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Why have I dwelt on Ortega’s life? Because I believe that he has bequeathed an important legacy, not only to Spanish conservatives but to all of us who try to defend Western civilisation. In the first place, Ortega was a true European: not in the sense that is nowadays attached to the word, an uncritical admiration for the European Union, but as a writer, thinker and journalist who was fully abreast of and engaged with the intellectual currents of his time. Such authentic cultural cosmopolitans are rare, but they invariably recognise one another. Albert Camus, for example, praised Ortega as “after Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest ‘European’ writer”. One of Ortega’s younger contemporaries, Salvador de Madariaga, was also seen as a European, but in his case he devoted himself to the cause of Pan-Europa, which later became the European Union. My copy of Totaler Staat — Totaler Mensch, a polemic against totalitarian politics by Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi published in 1937 on the eve of the Austrian Anschluss, is inscribed by the author to his friend and fellow Pan-European Madariaga — a precious document of the early years of the European project. Ortega, however, took no part in that project, even in the early 1950s when it took political shape in the Schuman Plan. Ortega had been dead for two years by the time the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, but it is safe to say that while he might have admired the ideals, he would not have approved of the centralising, bureaucratic and above all illiberal form in which the European idea became reality. Ortega died in Venice, the maritime republic that had once embraced Orient and Occident, and I cannot help wondering if this was a coincidence. Venice was the bulwark of Catholic Europe in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto, together with the Papacy and the Habsburg Empire. La Serenissima symbolises grandeur and decadence, the metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky. Venice is the antithesis of Brussels, the Europe on which Ortega had turned his back.

In an article of 1933, Ortega praises curiosidad, curiosity, as the essential attitude of the student and scholar, and he cites Heidegger in support of this. At that time, Ortega must have been one of very few Europeans outside the German-speaking world to have even heard of Heidegger, let alone absorbed his ideas. Yet in fact Ortega had not only studied in Germany during its golden age before the First World War, but in 1930 he paid tribute to German thought even though by then it was no longer fashionable to do so, in Misión de la Universidad (Mission of the University). There he criticises German pedantry: “One of the tasks Europe needs to perform with dispatch is to rid contemporary science of its purely German excrescences, its rituals and mere whims . . .” He could be talking about the present-day plague of political correctness, which has been imported into the European academy from America. But Ortega appends a footnote: “Do not forget . . . that the writer . . . owes to Germany four fifths of his intellectual possessions. I am more conscious today than ever before of the indisputable, towering preeminence of German science.” We should not forget that Ortega — who was deeply immersed in the thought of German-Jewish thinkers such as Georg Simmel, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler and Ernst Cassirer — is here writing on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power, which was accompanied by the most shameful betrayal of Western civilisation in history by those who should have been its boldest guardians: the German universities. Ortega knew better than anyone both the value of that civilisation, which had reached its zenith in the Weimar Republic, and the forces that threatened it from within. What Aurel Kolnai later called Germany’s “War against the West” had already begun even as Ortega was diagnosing the forces at work in the catastrophe of German culture in La Rebelión de las Masas. The proper tribute that we should pay to Ortega’s memory today, as intellectuals who adhere to his conservative and liberal tradition, is to respond to the progressive abandonment that we see around us of the heritage of Western civilisation in all its incarnations: Judaeo-Christian, classical, medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment.

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Hanno Achenbach
April 29th, 2018
12:04 PM
Belief in sovereignty is about as intelligent as belief in race. And the Swiss or Norwegian model means being subjected to the rules of the European union with no say in establishing them. Is that what Daniel Johnson wants?

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