The role of the intellectual in “backward”— that is, largely non-industrial—societies has been one of the major themes of the twentieth century. This is not surprising, since no previous period of history has opened the road to power to so many practitioners of ideas—though in societies in which literacy has been rather problematical. As a matter of fact, one of the principal ways the “underdeveloped” (or, as we now say, “developing”) world differs from Western Europe and the United States is the almost sacerdotal role assigned to individual writers, poets, playwrights, historians, and philosophers. The contrast between that situation and our own could not be starker, and it provokes much anguish in our literary papers. Look at Senegal, we are typically reproached by critics of our own (rather less philosophical) political class, there they have (or had) a poet for a president! Or at Nicaragua, whose vice-president is Sergio Ramírez, a novelist!

But in fact the greater deference due certain individual intellectuals in particular countries should not be viewed with unrestrained enthusiasm. In places where ideas are regarded as weapons, those in power typically feel the need for a monopoly of force. This explains why non-Western societies, including societies ruled by poets and novelists, more frequently engage in censorship than those governed by the cultural laity, or why they are more inclined to jail, persecute, or exile their intellectuals. In those countries, an intellectual’s youthful militancy often dies in disillusionment and the embrace of actively anti-political attitudes; what begins as commitment ends in withdrawal. Thus, after a lengthy detour, the sacerdotal, non-Western intellectual often ends up as dislocated and powerless as his confrere in the West—but with some additional, quite drastic, personal inconveniences.

This syndrome is in many ways anticipated by the career of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, whose hundredth anniversary has just been observed and who is now the subject of a major intellectual biography by Rockwell Gray.1 Spain is, evidently, a European country in strictly geographical terms, but as late as the 1920s and 1930s it was regarded by Britain and France as being as backward culturally and socially as many Third World nations today, and many of the issues raised there have a certain contemporary relevance for Africa and Latin America. It was during those very years that Ortega became known in the United States for two books, Invertebrate Spain and The Revolt of the Masses; both works touched on themes sufficiently broad to attract people not particularly interested in Spain or even in philosophy as such. His later books, which were written in the 1940s and early 1950s but appeared in this country a decade or more later, Man and People, Man and Crisis, History as a System, The Dehumanization of Art, appealed to rather smaller circles—academic philosophers or litterateurs deeply involved in tracing the development of ideas on the Spanish peninsula and in Spanish America.

Gray gives these aspects of Ortega’s career all of the attention they deserve (indeed, perhaps a bit more than they deserve), but he also establishes quite firmly his subject’s role as an archetype of the involved public intellectual—what Ortega himself called “an aristocrat in the public square.” It is this aspect which invites greater analysis and discussion. Above all, Gray’s book helps us to place Ortega in the context of Spanish intellectual history—between the generations of 1898 and 1914, between the decline of positivism and the ascendancy of Marxism. He allows us to see Ortega as an exemplar of a kind of liberal conservatism (or conservative liberalism) subsequently superseded by other, less lovely, ideological currents that prevailed in the Spanish civil war (1936–39) and after.

Ortega was born in Madrid in 1883. His father was a prominent journalist; his mother, the daughter of the owner of the great liberal daily El Imparcial. After private schooling he entered the University of Madrid, from which he received a doctorate in 1904. He then went to study in Germany—an unusual decision for a Spaniard in those years—eventually settling in Marburg, where he specialized in Kant. Returning to Spain four years later, he received an academic appointment at a teacher-training institute, and in 1910 he won (by competitive examination) the chair of metaphysics at his alma mater.

Between 1911 and 1936 Ortega became one of Spain’s truly towering personalities. He contributed regular articles to El Imparcial and also to its successor, El Sol. He established what later became the Espasa-Calpe publishing house, which made available to Spaniards for the first time accurate, inexpensive paperback translations of the major works of Western European science, philosophy, history, and belles lettres. (The series, incidentally, is still being published.) In 1923 he founded Revista de Occidente, Spain’s first truly substantial journal of books and ideas, and the following year a publishing house of the same name, to bring out foreign (largely German) philosophical treatises.

Ortega was something more than merely an intellectual figure, he was also an active, eloquent critic of Spain’s corrupt, decrepit political system.

But Ortega was something more than merely an intellectual figure—he was also an active, eloquent critic of Spain’s corrupt, decrepit political system. During the 1920s the monarchy had undermined much of what remained of its prestige by plunging Spain into an apparently endless colonial war in Morocco; it had discredited the parliamentary system by sponsoring a quasi-dictatorship under General Miguel Primo de Rivera; and it had acted as a brake on needed reforms in education, transport, land tenure, and civil-military relations. Through his newspaper columns Ortega did much to turn the Spanish middle class against the monarchy, and after the abdication of Alfonso XIII in 1931 he was elected to parliament on an independent ticket (rather remarkably labeled “Agrupación de Intelectuales Independientes al Servicio de la Republica”).

Ortega’s service in the new constituent Cortés was brief and disillusioning; he withdrew from it in 1932 to devote himself to teaching, serious writing, and journalism. An early critic of leftist and anti-clerical excesses which eventually doomed the Republic, he was nonetheless regarded as one of its founders, and therefore anathema to its enemies. Not surprisingly, when the Army of Africa rose up against the authorities in Madrid in the summer of 1936, Ortega was forced to flee for his life. After a brief stay in Paris, he took ship to Buenos Aires (where he lived from 1939 to 1942), subsequently relocating in Estoril, Portugal (1942–48). After 1949 he divided his time between his home in the suburbs of Lisbon and Madrid, where he reestablished a residence, but the environment (and the attitude of the Franco regime) was such that he never fully re-entered Spanish intellectual life. Instead, he became a kind of ambassador-at-large of European culture, welcome as a supreme adornment to conferences and celebrations almost everywhere except in his own country. By the time he died in 1955, he was regarded as the last paladin of an earlier, golden age of Spanish liberalism, and not without reason. Yet within a decade a new generation of Spanish intellectuals won over to Marxism had relegated him to their dustbin of history—an ironic coda to a career begun and brought to fruition in the service of Enlightenment ideals, and prematurely truncated by the victory of clerico-fascist forces in the Spanish civil war.

As an intellectual biographer, Gray sets for himself the task of elucidating both Ortega’s person and his oeuvre—a formidable undertaking for a career which spanned more than fifty years on two continents and involved both prolific public and literary activity. Nonetheless, three major themes emerge quite clearly.

The first is the need for Spain, in Gray’s words, to “define itself by standards established beyond its frontiers”—in other words, to submit itself to the norms of Western European culture. In and of itself, the idea was not new: since at least the eighteenth century the Spanish intellectual community had been divided between those who considered the country backward and those who merely regarded its Western neighbors as heretics beyond the pale.

But controversy had become more explicit after defeat in the war with the United States over Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. The “disaster,” as it was always called, forced a new generation of writers—Angel Ganivet, Miguel de Unamuno, Azorin—to rethink the comfortable pieties that had sustained their fathers and grandfathers. Eventually the so-called “generation of ’98” divided into conservatives and reformers, or perhaps better said, into nationalists and cosmopolites (hispanizantes and europeizantes)—those who believed that Spain must return to its preternatural essence (whatever that might be), on one hand, and those who, on the other, frankly called for the Spanish people to relinquish, in Gray’s phraseology, “their arrogant notion of being the chosen people of the Christian world, and embrace a more distinctly secular view of things.”

Broadly speaking, Ortega associated himself with the latter group, and even invented a term—“invertebration”—to describe his country’s lack of rigorous social and cultural standards. He was not questioning the value of hierarchy as such, merely the functional utility of Spain’s prevailing institutions—Church, throne, army, aristocracy, parasitic political class. The problem, he held, was that the established order, judged against the background of other European countries, simply did not work. His critiques, at times deeply wounding, were difficult to ignore. “The intellectual level is sinking so far and so rapidly at this point in our own decadence,” he wrote, for example, just after his return from Marburg, “that shortly there will be neither academies nor theaters; rather, we Spaniards will sit around enormous café tables and tell each other risqué stories.”

In both Invertebrate Spain and The Revolt of the Masses, books which became international best-sellers, Ortega inveighed against the logical product of Spain’s dysfunctional system: the “mass man,” who refused to accept proper cultural authority and leadership. At times this message was seriously misunderstood, as if it somehow implied an antipathy to democracy, or was embraced by people (including the dictator’s son, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, later founder of the Falange, Spain’s most successful fascist party) with whom Ortega could have had little in common politically. As Gray points out,

the traditional notion of social classes inherited from 19th century social thought is notably absent from the book [The Revolt of the Masses], which divided society between cadres of elite leadership and the mass man who rejects them.

It is clear from Ortega’s writings that “mass man” was emphatically not a class phenomenon: he could be found at any point on the social scale. Indeed, the central part of Ortega’s critique of the Spanish system was that it logically promoted the wrong kind of people. Many of Spain’s military, clerical, and political leaders of the Twenties—including, by the way, its aristocracy and high society—were what Ortega had in mind when he spoke of “mass man.”

Nonetheless, there was a central tension in Ortega’s thought with stark political implications. “Clearly a liberal in his devotion to education and self-realization,” Gray writes, Ortega nonetheless

feared the invasive force of mass taste, which, he believed, threatened to reduce all models of excellence to its own base level. With the noblesse oblige of the liberal who is not at heart a democrat, he seemed at once committed to raising men’s rights and fearful that success in this effort might ultimately elude him and the elite leadership of which he dreamed.

Ortega’s cultural messianism may seem a bit precious for the contemporary reader, but it grew out of an elitism far more disinterested and constructive than the alternative advanced by the Spanish traditionalists of the day—José Calvo Sotelo, José María Pemán, Pedro Saínz Rodríguez, individuals who would emerge as major “cultural” figures of the Franco regime. Their source of inspiration was Ramiro de Maeztu (1876–1936), who had long argued (most notably in Defensa de Hispanidad) that Spain’s decline after 1700 was due to the supposedly rampant invasion of secular humanism and a corresponding decline in militant Catholicism. Ortega’s call for higher cultural standards, if under an enlightened leadership class, presupposed important changes in the structure of Spanish society and education—in other words, was fundamentally “liberal” in the context of the time, and understood as such.

The second theme of Gray’s book, very much related to the first, is Ortega’s insistence on the continuing vitality of European culture. This was a particularly important note to strike in the Twenties, when Spenglerian notions of doom and apocalypse were popular in Germany and France, and some Spanish left-wing intellectuals preferred to find their models in more exotic locales—the Soviet Union, or even the charade of revolutionary Mexico. In contrast, in the pages of Revista de Occidente educated Spaniards could find what Gray calls “a kind of cultural topography of Europe,” including abundant attention to history and sociological theory, a defense of modern art (though not Surrealism), and an up-to-date summary of the major literary trends in several European languages. (After 1931, Ortega’s magazine devoted considerably more attention to specifically Spanish issues.) The depth and strength of Western culture—particularly as manifest in England, France, and pre-Hitlerian Germany—was a theme to which Ortega returned with renewed vigor after the Second World War. By then the notion was gratuitous in the United States or Western Europe, but in Spain itself—locked once again in self-imposed isolation—it had come to be regarded as eccentric when not downright pernicious.

Gray’s third theme, which links the other two, concerns the role of the intellectual in society. Like many educated cosmopolites in backward countries, Ortega oscillated on the proper role of persons like himself: at times, he saw them as the proper harbingers of modernization, the natural architects of reform; at other times, he advocated their total withdrawal from the corrupting influences of public life. In any case, Gray writes, Ortega tended “to distrust the partisan blindness occasioned by engagé commitments.” By the end of his life, in fact, Ortega was openly critical of the cult of “commitment” practiced by certain kinds of political intellectuals—particularly Heidegger and Sartre, with many lesser copies to follow. As Gray paraphrases it, “for him, this . . . was the very contradiction of a genuinely philosophical attitude, which consisted in the 'negative capability' not to commit oneself, but to remain open to further analysis.”

Not surprisingly, then, the heyday of Ortega’s role as a public intellectual was the late 1920s—during the last season of the Bourbon monarchy. Once the new republican order was in place, and ideas had to be translated into action, Ortega discovered how ill equipped he was to compete in the public square, particularly with a whole new class of intellectual mediocrities suddenly raised to prominence—men like Mañuel Azaña on the Left, or José María Gil Robles on the Right.

Though elected to parliament for the province of León on a program which advocated, among other things, unionization of workers of both sexes, mild socialization of private capital, and separation of church and state, Ortega quickly found himself outclassed by leftist demagogues within the republican coalition. He correctly foresaw serious problems for institutions founded on fanaticism and revanchism. The anti-clerical provisions of the new republican constitution particularly disturbed him, as did the tendency to look to imported models of revolutionary change or an excessively ideological approach to economic issues. As he told one audience:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a Catholic, and since my youth I have taken care to formalize in a non-Catholic fashion even the humble details of my private life. But I am not about to have imposed on me the wild figureheads of an anarchical anti-clericalism.

A few weeks later he had retired from politics, and the civil war which followed four years later (as well as the victory of the anti-republican coalition) effectively precluded any reconsideration on his part. In Argentina and Portugal he was an outsider subject to the goodwill of local authorities; and though he was permitted (after 1948) to return to Spain, he found it prudent to limit his remarks there to the most abstruse philosophical topics. Long after the final collapse of the Republic, Ortega maintained only the most tentative of truces with the Franco regime—and vice versa. The Falangist press heaped scorn upon even his most innocuous comments in such rare public seminars as he gave during the late Forties. For his part, he refused to accept the state pension due him on his seventieth birthday in 1953. Nonetheless, the regime made a half-hearted attempt to appropriate his memory at the time of his funeral in October 1955, a backhanded admission that this man—whom it had driven into exile and pushed onto the margins of an intellectual life he had once so greatly enriched—had represented the best of the Spain it had extinguished. Ironically, had Ortega remained in Madrid throughout the war, and had the forces of the Republic triumphed, it is just possible that he would have fared no better, and possibly worse.

His legacy lives on, somewhat modestly, in the Revista de Occidente—both the journal and the publishing house.

So much has changed in Spain since the death of Franco in 1975 that it is difficult to place Ortega on the current intellectual scene there. In the fashionable, prevailing circles of the Left, he is regarded as somewhat bourgeois and passé; the Right, now dispersed and demoralized (as much by the consumer revolution as by political change), feels no more affinity with him than it did a generation or two ago. His legacy lives on, somewhat modestly, in the Revista de Occidente—both the journal and the publishing house—which his son re-opened in 1963. Overseas, Ortega’s influence outlasted him by about twenty years. In Argentina he inspired a whole generation of philosophers and writers who have only recently departed the scene. And in Mexico, a country Ortega never visited, his influence was strongly felt through the pedagogical activities of former students—Spanish republican emigres who found shelter at the Casa de España (later the Colegio de Mexico). Some three million copies of his works have been sold in Spanish, a language in which his prose is regarded—quite rightly—as a model of clarity.

Ortega’s life was a long, strenuous exercise in logic, rational discourse, and moderation. His reward—during his lifetime and thereafter—was not great. But one cannot help feeling that the particular position he eventually comes to occupy in the cultural pantheon of Spain and Spanish America will tell us a great deal about the prospects for those countries, whose destinies have been thwarted (or self-thwarted) for so long.

  1.  The Imperative of Modernity: An Intellectual Biography of José Ortega y Gasset, by Rockwell Gray; University of California Press, 438 pages, $25.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 1, on page 34
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