Article by Michael Kleen.
Both Friedrich Nietzsche and José Ortega y Gasset were alarmed by the development of the modern State, which matured to ascendancy in the late 18th Century. In the 1860s and ‘70s, Nietzsche witnessed Otto von Bismarck forge his native Germany from a collection of dozens of independent political entities into a German Empire with a strong central government, mass conscription, national welfare programs, universal manhood suffrage, and an urban mass media. Nietzsche died before the First World War, but José Ortega y Gasset lived to see the nation-states of Europe engulfed in that conflagration along with the chaos that followed. He saw the revolutions of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler, and that of his own country, Spain, which degenerated into civil war shortly after he published La rebelión de las masas.
The events of their lifetime undoubtedly had a profound impact on the philosophies of both men, and both departed from their philosophical analysis to point out contemporary events to illustrate their critiques. They knew these events could not be escaped, although both Nietzsche (who fled to Switzerland and northern Italy) and Ortega (who fled to Argentina) tried. While Nietzsche loathed politics, however, Ortega took an active role in attempting to guide the events of his day in his own country. Ortega believed that a liberal republic in Spain could moderate and control the violent excesses of the social transition from pre-modern to modern. History proved him wrong.
Both Nietzsche and Ortega understood the growth of the modern State as a force originating in the rise of mass political participation. Consequently, they were concerned with the State’s orientation toward the mass—the pedestrian and commonplace—and with its hostility toward exception, high culture, and the individual. “The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select,” is a maxim Ortega wrote in The Revolt of the Masses, but that is a maxim often echoed by Nietzsche throughout his own writings.
In a certain way, then, both of these philosophers characterized the State as an edifice designed to serve and glorify the masses, or the “herd,” as Nietzsche was fond of writing. The State was a temple in which the masses worshipped themselves. In exchange for catering to their needs and flattering their egos, the masses placed their collective will under the auspices of the State where they flourished like never before in history. For both Nietzsche and Ortega, that arrangement was Janus-faced, because although the masses grew in ever-increasing numbers—high art, music, education, and individualism in general suffered. European culture began to decay. Violence and militarism (especially of the uniform variety) became the order of the day.
Where José Ortega found the origin of this “rebellion of the masses” in the development of the bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages, Friedrich Nietzsche saw its origin in an inversion of Noble virtues began by the Apostle Paul in the 1st Century. He argued that both Christianity and mass political movements, such as Socialism, were faiths of “little men” whose weakness paraded as moral principles. For Nietzsche, the Statism of the 19th Century was the fruit of a seed planted in the Roman Empire nearly two millennia before.