An Ortega from within

Fernando R. Genovés

The work of José Ortega y Gasset is a delight that perhaps the Spanish people do not fully appreciate. Here is a personality, a phenomenal presence, who overwhelms many. Spain has not treated well its best men. Perhaps it is crushed by excellence. For all of this, some find him lesser than the reality.

On October 18, 1955, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Ortega performs his last vital act in the world and before mankind. He does not die alone, but among pleasant, albeit reduced company – his family and a group of friends accompany him on the journey towards eternity, from where we come and to where we are going. The communications media of the time cover this unique event on tiptoes. The day after the death of Spain’s number one philosopher, the press plan with great care how to handle the news. It had not been many years since Ortega returned to his country after the civil war and his exile, to fulfil the destiny of the man and the thinker, to die in peace among his own, in his homeland.

Only by fulfilling this condition, of returning to the post-battle landscape, could a wandering star, like the Spanish philosopher, feel his mission accomplished. Perhaps Ortega had also returned to Madrid in the hope of finding a definitive, and already too overdue, public recognition, a resounding and exemplary final act, that could bring him comfort from past silences and misunderstandings, petty oblivion and murky resentments. At last, a final hurrah! The obituary notice appears, despite everything, on the front page of the newspapers, and not so much out of conviction, but because one cannot silence a solar eclipse.

The incontestable relevance of the work and the person is perceived in Ortega’s own country as an open case, as a controversial situation that continues to divide opinions. Ortega the philosopher, a faithful follower of the spirit of the ancients, always preferred to cultivate ideas and knowledge before beliefs, doctrines and ideologies. But his masterful lesson has not been fully heard or learned. Consequently, in Spain, his compatriots, continue to quarrel in the theatre of opinions and in murmurings

What to do with Ortega? A huge national problem for a nation that has not completed the task of believing in itself. It so happens that a nation is built, above all, with broadminded ideas and great characters. Ortega creates a work of universal scope, but rooted in the Spanish reality: here is a circumstance from which he never relinquished. Here is a tragic compromise, which the philosopher can neither ignore nor avoid: one cannot be rescued without the other, and vice versa. When the time comes to finally return home he does not hesitate, although he does not deceive himself, for this would be the greatest mistake a philosopher could make.

At all times Ortega keeps in mind what happens to him (life, by his own definition, is all that happens to us) in a space which is suspicious, if not hostile. Once again, Ortega the philosopher moves and muses in partibus infidelium.  A heavy load that Spain has to bear is the legend that it is no more than a country of artists and writers, mystics and enlightened, made for quixotic adventures, but not intellectual, philosophical and scientific tasks: let others think! (Miguel de Unamuno)

Spain is more a nation of passion than of reason. And many even celebrate this calamity. They not only congratulate one another for it, they are proud of it. However, Ortega, whose thought is jovial, Jupiterian and jubilant, does not find this fate (a predestination?) amusing.

  1. Ortega dies in a Spain that is still grey. And who cares? Great nations exalt the great men of their own country; together they make greatness possible. What has been united in life, death cannot separate. However, in Spain, faced with the body of Ortega, all whispers and condolences were in a low voice.

To the Left, the image of the philosopher represents what it mostly detests in its inner realm: liberalism; placing the values of tradition, and of history itself, ahead of an abstract “progress” and a bewitching utopianism; excellence, elitism and cultural aristocracy; a non-rationalist vital reason; individualism; an ungovernable and indomitable free spirit, resistant to pressure groups and averse to comradeship. To the Left, Ortega is not one of theirs, and that is enough reason for exclusion, and even more so, for mockery and discredit.

The Right, for its part, distrusts Ortega. They hold many reservations in addition to those that inhabit the left. However, conservatives do not consider Ortega one of their own either, as a person who can be trusted in the way God commands. The secularism that Ortega practised – and perhaps his desire to live outside Catholicism (“acatólicamente”, in the words of the philosopher himself), even though respecting other people’s religious beliefs – his transient republicanism, and the radicalism of his philosophical ideas, were never enough for some (the socialists), while for others (the conservatives) they were too much. What concerns the right most regarding Ortega’s funeral? To declare that Ortega had died in a Christian way. Just so he could be forgiven and rehabilitated. For those who never lose hope of converting Ortega (to Christianity), it is never too late.

Revolutionize Ortega. Rehabilitate Ortega. Convert Ortega. Save Ortega. The ones and the others. It is a disgrace not just of those times but of all times, when minions want to set the tone for greats, the minister (politics) aspires to command the magister (thought), the disciple tells the teacher what to say and do; or else, one ends up being rejected and denigrated. This phenomenon, the revolt of the masses, happens in a country where the notion of intellectual recognition and moral respect is absent. This happens because we fail to appreciate what we have, or that which has value. This happens when the idea of value degenerates.

Ortega y Gasset produces a rigorous and magnificent thought, and, if this were not enough, he expounds it in an elegant style. Reading Ortega is a unique intellectual experience, which cultivates the spirit and extends the thresholds of intelligence. For his greater merit, his pages flow with joy and great pleasure. And on top of that, in a Spanish that is precise and exuberant.

For better or for worse, Ortega was a unique thinker. Because of that, there were many times when he was left alone. Consequently, Spanish thought became an orphan with his death. Ortega used to say about himself, with false modesty (great men can never be false or modest), that he was no more than an “aristocrat in the small square” (“aristócrata en la plazuela”), thus summarizing his vocation as the kind of philosopher who, without concessions, and while preserving his character and dignity, rose to the platform of public life, eager to be heard and understood. But alas, for the obstinate egalitarianists, this talk of aristocracy is an insurmountable handicap; while to the sectarianists of the stage and the armchair, like those of the alleyway and the little square, this talk of “aristocracy” resonates like a demerit, incompatible with modesty and submission.

In 1932, on the occasion of the first centenary of the death of J. W. Goethe, Ortega was asked by a German friend to write a text celebrating the great poet. Ortega complied with the essay Pidiendo un Goethe desde dentro (Calling for a Goethe from within). In it, he affirms that he is not a suitable person to deliver such a homage, for the Germans themselves are the ones called to revive the intellectual legacy of the master and to put him in his place. Well, here is a similar mission for the Spanish, to recover the philosopher’s memory: calling for an Ortega from within, from the sincere heart, from the deep reason. And this means asking this of all Spaniards, for his memory and his saving cannot come from anyone else.

The present essay is a chapter from R R Genovés book La riqueza da libertad (The Wealth of Liberty), 2016. ISBN e-book 978-84-608-6112-6, available at Amazon.


© F R Genovés

Translator: Jo Pires-O’Brien (UK)

Revisers: H Kirby, CMOB (UK)


Genovés, Fernando Rodriguez. An Ortega from within. PortVitoria, UK, v.16, Jan-Jun, 2018. ISSN 20448236,