José Ortega y Gasset & Gabriel Marcel on Mass Man

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Mass Man in Portrait

The Revolt of the Masses (1932) by José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) is a classic diagnosis of the modern condition whose diminished currency in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century fails to correlate with its increased relevance ninety years after its initial publication.  Revolt ought to be better known than it is.  Man against Mass Society (1951) by Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973) – addressing the same topics as Revolt but from a point in time twenty years later in the aftermath of the Second World War and at the onset of the Cold War – enjoys nothing like the reputation of Ortega’s masterpiece, but is equally relevant to contemporaneity and deserves, not so much to be better known, but merely to be known.  The two books complement one another.  Ortega, an adherent of the classical liberal principle, but with an aristocratic attitude, sees in democratization a decisive break with history and an inevitable dragging-down of inherited institutions to the lowest common denominator of their functionality.  Marcel, a Catholic believer allying himself with the conservative faction in politics, sees in the metastasis of bureaucracy and the triumph of the managerial attitude an inhuman faux ordre that threatens the God-endowed dignity of the person.  Both books examine the quantitative character of modernity – and the diminution of individuality in a world where millions or even billions dominate the scene.  As two trends, the number of people and the pressure of number on the unique, gain in their dynamism, a degrading sameness assimilates the super-majority to a single pattern.  For both Ortega and Marcel, the characteristics of that pattern include an overwhelming social orientation, a childish or primitive taking-for-granted of the civilized inheritance, an almost total lack of historical awareness, a concomitant presentism, and a moral vacuity that renders its thralls highly susceptible to fanaticism.

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Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955)

I. Spain abstained from direct militarily involvement in the First World War, but in 1914 at the beginning of the conflict she still suffered from the effects of her humiliating defeat by the United States in the Cuban and Philippine contests of 1898. The nation had lost its navy and its remaining colonial possessions outside the Mediterranean to an upstart power. The Great War delayed the re-acquisition of capital ships, dependent as Spanish shipbuilding was on British industry.  Despite the nation’s declared neutrality, the Spanish merchant fleet suffered from the German submarine campaign, with close to seventy ships sunk.  The unpopular Rif War against tribal guerillas in Morocco in the 1920s further demoralized the nation and entailed a coup d’état, led by Miguel Primo de Rivera, in 1923.  Spain at last gained a victory in 1927 but only with massive French intervention on her side.  The forced exile of Alfonso XIII in 1931 brought an end to the Catholic monarchy and established a secular republic, which would prove unstable.  When Revolt appeared, a breakdown into civil war already loomed.  These events on a peculiarly Iberian scene as well as events on a larger European scene, supply the background to Ortega’s pessimistic meditations, which date themselves ten years after Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome and eleven years before Adolph Hitler’s abolition, by an electoral victory, of the Weimar Republic.  In Ortega’s view, these news items place themselves not in the category of causes, but in the category of effects.  Causally, they stem from the advent of mass man.  “As the masses, by definition,” Ortega writes, “neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilization.”

In the first three chapters of Revolt – “The Coming of the Masses,” “The Rise of the Historic Level, and “The Height of the Times” – Ortega sets forth his premises.  In “The Coming of the Masses,” he invokes “the visual experience” as yielding the most immediate evidence for a stark change in the social scene.  “I call it,” he writes, “the fact of agglomeration, of ‘plenitude.’”   Crowds now stand out everywhere.  They crowd out everything that is not of the crowd.  “We see the multitude, as such, in possession of the places and the instruments created by civilization.”  Suddenly, in a striking figure, “there are no longer any protagonists,” but “there is only the chorus.”  Ortega writes not of the previous century’s proletarian class; he writes, rather, of “the average man.”   In agglomeration and plenitude, man appears “as undifferentiated from other men, but as repeating in himself a generic type.”  Anticipating the argument that every society requires a degree of conformity, Ortega responds with the observation that in minority groups that distinguish themselves from the mass solidarity arises on the foundation of “some desire, idea, or ideal, which of itself excludes the great number.”  Mass man never evaluates himself; he is, in Ortega’s phrase “quite happy to feel as one… with everybody else.”  For mass man, as Ortega sees it, any departure from the average condition would appear as an offense – as the violation of a taboo.  The aberrant party would immediately become an object of opprobrium.  In this way the mass is “brutal.”  In a summation: “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 to impose them wherever it will.”

In “The Rise of the Historic Level,” Ortega continues his phenomenology of mass man.  The multitude still recognizes the prestige that attached to those activities which, in the previous age, belonged to the minority, such as the sciences and the arts, but in regard to them it now experiences envy, not admiration.  Since mass man cannot match the minority’s creative endeavor or its connoisseur-ship thereof, he declares them to be privileges, unjustly monopolized, and he attempts to appropriate them.  He wants to implant the intangible as part of his material reality.  “And note this,” Ortega writes, “that when what was before an ideal becomes a component part of reality, it inevitably ceases to be an ideal.”  The result is that civilization has increasingly become a parody of itself.  The multitude drags everything down to the level of entertainment: in food, theater, cinema, and sport.  The very vigor and insistence of the mass on assimilating everything to itself implies, however, an actual, although frightening, vitality.  While it is the case that “we are living in a leveling period”; nevertheless, “as the European was formerly lower from a vital point of view, he has come out the gainer from this leveling.”  In the past, most people lived isolated lives in the countryside; they had no experience of sophistication – and so could not yearn for it or aspire to it.  They sought only personal survival.  Now the millions flock to the cities where they enjoy a type, that selfsame parodic type, of urbanity; and urbanity, by the techniques of communication, extends itself beyond the urbs.  Mass man inspires Ortega with a “shudder of horror.”  The masses are “imposing, invincible, and treacherous.”

Post-Human Man

Homo Post-Humanitas

In “The Height of the Times,” Ortega elaborates on his conviction that mass man lives without history and therefore in hermetic indifference to any life other than his own.  Already in the previous century the attitude had put itself forward that the present constituted the culmination of the past such that those of the living generation saw history “fulfilled in themselves.”  Such an attitude already betokened a contraction of historical consciousness and forecast its sequel.  “The man of today,” Ortega writes, “feels that his life is more a life than any past one, or, to put it the other way about, the entirety of past time seems small to actual humanity.”  This statement links up with Ortega’s claim that mass man experiences his existence as supremely vital.  Mass man “recognizes in nothing that is past any possible model or standard’; he “feels superior to all times past, and beyond all known fullness.”  Mass man’s break with history commingles with what Ortega calls treacherousness.  To break with the past, of which the civilized present is a bequeathal, betrays those men whose effort and discipline in sustaining and developing civilization ironically made possible the selfishness and indiscipline of the present moment.  Diversion and indiscipline never figured as the predecessors’ goals, however; for just as they honored the past, seeking to carry out its ordinations, so too they responded to destiny, seeking to realize a desert that they themselves would not enjoy.  When history vanishes, destiny also vanishes.  Mass man registers as much a deficit in destiny as he does in history.  Mass man’s future, as distinct from his destiny, debouches in anarchy – as Spain’s civil war would witness and as the world war that followed it would guarantee.

In mass man, the philosopher confronts something primitive.  In Revolt, Chapter 6, “The Dissection of Mass Man Begins,” Ortega stipulates that: “For the ‘common’ man of all periods ‘life’ had principally meant limitation, obligation, dependence; in a word, pressure.”  Ortega allows that one might substitute “oppression” for “pressure”; but only “provided [that] it be understood not only in the juridical and social sense, but also in the cosmic.”  One of Ortega’s early books, Las Atlantidas (1922), treated of Plato’s “Atlantis” myth and surveyed the little-known prehistoric societies of the Circum-Mediterranean, Neolithic, and Bronze-Age worlds, including the remains of Tartessos in Spain.  A cosmic orientation characterizes all of these societies, whose people took for granted a hierarchy of celestial powers and accorded their life with that hierarchy.  Being agriculturalists, their survival depended on that knowing self-subordination to the cycle of the zodiac and other natural rhythms.  In this sense, the Stone Age and Bronze Age societies displayed a greater wisdom and a greater humility than Ortega’s Twentieth Century, dominated by mass man.  The ancients recognized boundaries, moral and physical.  They could not be called primitive.  But “the world which surrounds the new man from his birth” – a world in whose making he had no part and which he merely appropriates – “does not compel him to limit himself in any fashion, it sets up no veto in opposition to him.”  Consumerism merely “incites his appetite,” which yet extends across a narrow range only.

In the same chapter, Ortega detects in mass man a “radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence.”  The traits of mass man’s psychology belong to the phenomenon of “the spoilt child.”  The spoilt child, under the parental non-regime of permissiveness, never meets with the barrier of superiority – that is, with the will of another who demonstrates that the spoilt child stops where sovereign    authority begins.  The resistance of the barrier is a rare experience under a pervasive democracy.  Ortega comes to one of his central conclusions: “The very perfection with which the XIXth 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.”  To what other assumption could historylessness lead?  Because the masses “do not see, behind the benefits of civilization, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight,” those same people “imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.”  Ortega had identified the entitlement mentality long before the term came into use.  He also identified the fundamental nihilism of that mentality: The “radical ingratitude,” the treachery, under the wickedness of which the spoilt child makes his impetuous claims on the work of others.

In Revolt, Chapter 9, “The Primitive and the Technical,” Ortega carries forward his notion that “the actual mass-man is… a primitive who has slipped through the wings on to the age-old stage of civilization.”  Now Ortega takes up one of Oswald Spengler’s theses from The Decline of the West – namely, that in civilization, which amounts to the death of the vital culture, technology (or in his word, technics) might sustain itself even innovatively for a long time.  Ortega writes: “I cannot bring myself to believe any such thing.  Technicism and science are con-substantial, 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 observation that the sciences, physics especially, seem to have stalled in the decades after 1945, is widely current nowadays.  At the same time, supposing this observation to be valid, nothing has forestalled the innovation of new devices.  In this way, Spengler could probably assemble more evidence for his thesis in 2020 than could Ortega in 1932.  In light of Ortega’s thesis one might nevertheless point to the increasing politicization of science, which is tantamount to its corruption.  Science should be disinterested, but what passes itself off as science in the current era is crassly indifferent to disinterestedness.  It serves an ideological cause.  It would be well to add here that Spengler’s Hour of Decision (1934) makes many of the same observations as Ortega’s Revolt.  Spengler makes the same argument for the aristocratic principle as does Ortega; he likewise calls attention to the same historylessness as does Ortega, and to the same pervasive vulgarity.

Revolt 01

American Edition 1960s

In Revolt, Chapter 12, “The Barbarism of ‘Specialization,’” Ortega makes the startling claim that “the actual scientific man is the prototype of the mass man.”  Conducting a brief history of the sciences, Ortega points to the trend of increasing narrowness.  Before the modern period began, the sciences in the plural belonged to a unified science.  In the Nineteenth Century, the institutions of science began to train men as specialists.  In so doing they undermined their broader remit.  “Science is not a specialist,” Ortega writes; “if it were,” he continues, “it would ipso facto cease to be true.”  No particular branch of science can exist in isolation from the other branches.  Thus, “Not even empirical science, taken in its integrity, can be true if separated from mathematics, from logic, from philosophy.”  The researcher has become a contributor to a perpetually accumulating encyclopedia, but no individual contributor grasps the full round of learning.  Indeed, the individual contributors regard possession of a genuine overview and an attitude of broad-mindedness as “dilettantism.”  They disdain it.  A bureaucracy, meanwhile, resembles an encyclopedia.  Each separate office knows only itself; each minor clerk knows only his desk.  Such compartmentalization pervades modern life.  Mass man’s typical employment conforms to such partiality.  “Previously,” Ortega writes, “men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant… but your specialist cannot be brought under either of those two categories.”  Yet this man, this “learned ignoramus,” perceives himself as docte.

Ortega’s analysis of the institutional science anticipates the analysis of the same made by Edmund Husserl in his last and incomplete book, The Crisis of the European Sciences (1936).  Ortega acknowledged a debt to Husserl, whose work he knew and whose phenomenological method, or portions thereof, he borrowed.  The detailed reconstructions of mass man’s mental states in Revolt attest this.  Ortega had studied in Munich and Berlin and could claim wide familiarity with German philosophy, including its current trends.  Although Revolt contains no reference to Martin Heidegger, the discussion of Das Man in Being and Time (1927) suggests itself as informing Ortega’s ruminations.  Ortega stands apart from Heidegger, however, in that whereas Heidegger would infamously accommodate the totalitarian state, Ortega stood against it candidly until the danger to him and his family finally forced them into Portuguese exile in 1936.  Heidegger evidently saw in the National Socialist regime a type of redemption from Weimar decadence.  Ortega, who had some qualified sympathy for the Republic, nevertheless categorized the modern state, in its genus, as the expression of mass man’s will to dominance.  In Revolt, Chapter 13, “The Greatest Danger – the State,” he writes, “Statism is the higher form taken by violence and direct action when these are set up as standards.”  He asks, “Can we help the feeling that under the rule of the masses the State will endeavor to crush the independence of the individual and the group, and thus definitely spoil the harvest of the future?”

II. By the time Marcel published Man against Mass Society, ten years after the liberation of the death-camps and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and despite the unconditional surrender first of Germany and then of Japan, the prospect of violence had not lessened but intensified. The singular war had ended, but wars in the plural continued and a war of cosmic proportion grimly threatened.  Marcel understood the worsening imperilment of mankind as springing from deep historical roots.  In his Preface, he furnishes his readers with an anecdote of his early education, which bears on that understanding.   Marcel’s parents awarded their son a copy of François Mignet’s “very dry history” of the French Revolution and “compelled [him] to read it.”  Summarizing his reaction to Mignet’s account, Marcel writes, “At that time, the glaring abuses in the French social and political life which had dragged on until 1789 struck less feelingly to home to me than the crimes of the Terror.”  Those enormities aroused Marcel’s “innate horror of violence, disorder, [and] cruelty.”  He adds that “the feelings of indignation, which the September Massacres and the other mass crimes of the Revolutionary period aroused in me in adolescence, were not… essentially different from those much more recently aroused by the horrors of Stalinism or Nazism, or even by the shameful aspects of a purge nearer home.”  Marcel implicitly but strongly connects the political upheavals of the Twentieth Century to that first and signal outbreak of ideological fervor, the Jacobin paroxysm, from which La belle France has never fully recovered.  The reference to “a purge nearer home” signifies.  Marcel points to the persecution of the collaborateurs, so-called, beginning with the Liberation.  In a later chapter Marcel aims the accusation at the persecutors that, in their witch-hunts and star chambers, they had fallen to the moral level of their former Gestapo occupiers.

Marcel organizes Man in three parts, each subdivided into chapters, the whole being framed by the Preface and the Conclusion.  Marcel deploys an associative type of exposition that includes numerous divagations not at first obviously related to the major theses and topics.  His prose presents more of a challenge to the reader than does Ortega’s – not least in the qualifying clauses of his longish sentences – but like previously unfamiliar music the novice soon recognizes a distinct style and adapts to it.  The Preface gradually unfolds the prime argument around which the subsequent arguments will entwine – in a proposition communicating with the author’s youthful response to the Revolution.  The revolutionary trinity of liberté – égalité – et fraternité consists of abstractions.  For Marcel abstraction and violence stand in a causal relation that leads by a perverse logic from the one to the other.  Abstraction, moreover, “is essentially of the order of the passions”; and “it is passion, not intelligence, which forges the most dangerous abstractions.”  By abstraction, Marcel means a displacement of the concrete, of the living.  The term also indicates the inflation of a part into a whole and at the same time the interpretation of partial things in a literal-minded way, without nuance, and therefore also without justice. The abstractly passionate mentality corresponds to “the errors of a moral relativism which is… radically self-centered.”  The abstract-passionate mentality stands in its autism against “love and intelligence,” which Marcel classifies as “the most concrete things in the world.”  The modern, propagandized masses, who form the basis of the state, “exist and develop… only at a level far below that at which intelligence and love are possible.”

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Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973)

Marcel concerns himself in Man not to set forth the historical origins of mass society, as these origins are well known among the clear-sighted.  Ortega, whom Marcel praises, traces them in Revolt, as does Spengler in Decline and Hour.  Marcel begins with the axioms that mass society exists, that a managerial elite governs it, that the mentalities of the masses and the elite comply with an equal dehumanization, and that the prospect for lucid non-conformism, for love and intelligence, looks grim.  Marcel pursues his interest in the way that mass society sustains itself.  The managerial class faces three problems: How to keep the masses docile, how to agitate the masses when necessary, and how to prevent any appeal to the masses from any source other than the elites.  That he lives in an age of universal and continuous propaganda strikes Marcel as obvious.  A universal and continuous propaganda, disseminated from childhood onward, offers itself as the main method of dealing with all three problems.  The masses want to be fed, housed, and entertained, as extravagantly as possible.  That the managerial class wants power for its own sake, which it exercises both through and over the masses, comes near, for Marcel, to being a mere superficial observation.  The managers are, in fact, the heirs of the Revolution.  The revolutionary’s fervent willfulness seeks not the reform of society, despite his claims, but the domination of reality, because reality stands in the way of willfulness.

Reality being indomitable, the goal of mastery over it lies in the realm of the impossible, so that the radical mentality must secretly content itself with an illusion of mastery, as complete as it can arrange.  The universal and continuous propaganda thus aims itself as much at the elites as at the masses.  Modernity, in Marcel’s view, resolves itself into a global project to restrict consciousness so as to foster an assuaging mutual delusion of all parties.  Restriction of consciousness requires the rejection of transcendence; it requires simultaneously the inculcation of a dogmatic materialism.  Matter functions as the primary abstraction of the modern regime.  The view of life must be reduced to one of purely material terms.  In Man, Part I, Chapter I, “What is a Free Man,” Marcel makes a proleptic reference to “techniques of degradation,” to which he will devote a subsequent chapter.  He sums up the demoralizing success of modernity’s re-education program, which is actually a de-education program: “Thanks to the techniques of degradation [that modernity] is creating and perfecting, a materialistic mode of thought, in our time, is showing itself capable of bringing into being a world which more and more tends to verify its own materialistic postulates.”  The regime of abstraction implies the banishment of any vocabulary other than the materialistic one, so as to scotch non-materialistic thinking beforehand, and the imposition on thought of a type of ever tightening hermetic circularity.  Under materialism, indeed, the topic of consciousness turns fugitive.  There is no ghost in the machine – there is only the machine.

Egalitarianism belongs to the dehumanizing trend.  Playing on resentment, the regime holds out the promise of a future equalization.  Because a subjective perception of inequality prevails almost universally, a program of leveling appeals broadly in a non-reflective populace.  Every resentful person imagines that his rival will be leveled down while he himself will be leveled up, emerging finally (never mind the contradiction) in some rank above that of his rival.  In “Lost Freedoms,” Marcel pinpoints the real motivation behind the egalitarian project: “The kind of equality thus brought into being has one purpose alone, that of disguising from those who apparently benefit from it the system of oppressive administrative rule to which they are being condemned.”  The appeal of leveling depends on “a very negative satisfaction.”  Egalitarianism revokes the Tenth Commandment.  The satisfaction inherent in the illusion of equality, Marcel writes, “is the most degraded, the most perverted shape that can be taken by the interest that a man always has in his neighbor”; he adds that, “it is a wretched and perverted substitute for that love of one’s neighbor as oneself of which the Gospels speak.”  Marcel connects the egalitarian impulse to “the increasing importance of the administrative function in the world.”  When the functionary state implements a program of egalitarianism, an “amputation of freedoms” must follow immediately.  Consider that Marcel is describing what has already occurred in France and elsewhere at the time when his book appeared.  Seventy years later – how much more in the way of power have the managerial classes arrogated to their party?  What is the state of freedom?

In Man, Part I, Chapter III, under the title “Techniques of Degradation,” Marcel explores the praxis of manipulative humiliation.  The techniques of degradation emerged in the context first of the Soviet Union and then of the National Socialist Reich.  With the qualification “in a restricted sense,” Marcel writes: “I understand by ‘techniques of degradation’ a whole body of methods deliberately put into operation in order to attack and destroy in human persons belonging to some definite class or other their self-respect, and in order to transform them little by little into mere human waste products conscious of themselves as such, and in the end forced to despair of themselves, not merely at an intellectual level, but in the depth of their souls.”  He quotes from the testimony of those who survived the gulags and concentration camps.  Whether in the case of kulaks in the USSR or the Jews in the Reich, the regime exploited whole classes in the scapegoat role, as objects of envy and revilement.  The techniques of degradation reveal the fundamental lack of trust of those in power concerning their own convictions.  In the camps, as Marcel remarks, the persecution aimed at convincing the victim to share the stated evaluation of him, as held by the persecutor – as if this confirmation were necessary to the one in charge.  Marcel writes: “In degrading the victim… the persecutor strengthens in himself the sense of rightful superiority.”  The process can be pressed to its highest degree, but it can also operate in the lowest and middle degrees, to create a pervasive fear that fosters servility and passivity in the society as a whole.  “Is not the real and deep purpose of propaganda that of reducing men to a condition in which they lose all capacity for individual reaction,” Marcel poses rhetorically.

Man 01

Current Edition

Man, Part II, Chapter II, “The Fanaticized Consciousness,” contains the core of Marcel’s exposition and bears trenchantly on the second decade of the Twenty-First Century in the West.  Having sacrificed reflection, writes Marcel, “the fanatic never sees himself as a fanatic.”  In case a non-fanatic calls him out, “the fanatic can always say that he is misunderstood and slandered.”  While the fanaticized consciousness originates in ideas, not every idea draws forth a vehement obsession.  Idol-like abstractions as proclaimed by charismatic parties provoke fanaticism more than any others.  The fanaticized conscious boasts a mimetic quality.  “The fanatic cannot be an isolated being,” Marcel writes, but “on the contrary he exists among others, and… between these others and himself is formed… a kind of agglutination.”  In the Body-Snatcher world, “the fanaticism of one man is always kept alight by contact with the fanaticism of another.”  Marcel acknowledges that the fanaticized consciousness possesses qualities that justify the descriptor religious, but he allows the adjective only on consideration that “a true religion cannot have this power of making men fanatical.”  Marcel invokes Ortega’s distinction between mass and group.  The members of a group retain their individuality and cultivate interest or appreciation without fervency.  The constituents of the mass have largely relinquished their individuality, making themselves vulnerable to crude imitative correspondence.  The aficionados cultivate a sense of reality.  The mass – deformed as it is by propaganda – lives in delusion.  Marcel cites “the incredibly sinister role of the press, the cinema, [and] the radio” in substituting for reality a “pattern of ideas and images with no real roots” in the concrete, living world.  He invokes a “second and entirely factitious nature… which can only be sustained and kept alive by… the passion of fanaticism.”

The fanaticized consciousness, which in Marcel’s judgment has reached “epidemic” status, refuses to discuss its premises.  Marcel gives the example of the Communist attitude towards the writings of Karl Marx.  “A book is treated as a holy book, though it is the work of a human creature whose infallibility we have no reason to believe in.”  The fanatical Communist suppresses his critical faculty with regard to Marx’s Manifesto.  It goes beyond cold-hard veneration of political dogma, however.  “The fanaticized consciousness remains,” Marcel argues, “numb and unresponsive to everything to which its own compass needle does not respond.”  Consider the Bolshevik slogan about omelettes and eggs.  The triteness of the phrase in relation to its real-world objects – enslavement, mass-murder, and the exercise of total censorship – underlines its evil character.  Whoever speaks the phrase, as Marcel puts it, “must have put himself into a state of mind in which he was utterly unable to represent to himself the real nature of the facts under discussion.”  He places real people and actual suffering into the abstract category of historical necessity.  The fanatic is thus dead to the world; he is locked inside himself in a version of autism, but that autism has fatal consequences for other people.  In line with his condemnation of triteness in ideological discourse, Marcel concludes that “fanaticism is essentially opinion,” but “pushed to paroxysm.”

Marcel paints a grim picture.  Although he maintains that a philosopher should not take on the role of prophet, the reader of Man today can only receive the book as prophetic.  Marcel views modernity as the project of dehumanization hence his willingness to entertain the thought that “man is in his death-throes.”  If it were so, the fatality would originate in the rejection of God and transcendence – two words that can be subsumed in one, mystery – and their replacement by matter and technique.  In Man, Part I, Chapter IV, under the title “Technical Progress and Sin,” Marcel attempts to define mystery.  His definition invokes “unity,” a spiritual transcendence of the sterile Cartesian subject-object relation between the subject and the world.  This would be the opposite of fanaticism, openness rather than enclosure, participation rather than manipulation.  “As soon as we postulate the notion of mystery,” Marcel writes, “we abolish that frontier between what lies in the self and what lies before the self.”  As the subject directs himself outward into the living world, the living world to the same degree penetrates the subject.  To confront mystery is to confront the highest degree of intentionality.  This exalted state consists in “a kind of inner grip that is nothing other than an ingatheredness.”  To the extent that “human nature is becoming more and more incapable” of such an “ingatheredness,” it alienates itself from its God-given freedom and from the action of Grace.  In his Conclusion Marcel invokes the figure of “the True Light” from the Gospel of John.  This Light denotes, in his words, “the identity at their upper limit of Love and Truth.”  Men who have glimpsed what Marcel has, himself, seen endow themselves with a sacred responsibility: To maintain against the Mass Society the primal human institution of “the living group.”

8 thoughts on “José Ortega y Gasset & Gabriel Marcel on Mass Man

  1. Pingback: José Ortega y Gasset & Gabriel Marcel on Mass Man | Reaction Times

  2. He is right that scientists are a sub-species of mass man. This is evident in their obsession with uniform method and peer approval–I mean peer review. Do you suppose the convergence on Carlyle’s Pig Philosophy–wishing only to be fed, housed, and entertained–is the result of this being the only desires mass men have in common? Or are these the only desires mass men have?

    I’ve never read Marcel–although from what you say, I’m hardly alone in that, but I did once read Ortega (with whom Unamundo is linked in my mind). I was at least dimly aware that I was a something of a mass man myself, and that reading aristocratic philosophies might be special a form, or even perversion, of ressentiment. The question might be put this way: Is it vulgar to deplore (or even just eschew) vulgarity? Of course posing this question may just be the herd’s way of calling me home to the herd. I’ve never come to any settled opinion on this, and dislike vulgarians equally with snobs. Very democratic, aren’t I?

  3. Thank you for your comment. Assimilation to the mass is something like Original Sin: We are all mired in the latter, but in morality Grace speaks to us and some of us, at any rate, respond, not as saints, but in the intuition that we ought to respond the way a saint does although we are bound to fail. If Ortega and Marcel are right in their assertions — and I rediscovered the radical character of both authors in re-reading them — then we are perhaps even more deeply mired in the mass than we suspect. In provoking us to reflect, Ortega and Marcel channel the action of Grace. They beckon to us from a genuine personhood that partakes in Ortega’s idea of nobility and Marcel’s notion the highest pitch of Truth and Love. We will fail to emerge from the mass absolutely, but maybe we will make some progress. I share your equal dislike of vulgarity and snobbery.

    By the way — one of Marcel’s chapters (which I discussed only in passing in the last paragraph of the essay) has the title “Technical Progress and Sin.” It complements Ortega’s remark on the scientician as the paradigm of mass man.

    Some further thoughts: Snobbery (from the verb, to snub) is not necessarily differentiated from vulgarity. I offer as evidence the behavior of the “woke,” who are as vulgar as can be, but whose characteristic behavior is to snub the “deplorables.” To snub someone, it is necessary to be in contact. The “cold shoulder” has to be obvious and requires an actual encounter. I never snub my colleagues, if that were the word. I simply avoid the situations in which they congregate. Crowds of any kind make me allergic.

    The verb to snub comes from Old West Norse. It meant to chide or to apply obloquy to someone. The term has scapegoating implications. Both Ortega and Marcel prefigure Rene Girard in portions of their discourse.

    • I think a snub is very similar to a cut, the difference being that one snubs a man who is applying for friendship and one cuts a man to end a friendship. Thus a snob snubs the advances of deplorable strangers, whereas the cutter cuts ties with deplorables who used to be their friends. My experience with the woke is mostly an experience of being cut, since I have been cut by friends over political and religious differences. But I have also been snubbed. The latter has mostly been from the woke junior faculty who cycle through my department on temporary appointments. Of course there is a third class of woke colleague who neither snubbed me nor cut me, but just stabbed me in the back.

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 11/24/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  5. As I have just read this aloud to my wife, you now get my surface reactions. Somewhat younger and therefore more deeply thrust in the mire of the managerial State I have never even heard of either author ’til this gloss, so I thank you for bringing them to my attention.

    the characteristics of that pattern include an overwhelming social orientation, a childish or primitive taking-for-granted of the civilized inheritance, an almost total lack of historical awareness, a concomitant presentism, and a moral vacuity that renders its thralls highly susceptible to fanaticism

    I challenge anyone to find a more succinct and yet complete description of the presentation of modernity anywhere in print.

    The forced exile of Alfonso XIII in 1931 brought an end to the Catholic monarchy and established a secular republic, which would prove unstable.

    I nearly choked when I read this line. In future I think I’ll have to avoid drinking anything while reading your ruminations. Would prove unstable indeed. And Fr Hunwicke says Americans have no sense of the droll.

    His prose presents more of a challenge to the reader than does Ortega’s – not least in the qualifying clauses of his longish sentences – but like previously unfamiliar music the novice soon recognizes a distinct style and adapts to it.

    I see what you did there, Professor. Bully good job, too.

    In the same chapter, Ortega detects in mass man a “radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence.” The traits of mass man’s psychology belong to the phenomenon of “the spoilt child.” … The observation that the sciences, physics especially, seem to have stalled in the decades after 1945, is widely current nowadays.

    In short, the Mass Man and his so-called society exists not just as a remnant or parody of civilization, but actually as a saprophyte thereupon. The continued apparent vitality of the corpse is the sickly luminescence of the fungus and the necromantic twitch as a tendril electrifies an old nerve not yet completely rotted through. However, once the old body is sufficiently consumed, the ghastly new society must wither.

    Whether this is a message of hope or not I am uncertain. I am put in mind of your previous writings on South Sea totemists and their continued intricate and devilish rites which serve no one and are their strongest link with a long-dead civilization which their forebears surely once worked to build. Then again, that does not account for the light of Grace which has been given us.

    • Thank you, Rhetocrates, for your comment. The last time that I read the word “saprophyte” was in my high-school biology class circa 1970. If I were to canvass my students, it would be a vocabulary-item in precisely no cases. That it circulates at The Orthosphere is not surprising.

      Ortega is less hopeful than Marcel, but Marcel views a situation more dire than that visible to Ortega. When a civilization disintegrates, the rebuilding always comes from scattered and at first isolated centers of preservation. These centers channel what you eloquently refer to as “the light of Grace.” They gradually coalesce and give a foundation to something new, which, however, communes with something old.

      I have, in the last few days, been reading Geoffrey Ashe’s Eden in the Altai, a remarkable book whose complicated and detailed argument makes the case that the continuity of a characteristically Western worldview may be traced back at least ten thousand years. The fact that there still is a Western Cvilization, afflicted though it be, testifies to a colossally enduring basic trait. In this sense, I remain hopeful. (Incidentally, it is part and parcel of Ashe’s argument to demolish the feminist myth of an ancient matriarchal utopia.)

  6. Hence the relevance of the NPC meme. Which documents the tranformation of humanity into programmable automatons limited to certain scripts downloaded from the media and ruling elites.

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