- The Revolt of the Masses by Ortega y Gasset


During Ortega y Gasset's lifetime (1883-1955) Europe was a place of violent conflict and abrupt change. The last of the Spanish empire finally crumbled when the Puerto 
Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuban colonies were taken over by the USA in 1889. The first World War broke out in 1914, lasting 4 years. When Ortega published his book The Revolt of the Masses in 1930, Mussolini had already risen to power in Italy and Hitler was about to take control of Germany. Spain established the Second Republic (1931-39), a chaotic affair which was ended by a Civil War (1936-39) and a fascist dictarorship. It was also the prelude to World War II (1939-45). In Russia the bolshevik revolution of 1918 installed a marxist-leninist economy, offering an apparent alternative to capitalism, particularly after the USA stock market crash in 1929. However the Stalinist regime put an end to hopes of a more stable political scenario. There was a binary division between fascism and communism. Democratic values were under siege:

“The truth is that men are tired of liberty.” Benito Mussolini.

Ortega was a leading republican politician during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923-1936). He also had a role in deposing King Alfonso XIII in 1931. He became civil governor of Madrid and went into exile in 1936 at the start of the Civil War.


In 1929 Ortega published articles in his daily newspaper, El Sol. They were later printed as the book The Revolt of the Masses. in 1930. The texts were his attempt to rethink modernity in terms of contemporary Spain.


There is a European-wide crisis: the revolt of the masses. These masses have always existed but now have gathered in one place. The crowd, characterised by a common feeling of identity, has taken over everything. The problem is that it has replaced minorities.

The horde used to think that the politicians understood public problems better than themselves. However, now the mass thinks it can impose its topics of coffee house conversations. Today the mass is everybody and those who are not part of it are considered indecent.

"There are no longer protagonists; there is only the chorus."


The Roman empire is also the story of a subversion, of a rule of the masses which absorbed and annulled their minority leaders and put themselves in their place. 
Today we live in the rule of the masses where they exercise powers previously held by the minorities. They have become intractable. This human army is composed only of captains. Anybody can now move around and impose their will.


Each age has felt superior or inferior to past ages. Greece and Rome are called the golden age which means that later times have considered themselves less. Imperial Rome felt its increasing decadence but today we are living in an opposite age to this. It is called the 'height of times' and is compared to past decadence and obscuratism.

The 19th. century named itself "modern culture" as it felt itself to be the definitive time. Our century does not feel final but flees itself constantly, unpredictably, incapable of finding the height of times. But an age that prefers itself to all others cannot be called decadent. This is the feeling of our times. Our age believes it is above all past times, yet feels like a child just beginning. It is proud of its strength, but fears it.


Humanity is no longer trapped in itself. Its area and this proximity with distance has done away with the limitations of life. At the same time the world has extended in time so that through screens and paper we can learn about fosiles and evidence of milenary lives. Space-time limitations have been invalidated and past times have come alive so that we can be in more places than before and consume more cosmic time in less lifetime.

Life is above all awareness of what is possible. One possibility is a necessity; 'world' is the extent of our possibilities. Our possibilities have grown more than ever. The past has been dwarfed.

The problem with our age is our ability to achieve, but our inability to know what to achieve. We are masters of things, but not of ourselves, lost in our abundance. From this has come the dual characteristics of our age: arrogance and insecurity.


Diagnosing our time as one of possibilities makes it superior to other ages. That's why ou culture looks forward, not back. Life is deciding what to choose when faced with options. Circumstances are the dilemma and it is our character that decides. In our age of mass-man, collective lives, it is the character of the society that decides.

In countries where the masses have triumphed most politics is lived on a day to day basis. Public power is in the hands of a representative of the masses. They are so powerful that they have abolished all opposition. The government lives from day to day, without projects and continues in power by avoiding conflicts, hour by hour. That is what characterises public power handled by the masses: it is omnipotent and ephemeral. The mass-man has no projects, is adrift, and so establishes nothing, even though their powers are enormous.

The conclusions are: that liberal democracy, based on technology, is the superior style of public life known until now; it is not the best sort imaginable; it would be suicidal to return to the inferior styles of the 19th. century.

The 19th. century was made up of rebellious masses who endangered the very principles that gave them life. If that type of human were leaders in Europe in only 30 years the continent would return to barbarism and its possibilities would be curtailed.


Historically mass-man was predictable. It's life is based on absolute material ease, then come comfort and public order. Since the middle of the 19th. century, the average person has found no social barriers in morality and civil life. Nobody forces them to contain their lives. The three principals which have made this possible are: liberal democracy, scientific investigation and industrialisation. The latter two are summed up in technology.

New humanity's world, apart from having no limitations, suggests that tomorrow will be richer and more perfect, as if its growth were spontaneous and endless. Humans believe that all inventions come from nature instead of from technology and work. This leads us to point out two primary characteristics of the mass-man: free expansion of basic desires and thanklessness for what has facilitated existence. The creature living in these circumstances has no conception of its limits. By avoiding all pressure, all conflict with others, it comes to believe that it alone exists and relies on nobody superior to itself.

The work of the 19th. century has created thanklessness and ignorance in modern humans. They focus only on their own well-being and feel no solidarity with the causes of this welfare.


In the modern world outlook is formed in a different way to previously. Contemporary souls see living as having no limitations. Nothing is impossible, no-one is superior to anybody else. They are self-satisfied. But
excellence means making an effort to achieve something. Originally 'noble' involved an obligation to be and act. Nobility meant self-improvement. It was the opposite of vulgarity or immobile. This is now the definition of mass-man: a stagnation.

The 19th. century engendered a new human who has enormous appetites and powerful means of satisfying them. Then it abandoned humanity to itself and so the average human closed in on themselves. Thus it has created a docile mass. In future mass-man will be incapable of self-direction, though goodwill may appear temporarily in difficult times. It's soul is hermetic and intractable because it is unable to attend to anything but itself. It will wish to follow someone, but cannot. It will wish to hear, but discover its own deafness. It may be incapable of maintaining civilisation since this humanity, which has learned to use many gadgets, is ignorant of the principles of civilisation.


The mechanism of eradication is intelectual hermitism. A person has a series of ideas and decides to be content with these as intellectually complete. Modern humans are full of themselves and feel no need to change. Although they are intellectually capable they are closed in on themselves and feel no need to use it. They intervene in all public questions, imposing their opinions.

The ideas of the modern individual are not really ideas, nor their possession culture. The idea is a check on truth. If you want to gave ideas you must first want the truth and accept what it imposes. This is a cultural norm. Barbarism is the absence of norms without appeal against them. It is not surprising that where there is a revolt of the masses there will be barbarity.

Lately in Europe there have been political movements like unionism and fascism. Under these banners has appeared a style of individual who does not attend to reason but imposes personal opinions. This is the reason of the unreasonable, the mark of the mass-man who has decided to lead society without the capacity to do it. Their ideas are nothing but appetites put to words.

This new individual would be lost in a discussion because they cannot reason with intelligence. There is no debate, only barbarity. They use direct action which means holding violence as the only reason.
In social exchanges there is no politeness. Literature of direct action is constituted by insults. Sexual relationships reduce their formalities. Liberalism and the democratic system require coexistence, dialogue and debate of which mass-man is incapable.


The revolt of the masses could be a transition to a new human organisation, but also to a catastrophe for human destiny. We must avoid the mortal sin committed by leaders of the 19th. century: a poor awareness making them less alert and vigilant.

Modern humans have no interest in civilisation, only for its products. That means that humanity, dominant today, is primitive, a Naturmensch emerging in a civilised world. The world is civilised, but its inhabitants are not. They use it as if it were natural. The modern individual wants a car and enjoys it but thinks it is the spontaneous fruit of a tree. Spengler believes that technology can subsist when interest in the principles of culture have died out. Yet, to create science and thus technology requires the existence of noble souls.

The most alarming fact is that technicians such as doctors and engineers exercise their profession in the same spirit as those who consume their products. None retain solidarity with the fundamental destiny of science and civilisation.


Civilisation is a fabrication and, unlike Nature, cannot sustain itself. It needs people. Nature is a jungle and a barbarity and thus contrary to civilisation. Mass-man thinks that the civilisation in which he was born is natural and so humanity is converted into primitivism.

The average individual has no conception of the fundamental values of culture. This is so, principally, because when civilisation advances it becomes more complex and difficult. Each generation needs to resolve these new complex problems and for this requires knowledge of the past to avoid future errors.


The average individual previously was led, but now has decided to govern the world. Their psychology has three characteristics:
- a radical impression that life is facile without tragic limits. Thus means that each average individual feels dominant and triumphant.
- This encourages them to assert their identity and approve their own morality and intellectualism. This then leads them to a self-assurance which rejects others and exercise dominance. 
- They intervene in everything imposing their average opiniones in a regime of direct action.

This is the spoiled child of history whose inheritance is comfort and security, the advantages of civilisation. They are condemned to represent others and their lives become fictional. The most contradictory style of human life is the self-satisfied life since it is degenerative. The self-satisfied individual 'knows' that certain things cannot be, yet pretends the opposite.


The mass-man comes from liberal democracy and technology. The latter is divided into capitalism and experimental science. Population growth in Europe is due to experimental science. But the scientific specialist is the prototype of the human-mass.

When scientists need to solve a question they shut themselves in their laboratory to exclude the world and get to the solution through self-sufficiency. They become specialists, not uninformed because they are "scientists", yet not wise men since they ignore everything outside their speciality. These are self-satisfied people living in a closed world: the definition of mass-man. With technicians but without real scientists progress is impossible.


The author, like Plato, asserts that humanity can only be saved if governed by philosophers since the masses need governors. However, they are revolting against themselves by acting in solitary using violence. This can be prevented by the arrival of the masses to power. When Social and Public power are equalled there is no need for revolution.

The State is working efficiently now because mass-man knows that it is here to help. Society lives for the State but the State is degenerating the living conditions of the masses. That's the paradox: society creates a state in order to live better, but the state makes society live for it.


The revolt of the masses is the same as the exponential growth that human life has experienced in our times. It is the same as the radical desmoralisation of humanity.

1. Managing is the normal exercise of authority and has its basis in public opinion. The author points out that it is Europe that has commanded in the world for three centuries. Under its mandate the world lived under a unified style.

However, a society divided into disagreeing groups cannot command. As nature cannot stand a vacuum, it is filled by violence.

In the Middle Ages nobody was in command of the temporal world and this was relatively chaotic. In these post-war years it is said that Europe is no longer in command and that there is a shift in power.

2. Europe had created a system of efficient norms. In order to improve them others are needed. However, mass-man has decided that the rules are outdated, but he is incapable of creating new ones and doesn't know what to do.

3. It is rumoured that the European norms are no longer in effect and so the masses take advantage of the situation to live without imperatives. The world thus ends up demoralised. This is the situation of youth. By feeling free, without obstacles, they feel empty.
The author's solution is the United States of Europe.

4. Commanding consists of putting pressure on others. But this alone would be violence. Authority has two effects: directing someone and ordering something. What is being ordered is a participation in a great historic destiny. Obeying is not enduring, but, on the contrary, valuing the leaders, following them with zeal.

Ortega y Gasset points out that European decadence is caused by a paradox: the assumption of being smaller is born of growing capacity and stumbling on an ancient organisation within which it doesn't fit. To solve this conflict Europe must overcome its borders.

6. The author tells the story of the origin of modern towns and how people moved away from the countryside, even incorporating the rural environment in the city. He says that the State was forged over time and the need now to move towards a political union of States.

7. Society's new problem is its loss of perspective. The State is not a spontaneous coexistence but a common project. It is not a motionless material thing. It is pure dynamism, the desire to do something together.

The State is political and its adherents have only secondarily a race, blood group and social class. Its life is not in the past but in the future. We must unite to solve the world's problems.

8. The formation of nations has always followed this rhythm in Europe:

- in Europe, States were first built up through the fusion of several geographical, ethnic and linguistically neighbouring peoples in a moral and political coexistence.

- then came a period of consolidation where peoples outside the new State were considered strangers or enemies. This is the time of exclusion and closing in on one's own State - nationalism.

- the State is fully consolidated. Now begins the new task: uniting with the other States, previously considered enemies. There is a growing conviction that they have similarities to our morality and interests and we form a national circle against more distant groups. This is the new idea of nation, each nation supporting the good of all, not its own interests.

9. The author underlines the need for a European Union and reviews some of his theses: demoralisation and the revolt of the masses it involves; the importance of the moment in history and the possible European project he defends; there is no conflict between two moralities, the decadent and the new because mass-man has no morality, no awareness of obligation; this is not amorality but immorality; Europe has blindly adopted a magnificent culture with no roots because it is not a new civilisation but a negation; the present-day form of humanity originated in the defects of European culture which before long will be cried out loud. 

"Morality cannot be eliminated without more ado. What, by a word lacking even in grammar, is called amorality, is a thing that does not exist. If you are unwilling to submit to any norm, you have, nolens volens, to submit to the norm of denying all morality, and this is not amoral, but immoral.It is a negative morality which preserves the empty form of the other."


Europe has been left without a moral reference. Mass-man lives with a morality which others created and accumulated, but which he denies.



“A world superabundant in possibilities automatically produces deformities, vicious types of human life, which may be brought under the general class, the ‘heir-man,’ of which the ‘aristocrat’ is only one particular case, the spoiled child another, and the mass-man of our time, more fully, more radically, a third.” 

Ortega compares the mass-man to the aristocratic landowners of the past. He enjoys modernities and liberal politics, but mass-man is a lazy consumer, not a producer, whose default is entertainment.
They are defined by their similarity to everyone else. Being different and having unconventional ideas induces anxiety in the mass-man who will always avoid that. They follow pop culture and populist leaders.
Mass minds are not capable of transcendence because they do not recognise any higher authority than themselves. They adhere to a few simple and unchanging ideas no deeper than memes 

“The [mass] individual finds himself already with a stock of ideas. He decides to content himself with them and to consider himself intellectually complete. As he feels the lack of nothing outside himself, he settles down definitely amid his mental furniture. Such is the mechanism of self-obliteration.” 

The masses have opinions based on intuitions and no counterargument will convince them. Their ideas are as unchanging as their lives. They choose hedonism over purposeful effort. They are self-sufficient in a complex, interrelated world.

Mass-minds reject open discussion since it threatens their ideas. Their argument is respect for their beliefs, not discussion of them. Action, power and violence replace discussion in the mass-man's fascist culture.
Opinions are free but, how can we judge their value? The author argues that opinion must be based on external authority, debated, refined, nuanced and, possibly, discarded. Opinions have no value outside subjectivity if they are not contrasted in debate and in an open society.

Mass-man is not a social class but a mentality. Specialists are included in the type. Scientific and philosophic specialisations produce technical experts who know their narrow field but are ignorant in most other areas. For Ortega the specialist is:

“... a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.”

Specialisation can reinforce the mass-man mentality.

Ortega's idea of the ruler comes under several names: the noble-man, the select-man, the excellent-man. They are wise generalists who have a wide knowledge of the world.
The mass mind is immobile, the noble one is of purposeful effort, sought in something better than themselves. It aims for self-improvement, not self-satisfaction. Humility and wisdom characterise these leaders.

“Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us – by obligations, not by rights.” 

Those who are able to see the problematic nature of existence, including its limitations and tragedies, are fit to lead because they are not distracted by fantasies and illusions.

The mass-man as world leader:

"I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things... I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But I speak to a lot of people. My primary consultant is myself, and I have, you know, I have a good instinct for this stuff"

Donald Trump in an interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe, March 2016


"I am me and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I will not save myself. Benefac loco illi quo natus est, we read in the Bible. And in the Platonic school we are given as a company of every culture, this: "saving appearances", phenomena. That is, to seek the sense of what surrounds us."

This quote is a cultural immersion since it includes references to both the judeo-Christian and Greek traditions which are the basis of Western culture. These are the wide "circumstances" Ortega is pointing out to the reader and he includes his personal, momentary situation. He further argues his idea with an anecdote from Heraclitus. This Greek philosopher was in the kitchen when some disciples dropped in to visit him. They were startled to see him in those circumstances, but Heraclitus invited them into the kitchen saying, "Come in, because the gods are here, too."

Ortega includes both traditional Western culture and his daily life as the subject of philosophical reflection. This means that there is no item of reality that is not embraced in philosophical consideration. In this Ortega coincides with other trends of 20th. century thought such as vitalism, existentialism and phenomenology. He adopted the latter as his method, starting from the phenomena in his surroundings and moving to general culture in an inductive approach he called perspectivism:

"The definitive being of the world is not matter or soul, it is not a determined thing, but a perspective", "...where my pupil is, there is no other ...we are irreplaceable."

In a neo-Kantian twist Ortega's point of view includes the active perception of the subject who makes sense of his circumstances. This will lead the author to reflect on subjects apparently unconnected to philosophy like the essence of hunting, meditation on a painting or the Guadarrama landscape.

From the intimate view of perspectivism the question arises of how we decide what is true. Ortega opposes the rationalist claims that there exists an absolute truth, unconnected with the circumstantial. He asserts that truth is always associated with the situation of the subject. The truth consists of becoming aware of this reality from the existing circumstances surrounding the subject. The Guadarrama range is different seen from Madrid or Segovia. Neither perspective is more true; they are complementary. This complementarity is what distinguishes Ortega's vision from relativism and scepticism.

Rationalism, for Ortega. attempts to attain one eternal truth avoiding consideration of historical, social and personal circumstances. It is based on theoretical abstraction devoid of reference. Scepticism, according to the author, is based on obviating the immediate and concrete, then declaring that that it is impossible to know the truth since human experience shows that there are two opposing views.
Perspectivism requires the readers to reflect on their own lives before engaging with society. “I am I and my circumstances,” corresponds to the socratic adage, “know thyself."


For Ortega the Western tradition, from ancient Greek to the breakdown of Modernity, has based its thinking on rationalism. This is the abstract concept that rationality is perfect and spontaneity is replaced and disqualified.

“In the intelectual order, individuals must repress their spontaneous convictions, which are only opinion (doxa) and adopt instead pure reason’s thoughts, which are true «knowledge» (episteme).”

The aim was to rebuild the world based on pure reason which, through logic, would provide eternal truths. Reason was treated as a fact but its human constitution was ignored, thus removing vitality and history from the construction.

However, suppressing does not mean eliminating and individuals will retain spontaneity under rationality. Ortega explains change in individuals as a passage through 3 spiritual moments: tradition, rationalism and mysticism, similar to Hegel's tesis-antithesis-synthesis. 

In tradition spontaneity is gradually subjected to the past: culture in the form of science, ethics, religion, law, becomes authority and finally their creator, life, is made subservient to them. Culture continues because its creators support it, not as a creation, but as tradition. (This is similar to Feuerbach's concept that God was created by humanity but humans now believe that God created them.) Life is put at the service of ideas in a radical reversal between living and thinking.

The consequence of this switch is that people will attempt to fit the world into rational slots and they will fail until they question accommodating living into a purely rational framework. Life should not be subjected to reason but just the opposite: reason should serve life. Rational modernity is searching for protection. Its

"... priority is to serve: another man, an emperor, a wizard, an idol. Anything, rather than feeling the terror of facing alone, with one’s own chest, the onslaught of existence.”

Faced with the impossibility of achieving truth through pure reason, modernity has adopted relativism as a solution.

For Ortega the real solution is to search for a balance between life and reason. This means ordering the world, not on pure reason but from the perspective of life. This synthesis is vital reasoning, a narrative rationality which mathematical reasoning has ignored. It is the inclusion of life and history, vital reasoning because it is biographical, not biological. It is also historical reasoning which overcomes but does not exclude mathematical reasoning. The truth lies in the distributed perspectives of each individual who sees partial truth. These are not contradictory, but complementary.

Ortega is also critical of Descartes' adage "I think, therefore I am." He asserts that individuals are not res cogitans but rather res dramatica since they do not exist because they think but, on the contrary, they think because they exist. Ortega's concept of the subject is that it is an object that creates itself in reality and representation and is related to others collectively, each in their circumstances.

Philosophical materialism

Ortega's aim was to go beyond Idealism and Positivism, (what he calls naive realism). Traditionally they are opposing philosophies in the history of philosophy. 
Positivism is based on the existence of the given. It assumes that what you see is what there is and that the universe is simply there. It assumes that there exists an objective world and that things appear as they really are or that it would be enough to draw back the veil of appearance.

"The ancient realism that starts from the indubitable existence of cosmic things is philosophical naivety. It is paradisiacal innocence."

For philosophical realism only the immediate, the useful and the measurable exist. Objective reality became the goal of philosophy and the subjective viewpoint was discarded as if it did not intervene in the process of knowing, in the subject-object relationship.

Idealism is the predominant theory of modernity and it is responsible for distancing humanity from reality. The cartesian "I think therefore I am." transforms the world into an object of thought. Re-establishing contact with things is not an easy task.

Ortega thinks that idealism expels us from the outside world with the subject no longer naively accepting the existence of an exterior reality where things are as they appear. The subject must be freed from this ego prison where they distrust reality as a possible illusion:

“Idealism proposes that I suspend my belief in the reality outside my mind that this theater seems to have. In truth, it tells me, this theater is only a thought, a vision or image of this theater.”

Neither reality alone, nor the individual on her own can be the basis for philosophy. Both appear crippled in our daily experience because the individual provides ideas, feelings, categories... and reality also imposes its conditions. Ortega is searching for a synthesis of realism and idealism and proposes life as the basic reference for philosophy.

The root reference, however, is not my existence, not I am, but my coexistence with the world. In Life there is a convergence of subject and object, reality and consciousness. Ortega positions himself midway between the world and subjective awareness, avoiding any abstraction:

"Life is what we are and what we do; it is therefore, of all things, the closest to each one of us.”

Human life is also basically problematic. People live in the awareness of the quandries of the how and why of life. This explains the inevitability of philosophy.

"What is vital is what is concrete, what is incomparable, what is unique. Life is what is individual."

However, speaking of humans without humanity is an abstraction. Life is also coexistence.

Ortega links to existentialism, particulary Heidegger, by defining humans as in the making, always reinventing themselves, creating their own lives. They count on themselves but also on the surrounding world. This is the meaning of "I am I and my circumstances." The subject and reality, the two parts of binary idealism and realism, interact with each other. This is Ortega's synthesis.

Thought process

Ortega described his own thinking as:

"I've been gradually encircling, as the Hebrews did, in order to take Jericho"

This spiral approach to philosophical thinking comes from his eagerness to see concepts from as many perspectives as possible in his search for an appropriate viewpoint, which may be the combination of them all.

Another thought process Ortega uses is digging down to the "roots" to find the overlooked principles and then airing them.

A third element in his thinking process is to start from the phenomena of his environment and move on to general culture. He called this inductive approach perspectivism.

His three mental strategies, far from being dialectical, are perspectivist. They confront binary thoughts, such as realism versus idealism, in a search for synthesis. In sum, his perspectives multiply in a spiral, inductively, to deepen their roots.

Ortega presents the history of philosophy as a closed unit and his reflections on it are directed to understanding the nature of philosophy itself. He concludes that philosophy is a historical way of thinking.

For the author it is also a "radical" way of thinking in the sense that philosophy and radicalism are the same thing. He explains that his spiral thinking is not to reach for peaks but to dig down to the abysses of principles and premises: to reach the roots. But the philosopher lives in his own time and so his radicalism is framed by his age. He cannot dig down further than other philosophers allow. In this sense philosophy is historical.

However, Ortega rejects received ideas from the past and asserts that historical concepts are to be scrutinised and their half-truths and assumptions exposed.

Some of his basic premises are:

- Philosophy is a system of interpretations chosen by humans when faced with vital situations.
- Being is not a given but a human invention forged by humans to deal with the world 
- Life is not reducible to one or other explanation. It is many-sided.
- Philosophy is changing and may turn into a very different thinking process

This last point is core when considering Ortega. His way of thinking philosophy does not fit any school or methodology. It consists a radical thinking way of living. This is the essential paradox which the author finds in his own thinking: the philosopher ventures his life on philosophy but he cannot commit to any one philosophy. As such, for Ortega, there is a basic opposition between philosophies and philosophy and no philosophy would be authentic if it were one of the possible philosophies. Certainly a 'radical' standpoint.

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