I judge a serious thinker by how well he understands the present situation. Many of them aren’t much help. My first breakthrough was reading Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses – where he writes about mass man. He put this concept on my mental map. Most existentialists have ignored Ortega, but Jaspers in The Philosophy of Existence also speaks of a mass mentality, even though he never mentions Ortega by name. His description of the mass mentality is better than Ortega’s because it is more profound. Ortega’s, by contrast, is easier to understand.
Perhaps I should provide more of an introduction to Jasper, explaining how his work has been translated from German (the English language suffers by comparison) but I will just throw you in and let you swim on your own. The following passage begins on page 3:
Existenz is one of the words for reality, with the accent Kierkegaard gave it: everything essentially real is for me only by virtue of the fact that I am myself. We do not merely exist; rather, our existence is entrusted to us as the arena and the body for the realization of our origin.
Already in the nineteenth century, movements with this turn of mind kept recurring. People wanted “life,” wanted “really to live.” Instead of wanting merely to know, they wanted to experience for themselves. Everywhere, they wanted the “genuine,” searched for “origins,” and wanted to press on to man himself. Superior men became more clearly visible; at the same time, it became possible to discover the true and real in the smallest particle.
If for a century now the tenor of the age has been entirely different – namely, one of leveling, mechanization, the development of a mass mentality and universal interchangeability of everything and everyone where no one seemed to exist any longer as himself, it was also a stimulating background. Men who could be themselves woke up in this pitiless atmosphere in which every individual was sacrificed as an individual.
They wanted to take themselves seriously; they searched for the hidden reality; they wanted to know what was knowable; and they thought by understanding themselves they could arrive at the foundation of their being.
But even this thinking frequently degenerated into the frivolous veiling of reality that is characteristic of the leveling process, by perversion into a tumultuous and pathetic philosophy of feeling and life. The will to experience being for oneself could be perverted into a contentment with the merely vital; the will to find the origin into the mania for primitivism; the sense of rank into a betrayal of the genuine orders of value.
He wrote this in 1937, just after being dismissed by the Nazis, but he could just as well wrote it in the 1970s, when all kinds of new age movements were flourishing. As he says, it was an interesting time – but it did not last.