The Future of the West in the Thought of Muggeridge and Ortega y Gasset
Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990) and José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) alert us to the cultural, moral, and social-political implications that the disregard for objective values has for the future of the West. Muggeridge’s main concern is what he refers to as the end of Christendom. Ortega focuses on the moral drain of human values through the slipshod laziness of the mass man mentality. Many other thinkers have felt the urgency to recover the sources of Western culture and Christianity, including T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, C. S. Lewis, Gabriel Marcel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and most recently Nicolás Gómez Dávila, but the contribution of these two thinkers to the history of ideas in the twentieth century is monumental.
Muggeridge was a socialist as a young man. His father was one of the founders of the Fabian Society. In 1932 Muggeridge travelled to Moscow to report—favorably, he expected—on Soviet communism. He was horrified to witness peasants being hauled away in cattle trucks—this, in a place that many Western intellectuals hailed as an “egalitarian paradise.” Muggeridge received an eye-opening education in the barbarity of Stalin’s famine, torture, and murder of the kulaks, a word that by 1933 had come to mean any farmer who owned even the slightest parcel of land. These atrocities haunted Muggeridge for the rest of his life. He tried to report his disenchantment with “socialist utopia” in the Manchester Guardian but was chastised by his editors. Afterwards, Muggeridge published a fictionalized account of these events in the dystopian novel Winter in Moscow. His depiction of communism’s savagery against its own people not only fell on deaf ears, it got Muggeridge blacklisted by Western intellectuals who promoted the expansion of Soviet communism.
The antipathy and hate Muggeridge received for reporting his firsthand account of brutality in the Soviet Union got him thinking about the nature of good and evil. What was a greater evil: the atrocities committed by Soviet communism, or the rosy picture being painted of that totalitarian worldview by intellectuals who should know better? After his trip to Stalin’s Soviet Union Muggeridge came to the realization that the alleged well-being and free will of the world’s peasants and workers had become the plaything of arrogant Western intellectuals who were complicit in the rapid rise of communist totalitarianism.
The Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset supplies the interpretive key to explain the contradiction of intellectuals in a free society praising the rise of communist totalitarianism in his argument of the predominant “mass man” mentality that began to consume the West in the early part of the last century. This mentality is not class-based but rather a term Ortega uses to describe an existential posture toward the notion of freedom.
In his seminal Revolt of the Masses, Ortega warns the reader that Western man, suffering from the “spoiled child syndrome,” was undergoing a crisis whereby freedom had begun to be viewed as an existential burden. Modern man’s sophomoric rebellion is thus directed against the very idea of free will. Ortega was one of the first thinkers of the twentieth century to recognize that modern man was turning his back on freedom, not because freedom was not worth defending, but because it makes great demands on people who find the idea of moral responsibility and self-rule too taxing.
Muggeridge, who converted to Catholicism in 1982, reminds us of the role that good and evil play—via free will—in personal salvation. Ortega’s work is unlike Muggeridge’s in displaying little reflection on religious belief. Instead, Ortega presents us with the view that Western civilization flourished through the toil of individuals who, guided by nobility of spirit, forged institutions worthy of freedom-minded people. Ortega argues that the mass man mentality is a form of resentment for free will and personal autonomy, an existential malady which can afflict anyone regardless of social class, and that threatens to bring down Western values.
Muggeridge argues that the modern world is meandering hopelessly in the absence of a moral sense. He points out that the great drama of human existence is the tension between good and evil. This is the bedrock of the Christian anthropology that formed Western man. Interestingly, for Ortega, human existence encounters salvation in the sincere and thoughtfulness of a life of existential authenticity; it is utterly easy for man to lose himself, and his non-transferable “circumstance,” in the day-to-day world.
But what happens to this most real of existential tensions when most people no longer believe in either good or evil? Muggeridge argues that the effects of moral anarchy are exemplified by the systematic disintegration of values witnessed in the twentieth century. He was not a man to mince words. The true crisis of our age, he tells us, has nothing to do with energy, overpopulation, or unemployment. Such concerns have always existed in one way or other, he claims, and no economic or social-political solution can alleviate them. To focus solely on these ignores the real malaise of contemporary man. The great affliction of our age, Muggeridge explains, is that we have lost our “sense of moral order in the universe.” After the destruction of virtue, man is left only with “sensuality, which binds you to the earth.”
Perhaps during no previous age have good and evil flailed—respectively—as hopelessly as they do today. Because Western man has been coerced to believe that evil does not exist, human existence no longer possesses the vital sense of purpose and worth that is the cornerstone of personhood. Living for the moment is the credo of a rudderless secularism.
The secularist vision fails to acknowledge that the denial of evil also means the denial of goodness and virtue. It is impossible to commend virtuous people if we know that they can never embrace base actions and behavior. The exercise of free will, especially in responsible choice-making, is what is at stake today. When evil is banished, evil acts can then be interpreted as emanating from psychological and emotional problems that can be corrected by improving the environment. This makes it impossible to equate goodness with anything other than biology and alleged social justice; as Nicolás Gómez Dávila writes in Scholia to an Implicit Text: “Social is the adjectival pretext of every swindle.” Reducing man to a biochemical entity only intensifies the push to perfect man. Undoubtedly, social engineers, who are motivated by what Revel referred to as the “totalitarian impulse,” reap great satisfaction from the power they exert over people.
Muggeridge, like other thoughtful commentators, debunks the intellectual dishonesty of radical ideologues regarding virtue and goodness. Consider chapter four of his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, which begins with a quote from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Richard Savage: “The reigning Error of his Life was that he mistook the Love for the Practice of Virtue, and was indeed not so much a Good man as the Friend of Goodness.” Muggeridge points out that Johnson’s thought best explains the moral and spiritual confusion of our age: Objective values no longer inform vital existence. Instead, they have been turned into intellectualized abstractions. Incessant talk about virtue and goodness, what Muggeridge refers to “the Niagara of words,” does not make us virtuous or good.
During a long career at the BBC and as a writer for The Guardian, Muggeridge became an outspoken critic of the debauchery that he witnessed taking root and spreading in the 1960s. He reminds us that there is a direct correlation between excessive talk of virtue in Western culture today and the conspicuous absence of its practice. If talk is cheap, then talk of virtue and goodness is the cheapest. This calculated charade is in keeping with our desire to appear virtuous without making the sacrifices that the exercise of virtue demands of us.
We first encounter this idea in Socrates’ rebuke of the Sophists. Ostensible virtue and goodness, while not believing in these values, is a staple of the current cultural bankruptcy of the West. We encounter this aberration in all aspects of Western culture today: in the United Nations Security Council, in our progressive media and the intelligentsia that it vehemently supports, and their coerced pathological guilt to have people join in selective popular causes.
While contemporary secularists no longer believe in good or evil, virtue or goodness, they still find the cultural and moral residue of these virtues useful tools in promoting a personal agenda. While we witness horrific acts of evil on a daily basis, we rationalize and theorize these in many convenient ways. What does, seemingly, exist is man, a perfectible creature who can be conditioned to do compassionate acts if only we create the correct sociopolitical conditions for people to flourish.
With few notable exceptions, Western institutions, too, no longer recognize the interplay or importance of good and evil in human life. One reason for this is that most Western institutions no longer garner respect for the human person. Instead, the predominant model of man today is a positivistic one drawn up by materialist social-engineers. This attitude is pervasive in government, business, education, and even in the ecclesial embrace of what Jacques Ellul calls “death of God theology”—that is, Christian denominations that have been gutted of divine substance and vitality and whose raison d’être is social and political activism. When good and evil are viewed as antiquated superstitions, appearance and affectation—in the form of legal mandates—are all that is left to carry the weight of law and order.
The destruction of objective values, for instance, in the manner that Max Scheler and Gabriel Marcel point out, has opened the door for cynicism and radical skepticism to infest the contemporary psyche. The eradication of good and evil has made it possible for the creation of subjective, customized notions of virtue or goodness that do not acknowledge their objective reality. This is one source of our confused age. This alleged liberation over traditional values and morality is a source of our moral confusion. But our shameless defense of contradictions has hardly come about through chance. Much human energy and conceptual wrangling has been spent to deliver man to our present predication: This timely perfect storm of moral and spiritual nihilism has created a new man who is ominously proving to be ungovernable. The state, in its denial of a distinction between virtue and vice, is destroying the rule of law in Western democracies. Muggeridge’s point about good and evil is clear:
Good and evil provide the theme of the drama of our mortal existence. In this sense, they may be compared with the positive and negative points which generate an electric current. Transpose the points and the current fails, the lights go out, darkness falls, and all is confusion. The darkness falling on our civilization is likewise due to a transposition of good and evil. In other words, what we are suffering from is not an energy crisis, nor an overpopulation crisis, nor a monetary crisis, nor a balance of payments crisis, nor an unemployment crisis—from none of these ills that are commonly pointed out—but from the loss of a sense of a moral order in the universe. Without that, no order whatsoever—economical, social, or political—is attainable.
Since the 1930 publication of The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega has been vindicated in his assertion that modern man is demoralized. Ortega contends that Western man has given up higher values in exchange for flexible nihilism. Perhaps Ortega’s most prescient observation is his belief that in “the next thirty years” demoralization would sweep through Western institutions under the tutelage of a misguided “youth movement.”
The title of The Revolt of the Masses (La rebelión de las masas) is misleading. This has nothing to do with revolt in the social or political sense. The Spanish word rebelión does not mean revolt but rebellion. The rebellion that Ortega so aptly explains is an rebellion against the weight of existential freedom.
Contemporary man, both Muggeridge and Ortega contend, is weary of the alleged burden of freedom. Free will, they both argue, has become a strain for many people in the West. This rebellion has led to what Muggeridge viewed as the many creative ways that modern man can embrace a life of the lie. The only way to counter this most powerful temptation, Muggeridge points out, is to learn to “see through the eye.” This requires vision, conviction, respect for truth, and much nobility of spirit.
Ortega refers to nobility of spirit as an existential category, whereby people are willing to confront the inherent contingencies of life with free will. Human existence, he reminds us, is not easy. The opposite of this is moral and spiritual inertia—the letting-be of existential sloth. This is what, in one form or other, existentialists call inauthenticity.
While The Revolt of the Masses is one of the most insightful books of social and political philosophy in the twentieth century, its great merit is to point out the many ways that people engage existentially with reality. Human differences are metaphysical, not sociopolitical, in nature. Ortega argues that demoralization occurs when people trade their existential freedom for the cheap and easy glare that collectivization—in all its guises and promises. Like a wily wolf in sheep’s clothing, this is a strong temptation to overcome for the proponents of the “all is political” crowd.
Ortega accurately predicted that great numbers would find safe harbor in the threadbare, alleged values of mass man. The profound difference between modernity and previous ages is that mass man has now taken hold of Western institutions. Ortega reminds us that the core of mass man’s quest to live an inauthentic existence through customized values is informed by immoderation and imprudence.
Muggeridge and Ortega present us with a bleak vision for the future of Western man. Muggeridge laments the destruction of Christianity; he points out the moral and spiritual dead-end life that the secularization of the West has ushered. Ortega’s thought, too, follows the trajectory of what happens when this moral and spiritual decay is allowed to establish itself as the zenith of earthly power.
In the long run, though, there is little in fallacious reasoning—especially when this is the result of tortured and coerced abstract categories—that human reality and the passage of time cannot prove false. The truth and beauty contained in the thought of both of these thinkers has been vindicated by the annihilation of Western values, beginning in the last century. Both thinkers have much to teach discerning and thoughtful people today: Ideas have consequences; bad ideas are deadly.
When we consider the destruction of objective values and the social and political mayhem of totalitarianism that misguided intellectuals brought about in the twentieth century, a careful reading of Muggeridge and Ortega can offer us a time-tested education.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.
Posted: June 8, 2014 in Essays.