The Revolt of the Masses

by José Ortega y Gasset

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The Revolt of the Masses had its seeds in an earlier book by José Ortega y Gasset, España invertebrada (1922; Invertebrate Spain, 1937), in an article titled “Masas” (1926), and several lectures delivered in Argentina in 1928. As he wrote in a footnote to the title of the first chapter, “My purpose now is to collect and complete what I have already said, and so to produce an organic document concerning the most important fact of our time.” In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gasset advocates a European confederation with judicial and political unity, an “integration, not a lamination,” of nations, ultranational rather than international, where a new liberalism and a totalitarian form will each correct the excesses of the other. The resulting equilibrium, he promises, would produce a new faith.

Among the few Spanish authors of the modern era known beyond his national boundaries, Ortega y Gasset, a professor of metaphysics, a literary critic, and a journalist, also was a representative of the school that believes in the rule of an intellectual aristocracy or small group of superior minds, not the privileged caste of the old feudal nobility. Born in Madrid, Ortega y Gasset sought in Málaga the thorough training of a Jesuit college, then earned his doctorate in philosophy at the Central University of Madrid in 1904. Further study in Germany preceded his teaching career in Madrid. When Primo de Rivera y Orbaneja became dictator, overthrowing the monarchy, Ortega y Gasset, a critic of the monarchy, stopped teaching and began to write for the influential El Sol. In 1923, he founded the Revista de Occidente, the leading Spanish intellectual publication until 1936. The ascendancy of another dictator, Francisco Franco, led to Ortega y Gasset’s leaving Spain. Ortega y Gasset traveled widely, lecturing in Buenos Aires, Paris, and the United States. Returning to Spain in 1945, he died in Madrid in 1955.

In the final paragraph to The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gasset acknowledges that his contemporary situation results from basic defects in European culture, but he postpones any consideration of that problem, and so the work is incomplete. However, for the Buenos Aires edition of 1938, Ortega y Gasset added a prologue for French readers and an epilogue for English readers, in which he denies the accusation that his theme was the decadence of Spain since 1580. He is no pessimist. While he does look back, he insists that a return to the past is impossible. Stressing the advances and improvements of the twentieth century, he asserts that if anything superior is eventually evolved, it will be based on technical knowledge and liberal democracy.

Ortega y Gasset’s main thesis is that among human beings there are two types of individuals: the excellent or superior man (or woman), who makes demands on himself, and the common man, who is content with who he is. The development and activities of these types are shown against the perspective of Western history. Greece and Rome evolved from rural communities and became cities. The ancients, concerned with their past, were unconscious of a future. Gradually the state came into existence, built in the Middle Ages by the feudal nobles. The state was relatively small. Ortega y Gasset quotes the economist Werner Sombart for the statement that Europe, from 700 to 1800, never had a population of more than 180 million people. Each state was directed by its superior individuals, without whom humanity would cease to preserve its essentials. The masses accepted higher authority and in general followed the orders of a select minority.


(This entire section contains 1356 words.)

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first divergence came when the bourgeoisie adopted gunpowder, which the nobles never thought of using, and with it won battles against the nobility. Eventually a middle class took over the state and made it so powerful that “state intervention” has become a symbol of danger. What were once privileges became rights, even though the masses attack the institutions by which these rights are sanctioned.

During the nineteenth century the population of Europe rose to 460 million people and part of it overflowed to settle in the Americas. In Ortega y Gasset’s view, however, those who look with astonishment at the rapid growth of the New World should turn their eyes to Europe, where the population increase had been even more spectacular. Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw a “flood tide of Nihilism rising.” Actually, the world as it was organized during the nineteenth century automatically created a new type of person, provided with formidable appetites and powerful means of satisfying them. The nineteenth century left these new people to their own devices. Believing in direct action, they intervened violently in everything. Having been previously guided by others, these “barbarian products of modern civilization” determined to govern the world for and by themselves, and in their self-satisfaction, according to Ortega y Gasset, they now threatened the degeneration of human culture.

In tracing the development of the “mass man,” Ortega y Gasset repeats his assertion that the civilization of the nineteenth century can be summed up under two headings: liberal democracy and technology. Modern technical advance represents the cooperation of capitalism and experimental science. The scientist is likely to become a mass man, a primitive, since he confines his knowledge to so small an area. There was a time, the author asserts, when people could be divided into the learned and the ignorant, but currently even those learned in science are frequently ignorant of the inner philosophy of the science they cultivate.

Ortega y Gasset discusses historians, or philologists, as he calls them, who turn their attention to sources instead of the future. The author does not believe in the absolute determinism of history, because in his view the past does not tell people what to do, but what to avoid. Life has become greater in scope than ever before, presenting a greater array of choices. Circumstances offer a dilemma for the mass man to decide, but he has no concept of the future. In the Mediterranean countries, where the triumph of the masses made its greatest advance, the mass man lives for the moment, with no consideration for future existence.

Life has become worldwide in character, but time and space cannot be easily obliterated. The “purchasing power of life” has been broadened. People believe themselves capable of creation without knowing what to create. Power has brought insecurity. Liberal democracy based on technical knowledge is the highest type of public life yet known. The perfect organization of the nineteenth century gave the impression that it represented natural things, and therefore should belong to everybody; but all that it represents had earlier beginnings.

According to Ortega y Gasset, bolshevism and fascism are examples of retrogression in politics, because they handle rational elements in an antihistorical, even archaic, way. Consequently, the political hope of Europe lies in those who abhor archaic and primitive attitudes. Ortega y Gasset does not believe in the decadence of Europe, a legend begun by intellectuals who felt themselves stifled by their nationality and who longed to borrow from other literatures, or by politicians similarly motivated. If there should be a decadence among European nations, the result, he argues, would be the creation of a United States of Europe. There is no one else to “rule,” by which Ortega y Gasset means “to control public opinion.” New York and Moscow represent two sections of European order. Writing in 1929, Ortega y Gasset believed that Russia would need centuries before it could aspire to rule, but that it would never succeed if there was in Europe a political union with a new Western moral code and a new inspirational program of life.

In one important sense, the title of this work is misleading, in the light of recent history. The author is not referring to either actual revolt—rebelión is the Spanish word he uses—or to the Marxian proletarian revolution. What he had in mind was the mass man whose claim to the right to act is, in effect, a rebellion against his own destiny. Since that is what he, according to Ortega y Gasset, is doing at the present time, Ortega y Gasset considered his efforts to be a revolt of the masses.