Toward a Philosophy of History

ByJosé Ortega y Gasset
NORTON, $2.75
THE distinguished Spanish philosopher here presents a volume of five essays. The first one, on the ‘Sportive Origin of the State,’ is distinctly disappointing. One might say that in it the poet had violently intervened upon the philosopher and taken his feet clean off the ground.
But for American readers in particular the second essay, called ‘Unity and Diversity in Europe,’ is most important, with an importance which cannot be exaggerated. It puts them in the way of interpreting correctly the most disquieting phenomenon of our time, which is the disproportion between the perfection of our ideas on physical phenomena and the scandalous backwardness of what in a general way may be classified as the moral sciences. Occidental peoples, the author says, in meeting the dreadful public disorder of today, ‘have found themselves equipped with a wholly archaic set of notions on the meaning of society, collectivity, the individual, customs, law, justice, revolution, etc.’ Every thoughtful person is uneasily aware that this is so, and aware also that the voice of factitious authority is so heavily on the side of these notions as to make them, and them exclusively, prevail. ‘Most of our statesmen, professors, distinguished physicists, and novelists,’ Mr. Ortega says, ‘have opinions on these subjects worthy of a small-town barber. Is it not then quite natural that it should be the small-town barber who sets the tone of the time? ‘
Quite natural indeed it is that this should be so, and therefore the thoughtful person is bound to regard the present phase of disorder in Europe as Mr. Ortega does, and as Ludovic Halévy did, with a feeling of the most profound political indifference. Turning aside from local and temporary manifestations, Mr. Ortega goes on to displace the unsound idea of what society is and what Europe essentially is, and to replace it with the sound idea that ‘liberty and plurality are reciprocal and between them constitute the permanent heart of Europe.’
If mankind were capable of knowing a good thing at sight and of appraising it at its full value, this sound idea of the constitution of society — society as distinguished from mere association — might have been got, as the author shows, from men of the nineteenth century who were disregarded in their time and are disparaged in ours: Guizot, Royer-Collard, de Broglie in France, Ranke in Germany, and the early liberals in England.
The third and fourth essays on ‘Man the Technician’ and ‘History as a System’ are of as much importance to American readers as the second, but of less pressing immediacy. The last essay is a study of ‘The Argentinian and His State,’ which, in view of possible closer relations between that country and ours, would be extremely useful. A. J. N.