By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
José Ortega y Gasset's man and crisis isn't uplifting reading. It isn't apocalyptic, either. It is the work of one of the twentieth century's greatest philosophers, and the only thing about this book (published in 1942) that seems dated is his incessant use of the word "man" to signify humanity.
While this is a book that could inspire several volumes of commentary, I would like to limit myself to the latter component of the book's title—crisis. Even this, however, requires a few preliminaries.
According to Ortega y Gasset, history can only be fully understood when one follows the many ways in which generations both develop and interact with one another. True, there are other factors that go into developing a full picture of the way in which our society has evolved from the time of Pericles to today, but it will always be flawed if one can't see that specific generations will always have unique characteristics that are not merely due to material circumstances. They are also affected by the lives of previous generations. Each previous generation contributes to the quilt that is a society's culture as a whole.
Suffice to say, generations do not develop in a vacuum. The essential characteristic of human existence is that it takes place within an evolving and collective drama. As new characters are being introduced to this drama, older ones are exiting the stage. However, these new characters (in keeping with the drama metaphor) have to learn how to orient themselves to a play that is already in progress. As Ortega y Gasset writes, "The essence of living is that man is always existing within an environment, that he finds himself—suddenly and without knowing how he got there—projected into and submerged in a world…into this present, which is now around us." Because this "present" is always changing, the problems each generation feels it must address are always changing.
Though each person must confront such problems as an individual, it is safe to say that individuals within a given generation will confront certain problems in similar ways. The problems of the present for a peasant born in the same year as Galileo, for example, are remarkably disparate from the problems of a working class individual born in 1987. Indeed, one can often speak of a spirit of the times that captures a general orientation of a specific generation. And while Ortega y Gasset notes that, "Culture is only the interpretation which man gives to his life, the series of more or less satisfactory solutions which he invents in order to handle his problems and the needs of his life," he also points out that much of this culture is handed down from previous generations.
This culture is the repository for how to deal with the problems one has to confront. However, these solutions can eventually become stale and effectively meaningless over time, and the culture can begin to lose its vitality if it becomes perceived as a byzantine collection of sterile facts and dead letters. People begin to despair and feel confounded by the world around them because the culture seems far too complicated and bloated. Consequently, calls for simplicity and rebirth ring out like gunshots.
This demand for rebirth is crisis. The majority of Ortega y Gasset's book is concerned with examining this phenomenon, particularly as it took shape during the transition that took us from the medieval to the modern era (the years 1350 and 1650). There is also some discussion of the first great crisis of the occident that occurred as Rome burned and the Church rose to prominence.
Given that much of the book was originally the notes or transcripts of lectures that Ortega y Gasset delivered between 1932 and 1933, one can assume that he was not only concerned with the violence and chaos that occurred around the time of the Renaissance. He was addressing what he believed might be Europe's decent into another period of crisis led by a few strongmen who were demanding a return to a culture that never really existed on the right and calls for socialist utopias on the left. He was not ready to concede that liberalism lacked the ability to cope with full-scale industrialization.
Perhaps this is why this book struck me as so accurate with regards to what I see happening throughout the world today. As people abandon institutions in the wake of the industrial era, they seem to be left floating in space and willing to follow anyone who claims to have an answer or a solution. As it was with the authoritarians sprouting up throughout Europe in the wake of the Depression, it seems as though only charlatans and extremists are willing to offer one up now, too.
I can't help but feel, consequently, that the "scholars" of Ancient Aliens, the Birthers from the Tea Party Express or any extremist who offers an alternative to be the narrative putatively endorsed by society are all connected by an underlying sense of despair. And while it is not terrifying to see that people are questioning many of the tenets of our culture, it is scary to see how dangerously credulous some people can be when taking up new beliefs. The great solace I found within this book is that these periods of mindlessness are oftentimes short-lived.