Imagination in History
by Robbie McClintock
Review of An Interpretation of Universal History José Ortega y Gasset, translated by Mildred Adams,(W.W. Norton & Co., $8.95), published in The New Republic, Vol. 169, No. 4 & 5, July 28 & August 4, 1973, pp. 28-29.
Length: 1,000 words
To determine precisely when a legitimate government has become illegitimate is difficult. Even the worst tyrannies, for instance Hitler's, have been perceived by many living under them as properly legal. Rarely does arbitrary rule become established in complete disregard for the customary legalities. Instead the legalities are in the main followed, but innovations or irregularities are introduced until suddenly the citizenry discover men in control of the apparatus of the state who can run it not as the law prescribes but as they personally see fit.
We have been well reminded of late that the abuse of authority is possible within our own system. The perennial problem of political legitimacy has a timely edge to it this summer; it is fortunate that An Interpretation of Universal History by José Ortega y Gasset should appear now. Some of the most profound observations in the book bear upon "the most important event that ever can happen in the life of an entire people, namely: how is it that they lose the traditional faith which they held in common?"
Rather than attempting a sharp distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy,ß Ortega observed that any actual government was a mixture of both. The proportions of the mixture were crucial, and he found the proportion of illegitimacy very high in every contemporary government, almost as high as in the Roman Empire, the locus classicus for arbitrary rule. Given this conception of the historic situation, the practical problem, especially for the intellectual, was to counter with criticism and the exercise of remaining rights the power of the illegitimate elements.
That a probing discussion of arbitrary rule should be found in this book is itself surprising, for it is the text of public lectures given in Spain in 1948-49.The text itself shows numerous hints of arbitrary censors, but unfortunately the translator, Mildred Adams, does not deal adequately with the problems that Ortega had to meet simply in giving the lectures. They were Ortega's first public undertaking in Franco/sSpain-he had only recently ended 10 years of selfimposed exileand with them, it would seem, he was testing the authorities even as they were testing him.
From evidence in the text it would seem that the test was not an entirely happy one for Ortega. Through the mid parts/ Ortega gave a running, rather acrimonious commentary on criticism of his lectures in the press. He repeatedly averred that he was speaking about the Western world at large, not Spain in particular, and he cautioned against reading political meanings into comments that were laden with blatant political meanings. Most curiously, well into the series, he changed without forewarning the tone and subject of his lectures/ dropping politically sensitive themes, becoming milder and less critical while at the same time hinting that the change was not entirely to his satisfaction. All' the signs suggest that an interesting story lurks behind the text itself. Too bad the translator did not see fit to dig it out.
Failure to do so may also have done Ortega an intellectual disservice. Throughout his writings Ortega rarely sticks close to the subject and his style, especially in lectures, is to circle round and round his main concern, surrounding it with a web of ideas that in the end he can suddenly pull shut. But these qualities are here apparent to a fault. Ostensibly the lectures were a commentary on A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee. For Ortega this mammoth work seems to serve less as a subject than as a pretext. If Toynbee was in fact Ortega/s subject, then his lectures were a rambling, ad hominem performance redeemed by incisive digressions. Certainly the digressions are central, and the reader's task is largely one of deciding which among them were Ortega's real concern.
One of the important clues is the "revision of the itinerary" that Ortega announced when two-thirds of the way through. Whether the change was compelled by the authorities or the result of his personal choice, he clearly made use of it to take up two seemingly quite different concerns. Through the first eight lectures he suggested repeatedly the dominance of illegitimate power in our . time, but in the last four lectures Ortega dropped this theme almost entirely and inserted instead his own theory ofman, one quite opposed to Toynbee's deterministic view. In Ortega's theory, men have historic initiative because they are selt-stimulating beings whose powers of imagination allow them both to refrain from responding in the faceof severe stimuli and to respond actively when no objective stimuli impinge upon them. "What I firmly believe is that what characterizes man is his extreme abundance ofimagination, which is so scarce in other species; thetefore, that man is a fantastic animal and that universal history is the gigantic, contin'uous, and insistent effort to go, little by little, putting some order into the crazy fantasy."
Ortega suggested that his concern about illegitimate power and his faith in man as an imaginative being were connected, but for one or another reason he failed to explain the connection. What is it? Perhaps simply this: that even though men may find themselves under arbitrary rule, they need not be a hopeless prey of its efforts to condition them to its authority. Being capable of fantasy man can resist necessity and ,expediency. Imagination endows man with the power of ipitiative and no outside force can arbitrarily take this from him. As American politics seems.to be turning more and more manipulative, it may be well to remind ourselves that we carry within us that power-imagination to interpose between the stimuli besetting us and the mechanical responses they are meant to elicit.