A complete chapter from my translation of Jose Ortega y Gasset's landmark book The Revolt of the Masses.
What is he like, this mass-man who today dominates public life? —political and non-political life— and why is he the way he is? I mean, how has he been produced?
Let’s answer both questions together, for they throw light on each other. The man who today is attempting to take the lead in European existence is very different from the man who directed the 19th Century, but he was produced and prepared by the 19th Century. Any keen mind of the years 1820, 1850, and 1880 could by simple a priori reasoning, foresee the gravity of the present historical situation, and in fact nothing is happening now which was not foreseen a hundred years ago. "The masses are advancing," said Hegel in apocalyptic fashion. "Without some new spiritual influence, our age, which is a revolutionary age, will produce a catastrophe,” announced Comte. "I see the flood-tide of nihilism rising," shrieked the en-mustachioed Nietzsche from a crag of the Engadine. It is false to say that history cannot be foretold. Countless times this has been done. If the future offered no window to prophecy, it could not be understood when fulfilled in the present and when it becomes history. The idea that the historian is on the reverse side a prophet, sums up the whole philosophy of history. It is true that it is only possible to anticipate the general structure of the future, but that is all that we in truth understand of the past, or of the present. Accordingly, if you want a good view of your own age, look at it from far off. From what distance? Elementary: just far enough to prevent you seeing Cleopatra's nose.
What appearance did life present to that multitudinous man who in ever-increasing abundance the 19th Century kept engendering? To start with, it presented the appearance of universal material ease. Never had the average man been able to solve his economic problem with greater looseness. While the great fortunes deceased proportionately, and life became harder for the individual worker, the middle classes found their economic horizon widened every day. Every day added a new luxury to their standard of life. Every day their position was more secure and more independent of another's will. What before would have been considered one of fortune's gifts, inspiring humble gratitude towards destiny, was converted into a right not to be grateful for, but to be insisted on.
From 1900 on, the worker also begins to extend and assure his existence. But he has to struggle to obtain his end. He does not, like the middle class, find the benefit attentively served up to him by a society and a state which are a marvel of organization.
To this ease and security of economic conditions are to be added the physical ones: comfort and public order. Life runs on smooth rails, and there is no likelihood of anything violent or dangerous disruptions.
Such a free and open situation was bound to instill into the depths of such souls an idea of existence which might be expressed in the witty and graceful phrase of our old country: "Wide is Castile." That is to say, in all its primary and decisive aspects, life presented itself to the new man as exempt from restrictions. The realization of this fact and of its importance sprouts automatically when we remember that such a freedom of existence was entirely lacking to the common men of the past. On the contrary, for them life was a burdensome destiny — economically and physically. From birth they felt existence as an accumulation of impediments which they were obliged to bear, without possible solution other than to adapt themselves to them, to settle down in the narrow space the obstacles left available.
But still more evident is the contrast of situations, if we pass from the material to the civil and moral. The average man, from the second half of the 19th Century on, finds no social barriers raised against him. That is to say, that as regards the forms of public life he no longer finds himself from birth confronted with obstacles and limitations. There is nothing to force him to limit his existence. Here again, "Wide is Castile." There are no "estates" or "castes." There are no civil privileges. The ordinary man learns that all men are equal before the law.
Never in the course of history had man been placed in vital surroundings even remotely familiar to those set up by the conditions just mentioned. We are, in fact, confronted with a radical innovation in human destiny, implanted by the 19th Century. A new stage has been mounted for human existence, new both in the physical and the social aspects. Three principles have made possible this new world: liberal democracy, scientific experiment, and industrialism. The two latter may be summed up in one word: technicism. Not one of those principles was invented by the19th Century; they proceed from the two previous centuries. The glory of the 19th Century lies not in their discovery, but in their implantation. No one but recognizes that fact. But it is not sufficient to recognize it in the abstract, it is necessary to realize its inevitable consequences.
The 19th Century was of its essence revolutionary.
This aspect is not to be looked for in the scenes of the barricades, which are mere incidents, but in the fact that it placed the average man-the great social mass-in conditions of life radically opposed to those by which he had always been surrounded. It turned his public existence upside down. Revolution is not the uprising against pre-existing order, but the setting up of a new order contradictory to the traditional one. Hence there is no exaggeration in saying that the man who is the product of the 19th Century is, for the effects of public life, a man apart from all other men. The 18th-Century man differs, of course, from the 17th-Century man, and this one in turn from his fellow of the 16th Century, but they are all related, similar, and even identical in essentials when confronted with this new man. For the "common" man of all periods "life" had principally meant limitation, obligation, and dependence; in short, pressure. Say oppression, if you like, provided it be understood not only in the juridical and social sense, but also in the cosmic. For it is this latter which has never been lacking up to a hundred years ago, the date at which starts the practically limitless expansion of scientific technique-physical and administrative. Previously, even for the rich and powerful, the world was a place of poverty, difficulty and danger (15).
The world which surrounds the new man from his birth does not compel him to limit himself in any fashion; it sets up no veto in opposition to him; on the contrary, it incites his appetite, which in principle can increase indefinitely. Now it turns out-and this is most important -that this world of the 19th and early 20th Centuries not only has the perfections and the completeness which it actually possesses, but furthermore suggests to those who dwell in it the radical assurance that tomorrow it will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneous, inexhaustible power of increase. Even today, in spite of some signs which are making a tiny breach in that sturdy faith, even today, there are few men who doubt that motorcars will in five years' time be more comfortable and cheaper than today. They believe in this as they believe that the sun will rise in the morning. The metaphor is an exact one. For, in fact, the common man, finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes that it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly-endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed. Still less will he admit the notion that all these facilities still require the support of certain difficult human virtues, the least failure of which would cause the rapid disappearance of the whole magnificent edifice.
This leads us to note down in our psychological chart of the mass-man of today two fundamental traits: the free expansion of his vital desires, and therefore, of his personality; and his radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence. These traits together make up the well-known psychology of the spoilt child. And in fact it would entail no error to use this psychology as a "sight" through which to observe the soul of the masses of today. Heir to an ample and generous past-generous both in ideals and in activities -the new commonalty has been spoiled by the world around it. To spoil means to put no limit on caprice, to give one the impression that everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations. The young child exposed to this regime has no experience of its own limits. By reason of the removal of all external restraint, all clashing with other things, he comes actually to believe that he is the only one that exists, and gets used to not considering others, especially not considering them as superior to himself. This feeling of another's superiority could only be instilled into him by someone who, being stronger than he is, should force him to give up some desire, to restrict himself, to restrain himself. He would then have learned this fundamental discipline: "Here I end and here begins another more powerful than I am. In the world, apparently, there are two people: I myself and another superior to me." The ordinary man of past times was daily taught this elemental wisdom by the world about him, because it was a world so rudely organized, that catastrophes were frequent, and there was nothing in it certain, abundant, stable. But the new masses find themselves in the presence of a prospect full of possibilities, and furthermore, quite secure, with everything ready to their hands, independent of any previous efforts on their part, just as we find the sun in the heavens without our hoisting it up on our shoulders. No human being thanks another for the air he breathes, for no one has produced the air for him; it belongs to the sum-total of what "is there," of which we say "it is natural," because it never fails. And these spoiled masses are unintelligent enough to believe that the material and social organization, placed at their disposition like the air, is of the same origin, since apparently it never fails them, and is almost as perfect as the natural scheme of things.
My thesis, therefore, is this: the very perfection with which the 19th Century gave an organization to certain orders of existence has caused the masses benefited thereby to consider it, not as an organized, but as a natural system. 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. In the disturbances caused by scarcity of food, the mob goes in search of bread, and the means it employs is generally to wreck the bakeries. This may serve as a symbol of the attitude adopted, on a greater and more complicated scale, by the masses of today towards the civilization by which they are supported.