José Ortega y Gasset on Self-Satisfaction and Specialization

Joaquin Sorolla (1863 - 1923) - Portrait of Jose Ortega y Gasset

Joaquin Sorolla (1863 – 1923): Portrait of Jose Ortega y Gasset (1918)

The Revolt of the Masses (1930) by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955), like many books openly critical of modern trends, was once celebrated and judged to be something of a contemporary classic, but it has gradually, over the last four or five decades, vanished from awareness even among the supposedly educated.  I read it for the first time in the early 1970s when I pursued (rather fitfully, I confess) my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.  The College Library possessed two copies, an indication of how widely the book circulated in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Were one to canvass today’s English or History faculties, familiarity with Ortega’s book would likely be non-existent; it would be a rare incident even if so much as the name Ortega registered with humanities professors in their thirties and early forties.  The Revolt nevertheless speaks to the present moment with increasing pertinence, as do many similar books of its day, such as Oswald Spengler’s Hour of Decision (1934) and Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952), which likewise have lost all currency.  The Revolt also describes those who know not of it and who think that knowledge is circumscribed by the syllabus of their graduate studies.  The Revolt illuminates a remark made by Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier in their Manifesto for a European Renaissance (2012): “Modernity has given birth to the most empty civilization mankind has ever known.”  Two chapters of The Revolt offer themselves as especially relevant to the situation of the West in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century – “The Self-Satisfied Age” and “The Barbarism of Specialization.”  First, however, a brief summary of Ortega’s general argument is in order.

The late-Nineteenth Century, according to Ortega, saw the sudden rise in Europe of economies of abundance.  This mounting wealth resulted, in the first part of the Twentieth Century, in mass man, a social and cultural phenomenon that adapted itself, but in no positive way, to the advent of material ease and comfort.  Mass man reaped the benefits of a civilization to which he had in no way contributed, which he failed to understand, and which he took entirely for granted, identifying it as the natural background to his existence.  By the power of number alone, mass man, in Ortega’s phrase, intervenes everywhere, breaking down the hierarchical aspects of society and culture, while assimilating to himself – that is, to his limitation and incapacity – every institution.  Mass man undertakes no projects, but contents himself with diversion.  If he labored, it would be reluctantly, without commitment, and for the sake of diversion.  Ortega defines mass man as “he whose life lacks any purpose, and simply goes drifting along.”  This Homo novus has proliferated with such celerity that he overwhelmed any possibility of education.  Thus, in Ortega’s words, “heap after heap of human beings have been dumped onto the historical scene at such an accelerated state, that it has been difficult to saturate them with traditional culture.”  Mass man experiences a privative consciousness bereft of history, ignorant of the ancestors, and by tendency self-centered.  He is egocentric in the extreme, in fact, but with the codicil that his ego remains at an infantile level of development.

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Letter To an Investor

A client wrote me over the weekend, asking if I thought recent news of apparent flattening of the curve of new infections of Chinese Flu in Italy, Spain and, perhaps, even New York City, portended incipient prevalence over the virus. I responded:

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Dogmatic Orthodoxy Is the Acme & Basis of Traditionalism

To be a traditionalist is to wager that millions of lives already elapsed have tested most notions better than any one of them might, and have found that certain notions work better than others, and are therefore likely to be true.

To be a traditionalist then is rather like being an adherent of passive investing, which adjudges the project of beating millions of other intelligent, informed and educated investors and traders – or, in respect to any given security, at least several hundred such – to be a fool’s errand.

NN Taleb puts it bluntly in a recent tweet:

Let me rephrase for the slow at getting it. If you do not treat Tradition as (high dimensional) “experience,” you stand against science and statistical significance – the spine of experimental science.

What has worked 1010 times >>> some psych paper with 60% replication error.

Have you stumbled upon some heterodox insight about this or that topic in theology – which is to say, of the science of the Ultimate? Continue reading

Where To Find More American Workers

As employment has boomed in the US of late, more and more workers who had long ago given up looking for work have again entered the labor market, and found work. This growth in the supply of American workers has prevented wages and inflation from rising much, despite the greatly increased demand of the private sector for labor of all kinds. It’s been great. But with downward pressure of all sorts on immigration of all sorts, there is now serious worry that the former “reserve army of the unemployed” is approaching depletion, and that the supply of new labor is drying up; that the labor market is going to heat up enough to ignite significant demand led inflation, laying the groundwork for a recession.

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The Epidemiological Case for National Borders, Autarky, & Xenophobia

Res ipsa loquitur, no?

While we’re at it, there is a strong epidemiological case for sexual modesty and chastity, for parochialism, for patriotism, and for cultural conservatism in respect to morals and customs. What is more, the humanely small scale of Schumacher and Christopher Alexander, Moldbug’s Patchwork or localism or Catholic subsidiarity, and the traditionalism of William Morris, of Chesterton, of Carlyle, and of de Maistre and Bonald all make great epidemiological sense. Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Tolstoy, the Wrath of GNON, and of course we here at the Orthosphere; all echo the same notion:

Stay small, stay local, stay close to home, stay close to nature, and within the span of your own hands. Small steps, not great revolutionary saltations.

There Is No Such Thing As Rule of Law

Rule of Law is often cited as one of the distinctive characteristics of the West, and of Western cultures, which has enabled the West and kindred cultures to rise above despotism, corruption, and poverty. And so it is. The keeping of the Law is traditional in the West.

But, the Law is only as good – can do only so much good – as the men who keep it. It is men who by their acts keep to the Law, enforce and adjudicate it honestly and as fiduciaries of the nation, or who do not; who transmit the tradition they have inherited, or who traduce it.

Rule then is always of men.

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Conflation of Ends is Confusion of Means & of Men

There is a curious temptation to conflation of incompatible ends. I saw this most recently in my exchange with Orthosphere commenter Theodman about the optimal tonlieu. He objected – not unreasonably, and indeed in these latter days quite normally – to any restrictions on immigration, such as a tonlieu, because they discriminate against the poor. Which they do. And which does not mean we ought to be cruel to the poor. And which does mean we ought not to confuse immigration policy with social welfare policy.

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Chastek Asks a Good Question

James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:

Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?

Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?

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Is Traditional Culture Even Possible Henceforth?

The acid eating at tradition is cheap information. This is to say that the acid eating away at cultures – all cultures, properly so called – is cheap information.

And information is from now on essentially free.

Can there then ever again be such a thing as a coherent traditional society?

Sure, tradition is necessary; it is the atomic stuff of culture as such. But is it even possible anymore? Are we looking at the death of culture?

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