Redefining the Word "Aristocracy" in the 20th Century - Ch. 2 from "The Revolt of the Masses" by Jose Ortega y Gasset
The Rise of the Historic Level
In Chapter two Gasset reflects on the reality that economic, living, political, legal, and social status have all increased for the average man over the 1700's, 1800's, and truly becoming a reality in the 1900's. But with this democratizing of society into the hands of the masses may also bring with it some drawbacks, namely if society falls to something approximating a drone mentality or mob rule. Society, Gasset argues, can also be called such if it is made up of smaller groups of people who associated with one another based on unique skills, interests, pursuits, etc. which set them apart from the rest of the population. It is these small groups of shared common bonds which all a society to be healthy and to avoid a type of group-think that can manifest itself with everyone is exactly the same; when everyone depends on everyone else to determine what to think instead of thinking for themselves.
Here Gasset then claims that this proper understanding is the new "aristocracy" which upholds society. It is not the wealthy who snub their nose at the poor which should be called aristocracy because they too can find themselves subject to group-think. When either group falls to this mentality, it usually denigrates into some type of large scale debauchery which involves driving society towards the pursuit of base pleasures. Thus with all the improvements for the average man, society, too, must be careful not to let this group mindset take over and tear down the very institutions which brought about universal rights, the ability for political participation, etc.
A New Meaning of "Aristocracy"
Gasset begins chapter two by making the point that a centralizing of the population in cities, as well as the access of all aspects of social, political, and economical society by the regular man had never happened before since the end of the Roman Empire. It seems that Gasset does not look favorably on this change. "We are living, then, under the brutal empire of the masses." 1 Why does he not look favorably on this? Well, he explains in chapter one that a mass collection of men who are all the same, holding no special or unique skills or interests, do not have the ability to provide all the specialty jobs and roles that society needs to function. This, then, is not a functioning society, but a mob of chaos.
And so, he explains in chapter two that when he says that he is in favor of the "aristocracy," what he means in that there need to be interests, skills, and common goods which separate people from one another, and thus make them unique. Aristocracy is not about thinking oneself better than the poor person. And so, with this new definition, he can make the claim that to have a "society" in the proper sense, and not a mob, is to have these people who are set apart into smaller guilds, communities, interests, specialties for the good of it. He, again, is not yet talking about government, but about the population in general that makes up a society.
"This is all the more in my case, when it is well known that I uphold a radically aristocratic interpretation of history. Radically, because I have never said that human society ought to be aristocratic, but a great deal more than that. What I have said, and still believe with ever-increasing conviction, is that human society is always, whether it will or not, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic. Of course I am speaking now of society and not the State." 2 To reiterate, he rejects the notion that aristocracy is that small group of elite and well-educated people whose focus in life is to make themselves seem special. They too, he says, can find themselves in the throws of the mass-rule mindset. A mass-rule mindset which, like a stampede or mob, guides the group in a direction without aim, often leading to destruction. And so authentic aristocracy, for Gasset, refers to those in society who do not subject themselves to what could be called, a "drone" mentality. 3
He talks about how in the 18th century men put forward the idea that everyone, by virtue of their birth, had political rights. "In the XVIIIth Century, certain minority groups discovered that every human being, by the mere fact of birth, and without requiring any special qualification whatsoever, possessed certain fundamental political rights, the so-called rights of the man and the citizen; and further that, strictly speaking, these rights, common to all, are the only ones that exist." 4 And these rights actually came about for people in the early 20th century. He mentions one drawback to this, and that is these rights went from a theory, to a ideal desire, to a reality, but then ... to a type of psychological greediness. He mentions a current disposition seen in society which embodies a certain type of spoiled assumption of these rights. "The levelling demands of a generous democratic inspiration have been changed from aspirations and ideals into appetites and unconscious assumptions." We expect these rights, and even take them so far as to blindly criticize the very institutions that endowed us with them in the first place, not realizing that we are chopping down the own branch of the tree that we sit on. 5
And so the 20th century is fundamentally different from any other point in history in that the average man has risen to the levels in society to which only few attained in the past. Now, this may be good or bad. Gasset seems to take a bit of a negative view. (I, personally, am less convinced that this is negative given our experience with "the experts" of the COVID-19 years). "Everything good and bad in the present and in the immediate future has its cause and root in the general rise of the historical level." 6
1 - Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Revolt of the Masses. (New York. Norton & Norton Co., 1930). Pg.19
2 - 20
3 - 21
4 - 22
5 - 23
6 - 24