The Revolt of the Masses
by José Ortega y Gasset.
W. W. Norton, [1930] 1994, 192 pages.

Reviewed by Pedro Blas González

When the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) published his seminal work The Revolt of the Masses (La Rebellion de las Masas) in 1930, he was addressing the decadent mores of Western man by reflecting on the Europe of his day. Ortega had previously addressed this same theme in his book España Invertebrada. That book was published in 1929 and translated into English as Invertebrate Spain in 1974. It addressed questions of moral and political leadership and served as the catalyst for Ortega’s analysis of the effect that existential mediocrity has on all societal values and institutions.

Ortega argued that in the early part of the twentieth century Spanish society was led by people who had neither the necessary talent nor desire to transcend their own personal inadequacies. These existential shortcomings, Ortega emphasized, were transferred to the institutions these mediocre people headed. Thus, this “invertebration” refers to people in power who are not qualified to lead, and who refuse to take advice from those who are qualified. This pronouncement marks the first time that Ortega pointed out the moral qualities of mass man.

The Revolt of the Masses is not an unprecedented turn in Ortega’s thought. This masterful work is his attempt at a sociology of knowledge that seeks to find the foundations of societal, thus public existence, and how this is formed by vital reason (e.g. the notion of inherently lived values) in our actions. “Vital reason” is a central thread in the fabric of Ortega’s work. Vital reason, for Ortega, is the subjective, self-aware component of human existence. He argues that every person has the responsibility of deciphering for himself the direction of the values he embraces. From such values radiate all of our moral and thus societal actions. Even though Ortega treats the problem of mass society in historical terms, the book remains an insightful metaphysical journey that sheds much light into the nature of man.

Ortega’s thought pays much attention to philosophical anthropology. His insightful analysis has an acute power of penetrating to the core of human existential concerns without recoiling into the trite and often fashionable whims of ideology. As such, this book is an essential tool in the hands of anyone interested in what is deemed today as political philosophy. I have explored these and related questions in my book, Ortega’s ‘The revolt of the Masses’ and the Triumph of the New Man.

Ortega is quick to point out that all political, in fact, all social activity always recoils back into metaphysics. His collected work exhibits a measured and rational account of reality that is often absent from other thinkers who dabble in political philosophy. It is precisely for this reason that The Revolt of the Masses is anathema to the political catch phrases of the twentieth century. Ortega juxtaposes words like mass, minority, rebellion, and social justice with such currently unpopular, yet timeless ideas as nobility of spirit, meritocracy, duty, individuality, and character. To judge this profound and nuanced book by its cover, one would think that materialists of all denominations would be enthralled with such a work, or at least its alluring title. That is not the case.

There is no denying that man is imbued with a metaphysical—and hence an existential—subjectivity that allows for individuality. This basic existential reality is grounded in our ability to view ourselves as conscious entities. In other words, man is capable of self-knowledge. This auto-knosis cannot be separated from our ability to fashion values for ourselves. In addition, our existential condition is temporally driven: man is a future-oriented being. Ortega argues that this pole of human existence is always put to the test by the conditions brought about by human agglomeration. Therefore, the matrix of Ortega’s dual notions of mass man and noble man is rooted in the understanding that man is an existential being that can transcend his own temporal circumstances.

One reason The Revolt of the Masses does not receive the attention it merits is that Ortega’s thought is a refutation of philosophical materialism. He embraces metaphysical conceptions of personhood and the perennial, anthro-philosophical question, “What is man?” It is appropriate to point out that Ortega rejects the sociological view of man founded on the model of the natural sciences. His thought does not begin with societal institutions and only subsequently acknowledge the role of the individual, as do social-political materialists. Instead, his concern is with the nature of the individual, in both his splendor and his depravity, and only then with the contribution the individual makes to society.

This understanding is criticized by positivists as being nothing more than a bourgeois metaphysical supposition. But from the first page of The Revolt of the Masses the author asserts, “It is important from the start to avoid giving to the words, ‘rebellion,’ ‘masses,’ and ‘social power’ a meaning exclusively or primarily political.” Ortega’s attempt at creating a constructive and rational foundation for political philosophy is basis enough for Marxists, socialists, and even today’s liberals to brand him with a slew of spirited names in attempts to discredit his work. This is lamentable. Fortunately, Ortega is not alone in this respect. In scholarship, as in all other interpersonal human endeavors, the role that good will plays must remaina prerequisite of engagement.

The import of his disclaimer in the opening pages of this classic philosophical text is to make clear that his terms mass man and its counterpart, noble man, apply irrespective of social standing, formal education, wealth, race, or gender. Ortega’s thought is the result of careful philosophical analysis. In turn, he views the mass mind as believing “that it has the right to impose and to give force of law to notions born in the cafés.” Having asserted this, he begins his essential assault on the sacred cows of philosophical materialism.

Ortega traces the nature of the masses back to the Roman Empire. The masses, as a matter of sheer number, have always existed, but he contends that they did not begin to direct the course of history until the French Revolution:

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.

This pattern, he argues, has shifted and has consequently inverted the order of human reality. The movement of the masses into the “places of relatively refined creation of human culture” has meant that the place of the noble man has been relegated to that of the “chorus.”

However, in true Ortegan fashion, he makes his case with metaphysical reflection, not with political ideology. He writes of the masses, “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 impose them wherever it will.” The mass man, he reasons, is that character type who refuses to demand more of himself—one who does not attempt to transcend himself in lieu of objectifying material forces, and who expects the same attitude in others. Instead, the mass man “crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select.” Hence, the concept of the multitude is often nothing other than the reality of quantitative agglomeration being guided by social inertia. Ortega refers to this condition as indicative of “the social mass.”

It is important to recognize that Ortega’s notion of the masses is not one of a strict sociological order. Instead, his rendition of mass man is a meta-existential understanding of human life from a vital, self-reflective consciousness. He is not merely interested in how societies are arranged. Ortega argues that society is always made up of a combination of minorities and masses. However, the “minority” Ortega recognizes is nothing other than a nobility of effort. Mass man does not signify social class, but a slipshod spirit of “just getting by.” The philosophical cornerstone of Ortega’s work is the notion that reason—vital reason, as opposed to pure reason—is essential in man’s desire to know himself, thus making it possible to engage constructively with society.

Ortega’s sociology runs counter to positivist sociology, which has destructively dominated that academic discipline since its inception by Auguste Comte. Ortega observes that the perennial “empirical” notions having to do with social customs, environmental factors of personality, and class differences, for instance, themselves originate and thus depend on the inherent metaphysical differences between minority (nobility) and mass man. The noble man, then, is seen as imposing on himself all three of the character-building traits desired by the ancient Romans: pietas, gravitas, and dignitas.

It is essential to point out that these two poles are not static. There exists a tension in human existence that allows for mobility between the poles by conscientious individuals. His categories of mass and noble man thus cut through all other traditional notions of class. Ortega explains:

But strictly speaking, within both of 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.

We can see here Ortega returning political discourse to the realm of metaphysics as well as depoliticizing a portion of human reality that is not political to begin with.

The Revolt of the Masses merits attention today in light of the devastating results of totalitarian and socially engineered societies. In this book as well as in others including Phenomenology of Art, The Dehumanization of Art, and Man and Crisis, Ortega analyzes the many guises of modernity and its unfortunate legacy for Western culture. For instance, he makes a distinction between pure science and what he refers to as technicism, which is a crucial impediment to the continual interest of theoretical science. Science ought to interest us, he says, for its own intrinsic value and not as a handmaiden of applied science:

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.

The culprit of our current troubles is the widening axiological scope of societal values in Western culture. The spirit of science as reflecting a sense of wonder is given a central position in Ortega’s thought. Science, he tells us, is initially a philosophical search for the unifying principles of nature—thus the ancient Greek word Physis. According to Ortega, scientists engage nature in a duel, as it were, where nature is challenged to come forth and reveal its secrets. This attitude displays an intrinsic desire for knowledge and not simply utility.

The marriage of pure science and nineteenth-century liberalism brought about applied science, or what Ortega refers to as technicism. But technicism does not embrace the spirit of knowledge. According to Ortega, specialization makes scientists self-satisfied people. This attitude places such scientists in the category of mass man. The practical applications of technicism have immense dangers for the mass man, for these advances in science are not understood or appreciated by the masses. The result is what he calls the “psychology of the spoiled child.” The spoiled child has no self-imposed limits to his caprice nor, tellingly, any sense of obligation. Ortega points out that the spoiled child naturally assumes that everything is ready-made, and therefore always available on demand. The mass man is not capable of appreciating the advances made by science because it does not know where they originate:

Thus is explained and defined the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses; they are only concerned with their own well-being, and at the same time they remain alien to the cause of that well-being. As they do not see, behind the benefits of civilization, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight, they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.

Ortega is prophetic in realizing—to the chagrin of utopian intellectuals—that the very core of all societal values, customs, social manners, economics, and political activity is guided by a metaphysical foundation and not material forces. His genius lies in understanding that man is a “radical-reality.” This means that man must reflect on his life prior to affecting any meaningful engagement with society at large. Ortega’s notion, “I am I and my circumstances,” is equivalent to the Socratic dictum, “know thyself.” By addressing man as the matrix of all social-economic-political realities, he makes a statement; one that makes collectivization of any kind a secondary reality in lieu of the primal freedom of the self. Like Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, Ortega insists that human existence must retain wonder and awe as its key element. He writes, “this is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the reason of unreason.”

Today we are living with an explosion of mindless sensualism, accompanying a dizzying array of “isms,” a proliferation of ethnic and gender studies, and other fashionable intellectual movements. These pseudo-intellectual trends attempt to undermine the history of Western philosophy. Each aims to move from fashion to coercion, concerned signally with securing power for their practitioners and their cheerleaders. It takes little effort to recognize that these contemporary trends are motivated by raw political power and not out of respect or desire for knowledge proper. They are best summed up as intellectual gymnastics and profound-sounding trompe l’oeil. They are never concerned with a humanistic scope, but only seek to legitimize a social-political bonum utile. The inherent danger in this politicization of values and human reality is that humanistic values today are subsumed by radical ideology.

Ortega saw this state of affairs in the Europe of his day. He recognizes the detrimental effects on genuine philosophical reflection by the assault on reason of positivism in its many guises. While the grandeur of philosophy has been eroded as both a discipline of rigorous study and a way of life—one that allows man to confront himself with what Marcel calls the “mystery of being”—Ortega, in the face of the popular materialist movements of the twentieth century, helps us to return metaphysics to the core of philosophy.  

Pedro Blas González is a Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, and had published Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega y Gasset’s Philosophy of Subjectivity, Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy, Ortega’s ‘The Revolt of the Masses’ and the Triumph of the New Man, Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay, and Dreaming in the Cathedral.