The Abandonment of Tradition - Ch. 9 "The Origin of Philosophy" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

Philosophy and a Period of Freedom

This is quite an interesting chapter from Gasset. It is a reflection on the development of a society from a past world of living and focusing on surviving, to being so materially prosperous that one loses their identity in possibilities. In many ways I think that Gasset is absolutely on point. The more power that man amasses with science, with technology, the more he begins to believe that he is the master of his own reality and destiny. He abandons the worldview of the past and tries to create his own conception of himself and reality. This is always a losing battle, though, as it doesn't seem possible to craft a new reality in this ungrounded deluge of doubts and possibilities. Gasset also seems to hint at the transition from the pre-19th Century world in which religion and traditions of the past held sway, to a new industrial world where man abandons tradition and lives for the here and now. 

How Material Wealth Reshapes Man's Conception of Reality 
Gasset begins this chapter by reflection on the notion of freedom. It is something deep within man and reflected in the development of a society altogether when it reaches a stage of in which its citizens can maximize their potential, however they define that. It's not simply law or government, but the society in all its aspects. Gasset defines it as coming between its "primitive" birth and its "petrification and necrosis" of its old age. "Freedom is the aspect assumed by a man's whole life when the diverse components in it reach a point in their development to produce among themselves a particular dynamic equation. To have a clear idea of what 'freedom' is, presupposes having defined or found with some rigor the formula for that equation."

In the primitive stage, man's possibilities are limited to the major demands of his necessities. Survival takes up most of man's possibility, and he is grateful to squeak by. Freedom and wealth aren't just monetary or political, they are the state in which one's possibilities and desires can reach beyond his daily necessities. "Until a certain date, amongst a particular group of people, individuals of a cultural ambit feel that they can scarcely rely upon any possibilities other than those strictly essential to their needs. Living therefore means relying on what there is and thanking God that there is enough to live! Something to eat, a little knowledge, a little pleasure. Life is poverty. Man lives by utilizing the frugal repertory of intellectual, technical, ritualistic, political, and festive resources laboriously created and accumulated by tradition." It is the traditions and modes of the being in the past that shape the present, as they provide the only known methods or survival in a world bent on death. 2

If the civilization continues, this primitive stage doesn't last forever. In reality, as these civilizations encounter one another, share art and technology, and an expanded industry and commerce, they begin to realize that life is not just about necessity. Life has a whole new side of potentiality to it. I can shape my life in a way that's new and according to my desire, not my necessity. "Man experiences life as consisting not solely of what there is but as the creation and extraction of new realities from oneself ... There are more things, more possible things, to do than are needed." A different problem arises for man at this stage, though. Before, man had no possibilities by a wealth of guidance. Now he has a wealth of possibilities, but no guidance. A new focus on man and his desires beings to form. 3 A "humanism" forms. There a revolutions to overthrow the old ways of being for new ones. Man is placed in God's seat, and is able to invent himself anew. Not only in supplanting the traditions of the past that governed society, but in intellectual reconceiving himself according as he saw fit. Religion was also cast aside. In the poverty of the primitive stage, man depended on God, was united to God in that need. But what need has man for God when he has an abundance of resources at his disposal? "To create a new life becomes a normal function of life - something that would not have occurred to one during the primitive stage of life. Revolutions begin. Symptomatically the individual ceased to be totally inscribed to tradition, even though is life was still partially governed by it. Whether he wanted to or not, he was the one to choose among the superabundant possibilities."

Having left God behind, though, man must recreate himself in a new image, with a new foundation. Such a task is an overwhelming one, though, as man's possibilities have multiplied so drastically with his material development. Man cannot be without a narrative, though. He must provide himself a new story by which to live. "Just as the aforementioned cause separated men from tradition, so this surrender to worldly life uprooted him from religion. All the consequences incumbent upon the former were carried to the extreme: amid a life of abundance man was left uprooted, dangling in mid-air. He floated amid the aerial element of his mounting possibilities. This was the inevitable counterbalance. The stability and vital security of an individual's existence were not automatically and effortlessly bestowed upon him by innate adherence to an unquestioned tradition., but the individual himself with total awareness had to fabricate a foundation, a terra firma to support himself. Hence he had no choice; using the fluid, ethereal matter available from existing possibilities, he had to construct for himself a world and a life." 5

If he does not, man will be drowned in the possibilities of his freedom and material prosperity. He will be subjected to paralyzing doubt, a state which he cannot remain in. He will try to emerge from doubt into some type of new certainty. "Man is stranded amid the various opinions, none of which is able to sustain him firmly - hence he slips about amid the many possible 'knowledges' and finds himself falling, falling into a strange liquid medium... he falls into a sea of doubts." 6

1 - Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Origin of Philosophy. WW Norton Company (New York, 1967) Pg. 97
2 - 98
3 - 99
4 - 100
5 - 101
6 - 102


  1. This excerpt makes the point that whether man is living a life of brute survival , depending on tradition and religion, or living a life enhanced by technology and self definition, man craves “meaning.”
    This is another way of saying there is a part of man that is supernatural.
    Therefore, man himself will never be able to generate
    what he really craves by constructing his own meaning. It’s been tried many times and they’ve all been spectacular failures.

    1. This is a good point, and one reason why throwing money towards social problems will not always work.


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