Ortega y Gasset

The Spanish thinker Jose Ortega y Gasset built up an original philosophical system, based on a few central concepts, like those of perspectivism and ratio-vitalism. His ideas on religion and Christianity, seen in the larger context constituted by his ideas on life in general, are very interesting. It can be said that the axis of Ortega y Gasset’s system of thought is the concept of vitalism, or the idea that life in itself is the actual purpose for man’s existence in the world, and not thinking as the idealists proposed.

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However, according to Ortega y Gasset, it is not intellectualism as such that is wrong, but the separation of reason from vitality. This tendency is very common within the scientific domain, and more particularly in modern science after Galileo, but also in Christian doctrine. Both science and religion are focused on something which is beyond the actual existence as such. As he proposes, science is only an ideal, something that cannot actually fulfill its purpose, and which does not give us the truth. The means by which science operates is that of the pure reason, which maintains itself in the realm of pure thought and idealism, and moreover manifests disdain for life as such. To this pure reason, Ortega y Gasset opposes the notion of vital reason, which is able to understand the value of life itself.

The same disdain for life as such is manifested in Christianity, which focuses on transcendental life instead. Moreover, according to Ortega y Gasset, Christianity in its initial and true form has been abandoned somewhere around the year 1400:

Around the year 1400 man ceased to live within the folds of Christianity.”(Ortega y Gasset, p. 96)

Christianity was replaced by the modern belief in culture, and this belief begun with the advent of Renaissance. Thus, there followed a modern stage in the history of the humanity, which consisted mainly of the faith in reason and the powers of the intellect. This meant that all of the cultural realms, from physics, biology or chemistry to philosophy and art gained a tremendous sway over human thought, replacing religion. According to him, the mistake that such a thing makes does not lie in the development of culture, but in the subordination of life to culture. As he proposes, we should speak rather of “culture for the sake of life,” instead of “life for the sake of culture.” (Ortega y Gasset, 1961, 70)

According to Ortega y Gasset, both belief and ideas are knowledge experiences, therefore religion and the other divisions of human thought, like art and science, are not that different in their structure, since they all constitute modes of thinking about and knowing the world. This is why he also sees modern culture like a new form of Christianity, only without a God. His argument is that modern culture and Christianity share the same values essentially, the beautiful, the spiritual, the true, and that, when Christianity was replaced by man’s intense work in the cultural realm, these values which had been previously praised by religion were simply left to work by themselves and thus deified as the supreme meanings of life:

The ‘Good, the Beautiful, the True’ only achieve estimable importance in the service of culture. The doctrine of culture is a kind of Christianity without God. The attributes of the latter sovereign reality-Goodness, Truth and Beauty — have been amputated or dismantled from the divine person, and once they were separated they became deified. Science, Law, Morality, Art, etc., are activities which were originally vital, magnificent and spirited emanations of life, which the culturalist only appreciates in so far as they have been antecedently disintegrated from the integral process of vitality which creates and sustains them. The life of culture is habitually called a life of the spirit.”(Ortega y Gasset, 1961, 68)

According to Ortega y Gasset, the study of history reveals a certain structuring of beliefs and ideas in human thought, into a series of generations:

The discovery that we are fatally inscribed within a certain group having its own age and style of life is one of the melancholy experiences which, sooner or later, befalls every sensitive man. A generation is an integrated manner of existence, or, if you prefer, a fashion in living, which fixes itself indelibly on the individual. Among certain savage peoples the members of each coeval group are recognized by their tattooing. The fashion in epidermal design which was in vogue when they were adolescents has remained encrusted in their beings.” (Ortega Y Gasset, 1958, p. 83)

In this view, religion appears as one of the many beliefs that are circulated by human thought. Religious belief is thus influenced by the other circumstances of a particular age. Again the concept of vitalism is very powerful: the primary mode of knowledge about life is living itself, that is spontaneity and subjectivity, and these are known only later as ethics or religion by man. Finally religious belief or ethics manage to subordinate life as such, which is in fact the very spring of any belief.

In Ortega y Gasset’s view, therefore, religion occurs as any other belief, in accordance to the other circumstances of a certain epoch.

Ortega y Gasset’s views on religion are somewhat close to those of William James. As the pragmatist William James, for Ortega y Gasset belief can manifest itself in science and is not something limited to religious faith alone:

We live, in effect, from science, that is, from our faith in science. And this faith is neither more nor less than any other faith — by which, understand, I do not mean to say that it be not perhaps more justified and in one sense or another superior to every other faith. The only thing I say is that one is dealing with a faith, that science is a faith, in which one exists, just as one could be in a religious faith”(Ortega y Gasset, 1958, 122)

Faith operates in science as well as in religion, and therefore, Ortega y Gasset proposes a view that is close to the psychological views of James. Religion, no less than scientific belief is subject to experimental tests, that is, a religious belief instantiates itself only if its main premises and values are coherent with reality. However, Ortega y Gasset differs slightly from James in his theory, since the latter saw the problem of faith as a psychological category proper to human thought in general, while Ortega y Gasset emphasized the sociological side of religion: that is, religion appears as the result of a certain set of circumstances or context.

The idea of circumstance is fundamental for Ortega y Gasset’s thought, as he sees the individual as the result of the self interacting with a certain set of circumstances. For Gasset, the individual is essentially defined by the circumstances in which he lives, and his life is made up by means of his creativity, out of these very circumstances. Ortega y Gasset’s view on the individual is again a sociological one: man is part of the collectivity and moreover, of the life-circumstances in which he lives.

According to Kierkegaard, one of the philosophers who advocated individualism, the values of the collectivity are unimportant compared to the values set by the individual. He thus believes that solitude is the right way to live, and that society is essentially bad. Apparently, Kierkegaard’s theory is opposed to that of Ortega y Gasset. However, this is not the case. The Spanish thinker himself believed that every man is essentially alone. Man, as an individual is alone in the world, but this does not mean that he is completely solitary. It only means that man lives with the other things in the world, and with the other people as well, at the same time maintaining his individuality among them.

For Ortega y Gasset, living truly meant to be able to withdraw into oneself. The individual performs this withdrawal every time he creates, and for Ortega y Gasset, life in itself is our own creation from a set of given circumstances:

There is no creation without withdrawal into oneself.”(Ortega y Gasset, 1958, p. 131)

Finally, one of the most important questions rising from Ortega y Gasset’ system of thought is the way in which he saw the dichotomy between faith and reason. According to Pascal, who managed to be a brilliant scientist and a religious man at the same time,

Within each one of us there is a God-shaped vacuum that only God can fill.”

Thus, in Pascal’s view religion and science met in the particular structure of human spirit, which is thus built to allow both faith and reason to coexist. In Ortega y Gasset’s view religion and scientific thought are related insofar as both are forms in which man perceives and knows the world around him. His main objection to old religious faith, as he calls it is the fact that it essentially opposes the present life in seeking for another, transcendental form of being. However, he reconciles these opposite views in what he designs as the new religion for man:

While he knew that a collapse and ricorso of Vico’s type into a “divine” and “barbaric” epoch was possible, he did not regard any such colossal disaster as necessary or likely. He put hope above fear, and positive over negative. He seems to have foreseen a historical transformation similar to the change from Hellenic to “Hellenistic” in ancient civilization, which, in the Roman Empire, finally did collapse into such a barbaric ricorso, or cycle. European and “Western” phases of civilization have not yet experienced Spengler’s or Toynbee’s “Roman paradigm” of World State and World Religion, and Ortega trusted that such a horrible outcome could be forever avoided by a kind of federal world order built on the model of the European Union.” (Graham, 2001, p.504)

Thus, Ortega y Gasset’s main attempt is to create a philosophy whose main purpose is to reveal life-reality, above anything else, and for this, the man should find his new belief in history, since it is history that best discloses the patterns of human life.

Works Cited

Graham, John T (2001) The Social Thought of Ortega Y. Gasset: A Systematic Synthesis in Postmodernism and Interdisciplinarity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press

Ortega y Gasset, Jose.(1998) Man and Crisis. New York W.W. Norton

The Modern Theme. (1961)New York W.W. Norton

Blaise Pascal. http://dailywisdom.gospelcom.net/archives/old/2000/04/dw-04-14-2000.html