The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Ortega y Gasset, José (1883-1955)

José Ortega y Gasset was a Spanish philosopher and an essayist. Ortega was born in Madrid and became a teacher to an entire generation of writers in Spain and Latin America. He was the author of a number of essays known for their elegant and witty style. Ortega’s best-known work, The Revolt of the Masses, was published in 1930. In it he describes a new sort of human being, which he calls the Mass Man. The Mass Man is the product of the unprecedented material abundance that European civilization had achieved during the 19th century. This prosperity brought with it a sudden increase in population, which in turn produced two effects that, when combined, led to devastating results. First, the Mass Man has by sheer numbers attained considerable political and social power. Second, it has proven impossible to educate so many people in the traditional manner, to subject their minds to the discipline of abstract standards, including those of tradition, logic, facts, or science. The mind of this new human type does not measure its internal experiences by any standard superior to itself. In politics, this unconstrained frame of mind expresses itself in the form of direct action. Its characteristic literary expression is the insult. Above all, the Mass Man has a powerful affinity for the state because the state promises to provide two things on which the new human type places great value: security and results without effort. The Mass Man treats the material abundance that created him as if it were the fruit of an Edenic tree, his for the plucking. He neither knows nor cares about the institutional framework that makes this abundance possible. Eventually, his indifference will kill this abundance at its root.

Another persistent Ortegean theme is his fascination with liberalism, by which he meant the classical liberalism of the 19th century, an idea that he both admired and criticized. One of his distinctive critiques centers on his conviction that this sort of liberalism, even in its relatively freedom-friendly variety, has always been too indulgent and optimistic in its view of the state.

Liberalism [he says in the essay “Concord and Liberty”] has never been quite capable of grasping the significance of the fierce nature of the state… . Let us admit that societies cannot exist without government and state authority; that government implies force (and other things, more objectionable but which it would take too long to enumerate); and that for this reason “participation in government is fundamentally degrading,” as Auguste Comte whose political theory was authoritarian, said.

Fundamentally, in Ortega’s view, the state is necessary, but it is a necessary evil.

The political views and legacy of the mature Ortega probably cannot fully satisfy either conservatives or libertarians. It is true that The Revolt of the Masses had an aristocratic flavor that leftists and democratic readers intensely disliked and that he held a hostile view of the state. However, there is no indication that Ortega had read libertarian theorists and economists or for that matter Jefferson or the pamphlets of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. As a project that presumably would energize Western civilization, of which Ortega was a staunch defender, he proposed the unification of Europe. Reflecting this perspective, he chose the name Revista de Occidente (The Journal of the West) for his most important journalistic endeavor. Yet the project of European unity has led to the growth of a hyperstate that, it has been argued, strangles local differences and autonomies, subordinating them to centralized and enormous bureaucracies—all of which runs against conservative and libertarian principles.

 

Further Readings

Bonilla, Javier Zamora. Ortega y Gasset. Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 2002.

Ferrater-Mora, José. Ortega y Gasset: An Outline of His Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963,

Marías, Julián Ortega. Ortega y Gasset: Circumstance and Vocation. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Ortega y Gasset, José. Concord and Liberty. New York: W. W. Norton, 1946.

———. Invertebrate Spain. London: Allen & Unwin, 1937.

———. The Modern Theme. New York: W. W. Norton, 1933.

———. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, 1932.

Originally published .