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The Doctrine of Man

The doctrine of human life is a central issue—or rather the central issue—in Ortega's philosophy. Let us hasten to assure the reader that no idealism and, of course, no anthropocentrism is involved in this position. Human life is certainly not the sole reality in the universe. It can hardly be said to be the most important reality. But it is, as Ortega puts it, the basic reality, since all the other realities appear within it.

The relationship between human life—namely, each human life—and the other realities must not be misunderstood. It would be a deplorable error to suppose that human life is a 'thing' within the frame of which other 'things' exist. Not being a thing, human life cannot be defined the way things usually are—by saying, for instance, that it has a certain nature, or that it is a substance or a law governing apparently unrelated phenomena. Human life—an expression synonymous with 'life', 'our life', 'human reality', 'man', etc.—is not reducible to our body, although, as we shall presently see, it cannot keep itself in existence without a' body. To think otherwise is to contradict what has been said earlier about vital reason. In other words, it is tantamount to imagining that pure reason or 'physical reason' (e.g., 'scientific reason') sheds on human life that same vivid light it casts upon natural phenomena. Realism and naturalism, useful though they are in particular fields of knowledge like physics or biology, must be laid aside when the reality we face is the 'basic reality'. Shall we say then that our life is a soul, or a spirit, or a mind, or a consciousness? Idealists have, in fact, made this proposal. But idealism, or the philosophy of mind, is as useless for our purpose as realism, or the philosophy of things, or as naturalism, or the philosophy of matter. They are all the wrong type of philosophy or, to be more exact, the wrong type of ontology. After all, soul, mind, spirit, consciousness, thought and the like are to a certain extent things, as Descartes made clear in calling matter res extensa and thought res cogitans. In spite of the efforts of idealist philosophers to describe the reality of the ego without falling into the traps set by pure naturalism, they have always patterned their theories on the assumptions of traditional ontology. The same old mistakes made by realists have again and again crept into their analyses of human existence, thus making it impossible to seize hold of its paradoxical structure.

Human life is, therefore, neither body nor mind, neither a thing like matter nor a thing like spirit. What is it then? Some philosophers, anxious to solve the riddle of the mind—body problem, have reached the conclusion that human life is a 'neutral' entity, which can be called mind or body, depending upon the viewpoint taken upon it. It would seem at first that there is no wide difference between this opinion and Ortega's. If that were the case, Ortega's philosophy of human life would be quite close to a 'neutralism' of Mach's or Russell's type. Confronted with this issue, he would, however, emphatically deny such 'neutralistic' leanings. He would at most admit that his doctrine of man coincides with that of the neutralists in what they deny, but not in what they assert. For neutralism uses also willy-nilly the same concepts of traditional ontology. Like idealists or realists, neutralists assume that the reality of human life follows the pattern of the ontology of 'things'. But again human life is not a thing. It is not even a 'being'. It has no fixed status; it has no nature. Life happens to each one of us. It is a pure 'happening' or, as Ortega puts it, a gerundive, a faciendum, and not a participle, a factum. Instead of being something ready—made, we have to make it unceasingly. Life, in short, is a 'being' that makes itself, or rather 'something' consisting in making itself. In consequence of it, the concept of becoming, which some philosophers have propounded as a substitute for the concept of being, is only a trifle more adequate than the latter for the description of human experience. True, Ortega's philosophy draws nearer to a 'metaphysics of becoming' than to any other type of philosophy. After all, he has written that 'the time has come for the seed sown by Heraclitus to bring forth its mighty harvest' and he has agreed that Bergson, 'the least Eleatic of thinkers', was right in many points. But Heraclitus' philosophy of becoming was a mere hint, and Bergson's conception of lêtre en se faisant is marred by an irrationalistic metaphysics for which Ortega feels but little sympathy. Fichte was, in fact, closer to grasping the true being of life than any other philosopher and was even on the point of discovering its basic structure. But his persistent intellectualism compelled him to think in 'Eleatic fashion'. A new ontology is, therefore, needed—an ontology equally distrustful of intellectualism and irrationalism, and capable of getting rid of the Eleatic remains still dragged along by the so-called dynamic philosophies of becoming.

How is such an ontology to be created? The answer has already been given: by the method of vital reason. When pure rationalism has collapsed in its attempt to understand human life, and when irrationalism has dissolved into an affected pathos, life as reason comes to the rescue. It shows that practically everything that has been said about human life is nothing but a more or less gratuitous theory superimposed upon life. But human life, again, is no theory: it is a plain fact. Before proceeding to theorize about human life, it will be wiser to give an account of it. Theory will thus emerge as a result of our description instead of being an a priori mental framework having only a very remote bearing on our 'basic reality'.

What does vital reason discover in its description of human life? To begin with, we have already indicated the negative features. Human life is, properly speaking, neither mind nor body. Mind and body are realities we have to live and contend with, in exactly the same sense as we have to live and contend with our physical and social environment. We find ourselves in a world which has not been chosen by us. We live in constant intercourse with our circumstances. We are not a 'thing' but the person who lives a particular and concrete life with things and among things. There is no abstract and generic living. Ortega's old principle, 'I am myself and, my own circumstances', therefore' plays a fundamental rôle in the descriptive ontology of human life. Against realists, Ortega claims, as we have seen, that our life is the basic reality and the point of departure for any sound philosophical system. Against idealists, he holds that life can only be understood as an entity fully immersed in the world. Ortega's statements in this respect are abundant. Life exists as 'a perpetual migration of the vital Ego in the direction of the Not-self. To live is 'to hold a dialogue with the environment, namely, to deal with the world, to turn to it, to act on it. To live is to be outside oneself, to contend with something, with the world and with oneself. In short, to live is always to live with. For that reason, human life is not a 'subjective event'. It is the most objective of all realities. Now, among the realities we live and contend with, we must count our physiological mechanisms and our psychological dispositions. Helped by them or hindered by them, we must make our life and be faithful to our innermost ego, to our 'call', to our 'vocation'. This 'vocation' is strictly individual. Not all human destinies have the same degree of concreteness, but all personal 'vocations' are untransferable. What psychologists call 'character' is, in fact, only one among the many factors determining the course of our existence. It would be a gross mistake to suppose, therefore, that our life is solely determined by the external environment or by our character. Schlegel's belief that our talents correspond to our tastes is a grave misunderstanding. For if it is sometimes true that our tastes and our talents happily harmonize, it is unfortunately not unusual for them to clash violently. Let us suppose that you have a gift for mathematics. But what if you are irresistibly called to become a lyric poet? Let us imagine that we are endowed with the talents of a merchant. But what if we secretly crave to become scholars? The above examples are, however, not entirely to the point. Being a merchant of a lyric poet is, after all, a way of life set up by society and, as such, cannot be compared to the 'call' that forms the very basis of our personal 'destiny'. The examples are to the point though, in so far as they show that tastes and talents do not always go together and that the ensuing struggle between a man's personal destiny and his psychological character often accounts for the frequent feeling of frustration so characteristic of human existence. They are effective also in so far as they show that the world is not for us a collection of 'things' but rather a complex of 'situations'. Things—and ideas—are nothing but difficulties or facilities for existing. We can even say that as books are made up of pages, human existence is made up of situations". Thus man finds himself with a body, with a mind, with a psychological character, exactly as he finds himself, with capital left by his parents, with a country where he was born, with a historical tradition". As we have to live with our liver, be it healthy or diseased, we have to live with our intelligence, be it bright or dull. However much we may complain about the weakness of our memory, we have to live with it and carry on our life by means of it. The life of a man is not, therefore, the operating of the mechanisms with which Providence has graced him. We must constantly ask in whose service these mechanisms operate. The question, in short, is not what I am but who I am.

Confronted with all these circumstances, man is forced to make his own life and to make it, whenever possible, in an authentic fashion. This is, incidentally, the main reason why what we do in our life is not immaterial. In his essay on Goethe, Ortega has pointed out that Goethe's celebrated sentence, 'My actions are merely symbolic', was but a way of concealing from himself the decisive character of his behaviour. As a matter of fact, our actions are not symbolic; they are real. We cannot, therefore, act "no matter how'. Human life has nothing to do with 'No matter', 'Never mind' or 'It is all one to me'. Neither can we act as we please. We have to act as we must act; we have to do what we have to do. It is—unfortunate, of course, that upon reaching this deep stratum of our existence the only statements we seem capable of uttering are either tinged with morality or marred by triviality. 'To act as we must act' seems to be a moral rule a kind of categorical imperative still more formal and far less normative than the Kantian one. It is nothing of the kind. It simply states that we must bow to our purely individual call, even if it runs counter to the conventional rules of morality. It is possible, of course, to offer resistance to our destiny. But our life will be then less authentic and, to a certain extent, less real. 'To do what we have to do' seems to be a tautology. It is rather a way of enlightening us about the fact that our concrete actions, if they are to be real and not merely symbolic, must spring from the sources of our authentic, and often hidden, ego, and must not be diverted by any conventional rule, by any of the many temptations leading to the falsification of our existence. For human life can easily falsify itself and thus become less real. Nature does not admit of degrees of reality, but human existence does. Therefore, 'what man does can be more or less authentic and hence more or less real.

This does not mean, of course, that to be unauthentic and to be non-existent are exactly the same thing. It means that human life possesses sometimes the 'defective mode' of reality which we call inauthenticity.

Every reader will agree that the above descriptions raise a number of questions. How do we know about our authentic ego? Would an authentic life be possible without a certain amount of falsification and hence frustration? Why are moral rules of the so-called conventional kind to be so drastically discarded? The elucidation of any one of these questions would certainly fill an entire volume. Here it will be sufficient to say that whatever objections are raised, they will have to meet Ortega's assumptions on a common ground.

This ground is not ethical but metaphysical—perhaps we should say, ontological. Only from a metaphysical point of view will the above assertions become meaningful. The same viewpoint must be taken when interpreting such Ortegean apothegm as 'Life is a problem', 'Life is a task', 'Life is a preoccupation with itself', 'Life is a shipwreck', and 'Life is a vital programme'.

'Life is a problem' is not a trivial, matter-of-fact statement. It does not simply mean that we are often beset by problems. After all, a number of people seem to get along surprisingly well with their troubles. It means that life itself is a trouble, a problem, or, to use Ortega's vocabulary, that human life is made up of the problem of itself. Human life is accordingly a most serious business, certainly far more serious than art, science or philosophy. The so-called great problems amount to little when compared to the startling problem of our own life. Now life is a problem because it is a task, a problematical task. Again, we are not faced here with the tasks and toils of life but with the task and toil that human life itself is. Making use of a very suggestive Spanish term, Ortega defines life as a quehacer—what has to be done. But what has to be done? In principle, only this: our own life. Is this not an overwhelming, almost unbearable toil? To begin with, we cannot make our own lives as we make other things—houses, symphonies or philosophical systems. These things we make according to a delicate mixture of rules and inspirations. But there are no rules for the making of our lives. The sole rule we can lay down is: perpetual discovery of our being. We can thus say that our life is a causa sui, a cause of itself. But even this proves to be an understatement. In fact, human life has not only to cause itself; it has also to determine the self it is going to cause. We have always to decide what we are going to do with our lives. Not for a single moment is our activity of decision allowed to rest. Here lies the reason why freedom is not something we are endowed with but something we really are. We are free beings in a most radical sense, because we feel ourselves fatally compelled to exercise our freedom. Man is free by compulsion, for even when he forsakes his liberty he has to decide it beforehand. We must therefore commit ourselves perpetually, not because there is a moral rule stating that we have to, or because—we happen to think that commitment is a nobler attitude than non-commitment, but because we cannot escape this inexorable condition of our existence. Freedom is so absolute in human life that we can even choose not to be 'ourselves', namely, not to be faithful to that innermost self of ours which we have given, above the name of personal destiny. Our freedom, however, will not decrease owing to the fact that our life becomes inauthentic, because freedom is precisely the absolute possibility of reaching or not reaching the inner 'call' sustaining our lives.

No wonder therefore that human life is always a preoccupation with itself. We are constantly worried by the diverse possibilities among which we have to choose. It is true that society helps us to decide in a great number of cases; otherwise, our life would become an unbearable burden. It is true also that circumstances, in view of which and by means of which we carry out our lives, are a most welcome guide in the course of our decisions. It is true, finally, that however 'plastic' our existence is, it is an irreversible process, so that the past—personal and collective past—shapes our present and imposes more and more limitations on our future behaviour. But ultimate decisions are always a purely personal affair. Inasmuch as solitude—'existential' and not merely 'physical' solitude—is an outstanding feature of human life, only decisions made in complete solitude will really be authentic. Moreover, such decisions must always be made 'from the future'. Human life is also, therefore, a 'vital design', a 'vital programme'—expressions which, to a certain extent, are synonymous with 'call', 'vocation' and 'destiny'. Again, to this design we may or we may not respond. For that very reason life exists in a constant state of uneasiness and insecurity. It has been said, incidentally, that this last statement conflicts with some other typically Ortegean opinions. Some critics, for example, have argued that you cannot define life as uneasiness if you have previously stated that sportive activity is the most serious and important part of life, or if you have asserted that it is necessary, whenever possible, to get rid of dullness and austerity and to steer a course for joy. To such criticisms Ortega would probably retort that uneasiness is not incompatible with joyful vitality and that his definition of life as insecurity is old enough for him to wave aside any objections. At all events, Ortega's metaphysics of human life implies insecurity as one of its outstanding features. The opinion that life is in itself a problem, the comparison of life with a shipwreck, are quite common in Ortega's works. But insecurity is not everything in human existence. Together with man's perennial state of uneasiness, we must take into account his perpetual craving for security. What we usually call 'culture' is at bottom nothing but a life-boat which we launch and to which we cling in order to prevent us from sinking into the abyss of insecurity. Culture keeps us afloat. This is, be it said in passing, one of the reasons why culture must also be authentic. We must prevent it from overloading itself with adipose tissue. We must do our utmost in order to reduce it to pure nerve and pure muscle. Otherwise we shall fall into a sin often exposed by Ortega: the bigotry of culture. Culture is, in short, a possibility for liberation or for oppression. Whether it goes the one way or the other depends, of course, on its vitality, namely, on its authenticity. Like human life, culture has to narrow itself down to the essential and throw off all that is non-essential.

Life is, therefore, task, problem, preoccupation, insecurity. It is also a drama. For that very reason Ortega says that the primary and radical meaning of life is a biographical and not a biological one. We understand the meaning of life when we proceed to give a narrative of it, that is to say, when we try to describe the series of events and situations it has come up against and the vital design underlying them. Many reasons have been adduced to endorse the dramatic character of human existence. We shall add now another: the obvious fact that man is an ephemeral and transient being. Man is always in a hurry. Life itself is haste and urgency. Pressed by time, man cannot cast about for excuses. He has to dash along in order to make the right decisions at the right time. He cannot wait. His life is precisely the opposite of the Greek calends. He cannot form projects only to be carried out in an indeterminate future. He must strive urgently, hurriedly, for the main aim of his life: the 'liberation toward himself. He cannot simply let events do away with the estrangement that constantly threatens his existence with inauthenticity and falsification. Only after his liberation will he be able to discover what is perhaps the ultimate conclusion in his search for the basic reality: that it is useless to search for a transcendent reality, because what we call 'the transcendent' is life itself: man's own inalienable life. Life is thus, as it were, the reality. This does not mean, again, that human life is the sole reality in the universe or even that it is a purely independent, incommunicable reality. After all, we have already emphasized that to live is 'to live with'—with the world, with other people, with society. But after due consideration we find that when man loses the beliefs that had nourished his existence, the only reality still left to him is his life, 'his disillusioned life. We seem thus driven to despair. But, in fact, only when we are ready to glance coldly and lucidly at this uncanny nature of our existence shall we become capable of holding our own ground and starting afresh our perpetual search after new forms and ways of living.

(Chapter IV, Section 2)