Saturday, December 4, 2010

Musings on Ortega y Gasset

Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia, y si no la salvo a ella, no me salvo yo (Meditaciones 77)
[L]a misión de las masas no es otra que seguir a los mejores, en vez de pretender suplantarlos (España invertebrada 114)
[C]uando un pueblo se propone principalmente la organización de su vida colectiva, lo logra a costa de desindividualizar a los hombres que lo integran (“Un rasgo de la vida alemana,” Obras Completas V, 191)
I have been grappling lately (but not literally–imagine that: Ortega with a grappling hook) with José Ortega y Gasset and have concluded that there are two sides to his philosophy: an intimate, subjective, and ultimately personal side that enables us as individuals to develop our own identities and another collective, liberal, and very much de-personalized side that forms the backbone–I use that term very intentionally–of a nation.
The first idea can be found in his Meditaciones del Quijote (1914), where he petitions for individual awareness of one’s circumstances. Such a perspective enables us to see the big picture, the interstices that connect civilization to civilization, nation to nation, and man to man. It moves over the course of history, detecting cultural phenomena, national influences, and creative activities that all give rise to the individual in its current state. Clearly, it is objective in scope but subjective in application; we are encouraged to extend our vision, comprehending our relationship with others (in the broadest sense of the word), but the ultimate subject–the yo–is responsible for that action. I am not going to suggest that Ortega approaches Unamuno’s level of intimacy (a complete immersion in one’s yo at the expense of others), but I do feel that this aspect of his philosophy is highly subjective and very interested in the individual.
The second facet to his philosophy that I am considering appears in his discourses on nationhood and what it means to be a nation (see his España invertebrada (1921) and La rebelión de las masas (1930), among others). He concludes that national identity is a composite construction: the masses (the plebeians) directed by select minorities (an aristocracy, if you will). The difference between the two groups is one of docility and example. The “individuos selectos” lead by example, portraying qualities that the masses are inspired to imitate. It is only when “en una nación la masa se niega a ser masa–esto es, a seguir a la minoría directora–, la nación se deshace” (España invertebrada 76). Hence, an actively progressing nation requires cooperation among all of her ‘parts’–or “gremios,” as Ortega calls them–under the supervision of an elite minority.
I can’t help but see a bizarre contrast between these two ideas–Ortega moves from an intimately subjective version of the self (although influenced by her/his circumstances) to a seemingly nameless member of the masses; a de-individualized individual. Or perhaps his project is progressive, i.e. it builds on preceding ideas. Maybe Ortega is trying to say that the illustrated person–s/he who is actively engaging with her/his circumstances–recognizes the latent potential in collectivity and aspires to fulfill her/his role in a national purpose. If so, that is remarkably utopian.

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