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Ortega Criticizes Toynbee and Why It Matters 75 Years Later.

Ortega y Gasset Criticizes Arnold J. Toynbee, And Why It Matters 75 Years Later.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero (Birkbeck, U of London,;;


I want to summon two ghosts from the land of the dead and see how they fare: the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) and the English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), names included in encyclopedias ( and dictionaries of national biography. Yet, what catches the eye is their double disappearing act in regular course offerings in universities in Anglophone and Hispanophone settings on both sides of the Atlantic. Ubi Sunt? Perhaps still circulating in small circles in select book clubs? Where is our happy pair today in marked contrast to their immense visibility on the international stage by the 1950s, the English gentleman winning the popularity contest thanks to the help of the Americans? Do we prostrate ourselves to the inexorable law of time passing leaving no good trace or bad memory? No.

1948 is the point of reference: Ortega y Gasset delivers a few lectures at the Instituto de Humanidades about Toynbee “after 15 years of almost total silence.” These twelve lectures form the twelve chapters of Una Interpretación de Historia Universal, En Torno a Toynbee (print comes out twelve years later in 1960, 5 years after Ortega’s death). Ortega is 65, there is still vigour, effort and belligerence in equal measure. The general climate could not have been easy or comfortable, one of repressive tolerance in the Madrid of the Franco Regime. These lectures are mature work, Ortega would dye 7 years later. The Biblioteca Nacional de España includes at least five prints 1960, 1966, 1973, 1980, 1989). The English version comes out 13 years later in 1973 (pp. 94, 297). In what follows, I use the English edition of An Interpretation of Universal History, translated by Mildred Adams, published by W.W. Norton & Company in New York. Miguel Cobaleda’s thesis, the only work I know putting both scholars together, is completed in the final years of the Franco Regime moving into democracy. Amply covered by the Spanish press, Toynbee dies in 1975 reaching the age of 86. Cobaleda’s doctoral thesis, Ortega y Toynbee: Una Comparación de sus Procedimientos Gnoseológicos was defended after four years’ work at the Universidad de Salamanca on 2nd July, 1976. Movingly, Cobaleda marks the very moment of receiving the news of the death of the English historian he was writing about. Ortega had disappeared two decades earlier.

An Interpretation of Universal History is the public testimony of the twelve lectures delivered in Madrid between 13 Dec. 1948 to March 1949 to an audience of three-hundred-to-five-hundred (Gracia, 609). This is baptism ceremony of the Institute of the Humanities, a para-university venue designed to challenge the power of the “mandarins,” Ortega does not bite his tongue. The audience must have been varied and as such it was parodied in some papers. The Institute had a seven-year run until Ortega’s death in 1955. “Humanities” must be understood in an expansive and ambitious, interdisciplinary kind of way, mixing big-scale civilizational history, desires for a national cultural reform, geopolitics, sociology and the type of philosophy that is existential historicism underneath the umbrella term of “continental philosophy.” The lectures include abundant references to literature and the arts. This “mixed bag” is what Ortega is bringing to Toynbee’s profession of historicism and internationalism from the “subtle island,” as he called it. The Madrid philosopher claims at the end of the lectures to have delivered “the most dense and concentrated lectures given anywhere.” He liked to brag. Throw a bit of salt at the feathers of this self-promoting peacock: there is a grain of truth in the midst of a military, authoritarian regime imposed on an impoverished society that has come out of a civil war. There is an embedded asymmetry: the Spanish-press coverage of Toynbee is generous. Toynbee did not respond to Ortega. Who responds to Ortega in the Anglo world then and now? Why engage with this type of intellectual belligerence out of the European periphery of the West, if you do not have to?

The lectures are substantial and inevitably dense. They read well, even in translation, with the occasional hiccups, and they carry a marked oral quality that includes the colourful and the synchronic immediacy of Madrid as well as large references to the immense world whirling around 1934. The language is alive: there is off-script to this script. The discourse is uneven, asymmetrical, responds to immediate pressures and opens up to civilizational vistas, having the meaning of the Roman Empire at the centre. If Toynbee travelled around the world of civilizations, Ortega blows the whistle on Toynbee about the legacy of this imperial Rome in the tight knot of the shared civilization of the West, not then called “liberal” by either scholar. Both were sitting on the anti-Communist side of the fence (the English, more orthodox or establishment variety in his native country, the Spaniard’s liberalism less so, and yet, silences or not, complicit with military and authoritarian measures; inevitably, family members and disciples scattered across all feelings and winds, fields of knowledge and geographies). Surely there were many disappointments about and around Ortega, and Gracia’s good biography tells us a few (disappointments too about Toynbee in William H. McNeill’s good biography). Yet, Ortega travelled before and after 1948, but he could not adjust to any other society other than his native country and mother tongue. He had his limitations and he held some animadversion towards the English. It is probably fair to say that the Anglo world was Ortega’s blind spot, English by that time already becoming the lingua franca. In his criticism of Toynbee, Ortega must have already sensed something of the early geopolitical Cold-War reconfigurations beyond his own life traveling through the second half of the last century.

Politics is of the essence in Ortega’s philosophy of big history; that is, who commands and who obeys. This unavoidable political dimension also ‘contaminates,’ how could it not?, the knowledge process in Ortega’s times –and ours. The exercise of command is the crucial or the dominant dimension for historical reason to consider. In furthering his synthetic vision of the Roman Empire, such political practice is embodied or impersonated by the imperator. And this is mostly visible along the line of the Rhine, Ortega says. Indulging in anatomical language, the comparison is between the two different civilizations, the Roman and the Carolingian. The latter has two sides (the “lobes,” French and German), which have nothing to do with the Rhine limes of the Roman Empire, which placed “barbarism” beyond the frontier; and hence, danger. Ortega uses spatialization for his historical exegesis and readers must make sure to have a few historical atlases around. The Madrid philosopher superimposes civilizations on the map so to speak to prove the point that the Rhine holds very different meanings for the Roman and Western civilizations (such line of the Rhine will play a central role all the way to WWII). Ortega charges Toynbee with lack of historical understanding of such “anatomical” demarcations that capture different civilizational entities. “Nation is distance,” is the curious Ortega assertion: the French and the Germans are, Ortega says, two profoundly different ways of being men, already during Carolingian times, yet both are within the West passing through different stages or even mutations until today. Hegemonic core of Europe then and now, we could say with him.

Ortega “Goes Old Roman” Against Toynbee.

The monumental historical fact of the Roman Empire is considered by Toynbee “a” or “the” prototype of the universal state (the indefinite articles in A Study of History and An Interpretation of Universal History should fool no one). No English understatement and Spanish “arrogance” hide the double intellectual ambition and Toynbee plays “social distancing” with Ortega also during his visit to Spain in 1951). Ortega subjects this prototypical, universalizing tenet to an extended interrogation and exposes all sorts of problems: Toynbee’s is a narrow-Anglo focus of the West, made “classical,” as it travels around the history of the world of “who the West is” and a severe distortion of “who others are.” Impatient post-structuralist and anti-identitarian dispositions must “hold their horses.” Any “postcolonial” impatience will learn to wait patiently at any mention of the West too, so that we continue exploring a brief summary of Ortega’s fierce critique of Toynbee, even as some of the Englishman’s visions remain still provocative even today (perhaps for a second article for Toynbee Prize Foundation).

Ortega “goes German,” particularly with Mommsen’s reconstruction of Roman public law (Gracia mentions the influence of Michael Rostovtzeff and Otto Seck, both are however less present in these lectures). Ortega renders what the emperor and the Empire meant for the Romans toward the 190 B.C. There are two notions, the imperium, supreme public power, military power and jurisdiction, and the potestas, that is, a broader concept, but not supreme. There is an overlap, but no exact coincidence between these two notions. Imperium splits into “domi” and “militare,” power of exception of the latter, we can say, that will gradually take over the former, and “rock the house” of firm belief and collective certainty that defines “what a Roman is.” Law is this domain of this inexorable, non-optional, non-voluntaristic force (let us imagine the vast other side of “individual choice”). It is the realm of law that delivers the fundamentals of a “universe” or civilization for Ortega (“pluriverse” cannot happen simultaneously unless the tremendous risk of “evil” fracture is already inside such civilization in question in a state of uncertainty or fragility). Ortega is articulating his own “political theology” in the vicinity of the enormous historical context of the Roman Empire, its shade looming over, like mother’s to daughter, the West soon after WWII. There is no trace of Carl Schmitt, who is very close to Franco Spain, in these “Germanophile” lectures (Gracia, pp. 438-9; Herrero, 2020).

Imperium domi is thus the greatest power that existed in civil life, the power of the consul and beyond that, of the praetor. Here, lies imperium maximum at heart (indoors, internal, “on this civilizational side of the border,” at home, the beautiful Spanish intramuros). And from here, we can imagine how it radiates varieties caught up in the crucial demarcations of inside and outside. Before Giorgio Agamben, Ortega develops the tense coexistence of two contradictory legal states (domi and militare). In force, there is always a vestige or a residue of a more brutal past clarified by the exercise of violence. Such past is now going to take over the future of the Romans. The imperium of the magistrate (consul or praetor) is originally to be a lesser imperium to that of the military command situated at the borders of empire (we can think of this border like the skin of the anatomical body politic according to Ortega’s own previous anthropomorphic metaphor). Barbarism is beyond this “border” for the Romans. Civilization is inside this “skin” with its fair share of viscera, myths and rituals “underneath.” Imperium is “power that is supreme, but weakened,” power of the early consuls, who may use it or not. There is a tremendous hesitation here. The imperium militare is imperium simply, decisive, brutal, forced by the circumstances, the undivided or total one, the one and only, the once and for all, that belongs to the head of the army that must be obeyed (this conception of politics is superbly non-democratic, non-egalitarian, non-dialogic, patriarchal, etc.). The unifying, coercive power of the state must not be too far behind this brute exercise of force. The power of the magistrates is gradually losing ground to the power of the unlimited power of the command of the army. Correcting Mommsen, “whom [he] reveres,” Ortega engages with the Spirit of Roman Law (via Fernando García Vela’s translations, also of Rudolf Von Jhering’s). What Ortega is after is the reconstruction of the spirit of the public Roman law, the essence or the sacrum one could call it, of Roman civilization. Toynbee misses this entire essential picture: law, the fit, as perfect as possible, of imperium and potestas, is however not to be identified wholly with the institutions of the nation, the state, not even Empire. There is always something societal larger in Ortega that is not trapped by its own institutions. There is something charismatic at work here, pool of rituals, fog of myths, where collective belief and public faith nest. Institutions will try to capture this “religion,” but there is no guarantee they do so forever. We approach the thesis that “law proper” (the spirit of public Roman law) has been internalized and assumed as its own, whole, sincerely, by the entire Roman society in question. And then, according to Ortega’s vision, a monumental problem arises precisely in this Roman “modernity.”

Marshalling his favourite German bibliography on the Roman Empire, Ortega advances into Toynbee’s lines of interpretation. In case of war, the chief of the army, the praetor becomes the general under the aegis of the consuls. The title of imperator, emperor, is bestowed on the designated best-capable military leader in situations of real danger. In the face of such impending danger, the exercise of public power, the power to command and to ask for obedience is restricted to this military figure who “puts the house in order” (making the “nomos of the earth,” we could say with Carl Schmitt). Imperium domi, militare: the latter takes over, “Roman dictatorship,” although Ortega does not use this expression, sensibly in 1948 Spain. It is not just decisionism: there is the snapping of a faithful following. Ortega refers to the “concordia ordine,” the congruence of senatorial, equestrian and plebeian orders undergoing a series of revolts. During the Spanish Emperor Trajan, there was a Golden Age and “men felt themselves to be happy.” But let us not embrace too quickly such “happiness.” Trajan (98-117 AD) is the first emperor to have used officially the title of Emperor with entire normality (the title of emperor that previously had all sorts of bad associations and uncomfortable connotations). Ortega’s narrative continues: such associations go back to the year 40, Augustus the title uses imperator tribunicia potestate for the first time among ten-to-twelve other names. Ortega discloses a “tremendous human reality.” Which one?: “these men did not know how to name this total-political function, they did not know the basis on which they ruled. The Romans did not know it, nor did the innumerable peoples who submitted to them.” Potestas (legitimacy) vanishes from their world. Imperium, divorced from it, remains active and absolute with no ground under its big feet. How else to win hearts and minds? The colossal Roman civilization becomes illegitimate to the eyes of the Romans themselves (reverberations and echoes must have travelled through 1948 Franco Spain and surely do not stop there…). Ortega always forces us to bring the philosophy of history “home.”

The imperator commands in a situation perceived to be of danger. “He,” and it must a “he,” puts the “house in order” (ordo, in peninsular Spanish, “ordenador,” or computer, world order, of frequent use in the discipline of international relations in the “liberal West”). The peoples of Latium, the Roman people, travelled through the religious world, the world of ceremonies and rites to find a Rex, a “king,” a rector emerging from a merciless life of primitive and cruel harshness on the brink of danger and annihilation. Power is not only the latest Machiavellian exercise of cunning and ruthless force, but comes instead from further back in the deep-history mists of religious symbols and rituals. Tangled up with the notion of “sacrifice,” the institution of royalty emerges out of the old struggles among the old Romans still circumscribed to a fractured boot-like peninsula still not its own self. Beautiful words by Ortega of this knot of religion and public power, charisma, rites and sacrifice (“sacer-facere”). The strong assertion is that there is no form of collective life, or public world, the atheist Ortega says, without the world of religion, with its traditions and rituals, symbols and strong emotions, throwing Weberian certainties into post-secularist disarray (Individual life may not fall for religion, for example a scientific life, or the life of the intellectual in the style of Ortega, but this has nothing to do or say to collective life). “Reason” always loses to “belief.” Philosophy may try to explain religion –maker, mould or cauldron of civilizations- but is never match for the latter. Toynbee’s rationalism, albeit very differently configured from Ortega’s, would not disagree with this pre-eminence of religious belief in collective formations past and present.

Out of the fog of ancient war, kingship emerges and around it we must imagine kin and kith (knowledge and friends and neighbours and power/knowledge must be “in the vicinity”). Our imagination must conjure slow transitions from the Etruscan king to the constitution of the Roman republic. SPQR: senatus, the Senate, and the people, the populus, “all the citizens confronting a common enemy” (Ortega tells us the meaning comes from the French in 1790, ”the nation up in arms”). The legitimacy of royalty, rex sacrorum, i.e. the priest officer of the collective sacrifices, that is, the one in charge of the ritualization of collective forces apropos the meaningfulness embedded in or transferred to the immanent past and the present. We are dealing, according to Ortega, increasingly with a competing sovereignty, the Senate and the people (Ortega pulls the strongest narrative thread in a society of conquest formed by patriarchy, an agrarian, pre-capitalist society of primitive accumulation, slavery, etc.). Exercising a creative juxtaposition as much as Toynbee, Ortega puts the old past side by side contemporary vignettes, for example in relation to the categorical illegitimacy or confusion about the meaning of democracy coming out of the Yalta conference (narrow-elitist, Churchill; social-democratic, FDR; and Soviet-Communist, Stalin). Capitalism does not hold centre stage in both Toynbee and Ortega. Geopolitical translatio imperii is still too young: present-day “America” in the continental sense of the word, from Alaska to Patagonia, Ortega claims, remains “intellectually virgin, no single basic word with any real meaning has yet been said, so original and so different from the others” (p. 141). Soon after these lectures, Ortega travelled to the U.S., Aspen, Colorado and New York, in July 1949 (“30 days of happiness,” calls them Jordi Gracia). Successful trips to Germany followed suit with bigger audiences (pp. 614-16). There is a brief trip to Britain in 1951 and a direct contact with Toynbee in London. It must have been polite but cold.

The exposition continues with these combinatory mixtures in the Senate. Using the apothecary vignette of the “theriaca maxima” (the “total dose” of all existing potential remedies thrown in the pot), the Roman of the Republic consecrates the Senate, composed of patres, or the chiefs of the leading families or the clans (gentes in Spanish) whilst the figure of the King is lodged in the distant past of brutal, bare life. In excavating the deep-time vicissitudes of the Roman spirit passing through the centuries, Ortega wants to prove Toynbee’s “universal state” wrong in the end in relation to the goal, or thesis, of the constitutive illegitimacy of the Roman Empire, which never had a theory of popular sovereignty, despite the senatorial inclusion of representative numbers of the plebeian sectors. Ortega claims theoretical vertebration of Roman civilization to Toynbee’s incoherent erudition of a colossal construction that appears to deliver no meaning to us today except the legacy of Christianity inserted inside Western civilization. Ortega approximates the Roman Empire seeking to reconstruct its historical core, inner drama or living vitality. Old, traditional and patrician families now share the floor of the Senate with new families. This patrician-plebs arrangement was not easy, yet it lasted five centuries, showing the “deficient, feeble, superficial, equivocal and weak legitimacy of the Roman Republic.” What precipitates the “disintegration of the compact bloc, the total common belief of the Romans,” is the conquest of Greece. Cliff-hanger at the end of the lesson VI. There is more to come.

These temporary magistracies are what the Romans are calling the praetors or “dictators.” From within the largest civilizational domain, we must envision societies, and inside “nations,” factions or groups, fighting for power and privilege making use of the institutions available and taking them to imperial reach. The state is ideally, in Ortega’s vision, the public exercise of collective power with the consent of the society around it. If the consent falters, falls or fails, there is no legitimate state and potentially no state at all. This process is not and cannot be based on reason alone, but on the legacy, already mentioned, of religious rituals, symbols and “belief.” Societies are not “full of soul,” but “soulless” (desalmada, in Spanish, with connotations of harshness, cruelty, inhumanity, etc.). Rationality alone does not suffice. Institutions prop societies up or don’t. Projects may unify different groups, or not at all. There is no fixed formula, pattern or linearity, but instead a seemingly blind force, mole-like, burrowing through with eminent malleability and multi-directionality.

Here, Ortega lays out stages: the imperator, anyone at all…, the rex, king, with the grace of the gods, the rex sacrorum, rector of sacrifices, the maker of the sacred. When he goes away, the memory of kingdom lingers; yet, it is now the Senate that remains a consultative assembly of the ancient reges or patres, kinfolk or clans. In the historical shadow of the suppression of the monarchy, original source of primitive legitimacy, the Senate operates with the consolidation of the old peoples of Rome and the gradual expansion of the institution, never understood as people’s sovereignty, that still however opens up to a plurality and diversity of being not human, but “Roman.” It is the expansionism of Romanness that is at stake, not universal inclusivity of humanity around the Mediterranean. The Senate now contains an explosive mixture of groups of old and new stock (progenitors, gens-gentium, blood estates and plebs mixed with other peoples, the new men, on top of barbarians, foreigners, slaves, etc.). This old self-contained “world” and this new, more-open-border modernity, go to war with each other, so to speak. There is a beautiful vignette about the duty of the obsequium in which the client must accompany his patron in the street and engage in dutiful services, exequies. Dutiful public performativity marks the patron-client command-and-obedience relationship. Things will surely get messy soon.

This new Rome of the crowding plebs is already responding to the modern possibilities of the enrichment of life, as a whole (“postmodernism” in this line of thought would mean something like “TINA,” i.e. there is no conceivable openness or alternative to things as we know them). Such opening precisely signals however, according to Ortega, the inevitable crisis of legitimacy. “Modernity” is this openness to diversity and plurality of ways of being and doing. “Modernity,” already in the times of the old Romans, means the erosion of belief, hitherto kept within traditionalist mores and religious ethos. And, here comes trouble: the emergence of doubt opening to illegitimacy that will not go away quickly but will linger instead. Illegitimacy becomes a way of life inside the monumental dimension of an imperial civilization. The more abundant the historical form of the Roman life, the less the hold of its consecration rituals challenged by the many options of the peoples incorporated into the Empire. “Modernus” appears in this period of the low Latin (p. 162): invasive modernity will end up conquering the legitimate spaces of the tradition of old manners, habits, mores, predictable or reflex feelings (p. 161). Enrichment here means the “possibilities of superabundant living,” (p. 171). Such superabundance is identified with “modernity,” both nouns riding in tandem, up and down the hills as it were, to crash into a germinating illegitimacy… or life without sacraments (we may think of “secularization,” although Ortega does not mention Weber explicitly). Ortega’s explanatory narration is “not set forth to suit his own private taste,” he insists. He is not arguing for or against the old Roman ways and there is no doubt that he is at times cutting historical analogies close to home of the Franco Regime. But he often claims he has nothing to do with politics. Yet, Ortega approaches what he calls a tremendous historical phenomenon, i.e. the loss of collective belief or faith in the societal institutions of a monumental, civilizational society that engendered his own (how could your own civilization come from such a disreputable ‘mother’?). Modernity is awareness of the “infinite diversity of the human being.” It is a vitality which Ortega defends, yet alerting to its risks. Such modernity “is a strict concept in the system of historical thought” (p. 163) and it is not monopolized by anyone, not even by the Americans after 1950. In this line of thought, postmodernity will only mean the closing of the mind to meaningful, irrepressible diversity (the colonial world makes a brief appearance in these lectures in connection to “America” and the so-called “new nations,” but remains tangential, underdeveloped). Ortega’s “Latin” lectures open windows to the modernity of the world of 1950 inserting his own uneasy Spanish society in it.

Something of a mental closure is taking place in the European core of Western civilization by the time of these 1948 lectures as we will see presently. Where does Ortega place such Roman openness, glorious and devastating? Between the 1st and the 2nd Punic War, 202 B.C., in the vicinity of the historian Polybius (203 B.C.- 120 B.C.). Rome opened itself completely to the foreign and the different with the conquest of Greece during the times of Perseus, King of Macedonia (212 B.C.-166 B.C.). Xenophilia: crisis of illegitimacy ensues. Open life begins. The double comparison will be with Spain’s elite-group mental withdrawal from its immense empire into The Monastery of El Escorial near Madrid in Ortega’s vision of things. Self-absorption, living a kind of “hermetic life” sealed from her own Hispanic world and also inevitably from the rest of the world: anti-Kavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Ortega speaks of the “Tibetization” of Spain (this self-absorption, p.167, 175). Our philosopher reminisces about the Madrid of his childhood (p. 176), he is 15 years in 1898, the emblematic date of the official end of the Hispanic Empire deemed a disaster. Such loss produces withdrawal and doubles down on provincialism, and its compensatory richness in folklore and flavour. Localism, parochialism, manageable net of social relations around the corner where you live and die, and sharp rich interior life populated by myths and legends, songs and festivities, the apothecary of Dr. Garrido and his dog Paco. Ortega romanticizes his teenage years near the disaster of 1898 finding softness and warmth in the time long past.

The contrast is sharp between an “incandescent brilliance of the mythological capacity” and the naked and sordid exterior reality of his post-imperial minor nation going straight into a fratricidal confrontation resulting in a military, dictatorial regime of four decades. The philosopher focuses on the interior life of the mind (Gracia ends his biography of Ortega with a comparable moving remembrance of a young Ortega wanting to be a philosopher). Valleinclanesque, comic-burlesque, tenderness, the articles in the paper El Imparcial, Ortega’s family paper: the 65-year-old man indulges in public in the 50-year-looking-back to his teenage life in the old Madrid now gone. Two attitudes fight each other: the closed and self-absorbed life and the open or extrovert life receptive of foreignness, xenophobia on one side of the coin and xenophilia on the other, you get to pick. Biting words, always, about the sorry state of sordid provincialism of the Spanish intelligentsia (p. 170). No temptation of Spanish exceptionalism here (non-Spanish readers of these pages, bring your criticism home to your society to feel the force of such critique that reserves the biggest blow for internal purposes). A second analogy ensues: such closed mind is now taking place, guess where?, also in Toynbee’s England after WWII, which Ortega had detected in the 1930s. And what about life in the midlands in Brexit Britain officially under the slogan of “Global Britain”? The ventriloquizing ghost of Ortega: “I told you so a hundred years ago.” It is crucial thus to walk together with the contradistinction of “rich interior life” in Spain and England by 1948, or the United States of today for example, against the opposite example of Rome’s early conquest of Greece. Citing Titus Livy, Ortega tells us how the old Roman cult was abandoned, not only in secret, but also in public in the year 212. “The rustic plebeians, crowds of women, mystical impostors, diviners, sacrificuli from their uncultivated devastated fields, victims of misery and terror bring with them a world of diversity, a differential wound, sweeping out the traditional ways” (p. 181). Toynbee’s pages about the “schism of the social body” remain provocative today. When have we seen something similar in the vicinity of Toynbee in the past decades? How about Samuel Huntington’s challenges to the national cultural identity? (Herrero, 2006).

Ortega chastises the “extravagance” of Hans Kelsen (1881-1973). This formalist and self-serving theory of law could only end with a recantation. Law cannot be founded on itself, the juridical dimension is, congruently with his exposition, not self-sustaining. Clinging to Hermann Cohen, Ortega also denounces Rudolf Stammler (1856-1934) and he calls him “a deserter, one who has degenerated” (p. 182). The criticism is of the alleged independence, or the “specialism,” the formalism and the desired self-sufficiency of the 19th century positivism of the “law.” The noun in question marks gives us something of the conceptual domain of the inevitability, of that “which must happen,” that which is not optional, not a matter brought down to the decisionist level of “individual choice.” Is “law” in this conception another word for the fate of the old Greeks in their tragedies somehow also finding its place among the old Romans as they built a magnificent empire? Ortega does not say but I would say that we are pretty close. “Founding” can only happen in a certain situation of totality of the collective human life (possible synonyms of this “founding,” the excess of logos or logic, the congruence of reason, the “compact” of belief and faith “standing behind” the command-and-obedience as previously mentioned). Ortega is after inevitability, ineluctability, “something that must happen, yes or yes.” Law is a function of the whole life of a people. Immediate problems surface apropos the definition of any such people, the demarcation of the meaningful timespaces, the relatability of symbols, the sustainability of cultures, the livelihood of “religions,” the construction of demarcations, the insides and outsides, etc.). Ortega asserts that “nothing can crack, break and pulverize a religion except other religions” (the outsiders, the insiders, the intellectuals, etc. have all limited power). We must remember the etymology: the “re-ligio,” the tying of social bonds actualizing a belief-system, the repetitive use of symbols, the ceremonies, the rituals, etc.). It is not difficult to see how nationalism will often make haste to put religiosity to good use for its own goals.

The “universal” in An Interpretation of Universal History does not provide the “solution,” the noun in quotation marks must also be understood in the mathematical and chemical sense. Sitting on the shoulders of Nietzsche, Sisyphus is the figure of the authentic wise man, the philosopher (p.172), and his “nihilism” remained unresolved (let us try to give a positive spin to the noun in quotation marks at least in the context of Ortega). In his own words, “[the philosopher] will be disjointed aside from the whole ruling knowledge of his people and obliged to choose his own way of thinking for himself…” Ortega has a bone to pick against the “torpor of historians and foreigners:” their failure to account for the loss of traditional faith held in common by an entire people, this loss of faith being one of the most important events that can ever happen to them (p. 183). “A” people, in dealing with their immediate circumstances, lose “their” belief in what they are doing and this precipitates the suspension of the arche-ology and the evaporation of the theo-logy (anarchy, atheism), the sustaining value of old traditions and meaningful frames, a fundamental disorientation that may or may not be framed by reconstructions of history, or histories, including its desirable future projects. Ortega’s lectures echo the disorientation of elite groups in 1948 Western Europe, not only in Spain. Ortega allows for the unravelling of possibilities that we are now contemplating, holding hands with both ghosts, Ortega and Toynbee, at the beginning of the end of the American world order seventy five years after these lectures. Ortega allows for the thinking of the function of the intellectual function not fully contained by the existing institutions of his time (universities, think tanks, official politics, but also states, nations, civilizations and cultures, etc.). Ortega speaks of the birth of the intellectual as a prophet, a seer, perhaps charismatic, against his own people first. This heroic intellectual figure remains in a precarious para-institutional public stage balancing public life, interrupted in the case of Spain, the university sector, the mass media, the possible think tanks… Toynbee played this role too in both halves of the twentieth century with uneven degrees of success (his own public lectures in Puerto Rico and Pennsylvania will not hide a strong criticism of the U.S. and even of the “Anglo ways”). Ortega advances the notion of “historiology:” a prophet against his people in so far as he is someone who destroys the common-held traditional faith of a people (p. 188). Who would welcome such an act yesterday or today? The intellectual is someone who follows the collective process of the loss of faith and the birth of a new one. The inspirational origin of philosophy is for Ortega located in 500 B.C. in Greece.

Ortega’s calamitous vision of Roman history is, by 1948, “not history, not dead, not even past” (Faulkner’s famous quip). Ortega’s disintegration of legitimacy seeks the proximity of Toynbee’s “intoxication of victory.” The Englishman’s poetic language allows for wiggle-room. Such victory brings about a false feeling of invulnerability that one’s “civilization” is exceptional and radically different from others. Paradoxically, such confident state of mind set brings with it a loss of faith, which Toynbee does not see (p. 190). What the English historian does not see in the celebrated Greek-Roman world of mixture is the disintegration of common moral norms of conduct. Ortega makes a passing reference to sexuality. Rome’s discovery of homosexuality takes place in the Greek encounter (excess, luxury and res novae, innovation for the sake of innovation) and it is precisely this feeling of “modernism” (openness, receptivity) that will do damage and suspend the old ways, and something of this impact must also be put in relation to the Christian sexual mores of the Franco-Regime Spain in 1948 or the flourishings of new puritanisms and demarcated identity enclosures of today. Something dramatic happens to the conservative Romans: history (the past) loses its power of orientation for these old and elite Romans seeking such pleasurable novelties (“Negligimus ista, et nimis antiqua et stulta ducimus;” these things, which seem to us old and stupid, are not important to us,” wonderfully included by Ortega). History is no guidance. History is kaput. Contemporaneity disengages from the moorings of a well-furnished historical sensibility. Thus, Roman life undergoes a disorienting enrichment seemingly riding a limitless expansion (“I open up to the foreign who surprises and enriches me, delights me and ultimately confuses me distancing me from the old moorings…”). Stoicism will be something like an enduring withdrawal symptom, some type of protection device behind which “I” do not want to see the rain and thunder of diversity… And we could add the learning of its languages, literatures and cultures… Isn’t this a sobering lesson for Anglo societies? This dazzling polytheism coming from all directions will be eventually circumscribed, surely but slowly, by Christian monotheism bargaining in the following centuries for compromises (against iconoclastic Anglo modalities, there is “Catholic” profusion of saints and virgins, miracles and relics, holidays and rituals, etc.).

The diving into deep Roman times continues. Ortega speaks of civilizational creatures “trying to warm themselves in the sun” of religious syncretism (p. 194). But at least in the timeframe of 190 B.C. to 90 B.C. (Marius and Sulla’s civil war) such attitude is not enough to prevent the disintegration of the legality of public power, provoking the debilitation of the certainty of beliefs and the cooling of the warmth of customs. No one believes in the Senate at one point in Ortega’s vision. Corruption begins “at home.” Deconsecration is senatorial first. The senatorial families are the first ones to degenerate, the first ones who rebelled and turned against their venerable authority violating morality, another word for filial piety in Nietzsche, whose vitalism is very present in Ortega. A series of insubordinations followed (the cavalry, the equites, the plebeians, the slaves; pp. 194-5). Wars forced the Senate to annul Sulla’s restorative laws, also to entrust its integrity to the generals, conceding powers to them that were hitherto illegal. No more. With the state losing all prestige, the Romans stopped following institutions, and turned their fears and hopes to charismatic men. The old Republican Romans undergo institutionalization. Criminality ensues. At this crucial hour, there is a general feeling that there is no way out. There is exhaustion. No rebirth in sight. The old Romans are incapable of doing anything anymore.

For a personalist philosophical anthropology, horror ensues: “just anyone would do!” The Empire essentially became a shapeless form of government, a form of state without authentic institutions. The Senate resolved to give Augustus the title of “dictator,” “censor” or “imperator,” pure compression of public power, naked of any consecration, the more the pressure is increased, the more diminished the degree of belief in Empire (p. 198). If the state is the (main) vehicle, who will drive this public collective institution? Ortega plays the contrast: everybody needs the driver, no one wants to do the driving. Anyone would do: impersonalism, ghastly sequence of ghostly events for Ortega’s philosophical personalism, is said to have been found at the core of the Roman-Empire civilization entertaining no faith in its institutions. And the tremendous question, “What should we do when the life of a while civilization enters the stage of constitutive illegitimacy?” (p. 199). First thing: to swallow it. To admit that it is “here.” Dramatic cliff-hanger at the end of lesson VIII. What if the old Romans don’t admit to it? The English historian is unhelpful in explaining this colossal calamity of lack of belief, Ortega tells us. Toynbee is a tourist passing by things, not “living in them.” Hence, the “tempestuous struggle” with Toynbee is warranted: his is a faulty ‘empirical’ historian representing a quintessential English type of elegant display and no seriousness of method (pp. 206, 211; 214-5). There is more to say but I stop here.

In the Manner of A Conclusion: Why This Matters, 75 Years Later.

Echoing Osterhammel, Ortega’s engagement with Toynbee matters because it deals with the problems of today, even if the language of civilizations has receded since the 1980s and 1990s and smaller-scale cultures move in and out the virtual classrooms by the thousands ( We are still dealing with vast and complex entities near “global history:” capitalism, U.S. and China in the superpower competition, and there are others, the world wide web, climate change, nuclear-power capability, the covid pandemic, English as a lingua franca among the “modern languages,” the legacy of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions and other religious modalities… We can add the post-imperial and postcolonial dimensions, the minorities and the majorities inside national formats, post-Western “global” accounts of multiple directionalities and sensibilities, settlements and migrations, also inequalities, invisibilities and silences. Isn’t capitalism the inevitable global civilization now inside which differing national cultural modalities coexist and compete more or less amiably? We may be seeing a resurgence of big-scale phenomena (civilizations) also in relation to the reform, revolt of the masses, even theoretical revolution of the entire way of doing things… and the intellectual appetite will respond accordingly.

There is something old and aged about Toynbee’s “empirically based philosophy of history” and Ortega takes good care of it. You can easily bypass ”Mr World History” after 1945, and perhaps also the “poetic sage,” even the predilections of the historians’ historians, unless you want to stick faithfully to the discipline of history no matter what. Ortega raises the uncomfortable question of the philosophy of history underpinning any assertion of history. There is still something provocative about the fragility of Toynbee’s “success” and his ubiquitous presence in the media until 1975. Ditto for Ortega in the context of his lifetime. There is also something provocative, and worrying, about the missing in action of both in the current “situation room” (I am echoing the accelerated language of contingent International Relations and mocking it somewhat!). Let us remove our blinders and look beyond a few decades back and forth, and consider instead the pre-1930s “constructivist comparativist” and the “analyst of the contemporary scene,” blending the internationalism and the historicism of Toynbee in the vicinity of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the waning of the British Empire caught up in the midst of two world wars. Ortega never had anything comparable, and he is no lesser man because of no such strong institutional platform. His belligerent intelligence interpellates us today: how do we fare by comparison in relation to our own philosophies, histories, geopolitical dilemmas tilting to another part of the world far away from the Mediterranean Sea but also the Atlantic Ocean? Ortega and Toynbee appear at the dawn (i.e. Cold War) of the “North Atlantic” that soon rotates the world-order axis to the American side of the “liberal West.” Our restless world is now, it appears, shifting again to a Sinocentric world of gradual decline of the Anglo-dominated “liberal West.” The Indo-Pacific will become something like the old Romans’ Mediterranean and the old Spaniards’ Atlantic, the Area Studies of ambitious think tanks and where good and bad thrillers are already fantasizing about World War III. The great visibility of Toynbee, the ‘cultural historian,’ passing through McNeill, Donald Kagan and even Samuel P. Huntington in the 1980s and 1990s, had its very good American reasons. Out of the blue, I bring the “Latin” voice to the discussion table: Ortega has something to say about Toynbee and “universal history” too. If the latter term is outmoded, use imperial, international, the total… and other early modalities of the global. And the adjectives are abstractions. Include the reverse: the repudiation of the universal, the post-imperial or the post-colonial, the levels above and below the powerful states and the most influential nations, the detotalizing impulses… The portions and partitions of the “global” what? History or histories? Ortega’s proposals throw piles of doubt on the singularity of nouns. Try to think without the “to be and not to be:” i.e. without essentialist, metaphysical assumptions. That’s the rub.

The themes and issues still matter: perspectivism, contextualism, foundations of logos and the fundamentals of reason, particularly in relation to historical endeavours, an eye or two on the conditions of knowledge production, interdisciplinarity in the vicinity of Ortega’s vision of “man,” his own proposal of anthropological philosophy, the manufacture of big creatures (civilizations) and smaller varieties (cultures), tendencies towards universalism and globalism, the uneven relations within the West, the Anglo-dominated West since the 1950s, the uneven location of Spain vis-à-vis Britain, or “England,” as Ortega calls it, inside the transatlantic alliance of Europe and the Americas, dominated by the U.S. Spatialization tells a big part of the story, but it is not and cannot be the entire story. Who tells the entire story? If Ortega makes the occasional reference to the “colonial” legacy and the “new nations,” what would this mean for the long-distance run of the marathon runner? The limitations of nation and nationalism are laid bare in Ortega and Toynbee. Race and racism linger like the “secret” that unsettles both liberals, this theme deserves a writing in its own right. And we have not left behind any of these issues… yet. Will we ever? The questioning of institutionality surrounds Toynbee and Ortega in the vicinity of the many limitations of the nation-state and also of the university. There is healthy disregard for the disciplines, a “messy” practice of interdisciplinary, particularly in the Spaniard, and there is a favourite, “philosophy” with a strong focus on “history” too. How could our Madrid philosopher not engage with our English historian whom he probably knew one or two decades before 1948? Ortega exemplifies a good intellectual rebelliousness inserted in an increasingly hegemonic Anglo Zone that is now, seventy-years later, undergoing significant upheavals. If “history” –not only “Western,” and the adjective always requires deeper digging—is not sufficiently “philosophized,” it is our problem. If “philosophy” –of course not only “continental”-- is not sufficiently institutionalized, in the Anglo world and others, it is also our loss and “we” will have to make do. Ditto with the immensely debilitated “modern languages.” Ortega built his Institute of the Humanities to handle his historical obstacles.

Are we not yet able to rise up to the challenging level of the big creatures (civilizations)? Or would we rather stick our glasses and noses to the most immediate dirty ground and the perhaps more mobile and nimble, smaller-scale cultures? We must not get stuck in what was happening in history and the international relations in the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. and elsewhere and move back and forth and see if what Toynbee did in the first half of the twentieth century acquires a brighter, warmer light. And what Ortega? He drew multitudes in Argentina and Germany, also once in Aspen, Colorado in the U.S. Has everything gone with the wind? It is their societies around these two too that are gone. We cannot learn anything from them either? It appears that our moment is not one for cultivating one-name cultural monuments (Toynbee, Ortega and others). So be it. This is never about circling around the totems and taboos, but instead reading their good prose in English and Spanish and see how they face up to the momentous issues and problems around them that are still with us today. About global history, what is intriguing me is the partitions of the singularity (adjective and noun). If this is the “cake,” one wonders in the end who gets to sit at the table, who cuts the pieces, who eats the big piece, etc. The ghosts of Ortega and Toynbee deserve to sit at the table and discuss with us the agonies of historicity informing our “global” contemporaneity.

Bibliography Used:

Atkinson, W. C. (2018) Fragments of university reminiscence [edition]: (1922-1972) Chapter 4. Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 95(2-3), pp. 117- 12.

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Gómez Herrero, Fernando. “Carl Schmitt / Tierno Galván / Barcia Trelles: Perhaps (International) Law Follows (Total) War,” Postguerres / Aftermaths of War, Editors T. Abelló, G.C. Cattini & others, Secció d’Història Contemporània I Món Actual de la Universitat de Barcelona I Vental Edicions, Barcelona 2020): pp. 371-388.

______________________. “Francisco de Vitoria in Daniel Patrick Moyihan’s On the Law of Nations,” in Norteamérica y España: Una historia de encuentros y desencuentros, edited by Silvia Betti (Escribana Books, Cultural Studies, 2019): pp. 177-203.

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Hall, Ian. ‘The Toynbee Convector’: The Rise and Fall of Arnold J. Toynbee's Anti-Imperial Mission to the West, The European Legacy (2012, Vol. 17: Num. 4), pp. 455-469.

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_________________. La Rebelión de las Masas. Ed. Thomas Mermall. Madrid: Clásicos Castalia, 1998.

Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. Vols. V-VI. London: Oxford UP, 1939.

_______________. Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by D.C. Somervell. Oxford: Oxford UP, [1946] 1987.

WARWICK, U.K. 30th `March 2021 @culture bites, FGH (;

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