December 1, 2002

1. The Revolt of the Masses

A. Joseph Campbell

Our book group just finished reading Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth. Everyone liked it. It’s one of my favorite genres: the conversation. It’s taken from Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers. Since I saw these conversations on TV more than once, I was afraid that the book would be stale, repetitive. But the book is lively, interesting and never stale — even for someone (like me) who has seen the TV version. I recommend the un-illustrated, paperback version since it’s less expensive than the illustrated, hardcover version, and since the illustrations are of little value.

At one point, Moyers asks Campbell, “Can Westerners grasp the mystical experience that leaves theology behind?” Campbell responds by saying that Westerners had the mystical experience in the Middle Ages. Then Moyers asks, “what has undercut this experience today?” Campbell responds, “It’s characteristic of democracy that majority rule is understood as being effective not only in politics but also in thinking. In thinking, of course, the majority is always wrong.” “Always wrong?” “In matters of this kind, yes. The majority’s function in relation to the spirit is to try to listen and to open up to someone who’s had an experience beyond that of food, shelter, progeny, and wealth.”1

So the majority should listen to the privileged few. You expect to hear this from a 19th-century thinker — from Nietzsche or Ruskin, for example — but you don’t expect this from a contemporary thinker. And you probably wouldn’t hear this from someone who was born after about 1930. Campbell was born in 1904, and he has some of the traits that one associates with the best Western intellectuals — traits that one rarely finds nowadays.

B. Ortega y Gasset

The majority should listen to the privileged few, but they no longer do, and this is a grave threat to civilization. The classic expression of this idea is The Revolt of the Masses, by the great Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset (often referred to as Ortega). Ortega was born in 1883, and published The Revolt of the Masses in 1930. Ortega states his case thus:

There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at the present moment. This fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilization.2

Ortega argues that ancient civilization perished because the masses attained power: “The history of the Roman Empire is also the history of the uprising of the Empire of the Masses, who absorb and annul the directing minorities and put themselves in their place.”3

The masses no longer look up to the gifted few, and no longer look down on themselves. Ortega writes thus, using italics for emphasis: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The masses have not only ceased listening to the elite, they are often hostile to the elite: “The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.”4

C. Freud

Campbell was familiar with Ortega’s work, and Campbell’s views on “the revolt of the masses” were probably influenced by Ortega. Freud, however, reached a similar viewpoint independently of Ortega. Like Ortega, Freud believed that the revolt of the masses could be found in its purest form in the U.S.:

“The danger of a state of things which might be termed ‘the psychological poverty of groups’ [is] most threatening where the bonds of a society are chiefly constituted by the identification of its members with one another, while individuals of the leader type do not acquire the importance that should fall to them in the formation of a group. The present cultural state of America would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization that is thus to be feared.”5

This quotation is from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, which was published in 1930, the same year as Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses. Freud’s argument did not influence Ortega, who was more interested in metaphysicians like Husserl and Heidegger than in psychologists like Freud and Jung. Who, then, influenced Ortega’s concept of “the revolt of the masses”?

D. John Stuart Mill

I believe that the strongest influence on Ortega’s concept was John Stuart Mill, especially Mill’s On Liberty, especially chapter 3, “Of Individuality.” On Liberty was published in 1859, when the revolt of the masses was a recent development. Mill advocates individual liberty because it prevents the masses from suffocating the elite few, the few who think and act from their own mind, the few who are capable of innovations that will improve mankind as a whole. “These few are the salt of the earth,” Mill writes; “without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.”6 Government and society will stagnate in mediocrity, says Mill, unless the masses listen to the elite few:

No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.7

E. Tocqueville

If Ortega influenced Campbell, and Mill influenced Ortega, who influenced Mill? Mill venerated Alexis de Tocqueville, and Mill’s On Liberty contains echoes of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Democracy in America was published in 1835, 24 years before On Liberty. Democracy in America is one of the earliest expressions of the concept of the revolt of the masses. In the U.S., according to Tocqueville, a writer can’t criticize The People, the majority: “No writer, no matter how famous, can escape from this obligation to sprinkle incense over his fellow citizens. Hence the majority lives in a state of perpetual self-adoration.”8 A writer can’t write from his own mind, he must heed the tastes and opinions of the crowd: “In America the majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it. Not that he stands in fear of an auto-da-fé, but he must face all kinds of unpleasantness and everyday persecution.... There is no freedom of the spirit in America.”9 What Tocqueville calls “a formidable fence” is now termed “political correctness.”

F. Nietzsche

An essay on the revolt of the masses would be incomplete if it didn’t mention Nietzsche, who spent much of his career attacking the democratic trend of his time. Nietzsche loved aristocracy, even if it was based on slavery (as it was in Greco-Roman society). Nietzsche loathed Christianity because it was anti-aristocratic, and he loathed the French Revolution because it, too, was anti-aristocratic.

Nietzsche spoke of, “those noble natures who do not know how to live without reverence.”10 Nietzsche excoriated modern man, democratic man, because he had lost the feeling of reverence. When a young person reveres a hero-figure, he looks down on himself, since he thinks that he is far beneath the hero-figure. Mass man (to use Ortega’s term) no longer reveres, and no longer looks down on himself. Nietzsche wrote,

Alas! The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself. Behold! I shall show you the Ultimate Man [sometimes translated “Last Man”].... The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Ultimate Man, who makes everything small.... No herdsman and one herd. Everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same: whoever thinks otherwise goes voluntarily into the madhouse.11

G. Ruskin

In an earlier issue of Phlit (7/10/02), I discussed The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius. As I was reading this book, I was struck by a quotation from Ruskin’s book, Fors Clavigera. (Actually, Fors Clavigera wasn’t a book, but rather a one-man periodical, like Phlit.) I had long viewed Ruskin as the most Nietzschean writer in the English language, but this quotation from Fors Clavigera was unusually Nietzschean — even for Ruskin. In case you’re wondering whether Ruskin and Nietzsche were familiar with each other, I should point out that Fors Clavigera was written in the 1870s, about twenty years before Nietzsche’s work became known, that Ruskin never mentions Nietzsche, and that Nietzsche never mentions Ruskin. Here’s the passage from Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera that caught my attention:

For us of the old race — few of us now left — children who reverence our fathers, and are ashamed of ourselves; comfortless enough in that shame, and yearning for one word or glance from the graves of old, yet knowing ourselves to be of the same blood, and recognizing in our hearts the same passions, with the ancient masters of humanity... we, who are every day recognizing some inaccessible height of thought and power, and are miserable in our shortcomings — the few of us now standing here and there, alone, in the midst of this yelping, carnivorous crowd, mad for money and lust, tearing each other to pieces, and starving each other to death, and leaving heaps of their dung and ponds of their spittle on every palace floor and altar stone — it is impossible for us, except in the labor of our hands, not to go mad.12

So there is Ruskin, ashamed and miserable, loathing the masses because they’re neither ashamed nor miserable, but rather shameless and self-assured. If there’s any difference between Ruskin and Nietzsche, it is that Ruskin is more strident in his scorn for the masses, and more filial in his reverence for “the ancient masters of humanity”. (Proust thought that Ruskin was inclined toward idolatry, and this was one reason why Proust, who spent his twenties studying Ruskin and translating Ruskin, later parted ways with him.)

H. Kierkegaard

No one analyzed the revolt of the masses in a more penetrating manner than Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s views on the revolt of the masses were, at least in part, the result of his own mistreatment at the hands of The Press and The People — Kierkegaard was ridiculed in a very personal way by a Copenhagen newspaper, The Corsair, and he could scarcely leave his house without being laughed at.

Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard makes frequent use of the French term ressentiment, meaning resentment or envy. Kierkegaard argues that the masses feel ressentiment toward anyone who is distinguished, who is above them, and they try to drag down anyone outstanding, they try to level. “No single individual,” wrote Kierkegaard, “will be able to arrest the abstract process of leveling.... that self-combustion of the human race.... All that is low and despicable comes to the fore, its very impudence giving the spurious effect of strength, while protected by its very baseness it avoids attracting the attention of ressentiment.”13 As one reads these words, one thinks of the brash, coarse behavior that has become popular on American television.

I. Riesman: The Lonely Crowd

Kierkegaard was shrewd enough to notice that modern man tends to look outside himself, rather than within himself: “people’s attention is no longer turned inwards... they are no longer satisfied with their own inner religious lives, but turn to others and to things outside themselves.”14 As David Riesman, the Harvard sociologist, argued in The Lonely Crowd, modern man is other-directed, not inner-directed. In the days of inner-direction, people often had a hero-image in their own mind, someone to admire and emulate — perhaps someone they had read about, perhaps a parent or teacher. Nowadays, on the contrary, people are more concerned with fitting in than with reaching an ideal. As Riesman put it,

Instead of referring himself to the great men of the past and matching himself against his stars, the other-directed person moves in the midst of a veritable Milky Way of almost but not quite indistinguishable contemporaries.... To shine alone seems hopeless, and also dangerous.15

The phrase “almost but not quite indistinguishable contemporaries” reminds one of Nietzsche’s comments, “everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same.”

While Kierkegaard deplores the revolt of the masses, and regards it as a disaster, Riesman views it with scholarly detachment, and points out benefits as well as drawbacks. Riesman is a scholar, not a prophet. Riesman doesn’t seem to have read Kierkegaard’s Present Age, and he doesn’t seem to realize that Kierkegaard’s views anticipated his own. Riesman was a great admirer of John Stuart Mill, and was also familiar with Ortega’s work. Since Riesman’s Lonely Crowd was published in 1950, it has a more contemporary flavor than the other books we’ve discussed — with the exception of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth.

J. Flaubert

Perhaps the only writer who discussed the revolt of the masses in a witty, humorous manner was Flaubert. Flaubert wrote, “Paganism, Christianity, Complacency — these are the three great evolutions of humanity.”16 According to Flaubert, we live in the Age of Complacency — that is, the age in which people have a high opinion of themselves. (As Nietzsche put it, modern man can no longer despise himself.) Flaubert satirized the bourgeoisie in the person of M. Homais, a character in Madame Bovary. He also satirized the bourgeoisie in his Dictionary of Platitudes (sometimes called Dictionary of Received Ideas). Here are some entries from that dictionary:

Antiquity (and everything connected with it)Dull and boring.
AristocracyDespise and envy it.
ArtLeads to the workhouse. What use is it since machines can make things better and quicker?
BusinessThe most important thing in life. The be-all and end-all of existence.
Learned, TheMake fun of it. All it takes to be learned is a good memory and hard work.
OriginalMake fun of everything that is original, hate it, jeer at it, and annihilate it if you can.
PhilosophyAlways snigger at it.
TradeArgue which is nobler, trade or industry.
WealthSubstitute for everything, even reputation.17

As a supplement to the Dictionary of Platitudes, Flaubert wrote a “Catalog of Fashionable Ideas”. In this Catalog appears the following passage: “To say about any great man: ‘He is grossly overrated! All great men are overrated. Besides, there aren’t any great men.”18 In the Age of Complacency, people have a high opinion of themselves, instead of having a high opinion of the hero, the great man. Modern man neither despises himself nor reveres greatness.

K. Kundera

One of Flaubert’s most ardent admirers is the Czech novelist, Milan Kundera. Kundera is especially fond of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Platitudes. Kundera was an enemy of kitsch, and he regarded Flaubert as a comrade-in-arms since “the nonthought of received ideas [and] kitsch are one and the same”.19 Kitsch is an important concept for Central European writers like Kundera and Hermann Broch. According to Kundera, sentimental romanticism flourished in Central Europe during the 19th century, and kitsch is the offspring of this sentimental romanticism. Kitsch is a sentimental version of what Flaubert called “complacency”, or self-esteem. Kundera writes,

The word “kitsch” describes the attitude of those who want to please the greatest number, at any cost. To please, one must confirm what everyone wants to hear, put oneself at the service of received ideas. Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.20

L. Ibsen

In addition to Flaubert and Kundera, there is another imaginative writer who should be mentioned in an essay on the revolt of the masses: Ibsen. Born in 1828, Ibsen grew up under a monarchy, and longed for rebellion and democracy. But once democracy began to take root, Ibsen quickly conceived a strong dislike for the middle-class establishment, the liberal establishment. In a letter, Ibsen spoke of his “contempt for political freedom.... The liberals are the worst enemies of Freedom. Spiritual and intellectual freedom flourish best under absolutism.”21

Since the middle-class liberals had a high opinion of themselves, they felt an urge to spread their views throughout society, to reform society. Ibsen loathed the reformers, and satirized them in the character of Gregers, the idealistic reformer in The Wild Duck. Ibsen described the theme of The Wild Duck in a letter: “I have long ceased to make universal demands of people because I no longer believe that one has any inherent right to pose such demands. I believe that none of us can have any higher aim in life than to realize ourselves in spirit and in truth. That, in my view, is the true meaning of liberalism, and that is why the so-called liberals are in so many ways repugnant to me.”22 George Bernard Shaw, who was a great admirer of Ibsen and wrote a book called The Quintessence of Ibsenism, summarized The Wild Duck thus: “The busybody [Gregers] finds that people cannot be freed from their failings from without. They must free themselves.”23

Ibsen lambasted the new middle-class liberals not only in The Wild Duck but also in An Enemy of the People. Hovstad and Billing, the liberal journalists in An Enemy of the People, have an aversion for authority: “The idol of Authority,” says Hovstad, “must be shattered in this town.”24 This aversion for authority is characteristic of the revolt of the masses; Nietzsche termed it “misarchism.”25 Hostile to Authority, Billing believes that everyone should be involved in politics: “A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.”26

The protagonist of An Enemy of the People is Dr. Stockmann, who expresses some of Ibsen’s own views in exaggerated form. Some critics have argued that Dr. Stockmann is a caricature, a comic character. But he has heroic qualities, and some of his remarks sound like they were borrowed from Ibsen’s letters. For example, Dr. Stockmann says that wealthy conservatives don’t “constitute the most pressing danger to the community. It is not they who are most instrumental in poisoning the sources of our moral life.... The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority — yes, the damned compact Liberal majority — that is it!”27

Ibsen seems to share Kierkegaard’s abhorrence for journalism. While Dr. Stockmann has the courage to stand alone, the courage to oppose public opinion, the journalist Hovstad thinks that his job is to go along with public opinion — to simultaneously reflect public opinion and shape public opinion. “It is now an undoubted fact,” says Hovstad, “that Dr. Stockmann has public opinion against him. Now, what is an editor’s first and most obvious duty, gentlemen? Is it not to work in harmony with his readers? Has he not received a sort of tacit mandate to work persistently and assiduously for the welfare of those whose opinions he represents?”28

When Hovstad declares, “The majority always has right on its side,” Billing chimes in, “And truth too, by God!” Dr. Stockmann dissents: “The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say!.... The majority has might on its side — unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in the right — I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right.”29

Hovstad asks Dr. Stockmann to be specific, and to name a widely-held belief that is false. Dr. Stockmann responds, “to begin with I will confine myself to one well-approved truth, which at bottom is a foul lie.... The doctrine that the public, the crowd, the masses, are the essential part of the population — that they constitute the People — that the common folk, the ignorant and incomplete element in the community, have the same right to pronounce judgment and to approve, to direct and to govern, as the isolated, intellectually superior personalities in it.”30 The “foul lie” that Dr. Stockmann opposes is precisely what Ortega labeled “the revolt of the masses”. Ibsen deserves credit for perceiving this trend, this “revolt.” One wonders if Ortega was aware that Ibsen was a kindred spirit, that Ibsen was a link in the chain of thinkers who had perceived “the revolt of the masses”.

After Dr. Stockmann has spoken his mind, the assembly passes a motion declaring him “an enemy of the people”. He is evicted from his lodgings, and fired from his job. He considers moving to the New World, but eventually decides to stand and fight since “the compact majority, and liberal public opinion, and all that infernal old bag of tricks are probably rampant there too.”31 Dr. Stockmann’s decision to stand and fight reminds one of Kierkegaard, who stayed in Copenhagen, despite the storm of ridicule that had been unleashed against him.

The final act of the play opens in Dr. Stockmann’s study, where the doctor is collecting the rocks that the crowd has thrown into his house: “I shall treasure these stones as relics. Ejlif and Morten [his sons] shall look at them every day, and when they are grown up they shall inherit them as heirlooms.”

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. The Power of Myth, ch. 4, p. 145, 146. In an earlier chapter, Campbell says, “There’s an old romantic idea in German, das Volk dichtet, which says that the ideas and poetry of the traditional cultures come out of the folk. They do not. They come out of an elite experience, the experience of people particularly gifted, whose ears are open to the song of the universe.” (ch. 3, p. 107) back
2. The Revolt of the Masses, ch. 1 back
3. ibid, ch. 2 back
4. ibid, ch. 1 back
5. Civilization and Its Discontents, ch. 5 back
6. On Liberty, ch. 3 back
7. ibid back
8. Democracy in America, vol. I, part ii, §7 back
9. ibid back
10. Ecce Homo, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” §5, p. 303 back
11. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” §5 back
12. John D. Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius, ch. 10, p. 190 back
13. Kierkegaard, The Present Age back
14. ibid back
15. David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, Ch. 6, §2, p. 138, 139 back
16. Louis Untermeyer, Makers of the Modern World, “Flaubert” back
17. These entries are from a Penguin Classics volume that combines Bouvard and Pécuchet and The Dictionary of Received Ideas (which Flaubert originally intended as part of Bouvard and Pécuchet). back
18. A Dictionary of Platitudes, London, 1954, Rodale Books Inc. back
19. Kundera, The Art of the Novel, “Jerusalem Address” back
20. ibid back
21. Henrik Ibsen, by Michael Meyer, ch. 15 back
22. ibid, ch. 22 back
23. ibid back
24. An Enemy of the People, Act II back
25. Genealogy of Morals, II, 12 back
26. An Enemy of the People, Act I back
27. ibid, Act IV back
28. ibid back
29. ibid back
30. ibid back
31. ibid, Act V back