Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mass man

I've just read an interesting post by Bonald. It's a summary of a book written in 1930 by Jose Ortega y Gasset called The Revolt of the Masses:
A century of security and prosperity (the nineteenth, that is) has produced a populace of spoiled brats.  That’s the main contention of Ortega y Gasset’s famous book.  The new type, which he calls “mass man”, is distinguished above all by ingratitude and complacency.  He has grown so used to stable government and a rising standard of living that he has come to imagine that these exist automatically without any human effort.  Being oblivious to the effort needed to maintain and run a civilization, he certainly feels no responsibility to contribute to the endeavor, but rather settles for demanding a greater and greater share of the spoils.  Mass man has no interest in the science that gives him his technology or in the history and culture that form his civilization.  The mass calls on the state to gratify its desires by bullying those who stand in its way, oblivious to the ruin this will eventually bring.

The noble man always serves some good or outside himself and judges himself by a harsh external standard.  (Noblesse oblige.)  Mass man is satisfied with himself as he is.  (He has self-esteem, we might say.)  He has opinions, picked up from the prejudices and buzzwords of his surroundings, on every topic.  He has no interest, however, in investigating whether his opinions are actually true.  He doesn’t feel the need to have what he regards as good reasons, much less to investigate the reasons for and against each view before coming to a decision on a particular issue.  He thinks his opinions have value just because they are his.  This is only a particularly obnoxious example of mass man’s total self-complacency.  Experts in narrow technical fields are some of the worst mass men, as their expertise in one field makes them even more smug and incurious in their ignorant appraisals of everything else.

It seems to me that a certain percentage of traditionalist intellectuals are in reaction against something like Ortega's mass man. They have an instinct toward nobility of character and bearing, of moral integrity, of the pursuit of a higher, complex truth, of an elevated culture and companionship, of beauty and refinement, of self-discipline and courage.

However, from at least the late 1800s onward, it has been clear that Western culture was slipping increasingly toward dominance by that of the mass man (and by the mid-1900s that dominance was close to complete).

What does all that mean? It means that we have a potential problem with traditionalist intellectuals. In the early 1900s, a group of liberal intellectuals felt alienated from their own culture and so turned against it, preferring to form a subculture of their own - with disastrous consequences for Western history.

And what does a traditionalist intellectual do who similarly feels alienated from a culture based on mass man? I wonder if it pushes some to become curmudgeonly or bitter, and to feel a superior disdain for the mainstream of their own society. In other words, there is no longer a positive regard for the ordinary man and woman of their own tradition, which then sours the whole outlook.

There has to be some sympathetic understanding that it is not given to everyone to set a higher ideal for themselves; but that there is still much within the life of the ordinary person to admire; and that the role of those who are drawn to higher ideals is to act creatively in the world to positively influence their own society and culture.

6 comments:

  1. We featured this quote some time back. The Latin reactionaries are seriously under-appreciated in the Anglosphere.

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  2. The Long Peace 1815-1914 certainly inculcated complacency, our civilisation seemed unassailable. And there was certainly corruption among the intellectual classes, as you have noted.

    But in 1914 most men were highly patriotic; "oblivious to the effort needed to maintain and run a civilization, he certainly feels no responsibility to contribute to the endeavor, but rather settles for demanding a greater and greater share of the spoils" does not seem an accurate description of the typical man on the eve of the Great War. It seems much more characteristic of the postwar ethos, after our civilisation had already been badly shaken, confidence shattered and many of the best and brightest lost.

    Without the failure of the old order in 1914-18 I think the radicals would have found it much harder to sell their ideas - in this case, that the world owes you a living, and that Western civilisation is not something that should be fought for - to the general mass of the population.

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    1. Yes, it's complex because the rate of cultural disinheritance varies between countries and classes.

      For instance, Australia's intellectual classes seemed to have stayed intact for a bit longer than elsewhere - right up to the later 1930s. Whereas in parts of central and eastern Europe, the modernist mindset set in more quickly (I know that in the year 1900 the Tsarina recorded in a letter her impression that there was a shifting of culture in her country. Similarly, there were European intellectuals who welcomed the onset of WWI because they thought it might invigorate a failing Western culture - something they were very wrong about).

      A second point worth making is this: if you read the journals of leftists in the interwar period, you can still discern in their writings a cultural legacy that has now been lost to us. There seems to have been a period of time in which intellectuals promoted the modernist view, whilst still enjoying some of the cultural inheritance they were undermining.

      Third, it's true as you point out that most men in 1914 were still highly patriotic (in Australia that held true even in 1939) and were willing to make sacrifices for their country. It's possible, though, that Ortega is getting at something else that we're missing here (I haven't read his book).

      I agree with you about the disastrous effect of WWI. I'd only point out that the radicals were generally winning in the years leading up to the war.

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    2. Thanks, yes, that makes sense.

      I agree strongly with this:

      "And what does a traditionalist intellectual do who similarly feels alienated from a culture based on mass man? I wonder if it pushes some to become curmudgeonly or bitter, and to feel a superior disdain for the mainstream of their own society. In other words, there is no longer a positive regard for the ordinary man and woman of their own tradition, which then sours the whole outlook.

      There has to be some sympathetic understanding that it is not given to everyone to set a higher ideal for themselves; but that there is still much within the life of the ordinary person to admire; and that the role of those who are drawn to higher ideals is to act creatively in the world to positively influence their own society and culture."

      Many traditionalists do fall into despair and become bitter, either mean in spirit or even nihilistic. I find this blog excellent because you consistently show a better way. It teaches me (who didn't have a traditionalist upbringing or religious faith) a better way to live, and hopefully teach others to live.
      Likewise ordinary people trying to live decent lives should never be held in contempt. That's what Fabians and other Leftists do - the whole 'Yale or Jail' ethos where you're either a follower of elite values or you're nothing.

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    3. Simon, thanks. I have deliberately tried to do what you have described, so it's encouraging feedback for me.

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  3. I must admit I partly see myself in your portrait of a bitter traditionalist intellectual... I do admire traditional or even aristocratic values, especially in art and literature, and yes, it does make me sad to live in a world which is hostile to these values and even defines itself against them. But I think the problem is a bit more complicated than what you imply. I don’t think my feelings toward this world express a lack of “sympathetic understanding that it is not given to everyone to set a higher ideal for themselves”. That goes without saying, and I hold "a positive regard for the ordinary man and woman", as you put it; but from what I understand (not having read Ortaga y Gasset’s book) I don’t think “mass man” is the same as “ordinary man”. It may be what ordinary men, sadly, are becoming more and more; but that’s precisely the point, ordinary men are changing, mass culture is not what popular culture was. There is a French writer named Philippe Muray (died in 2006); I don’t know if his writings are translated in English, but I’m sure they will be soon. He defines modern man as Homo festivus, a totally new species of men who are always partying, or at least trying to, finding the general meaning of life in festivals, love parades and other public celebrations. His description of our time is both hilarious and sad; in any case brilliant and right to the point.

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