Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) was one of the most important philosophers and authors of the 20th century. Camus called him, “after Nietzsche, . . . perhaps the greatest ‘European writer.’” Yet he is virtually unknown today, and scarcely ever read, or even referred to or quoted. One needn’t read far in any of his many books to understand why. The title of his most famous work, The Revolt of the Masses (1929), is deceptive today, but it was not intentionally so. Ortega’s subject is not the rise of the revolutionary proletariat but of postmodern man, the spoiled child of the Western world, an irresponsible creature lacking a system of any values but his own self-created ones, fundamentally without morals, and believing himself to be perfect. Ortega foresaw the youth rebellion in the second half of the 20th century, and the New Left generally. I first read Revolt before I entered college, and have found reason to return to it many times since. This past summer I decided to go further and ordered a number of his books, including Man and People (published posthumously in 1957), Man and Crisis, What Is Philosophy?, History as a System, and Meditations on Quixote. For no particular reason I started with Man and People, and have got about a third of the way into the book.
“My subject,” Ortega begins,
is this: Today people talk constantly of laws and law, the state, the nation and internationalism, public opinion and public power, good policy and bad, pacifism and jingoism, “my country” and humanity, social justice and social injustice, collectivism and capitalism, socialization and liberalism, the individual and the collectivity, and so on and so on.
Unfortunately, according to him,
one of the greatest misfortunes of our time is the acute incongruity between the importance that all these ideas [are they really, he wonders, “ideas” at all?] have at present and the crudeness and confusion of the concepts of them which these words represent.
Briefly, Man and People has to do with the foundations of sociology and what we mean when we speak of “society.” From my familiarity with Revolt, I can glimpse the outlines of the argument he is making and where he is taking it. But I am hardly there yet.