We can trace back statements about “the masses” in the works of classical Greek philosophers like Plato, who states that an ignorant mob ought not to make decisions, as it would lead to chaos and anarchy, and that the best approach is to pursue justice so that everyone gets what they need and deserve. Plato believed that only the philosopher-king could have a capacity to rule, one who has a love of wisdom, willingness to live a simple life and discover the essence which is present in all things and all human beings.
However, it isn’t until the 19th century when the status of “the masses” became a philosophical and moral issue in a manner hitherto unseen. It came to be defined as the permanent possibility in all individuals of losing concern for their personal status and worth, and assigning themselves to something outside themselves in an abstract “other”.
We’ll be exploring the various existential critiques and interpretations of this phenomenon peculiar to modern society from four major 19th century thinkers who have integrated the event of the masses into the very structure of their philosophies: Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and José Ortega y Gasset.
Kierkegaard: The Crowd is Untruth
Danish theologian, philosopher and father of existentialism Søren Kierkegaard writes:
“I wish that on my grave might be put “the individual.”
Journals of Kierkegaard, May 14, 1847
His wish, however, was not granted. Kierkegaard vehemently opposed the philosophical and social trend of granting to the state a legitimacy and authority over the individual. He was the first thinker to perceive the immense significance of the genesis of the masses in 19th century Europe. He writes:
“There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that “the crowd” received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.”
Kierkegaard, The Crowd is Untruth
Kierkegaard tells us that one doesn’t really feel responsible in a crowd, because one doesn’t act alone but shares responsibility with everyone, so there’s no one who can be blamed, they are just members of the unknown, faceless crowd. The individual does not count in the mass, only the number of people; hence quantity is worth more in mass societies than quality.
The mass is an abstraction in which one flees in cowardice from being a single individual. People are more likely to engage in nefarious behaviour in a herd mentality. One then becomes unrepentant, that is, one doesn’t think he is doing anything wrong when one is in fact doing something wrong.
It takes courage to be an individual, to be accountable and responsible for one’s own actions, without blaming others, however it is:
“too venturesome a thing to be oneself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”
Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death
In a crowd, one conceals one’s cowardice and feels courageous, promoting even more herd behaviour. When the crowd is treated as the court of the last resort, truth becomes untruth.
Kierkegaard’s notion of truth has to do primarily with the religious view of life. One must be held accountable by something higher, something transcendent. Everyone can extricate himself from the crowd to become a single individual.
He tells his readers to seek God for themselves rather than following the crowd. A person cannot live out the Christian faith simply by going to church every week, observing Christian holidays or praising whatever is trendy among the church community. Instead, one must encounter God personally, for “only one receives the prize”, and for that one should be cautious with “the others”. He writes:
“the eternal, the decisive, can only be worked for where there is one; and to become this by oneself, which all can do, is to will to allow God to help you – “the crowd” is untruth.”
Kierkegaard, The Crowd is Untruth
The very notion of religion entering the social scene is how it dies. The eternal truth pertains solely to the single individual, through God’s help. Only then can one love one’s neighbour as one loves himself, the absolute true expression of human equality.
Kierkegaard: Levelling and The Public
In The Present Age, Kierkegaard goes more in-depth on what he saw as the victory of abstraction over the individual. He posits an early form of nihilism, which he referred to as levelling, an anonymous social process in which the uniqueness of the individual becomes non-existent by assigning equal values to all aspects of human endeavours, thus missing all the subtle complexities of human identity. In other words, it tries to put everything at the same level. Overcoming this represents a step in the right direction towards becoming a true self, recovering the sense that our lives are meaningful.
Levelling is supported by “the public”, which he calls a “monstruous nothing”, consisting of unreal individuals who are never united in an actual situation and yet are held together as a whole. He writes:
“In order that everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first of all necessary to procure a phantom, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage – and that phantom is the public. It is only in an age which is without passion, yet reflective, that such a phantom can develop itself with the help of the Press which itself becomes an abstraction.”
Kierkegaard, The Present Age
The Press satisfies the desire of seeking trivial diversion, without making one responsible for anything.
Nietzsche: The Last Man and The Übermensch
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed that the essential fact of modernity was the problem of nihilism brought about by what he proclaims as the death of God, a fact from which the existence of the masses cannot be separated. The great enemy is the “Last Man”, characterised by nihilism insofar as he has detached himself from the higher values of life, expressing indifference to human excellence, creativity and beauty. The Last Man escapes into the world of entertainment to distract himself from life’s hardships which are crucial for his path towards self-realisation.
Nietzsche proposes a secular form of self-transcendence, through the figure of the Übermensch, who is declared as “the meaning of the earth”. The Übermensch strives for self-overcoming, manifesting itself in the encounter with obstacles, and embraces whatever life throws at him. He sacrifices momentary comfort in order to achieve greatness, and is not afraid to live dangerously. He is the highest life-affirmer who strives to become who he is, gaining power over himself, reaching a joy worthy of gods.
Heidegger: Das Man and Being-toward-Death
German philosopher Martin Heidegger tells us that we are always initially engaged with the world as being-in-the-world. He emphasises the positive role of the social and historical realm of human existence, however, it can also lead to an inauthentic existence, and take a negative, authoritarian side, demanding of the individual conformity and obedience, surrendering oneself to a formless entity, to what he calls “Das Man” or “the-they”, where one mindlessly goes about social expectations without considering one’s own possibilities at hand.
This inauthentic life creates anxiety as we are not responsible of our whole human nature, of being thrown into the world as finite and mortal beings. It is too easy to get lost in the everyday until we face death. This is the idea of Being-toward-Death, as we face the end of our existence, we ironically live for ourselves for the first time, without thinking about the approval of other people on who we are.
When asked how we might recover authenticity, Heidegger replied that we should simply “spend more time in graveyards”, in order to recognise the inevitability of death in the context of our everyday existence, so as to live life to the fullest and live right into our death.
Ortega y Gasset: The Mass Man
“The mass crushes beneath it everything which 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.”
Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses
Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote his best known work The Revolt of the Masses in 1930, in which he characterises society as dominated by the “mass-man”, a mass of indistinguishable individuals. Ortega expresses his fear of the collective mediocrity and tyranny of the majority who believe that to be different is to be indecent, threatening individuality and free thought. They are characterised by conformity (changing their behaviour to “fit in” with the people around them) and mediocrity (the quality of being average).
The mass-man does not, however, refer to a social class – he could be from any social background. He represents the current zeitgeist or spirit of the age.
“Society is always a dynamic unity of two component factors: minorities and masses. The minorities are individuals or groups of individuals who are especially qualified. The mass is an aggregate of persons not especially qualified. By masses, then, it is not to be understood, solely nor principally, “the working masses”. The mass is “the average man”. In this manner, what was mere quantity – the multitude – is converted into a qualitative determination: it becomes the common social quality, man as undifferentiated from other men, but as repeating in himself a generic type… To form a minority, whatever it may be, it is necessary beforehand that each member separate himself from the multitude for special, relatively individual reasons… This coming together of the minority precisely in order to separate themselves from the majority is always introduced into the formation of every minority.
Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses
Ortega’s main target is the average man or Mr. Satisfied who is content in his mediocrity and wants to be just like everyone else. The minority, on the other hand, separates himself from the common values of the masses by placing greater demands on himself and cultivating excellency. It is the intellectual minority who symbolise progress in contrast to the mass man’s stagnation.
Ortega’s Philosophy of Life
Ortega’s philosophy has been characterised as a “philosophy of life”, that is, philosophising as a way of life, endorsed by the German Lebensphilosophie movement. At the core of Ortega’s philosophy is the radical reality of each individual, that is to say, it is your reality that comes first, and the rest follows. The absolute truth would be obtained by the sum of all perspectives of all lives.
Just like Heidegger, Ortega unites both subject and the world, overcoming the limitations of both idealism (in which the world is a mental construction) and realism (in which the world exists independent of the subject). He coined the term “ratiovitalism” in which knowledge is based on the radical reality of life, whose essential component is what he calls “vital reason”, that is, reason with life as its foundation. This lead him to pronounce his most well-known maxim:
“I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.”
Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote
Our circumstance is everything we were born into and everything we are surrounded by: the time period, country, family, culture, etc., and our sense of “I” helps us make sense of how we fit into all this. We are a dynamic project that has to be completed in view of the world, and to the extent that we deal with it, we make it ours. This can be done by taking responsibility for who we are at our core and by the circumstance in which we were born into, acknowledging our limitations and the freedom we have as individuals who are always projecting towards a goal.
Ortega’s work is strikingly similar to ideas which had been formulated by Heidegger in his magnum opus Being and Time. As he writes:
“To live is to find oneself in the world. Heidegger, in a very recent work of genius, has made us take notice of all the enormous significance of these words.”
Ortega y Gasset, What is Philosophy?
New Challenges: Posthuman Era
Religion provided the reality of the individual presented before God, where one’s individual personality would remain intact. However, the mass man now presents itself as the reality, having replaced God with public opinion as Kierkegaard had brilliantly prophesised.
While technology has made possible the advancement of our species, it has also exacerbated the problem of herd behaviour. Anthropologically speaking, technology is ontologically prior to theoretical science, we have been concerned with technology since the stone age which has moulded the very core of our mode of Being.
However, modern man is now slowly merging with technology, and it may only be a matter of time until we enter a posthuman era, posing new challenges to the human condition. But at the same time, without technology we wouldn’t have arrived at where we are today. What threatens us is what made us humans in the first place.
The later Heidegger was concerned that in our modern society we are so immersed in technology that we disconnect ourselves from being, from the world and nature.
We have been inextricably linked with technology to a point that we would have a hard time surviving without it. We have built a system which we cannot live without, and yet the individual within the system can be done away with. With virtual reality just around the corner, this may well become a bigger issue, where many will escape reality into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
We must cultivate authenticity, that is, the ability to extricate ourselves from unreflective mass consciousness, appropriating our own existential possibilities and developing projects that give meaning to our lives, making use of the resources of our culture and our heritage, with a view to future development.
“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing: every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.”
Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death
Mass Society – A Warning to The World
In the 19th century the status of mass society became a philosophical and moral issue in a manner hitherto unseen. It came to be defined as the permanent possibility in all individuals of losing concern for their personal status and worth, and assigning themselves to something outside themselves in an abstract “other”.