You are here:   Text > Europe and the Nation State: Thoughts on Ortega y Gasset
The key to 20th century European thought, as Ortega conceived it in his Mission of the University, is that the Church has abandoned the present, while the democratic state has submitted to public opinion. This left the press as the sole surviving spiritual force. While admitting that “I may be nothing more than a journalist myself”, Ortega wanted the university to “assert itself as a major ‘spiritual power’, higher than the press, standing for serenity in the midst of frenzy, for seriousness and the grasp of the intellect in the face of frivolity and unashamed stupidity”. Today, not much remains of the higher journalism that in Ortega’s day was represented by such titans as Karl Kraus in Vienna, Raymond Aron in Paris or George Orwell in London. And it must be admitted that, with a few exceptions, European universities have not fulfilled Ortega’s hopes. Instead of preserving our culture, which Matthew Arnold defined as “the best of what has been thought and said”, our universities have denied that  such values even exist. The failure of the university to preserve our culture has been paralleled in the failure of our artists to renew it. Their abdication of responsibility began with what Ortega described as “the dehumanisation of art”. Six decades after Ortega’s death, our culture has yet to rediscover the genius to transcend our mortality that we treasure in Shakespeare and Cervantes, Goethe and Goya, in the deep, pure wellsprings of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

This  absence of creative energy in European culture applies, unfortunately, to political thought too, including conservative thought. In Britain, we have produced a great conservative thinker in the late Michael Oakeshott, whose political philosophy, like that of his Spanish contemporary, attaches great importance to the idea of universitas. But Oakeshott sees this medieval concept as the origin of “rationalism in politics”: the idea of the state as an “enterprise association”, in which society is united by a “common good” or collective purpose, as opposed to the state understood as a “civil association”, in which autonomous individuals pursue their own individual ends. The idea of an enterprise association is almost infinitely extendable: it can apply not only to a state, but to a union of states, a “superstate”. The European Union is an archetypal case of an enterprise association. It exists for one purpose: “ever closer union”. Its institutions, its laws, its treaties are all subordinated to and subsumed under this purpose. With uncharacteristic frankness, the former President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, describes the EU as “a non-imperial empire”. As Oakeshott says in On Human Conduct, “The member of such a state enjoys the composure of the conscript assured of his dinner. His ‘freedom’ is warm, compensated servility.”

Yet there is another idea of Europe, one that Oakeshott briefly discusses in his essay on “Europe, the emergence of an idea”. He points out that, unlike “Asian” and “African”, “‘European’ has become an adjective which refers to something which may be found in any part of the world”. “Europe” in this sense means much the same as “the West”. And it is in this sense that Ortega was a true “European”. Western civilisation has become ubiquitous because it opens up an infinite vista of possibility and potentiality to all those who grasp it. I mentioned earlier the idea of “curiosity” as characteristic of this European or Western view of the world. There is another passage about curiosity in one of Ortega’s most charming books, On Love, where he is discussing “the psychology of the interesting man” — that is, the man with whom women fall in love. While he insists that he does not wish to “intellectualise” love, he argues that love always has a rational core that derives from a particular kind of curiosity. “This curiosity, which is simultaneously an eagerness for life, can only be found in porous souls where free air — cosmic air charged with stardust — circulates, unconfined by any limiting wall. But,” he goes on, “curiosity is not enough to make us ‘see’ the delicate, complex structure of a person. Curiosity predisposes the eye, but the vision must be discerning. And such discernment is indeed the prime talent and extraordinary endowment which acts as a component in love.” The love of which Ortega speaks here is of course erotic love, but his words apply no less to patriotic love, to the love of country and the love of liberty.

View Full Article
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?

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.