Man and His Circumstances: Ortega as Educator

by Robbie McClintock


Heraclitus, Fragment 52, 'Wheelwright, trans.

It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wished.


W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming:' in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, p.184.

At the age of fifty Ortega faced up to failure: he redefined his task. Yeats' lines sum up Ortega's plight. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world .... " Spain again became possessed by factional politics; the vieja política returned with a vengeance. Ortega saw no way to reverse the tendency towards extremism, the terrible tendency that would lead to dictatorship by way of anarchy and civil war. Moreover, at fifty Ortega found that Europe no longer offered hope to the Spanish reformer. Although valid, the European tradition was in abeyance. Ortega withheld his "Prologue for the Germans" from publication as a protest against Hitler's ascension to power. The extremism of Spain was but an episode in the more general extremism that dominated Europe. Young men could no longer proclaim that Spain was the problem and Europe the solution, for Europe, itself, had become the problem—and there was no foreseeable solution.

Man, however, has the power of abstraction. No person is compelled to obsess himself with immediate matters; letting these take what course they may, he can withdraw into his inner counsel and work towards the more distant future, laying intellectual foundations for a new attempt at creating a humane order. Thus, in 1932, Ortega became a posthumous man: he published his collected works and announced that henceforth he would devote himself to reflecting on the fundamental problems of Western culture. The great journalist lost his passion to publish and many of his important books remained in his workshop until after he died. He devoted all the leisure he could piece together to reflecting in solitude or in the company of a few intimates on the great questions, answers to which might help men rebuild the foundations of their culture. Only since his death have men been able to appreciate the magnitude of his effort, an effort that he called, after Plato, his "second voyage." Ortega's first voyage, like Plato's, was an excursion into practical reform through pedagogical means; and for both, the second voyage consisted in reflecting on the problems that made the first end unsuccessfully. For both, their reflective effort did not begin abruptly, but developed naturally from their active concerns.

Throughout his life, Ortega maintained a tension between the immediate and the distant; always he was both a participant and a spectator. But in his youth he hoped to witness the results of his thoughts and deeds; his aspirations concerned his immediate circumstances. During his second voyage he did not completely lose this involvement. But his work became more abstract. He aimed not at immediate consequences, but at far off goals that concerned the sense of life held by the people who would live in a fully industrialized world. On the thirtieth of June, l93Z, Ortega made two recordings for the Archives of Speech at the Center for Historical Studies. These recordings indicate the change in his interests. In the first he retrospectively described his attempt to transform the Spanish character. In the second he prospectively plumbed the secret of history. The first gave an eloquent apology for the life he had led up to then. He called it "The Work of Man."

"El quehacer del hombre." 1932, Obras IV, pp. 366–7.

Life is labor. And the truth of life, that is, the authentic life of each person, consists in doing what must be done and in not doing anything else. For me a man has merit to the degree that the series of his acts is necessary and not capricious. But the difficulty of it is in properly leading one's target, for the only thing that appears to us to be necessary is a repertory of actions that others have performed. These come to us haloed with one or another consecration. They incite us to be unfaithful to our authentic work, which is always irreducible to that of others. True life is inevitably invention. We must invent our own existence; yet at the same time this invention must not be capricious. Hence, the word "invent" recovers its etymological intention of "find." We must find, we must discover the necessary trajectory of our life, for only then will we be truly ourselves and not just anyone, as the frivolous always are.
How can one resolve so difficult a problem? For me there is no doubt about it. One finds that one is like a poet to whom a rhyme scheme is given. This rhyme scheme is one's circumstances. Each person always lives in the midst of unique and unavoidable circumstances. These tell one in a schematic outline what it is that one must do.
In this way I have directed my labor. I have accepted the circumstances of my nation and my time. Spain suffered and still suffers from a deficit of intellect. It had lost its dexterity at handling concepts, which are neither more nor less instruments with which we make our way among things. It was necessary to teach Spaniards to face reality and to transmute it into thought with the least possible loss. Thus, I dealt with something more ample than science, for science is only one of the many manifestations of the human capacity to react intellectually before reality.
Well then, I had to make my experiments at apprenticing the Spaniard to intellect in whatever way he could be reached: in friendly conversation, in the periodicals, and in public lectures. It was necessary to attract him to the precision of ideas with a graceful turn of phrase, for in Spain in order to persuade one must first seduce.

In his second recording, Ortega turned his attention from Spain to Europe and from the past to the future. A serious problem troubled him: only the arbitrary, capricious willful men like Mussolini seemed capable of acting with any effect in contemporary Europe. Young men could not plan consistent life-programs for themselves, as Ortega had done, for circumstances had changed and no one understood how to act independently upon the new forces of historical development. He took it as his task to discover how men could reassert their historical initiative; and consequently, in his second recording he directed attention to "The Concept of History."

"Concepto de la historia," 1932, Obras IV, pp. 367–8.

I am speaking at the Center for Historical Studies and I want to use the time and place that I find myself in to manifest my enthusiasm and faith in history. For contemporary Europe, history is the primary condition of its potential health and resurgence, for each thing can have only its proper virtues and not those of anything else. Europe is old; it cannot aspire to have the virtues of youth. Its virtue is that of an old man, that is, of having a large memory, a long history. The problems of its life are found at complicated heights, and therefore they require extremely complicated solutions: only history can provide these. Any other procedure would cause an anachronistic disjunction between the complexity of Europe's problems and the youthful simplicity and absence of memory that it would try to give to their solutions. From history Europe should not abstract a blueprint for what it should do—history does not foresee the future—; from history Europe should learn to avoid doing what it must not do, and thus it will give rebirth to itself by always avoiding its past. In this task history helps us by freeing us from that which was; for the past is a revenant, and if one does not dominate it with memories, thus placating it, it will always turn against us and end by strangling us. This is my faith, this is my enthusiasm in history; and it is a vivid pleasure and it has always been my great Spanish passion to see that in this place we concentrate our attention on the past and that we dig into the past, which is the way to make it fertile, just as by digging into o]d land with a plow, wounding it with a furrow, we fructify it.

Here, then, was the mission of Ortega's second voyage: to master what Nietzsche called "critical history"; to turn back against the past, to criticize it so that one could avoid reincarnating its mistakes. Ortega spent his later years reflecting on the historic possibilities open to Europeans. In these reflections the past imposed only negative limitations, only actualities to be avoided. Let us leave behind us our sentimental attachments to the given; let us ask with Ortega: what is it that European man can and should become?

Emerson, "Circles," Works, Vol. 1, p. 198.

Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.