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THE INCREASING MENACE OF SOCIETY

Ortega y Gasset

 

Ever since the middle of the last century, life in Europe has become more and more public, and in these last few years that tendency has increased at a rate that is positively dizzy. A life which is private, hidden, solitary, closed to public view, becomes more difficult every day. 

The situation has certain characteristics which are obvious to the senses. Noise in the street, for instance - the street has become stentorian. One of the privileges which man used to take for granted was silence. Now his right to a certain amount of silence is recognized no more. The street penetrates into our own private corners and fills them with public clamour. He who wishes to meditate must get used to doing it submerged in the midst of a public racket, a diver in an ocean of collective noise. Man is never left alone by himself. Whether he likes it or not, he must be with others. The public square and the avenue force their anonymous clamour in through the very walls of his home.

Confronted with the unlimited public invasion, everything that used to signify reverence has become less and less important. Especially the theory that a mans house is his castle. Family life, that society in miniature erected outside of and opposed to society in the large, is reduced to a minimum. The more advanced a country is, the less important the family. 

The immediate cause of its disappearance is curious. It has always been recognised that the heart of the family was the hearth. But then, as usual, man began surrounding it with an aura of romance. The hearth was altar as wall as cooking place; the haven of the family, of fatherhood, of the lares. But the fact is that just as soon as it began to get difficult to get domestic servants, the lares, fatherhood, and the family altar commenced to disappear. One began to realize that in the last analysis the cornerstone of the family was not the household gods, nor the paterfamilias, but the hired girl. It became possible to reduce the fact to a formula almost as exact as a functional law - in every country, family life today is Important in direct ratio to the available amount of domestic service. In the United States, where it is harder to keep a good maid than to keep a giraffe, family life has contracted to a minimum. And so has the size of the house. Why have a large house if you cannot stay in it Without servants, some simplification of domestic existence is essential, and when you simplify it you make it uncomfortable. The complicated, semi-religious rite of seasoning food - the rite of the kitchen-altar - was reduced to a minimum. Man was thrust out of domestic seclusion into public life. The real god Lar was the soup kettle.* 

The modern family tends to fly apart. There is a vast difference between the hours that used to be passed at home and those that are passed there now. In those long, slow hours of another day, man used to assist in the crystallization of a part of himself which was private, non-public and which easily became anti-public.

The physical change in the thickness of walls since the Middle Ages could be shown by a diagram. In the 14th century each house was a fortress. Today, each many-storied house is a beehive. It is a city in itself, and its walls are thin partitions which barely shut us off from the street. Even as late as the 18th century, houses were still spacious and deep. Man spent the major portion of his day in them, in secret and well-defended solitude. That solitude, working on the soul hour after hour, forged it, like a transcendent blacksmith, into a compact and forceful character. Under its treatment, man consolidated his individual destiny and sallied forth with impunity, never yielding to contamination from the public. It is only in isolation that we gain, almost automatically, a certain discrimination in ideas, desires, longings, that we learn which are ours, and which are anonymous, floating in the air, falling on us like dust in the street. 

No one knows what the end of this process will be. Until very recently the whole of European development was focussed on the education and encouragement of the individual. With increasing intensity it insisted that life should take individual form. That is to say, that by the very act of living each one should feel himself unique. Unique in joy, as in duty and in sorrow. And is this not the truth, the pure transcendental truth about human life? Whether humble or magnificent, to live is to be alone-to have this consciousness of the singleness, the exclusiveness of man's own individual destiny, a destiny which he alone possesses. Life is not lived in company. Each must live his own life by himself, taste it with his own lips, whether the cup be full of bitter or of sweet. Some of us find ourselves with partners but this does not mean that we allow another to participate in the secret life which is ours and only ours. 

Yet, today, there is no doubt that the direction of social evolution has changed. For the last two generations, life in Europe has tended to be less and less individual. Everything forces man to lose that sense of being unique and to make himself less compact. Just as the house has been opened up, made more porous and better ventilated, so people and ideas, tastes, opinions blow back and forth across us until each one of us begins to think that perhaps he is someone else.

Is this just a phase, a passing change, a step backwards in order to make a still higher leap toward greater intensifying of the individual? No one knows; but it is a fact that right now a great number of Europeans are feeling a sense of luxurious fruition in ceasing to be individuals and dissolving themselves into the mass. There is a delicious epidemic of feeling oneself part of the mass, of ceasing to have any individual destiny. Man is becoming part of society. 

Throughout the long course of human history there is no novelty in this. It has been the thing that has happened with greatest frequency. The unusual was the opposite-the desire to be individual, non-transferable, unique. What is happening now, clarifies the situation of man in the good old days of Greece and Rome. Liberty to live by and for oneself was not conceded then. The State had a right to the whole of one's existence. When Cicero wanted to retire to his Tuscan villa and devote himself to the reading of Greek books, he had to justify himself publicly, and to obtain pardon for momentarily seceding from the collective body. The great crime which cost Socrates his life was the pretension that he possessed a particular and private demon; that is, an inspiration which was individual. 

The process of making man a social animal is terrifying. It is not content with demanding of me that what is mine be given to others-an excellent idea which causes me no annoyance whatever-but it also insists that what is theirs be mine. For example, that I adopt their tastes and their ideas. Everything private and apart is forbidden, Including the right of having convictions for one's own exclusive use.

The abstract divinity of "the collective" is coming back to exercise its tyranny; indeed it is already creating havoc in Europe. The press believes it has the right to publicize our private lives, to judge them, to condemn them. Day by day the government forces us to give a larger pert of our existence to society. Man is left no corner to retire to no solitude for himself. The masses protest angrily against any reserve which we hold back for ourselves.

Probably the origin of this anti-individual fury lies in the fact that in their inmost hearts the masses feel themselves weak and defenceless in the face of their destiny. On a bitter and terrible page Nietzsche notes how, in primitive societies which were weak when confronted with the difficulties of existence, every individual and original act was a crime, and the man who tried to lead a solitary life was a malefactor. He must in everything comport himself according to the fashion of the tribe. 

Now, apparently, many men are again feeling homesick for the herd. They devote themselves passionately to whatever there is left in them of the sheep. They want to march through life together, along the collective path, shoulder to shoulder, wool rubbing wool, and the head down. This is the reason why so many European peoples are looking for a shepherd and a sheep dog. 

Hatred of liberalism comes from this and nothing else. For liberalism, before it becomes a question of this or that in politics, is a fundamental idea about life. It is believing that every human being ought to be free to fulfil his individual and non-transferable destiny. 

* This is not merely a figure of speech. Among the places which, throughout European history, have nourished family life most intensely, were the Low Countries. They had a superstitious faith in the cremaillere, the great caldron that hung above the hearth and was one of the characteristic products of Belgian metallurgic art Michelet says that "the sanctity of the head in the Middle Ages rested not so much in the hearth itself as in the cremaillere that hung above it. When soldiers were given leave to rob and loot they spared neither age nor sex, so that women and children seized hold of the caldron, hoping thus to evade their fury." 

First published In INVERTEBRATE SPAIN 1930