The Revolt of the Masses
by José Ortega y Gasset
W.W. Norton & Company – 1930 (1993)
“This proves that experimental science is one of the most unlikely products of history. Seers, priests, warriors and shepherds have abounded in all times and places. But this fauna of experimental man apparently requires for its production a combination of circumstances more exceptional than those that engender the unicorn.”
It is not a question of the mass-man being a fool. On the contrary, to-day he is more clever, has more capacity of understanding than his fellow of any previous period. But that capacity is of no use to him; in reality, the vague feeling that he possesses it seems only to shut him up more within himself and keep him from using it. Once for all, he accepts the stock of commonplaces, prejudices, fag-ends of ideas or simply empty words which chance has piled up within his mind, and with a boldness only explicable by his ingenuousness, is prepared to impose them everywhere. This is what in my first chapter I laid down as the characteristic of our time; not that the vulgar believes itself super-excellent and not vulgar, but that the vulgar proclaims and imposes the rights of vulgarity, or vulgarity as a right. (70)
The political doctrine which has represented the loftiest endeavour towards common life is liberal democracy. It carries to the extreme the determination to have consideration for one’s neighbour and is the prototype of “indirect action.” Liberalism is that principle of political rights, according to which the public authority, in spite of being all-powerful, limits itself and attempts, even at its own expense, to leave room in the State over which it rules for those to live who neither think nor feel as it does, that is to say as do the stronger, the majority. Liberalism – it is well to recall this to-day – is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet. It announces the determination to share existence with the enemy; more than that, with an enemy which is weak. It was incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so anti-natural. Hence, it is not to be wondered at that this same humanity should soon appear anxious to get rid of it. It is a discipline too difficult and complex to take firm root on earth.
Share our existence with the enemy! Govern with the opposition! Is not such a form of tenderness beginning to seem incomprehensible? Nothing indicates more clearly the characteristics of the day than the fact that there are so few countries where an opposition exists. In almost all, a homogeneous mass weighs on public authority and crushes down, annihilates every opposing group. The mass – who would credit it as one sees its compact, multitudinous appearance? – does not wish to share life with those who are not of it. It has a deadly hatred of all that is not itself. (76-77)
What is the significance to us of so paradoxical a situation? This essay is an attempt to prepare the answer to that question. The meaning is that the type of man dominant to-day is a primitive one, a Naturmensch rising up in the midst of a civilised world. The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of his soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible, character of civilisation, and does not extend his enthusiasm for the instruments to the principles which make them possible. When some pages back, by a transposition of the words of Rathenau, I said that we are witnessing the “vertical invasion of the barbarians” it might be thought (it generally is) that it was only a matter of a “phrase.” It is now clear that the expression may enshrine a truth or an error, but that it is the very opposite of a “phrase,” namely: a formal definition which sums up a whole complicated analysis. The actual mass-man is, in fact, a primitive who has slipped through the wings on to the age-old stage of civilisation.
There is continual talk to-day of the fabulous progress of technical knowledge; but I see no signs in this talk, even amongst the best, of a sufficiently dramatic realisation of its future. Spengler himself, so subtle and profound – though so subject to mania – appears to me in this matter far too optimistic. For he believes that “culture” is to be succeeded by an era of “civilisation,” by which word he understands more especially technical efficiency. The idea that Spengler has of “culture” and of history in general is so remote from that underlying this essay, that it is not easy, even for the purpose of correction, to comment here upon his conclusions. It is only by taking great leaps and neglecting exact details, in order to bring both view-points under a common denominator, that it is possible to indicate the difference between us. Spengler believes that “technicism” can go on living when interest in the principles underlying culture are dead. I cannot bring myself to believe any such thing. Technicism and science are consubstantial, and science no longer exists when it ceases to interest for itself alone, and it cannot so interest unless men continue to feel enthusiasm for the general principles of culture. If this fervour is deadened – as appears to be happening – technicism can only survive for a time, for the duration of the inertia of the cultural impulse which started it. We live with our technical requirements, but not by them. These give neither nourishment nor breath to themselves, they are not causae sui, but a useful, practical precipitate of superfluous; unpractical activities.(1) I proceed, then, to the position that the actual interest in technical accomplishment guarantees nothing, less than nothing, for the progress or the duration of such accomplishment. It is quite right that technicism should be considered one of the characteristic features of “modern culture,” that is to say, of a culture which comprises a species of science which proves materially profitable. Hence, when describing the newest aspect of the existence implanted by the XIXth Century, I was left with these two features: liberal democracy and technicism. But I repeat that I am astonished at the ease with which when speaking of technicism it is forgotten that its vital centre is pure science, and that the conditions for its continuance involve the same conditions that render possible pure scientific activity. Has any thought been given to the number of things that must remain active in men’s souls in order that there may still continue to be “men of science” in real truth? Is it seriously thought that as long as there are dollars there will be science? This notion in which so many find rest is only a further proof of primitivism. As if there were not numberless ingredients, of most disparate nature, to be brought together and shaken up in order to obtain the cocktail of physico-chemical science! Under even the most perfunctory examination of this subject, the evident fact bursts into view that over the whole extent of space and time, physico-chemistry has succeeded in establishing itself completely only in the small quadrilateral enclosed by London, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, and that only in the XIXth Century. This proves that experimental science is one of the most unlikely products of history. Seers, priests, warriors and shepherds have abounded in all times and places. But this fauna of experimental man apparently requires for its production a combination of circumstances more exceptional than those that engender the unicorn. Such a bare, sober fact should make us reflect a little on the supervolatile, evaporative character of scientific inspiration.(2) Blissful the man who believes that, were Europe to disappear, the North Americans could continue science! It would be of great value to treat the matter thoroughly and to specify in detail what are the historical presuppositions, vital to experimental science and, consequently, to technical accomplishment. But let no one hope that, even when this point was made clear, the mass-man would understand. The mass-man has no attention to spare for reasoning, he learns only in his own flesh. (82-85)
(1) Hence, to my mind, a definition of North America by its “technicism” tells us nothing. One of the things that most seriously confuse the European mind is the mass of puerile judgments that one hears pronounced on North America even by the most cultured persons. This is one particular case of the disproportion which I indicate later on as existing between the complexity of present-day problems and the capacity of present-day minds.
(2) This, without speaking of more internal questions. The majority of the investigators themselves have not to-day the slightest suspicion of the very grave and dangerous internal crisis through which their science is passing.
I persist then, at the risk of boring the reader, in making the point that this man full of uncivilised tendencies, this newest of the barbarians, is an automatic product of modern civilisation, especially of the form taken by this civilisation in the XIXth Century. He has not burst in on the civilised world from outside like the “great white barbarians” of the Vth Century; neither has he been produced within it by spontaneous, mysterious generation, as Aristotle says of the tadpoles in the pond; he is its natural fruit. One may formulate, as follows, a law confirmed by palaeontology and bio-geography: human life has arisen and progressed only when the resources it could count on were balanced by the problems it met with. This is true, as much in the spiritual order as in the physical.
The civilisation of the XIXth Century is, then, of such a character that it allows the average man to take his place in a world of superabundance, of which he perceives only the lavishness of the means at his disposal, nothing of the pains involved. He finds himself surrounded by marvelous instruments, healing medicines, watchful governments, comfortable privileges. On the other hand, he is ignorant how difficult it is to invent those medicines and those instruments and to assure their production in the future; he does not realise how unstable is the organisation of the State and is scarcely conscious to himself of any obligations. This lack of balance falsifies his nature, vitiates it in its very roots, causing him to lose contact with the very substance of life, which is made up of absolute danger, is radically problematic. The form most contradictory to human life that can appear among the human species is the “self-satisfied man.” Consequently, when he becomes the predominant type, it is time to raise the alarm and to announce that humanity is threatened with degeneration, that is, with relative death. (101-102)