The Bright Countenance and the Obscuring Clouds

“… There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which [mass man] does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his”opinions.”  

“…Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it.”

Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) in Revolt of the Masses (1930).

“…In today’s climate, it’s all -too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture….Think for yourself.”

From an open letter of advice addressed to incoming university students by a group of liberal professors teaching at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, August 29, 2011.

Milton formulated his pleasant description of scholarly activity a few years before he wrote Paradise Lost. It was a visionary ideal, not an empirical account; in the actual colleges of the early 1600s, there was bitter conflict between supporters of the absolutist Stuart monarchy and the champions of Parliament, culminating in civil war. There was also plenty of more general riotous behaviour, much of it drunken. Francis Bacon claimed that students were made violent ‘for want of sufficient maintenance’, a little like the debt problem of students today.

Nonetheless, it was widely understood that the pursuit of truth was the university’s fundamental concern, however temporarily wayward the paths to it. For almost three hundred years after Milton’s death, ‘the bright countenance’ in his mind’s eye remained the central justification of university life. But by the late 19th century, the very idea of truth itself began to be undermined by various European thinkers, and over the 20th century, these notions percolated through society at large. Also, as higher education has come to be regarded as an entitlement, colleges and universities have grown exponentially since the 1960s, changing in quality as well as quantity.

This combination alarmed the classicist and philosopher Allan Bloom, who became a bestselling author with The Closing of the American Mind (1986), his astringent portrait of higher education after the 1960s. But even he was surpassed in pessimism and penetration by the ‘elitist’ Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, who has had permanent and worldwide impact with The Revolt of the Masses, a book of less than 200 pages he published in 1930; in print ever since.

Reading Ortega with an open mind can be an uncomfortable experience for everyone living today, including those who try to dismiss him as ‘reactionary’. This labelling substitute for serious critical thought is exactly what he shows as hollow. His own truths are not subjectivist and relativist, but timeless, almost as mathematical proofs invented by Greek thinkers over two thousand years ago retain their validity forever.

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