals into appetites and unconscious assumptions. Now, the meaning of this proclamation of the rights of man was none other than to lift human souls from their interior servitude and to implant within them a certain consciousness of mastery and dignity. Was it not this that it was hoped to do, namely, that the average man should feel himself master, lord, and ruler of himself and of his life? Well, that is now accomplished. Why, then, these complaints of the liberals, the democrats, the progressives of thirty years ago? Or is it that, like children, they want something, but not the consequences of that something? You want the ordinary man to be master. Well, do not be surprised if he acts for himself, if he demands all forms of enjoyment, if he firmly asserts his will, if he refuses all kinds of service, if he ceases to be docile to anyone, if he considers his own person and his own leisure, if he is careful as to dress: these are some of the attributes permanently attached to the consciousness of mastership. To-day we find them taking up their abode in the ordinary man, in the mass. The situation, then, is this: the life of the ordinary man is to-day made up of the same “vital repertory” which before characterised only the superior minorities. Now the average man represents the field over which the history of each period acts; he is to history what sea-level is to geography. If, therefore, to-day the mean-level lies at a point previously only reached by aristocracies, the signification of this is simply that the level of history has suddenly risen — after long subterraneous preparations, it is true — but now quite plainly to the eyes, suddenly, at a bound, in one generation. Human life taken as a whole has mounted higher. The soldier of to-day, we might say, has a good deal of the officer; the human army is now made up of officers. Enough to watch the energy, the determination, the ease with which each individual moves through life to-day, snatches at the passing pleasure, imposes his personal will.

Everything that is good and bad in the present and in the immediate future has its cause and root in the general rise of the historic level. But here an observation that had not previously occurred to us presents itself. This fact, that the ordinary level of life to-day is that of the former minorities, is a new fact in Europe, but in America the natural, the “constitutional” fact. To realise my point, let the reader consider the matter of consciousness of equality before the law. That psychological state of feeling lord and master of oneself and equal to anybody else, which in Europe only outstanding groups succeeded in acquiring, was in America since the XVIIIth Century (and therefore, practically speaking, always) the natural state of things. And a further coincidence, still more curious, is this: when this psychological condition of the ordinary man appeared in Europe, when the level of his existence rose, the tone and manners of European life in all orders suddenly took on a new appearance which caused many people to say: “Europe is becoming Americanised.” Those who spoke in this way gave no further attention to the matter; they thought it was a question of a slight change of custom, a fashion, and, deceived by the look of things, attributed it to some influence or other of America on Europe. This, to my mind, is simply to trivialise a question which is much more subtle and pregnant with surprises. Gallantry here makes an attempt to suborn me into telling our brothers beyond the sea that, in fact, Europe has become Americanised, and that this is due to an influence of America on Europe. But no; truth comes into conflict with gallantry, and it must prevail. Europe has not been Americanised; it has received no great influence from America. Possibly both these things are beginning to happen just now; but they did not occur in the recent part of which the present is the flowering. There is floating around a bewildering mass of false ideas which blind the vision of both parties, Americans and Europeans. The triumph of the masses and the consequent magnificent uprising of the vital level have come about in Europe for internal reasons, after two centuries of education of the multitude towards progress and a parallel economic improvement in society. But it so happens that the result coincides with the most marked aspect of American life; and on account of this coincidence of the moral situation of the ordinary man in Europe and in America, it has come about that for the first time the European understands American life which was to him before an enigma and a mystery. There is no question, then, of an influence, which indeed would be a little strange, would be, in fact, a “refluence,” but of something which is still less suspected, namely, of a levelling. It has always been obscurely seen by Europeans that the general level of life in America was higher than in the Old World. It was the intuition, strongly felt, if unanalysed, of this fact which gave rise to the idea, always accepted, never challenged, that the future lies with America. It will be understood that such an idea, widespread and deep-rooted, did not float down on the wind, as it is said that orchids grow rootless in the air.

The basis of it was the realisation of a higher level of average existence in America, in contrast with a lower level in the select minorities there as compared with those of Europe. But history, like agriculture, draws its nourishment from the valleys and not from the heights, from the average social level and not from men of eminence. We are living in a levelling period; there is a levelling of fortunes, of culture among the various social classes, of the sexes. Well, in the same way there is a levelling of continents, and as the European was formerly lower from a vital point of view, he has come out the gainer from this levelling. Consequently, from this standpoint, the uprising of the masses implies a fabulous increase of vital possibilities, quite the contrary of what we hear so often about the decadence of Europe. This is a confused and clumsy expression, in which it is not clear what is being referred to, whether it is the European states, or European culture, or what lies underneath all this, and is of infinitely greater importance, the vital activity of Europe. Of European states and culture we shall have a word to say later on- though perhaps what we have already said is enough- but as regards the vitality, it is well to make clear from the start that we are in the presence of a gross error. Perhaps if I give it another turn, my statement may appear more convincing or less improbable; I say, then, that to-day the average Italian, Spaniard, or German is less differentiated in vital tone from the North American or the Argentine than he was thirty years ago. And this is a fact that the people of America ought not to forget.

The above is an excerpt from The Revolt of the Masses, the English translation of José Ortega y Gasset’s La rebelión de las masas (1929). Chapters III-XV are available at ELLOPOS .

José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) was a Spanish philosopher.
Niccolo and Donkey

Thanks for posting this Nic.

Niccolo and Donkey
You're welcome.