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.

Ortega traced the lasting implications of mass society, as it was and still is: the consequence of faster and faster means of communication and movement, and of industrialization and urbanization. Other authors have grappled with this topic, but he surpassed all in his concentrated focus. An aristocratic liberal, he dissected the 20th century’s rising ideological currents, dominant in his lifetime, but which he also correctly expected would end in failure.

Unlike academic social scientists, he was also little interested in explaining human beings in terms of vertically arranged socioeconomic classes. ‘Mass man’ could as readily be found among the rich and the politically powerful as the poor or middling; among professional academics, scientists, and technologists as well. All were becoming sovereign consumers. Specialized expertise might be increasingly rewarded financially, but while losing status and reciprocated influence; included in this would be members of legislative assemblies. If an ‘elite’ survived, it could only be one of reasoned moral and imaginative virtue. He shows the real meaning and direction of people concentrated in masses, whatever their immediately conceived purposes. He devotes a chapter, for example, to the way advancing technology expands ‘primitivism’, evoking thoughts today about i-phone addiction, ‘reality’ TV, and blockbuster fantasy movies, full of CGI.

Mass invasion of universities has taken a grim new turn over the last two decades, as groups of students have now frequently succeeded in using the shouters’ veto to suppress freedom of expression of unfashionable ideas, imposing obligatory political correctness over entire campuses. Even Ortega’s dark imagination could not conceive how far this kind of tyranny could be expanded by portable mass communications. Trendy professors and administrators may worsen matters, but today, even the most reasonable academics and students may find themselves conscripted into the latest armies of the night. Twitter and Facebook more and more reduce attention spans and supplant serious reading and writing, Facebook now boasting over two billion users worldwide. Universities not only suffer the infection, but are threatened with becoming incubators and pressure cookers of professional mass hunters of offence.

Google and Wikipedia, although splendid new information sources, have also been the likely culprits in increasing mindless copying and unabashed plagiarism in universities; many young people are now unable to make practical and ethical distinctions which once appeared obvious. Panic about the campus effects of the mass media revolution is now spreading, even among those liberal professors who at first imagined it was only a new variation on the long tradition of undergraduates producing uproar about causes good and bad. But ‘Facebook protests’ and the empowering of narcissist ‘Social Justice Warriors’ have carried the domination of ‘masses’ beyond Ortega’s warnings; beyond even the dystopian prophecies of Huxley, and Orwell, corralling every one of us in a colossal, anonymous, suffocating, and quite fraudulent ‘We’.

Academia has so far offered little resistance to this gnostic disorder. This is partly because giant modern multiversities are almost incapable of taking coherent positions on anything at all, save the need for ever more funding and pious affirmations of ‘diversity’. But it is also because too many professors, impeccably ‘liberal’ in the American ‘progressive’ sense, are more afraid of being labelled ‘reactionary’, or even ‘conservative’ than they are of collaborating with thuggish student flash mobs. ‘Think for yourself’, begs the open letter from a group of Ivy League professors, but the trouble with that is that, even in previous unwired generations, young people frequently take several years to realize they are not behaving like eagles, but parrots.

Universities could take a great step away from narcissist cynicism by simply banning the use of i-phones and personal computers by students so long as they are on campus, as much as possible driving them back to documents, periodicals, books. Denunciations for ‘utopianism’ and ‘elitism’ would inevitably follow, but the policy could just as well be identified as the real ‘progress’, even the new avant-garde. Think about that for yourself.

(Neil Cameron is an historian, writer and Discourse Online contributor. This article first appeared in the Montreal-based online journal, the Prince Arthur Herald.)