Man and His Circumstances: Ortega as Educator

by Robbie McClintock


The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but indicates.

Heraclitus, Fragment 93 (DX)

Let my words appear to you as they may. They ought only to lead you to produce in your mind the same thought that I have produced in mine.

Fichte, The Vocation of Man

I judge a philosopher by whether he is able to serve as an example.

Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator


1Meditaciones del Quijote, 1914, Obras I, p. 336. (Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by the author.)

He who would teach us a truth should situate us so that we will discover it ourselves.


Who was Ortega? Where did he stand? What did he accomplish? How should one judge the worth of his work?

Spokesmen for both the right and the left opine that he was a conservative elitist, a gifted, arrogant exponent of aristocratic prerogatives. More moderately, many scholars locate him in the tradition of liberal elitism, contending that he continued the work of men like John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville. Those familiar with Spanish history appreciate his effort to reform society and politics, an effort that made him one of the moving forces in creating the Second Spanish Republic. In recent years, his stature among professional philosophers has been rising, for his posthumous tomes back up his living pretense to have made a significant contribution to Western thought, especially to ontology. His books, always well phrased, have won diverse readers, who may value him for his contribution to social theory, to esthetics, to the philosophy of history, to literary criticism, to Spanish literature. Other persons, fortunate to have met the man, not just his work, remember him as a great teacher, an absorbing lecturer, an engaging conversationalist, a professor who helped, for a time, to reform Spanish higher education. A growing number agree with Denis de Rougemont, seeing behind Ortega's work a visionary pan-Europeanist, one of the spiritual founders of a Western future.

During his span of seventy-two years, from 1883 to 1955, Ortega was intensely active, a fact that complicates the effort to characterize his life and work. Ortega did many things. He taught philosophy for twenty-five years; founded several magazines and an important newspaper; campaigned against corruption, dictators, and the King. For these efforts he later endured a decade of wandering exile. He wrote voluminously: hundreds of commentaries for the daily press, numerous articles for diverse journals, and books and more books. Ortega talked: he toured the world giving lectures, he stumped Spain making speeches; with everyone he loved to converse in the animated Spanish manner. He took part in politics, in both the politics of Spanish reform and the politics of European union. In short, Ortega met life with chest out, without stopping to bemoan lost opportunities and without bothering to correct misimpressions.

In the United States, special difficulties complicate understanding Ortega's integral character. To begin with, important information about him is hard to come by. The best introduction to his thought in English is José Ferrater Mora's Ortega y Gasset, but this work gives few biographical details, even though Ortega insisted that his personal experience was integral to his thought. Almost invariably, American translations of Ortega's works have lacked adequate introductions. For instance, readers of The Revolt of the Masses have had no way to know that they were reading a series of newspaper articles that had first appeared in a particular paper, El Sol, in a particular place, Madrid, at a particular time, during the decline and fall of the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. These circumstances help clarify the argument of the book, yet knowledge of them is not generally available. When readers do not know the real context of a work, they supply whatever context close at hand seems most useful. This practice has led to misinterpretations.

Another complication for Americans seeking to understand Ortega's character is that people are more likely to have read Ortega than to have studied him. This condition has arisen because the works available in English do not fit within a single discipline; instead, each has independently gained a modicum of currency in separate disciplines. Estheticians are likely to have read The Dehumanization of Art; philosophers know What Is Philosophy?, and perhaps The Origin of Philosophy and The Modern Theme; sociologists are acquainted with The Revolt of the Masses and, if interested in sociological theory, Man and People; political theorists will also have studied The Revolt of the Masses, as well as Concord and Liberty; persons interested in historical synthesis will most probably have read History as a System and Man and Crisis; literary critics will have consulted Notes on the Novel and Meditations on Quixote; educators will have reflected on The Mission of the University; and romantics in each discipline may well have mused On Love. Owing to this variegation of his work, one encounters one, two, ... many Ortegas in casual references.

But difficulties in stating precisely who Ortega was do not, by any means, arise solely from problems of translation. The most ambitious biography, to date, Ortega—1: Circunstancia y vocación by his disciple, Julián Marías, loses the vocation in the complexity of the circumstances. In a bewildering manner, Ortega seemed to combine a number of different careers, simultaneously pursuing a separate course in each, yet remaining faithful to none. From the time that Ortega finished his schooling up to the Spanish Civil War, he pursued at least four concurrent careers: he was a professor of philosophy, a politician, a journalist, and a literary artist. His pursuit of these professions was not always steady, and unsympathetic critics have called him a dilettante, a gifted, erratic, vacillating personality.

2 "No ser hombre de partido," 1930, Obras IV, pp. 77 and 79.

The man's protean life, the changing complexity of his activities, presents interpreters with a serious challenge. Ortega insisted over and over again that each man has a destiny, an integral mission, a single task in life that lays down before him his personal path to self-fulfillment. Dabblers were damnable. "We are our Destiny; we are the irremediable project for a particular existence. In each instant of life we note if its reality coincides or not with our project, and everything that we do, we do in order to bring it to fulfillment.... All iniquity comes from one source: not driving oneself to one's proper destiny."2 It will be a significant criticism of Ortega himself, if biographers prove unable to define his mission. Difficulties in doing so point straight to the central issue of his biography. Was he able to live by the very standard of human life that he upheld?

Character for man is destiny

Heraclitus, 119