Meditations on Quixote

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Meditations on Quixote

by José Ortega y Gasset


A two-part collection of essays set in Spain circa 1914; published in Spanish (as Meditaciones del Quijote) in 1914, in English in 1961.


To bring Spain up to the height of its times, the essays argue that its idealistic, impressionistic worldview needs to be combined with a focus on the rational. They argue too that Cervantes’s writing contains the key to Spain’s problems, going on to show what makes his novel Don Quixote great.

Events in History at the Time of the Essays

The Essays in Focus

For More Information

Philosopher, journalist, critic, and educator, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) distinguished himself as one of the leading thinkers in early-twentieth-century Spain. Born in Madrid to two influential publishing families, he was educated in Spain and in Germany, where he pursued studies in philology and philosophy in Leipzig, Berlin, and Marburg. From 1910 to 1936 Ortega served as a professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid, then went into voluntary exile before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). He wrote prolifically, founding several journals, most notably Revista de Occidente (1923-36; Review of the West), which set out to introduce the best of current culture into Spain. Published nine years before his death, his Obras completas (1946; Complete Works) comprise 12 volumes of over 500 pages each. Of all his works, the one to reach the widest audience was his controversial La rebelión de las masas (1929; The Revolt of the Masses, 1932), a critique of moral and mental mediocrity in contemporary Europe. Using the method of a philosophical movement of the era, phenomenology, the book analyzes the decline of moral and mental meritocracy in Europe. Ortega had drawn earlier on this same philosophy to write Meditations on Quixote, his first major work. Published when Spain was at a cultural crossroads, the essays in this slender volume use phenomenology to explore Spanish identity.

Events in History at the Time of the Essays

Restoration and illusion

Early-twentiethcentury Spain suffered an identity crisis that some say had been festering for 26 years, ever since the Restoration of the monarchy to the Spanish throne in 1874 (Orringer, “Redefining the Spanish Silver Age,” p. 319). In general the nineteenth century had been immensely trying in Spain. The beginning of the century found the Spanish busily clinging to remnants of their own country as Napoleon’s French army invaded and took charge of their land. Spain subsequently waged a successful war of independence (1808-13), then concerned itself with decades of political infighting and experimentation that led to the toppling of its Bourbon monarch, the initiation of democratic government in the form of the First Republic, and then a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy with two houses of Parliament in imitation of the British system. In all the turmoil, Spain lost its imperial grip. One by one, its colonies in the Americas and elsewhere proclaimed independence, until by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, only Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands remained under Spanish control. Determined to retain these vestiges of empire, Spain harshly repressed independence movements in both Cuba and the Philippines.

Though its empire had dwindled drastically, Spain continued to conceive of itself as a major world power. The illusion was kept in place by an orderly but corrupt political system—caciquismo—which replaced the chaotic factionalism that led to the removal of the monarch (Isabel II) by a military junta in 1868. The restoration of a monarch (Alfonso XII) in 1874 ushered in an era of peace, and in 1876 a new constitution proclaimed Spain a constitutional monarchy along British lines. The so-called constitutional monarchy belied reality, however. Beneath the constitutional veneer, for two decades, the Liberals and the Conservatives—the main political parties that had earlier fomented unrest and civil war—alternated peacefully in power, regulating affairs through caciquismo. Elections proceeded apace, calmly, or so it seemed on the surface; they in fact operated on a foundation of deep-seated corruption. Peaceful elections were crookedly fixed on a local level by party bosses, the caciques. Under their direction, votes, for example, were cast by nonexistent bodies, and corpses would emerge from their graves to vote.

The architect of the Restoration and the author of the Constitution of 1876 was the Conservative leader Antonio Cánovas. In Meditations on Quixote Ortega attacks Cánovas and the illusion that everything was functioning well in Spain. He suggests a link between the Restoration’s cultural shallowness and a general blindness to the profound nature of Cervantes’s novel. On the contrary, Ortega argues, during the Restoration Spanish culture had lost touch with its Golden Age masterpiece, Don Quixote (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times).

There has been a time in Spanish history when people refused to recognize the depth of Don Quixote. This period is known by the name of the Restoration. During that time the heart of Spain slowed down to the lowest number of beats per minute.

(Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote, p. 70)

Ortega goes on to quote several paragraphs from a famous lecture he gave in 1914 entitled Vieja y nueva política, Old and New Politics. In this lecture, he sharply contrasts political and cultural figures of the Golden Age with those from the Restoration, condemning the latter as a mere “parade of phantoms” and Cánovas himself as “the impresario of that phantasmagoria” (Meditations, p. 71). Ortega sought in this lecture to gather those intellectuals devoted to reforming Spain into a new political party, the League of Political Education. Among those he hoped to attract were members of the Generation of 1898.

The Generation of 1898

Spain lost the last vestiges of empire after suffering a humiliating defeat by the United States in the brief Spanish-American War. It was no longer possible for even the most avid imperialists to maintain the illusion. Fighting had lasted for only a few months in 1898, but the decisive defeat galvanized the intellectual community and revealed the weakness of Spanish arms. The Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the war, stripped Spain of its final colonies, over which the contest had arisen and where the fighting had largely taken place. In addition to marking the emergence of the United States as a world power and illustrating the decayed state of Spain’s military, the war left Spain with the self-image of a weak and backward nation.

Even before the war, a number of Spanish intellectuals had begun opposing the corruption, artificiality, and political repression inherent in the caciquismo system. Led by the reforming politician Joaquín Costa, they called for the regeneración, or regeneration, of Spanish society. The re generationists, as they were dubbed, promoted a rational approach to solving Spain’s problems (chiefly widespread poverty and poor education). The largely political, rationalistic approach of these regenerationists influenced a new movement arising after the catastrophic events of 1898. Made up of writers and artists and encompassing diverse agendas rather than a cohesive program, this new movement became known as the Generation of 1898. Though its highly individual members shared some of the regenerationist goals, this 1898 group had more broadly cultural concerns, and many of its members questioned the usefulness of employing only rationalism to solve all of Spain’s problems. Ortega, though much younger, identifies himself as part of this so-called Generation of 1898 at the start of Meditations on Quixote.

Some of the Generation of 1898’s leading thinkers propounded ideas that bordered on the mystical. For example, the literary critic Azorín (the pseudonym of José Martínez Ruiz) focused on what he called the Spanish soul. A friend of Ortega’s, Azorín was in fact one of the first to call the loose association of writers the Generation of 1898; later (1923-36) he contributed to Ortega’s journal Revista de Occidente and Ortega mentions him by name in the Meditations. Another friend of Ortega’s, Ramiro de Maeztu, a journalist and essayist, couched his examination of Spanish identity in terms of raza, or “race,” a term that appears prominently in early editions of the Meditations as well. A third leading figure in the Generation of 1898 was Miguel de Unamuno, a philosopher and novelist some 20 years older than Ortega whose ideas strongly influenced the younger man’s (see Mist , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Unamuno stressed the conflict between faith and reason in thoughts about human existence. His philosophy led to Ortega’s concept of razón vital, or vital reason, an idea elaborated in later writings but foreshadowed in Meditations. More directly, Unamuno published works in 1905 (The Life of Our Lord Don Quixote) and 1913 (The Tragic Sense of Life) to which The Mediations on Quixote can be viewed as a response.

Early-twentieth-century search for Spanish identity

“I am myself plus my circumstance,” writes Ortega in one of his most oft-quoted lines (Meditations, p. 45). The key circumstance in Ortega’s time was the national soul-searching that the older and younger generations of Spanish intellectuals were undergoing, in hopes of reforming their country. These writers turned to the Spanish Middle Ages and to the Golden Age (1550-1650) in pursuit of the origins of the Spanish national character. As noted Unamuno turned to the Golden Age’s Don Quixote (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). Continuing the discussion, he followed his The Life of Our Lord Don Quixote (1905) with another key text, The Tragic Sense of Life (1913), both of which preceded Ortega’s essays. Don Quixote, argues Unamuno, is one of the finest works ever produced by Spain, and its hero’s best claim to fame is his quest for personal immortality. Early-twentieth-century Spain, continues Unamuno, should follow suit; like Don Quixote, it should take up the idealistic standard and attempt to preach the pursuit of immortality to the rest of the world, putting its energy into that which defies or goes beyond reason. Unamuno goes on to prescribe the means for achieving immortality—creative endeavors and salvation. His views, it should be noted, reflect his own inner struggle between faith, which told him death was followed by salvation, and his reason, which said it was followed by nothingness.

In any case, Unamuno’s advice was too vague for Ortega. The junior philosopher, younger than Unamuno by 20 years, skeptical about his own religious beliefs and eager to make a name for himself, countered Unamuno’s argument about the significance of Don Quixote for turn-of-the-twentieth-century Spain. Meditations on Quixote, his counterargument, was inspired by personal as well as altruistic reasons. Ortega hoped not only to bring Unamuno over to his way of thinking but also to induce Unamuno to join his new political party, the League for Political Education. How did Ortega’s view differ? Spain, he said, needs to imitate not the hero Quixote, but the author Cervantes, whose novel integrates idealism (the “knight” Don Quixote) with realism (his practical-minded “squire” Sancho Panza).

Unamuno was not the only intellectual whose allegiance Ortega sought. He tried especially to enlist other young men who belonged to his own 20-to-30-year-old age group, spelling out a political program for them in newspaper articles and speeches between 1907 and 1914. The first step was to identify the status quo in Spain as faulty; the second step, to reform Spain, to take action. As Ortega saw it, the older generation had failed to modernize Spain to the degree typical of England, France, and Germany. The Spanish were still woefully, painfully behind the times. His own generation needed to remedy the failure, but how? Not, thought Ortega, through Unamuno’s prescription of preaching religious salvation, but through politics, which to Ortega meant education of the masses. The most educated strata of society needs to transmit to the masses ideals of “liberty, social justice, competence, and Europeanization” (Wohl, p. 130); it had to sidestep the established government and go directly to the villages to sow seeds of culture, technology, and social cooperation among the people. To this end, Ortega helped found a reform political party in 1913—the League for Political Education. Dedicated to social transformation, it was a liberal, left-of-center group that bore no connection to the established Liberal party, which to the new group’s mind, was too consumed with individual interests. Ortega’s group had every intention of bringing about social change without a military revolution.

Where there was shouting, Ortega always insisted, there could not be science; and science, or rational discourse was and always remained for Ortega the central aim. “More light, more light,” he cried with Goethe, against those, like Unamuno, who felt drawn toward murky spiritual depths.

(Wohl, p. 134)

That his audience deemed his message important is signified by their regard for Ortega. By early 1914, after a half dozen years of speech-making and article writing, he had to some degree realized his ambition. Men of his own age were acknowledging him as their political and intellectual leader.

Unamuno’s reception of Ortega was another story. In attempting to win his allegiance, Ortega maintained that they were not really at odds. Ortega reminded the older intellectual that, although presently focused on Don Quixote’s idealism, years ago Unamuno himself had advocated combining idealism with attention to material reality (in a book of essays called En torno al casticismo [Concerning Racial Purity]). But, in this instance, Ortega’s persuasive powers were used to little effect; Unamuno never went back to his earlier view.

In the interest of modernizing Spain—phenomenology

Ortega struck up friendships with many of the Generation of 1898’s leading writers through his family’s newspaper El Imparcial, which his father edited and which served as a major forum throughout the 1890s for criticism of the Restoration establishment. It was through his father’s newspaper that Ortega met Unamuno, Maeztu, Azorín, and many others, including novelist Pío Baroja (mentioned affectionately in the Meditations) and poet Antonio Machado (see The Quest and Fields of Castile , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times).

These disparate writers shared the desire to expose Spanish culture to recent European intellectual developments, from which, they felt, the Restoration had isolated it. Ortega became well acquainted with some of these developments when he received a government grant to study in Germany after earning his doctorate in philosophy in Madrid. Beginning in 1905, on and off for nearly a decade, Ortega pursued his studies at distinguished universities in Germany. His work exposed him to the latest ideas in philosophy, including the school of thought called phenomenology, recently founded by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and others. Phenomenology would gain wide recognition in 1913, when Ortega was back in Spain.

Taking its name from the Greek word phainomenon or appearance, phenomenology represented a new way of studying existence. The philosophy attempts to apply rigorous scientific methods to philosophical statements about reality, while at the same time stressing the importance of intuition, from direct observation, in perceiving an object’s essence. To analyze experience, taught phenomenology, one ought to leave out of consideration any prejudgments in order to arrive at universal truths. These universal truths encompass the experience being analyzed. The next step is to subtract everything that has to do with this experience but does not define it—everything unessential. After the subtraction process is complete, one has the essence of the experience and needs to describe it in all its aspects.

The question “What is a novel?” is a case in point. After one arrives at the universal truth that it is a literary genre, one subtracts all that does not define it—the epic, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy. The subtraction continues until one arrives at the essence—a novel is a literary genre


Almost since its publication in the early seventeenth century, Miguel de Cervantes’s groundbreaking novel has been crucial to Spanish identity in two ways. On one level, the novel’s hero depicts qualities considered characteristically Spanish by intellectuals like Unamuno:

• A heroic refusal to accept the limitations of everyday reality and mundane existence

• Fighting for a noble cause against overwhelming odds

• Privileging altruism and idealism (the character of Don Quixote) over materialism and realism (Sancho Panza)

On a broader scale, the novel has been a source of national pride. Spaniards have prized its incalculable impact on European culture, pointing to its international reputation as the first and most highly regarded modern novel, the first novel whose central characters change as a result of their environment (Don Quixote becomes more like the practical-minded Sancho Panza by the end; Sancho Panza, more like the idealistic Quixote). Europeans would continue to credit the novel with spawning the literary genre that rose to dominate European letters in the eighteenth century and thereafter. The novel became an object of intense contemplation in the atmosphere of defeat in Spain after its loss of the Spanish American War of 1898. Measuring their decline against one of their greatest achievements, Spaniards struggled to understand the descent. They looked not only at Don Quixote’s idealism, but also at the fumbling nature of his exploits. While continuing to regard the novel itself as a pinnacle achievement, they questioned the implications of an equation that meant viewing his defeats and naïvete as defining elements of Spanish identity.

portraying the struggle between everyday material reality and the ideal. This essence then needs to be described in all its aspects, meaning here in its stylistic aspects. But the key is to sever one’s thought from preconceptions and old definitions to arrive at the essence of the novel around which these aspects converge.

Ortega’s secondary intention—exposing Spain to this complex philosophy from Europe—explains the accessible and even lyrical style of his Meditations. He delivers the complex philosophy in a highly palatable text that strives to seduce his readers into adopting it. As Ortega himself writes in his introduction, the essays in the Meditations dcct “propelled by philosophical desires” but “they are not philosophy, which is a science. They are simply essays. The essay is science, minus the proof (Meditations, p. 40).

The Essays in Focus

Contents summary

In the introductory essay “To the Reader,” Ortega announces that his book of essays will be the first of several such collections of “Meditations” on various subjects having to do with “Spanish ‘circumstances’ either directly or indirectly” (Meditations, p. 31). (No other “Meditations” were in fact published in subsequent editions.) His aims are modest, he writes: motivated by “intellectual love,” his essays are meant to have no informative value whatsoever, but are intended merely to place “objects of all kinds … in such a position that the sun as it strikes them may give off innumerable reflections” (Meditations, pp. 31-32). Now, in the early 1900s, Spaniards are unable to view each other with appreciation for their individual identities or essences. Love impels him to share a philosophy that helps make these identities and the identity of Spain as a whole manifest.

Ortega stresses the role of love in inspiring this writing. While he suspects that “the inner dwelling of the Spaniards was long ago captured by hate,” which always puts a “strong spring of steel” between us and the world, only love, he claims, “binds us to things” and “unites them to us” by making their existence indispensable to us (Meditations, pp. 32-33). Of the many kinds of love that exist, he will focus especially on “the eagerness to comprehend” (Meditations, p. 34). The desire to understand has a moral and even a religious value, and in this light, philosophy can be considered a “general science of love” in that it seeks to understand (Meditations, p. 38). The parts of the world it is possible to understand, says Ortega, are those parts that are closest to us, which comprise our circumstances. “Man reaches full capacity only when he acquires complete consciousness of his circumstances. Through them he communicates with the universe” (Meditations, p. 41). This communication is mutually beneficial. Thus, Ortega completes his famous line, “I am myself plus my circumstance” with “and if I do not save it, I do not save myself (Meditations, p. 45). In other words, contemporary Spain is an integral part of Ortega, and if he does not help save it, he does not save himself.


In his introduction to the Preliminary Meditation, Ortega describes how the thoughts in the essays came to him during a visit to one of Spain’s most impressive national monuments, the monastery at El Escorial, about 25 miles northwest of Madrid, The massive monastery was built from huge blocks of dark granite at the height of Spain’s Golden Age by King Philip II, and nearly all Spain’s monarchs since Philip If have been buried there. Like Cervantes’s Don Quixote, El Escorial has symbolized for many the heights Spain did and could reach.

Ortega cautions that in his essays he will be focusing on Don Quixote as a literary work, not on Don Quixote as a character. Such a monumental book cannot be understood easily or directly, however. It cannot be stormed like a castle. “A work as great as Quixote must be taken as Jericho was taken,” Ortega writes, referring to the ancient city captured by the Biblical Joshua: “In wide circles, our thoughts and our emotions must keep pressing in on it slowly, sounding in the air, as it were, imaginary trumpets” (Meditations, p. 52). The essay prepares the way for using phenomenology to get to the essence of Don Quixote, a goal invoked patriotically, for the good of Spain, since the writing of Cervantes, as a later essay will assert, contains the key to Spain’s potential: “If one day someone were to come and reveal to us the profile of Cervantes’s style, it would suffice for us to prolong its lines over our other collective problems and we would awake to a new life” (Meditations, p. 107).

The body of Ortega’s essays is divided into two sections, “Preliminary Meditation” (15 essays) and “First Meditation: A Short Treatise on the Novel” (20 essays). (As noted, Ortega planned at the time to write subsequent Meditations.) Both sections have a brief introduction. All the essays in the book are short, ranging in length from a single paragraph to a few pages, and each has a brief descriptive title highlighting its primary theme.

In general, the essays are thematically ordered, and one essay usually flows logically into the next. For example, in the first essay, “The Forest,” Ortega considers the German proverb “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” which, he says, illustrates the principle that “depth is fatally condemned to become a surface if it wants to become visible” (Meditations, p. 59). We must, though, not insist on making depth visible. The next essay, “Depth and Surface,” elaborates on this thought:

Some men refuse to recognize the depth of something because they demand that the profound should manifest itself in the same way as the superficial.… They do not realize that to be hidden beneath the surface, merely appearing through it, throbbing beneath it, is essential to depth.

(Meditations, p. 62)

To demand the profound to show itself in the same way as the superficial is to devalue the world. This is “a sin of the heart” because “it derives from a lack of love” for understanding the world and the objects, superficial or profound, in it (Meditations, p. 62). The allusion in these two essays is to Spain’s being impressionistic, relying excessively on the senses; the pursuit of the forest, which is hidden, thus becomes a patriotic exercise.

In the next two essays, Ortega examines the nature of distance and discusses what the perception of distance adds to the dimension of depth. When we see only a surface but our perceptions tell us intuitively that depth lies beneath the surface, a phenomenon results that Ortega calls foreshortening. The fifth essay links the foregoing discussions to Don Quixote, describing Cervantes’s masterpiece as “an ideal forest” and “the foreshortening book par excellence” (Meditations, pp. 70, 73). It is in this fifth essay, entitled ”The Restoration and Erudition,” that Ortega characterizes Restoration culture as having lost the capacity to understand “anything really strong, excellent, whole, and profound,” including Don Quixote, whose depth, “like all profundity, is very far from being obvious” (Meditations, pp. 72-73).

In succeeding essays in this first section, Ortega continues to probe the qualities and ambiguities of surfaces and depth as they relate to culture. In the context of European culture, which he says evolved out of the Latin culture of the ancient world after the arrival of Germanic peoples, he suggests that the newer Germanic culture is one of “profound realities”; the older Latin culture that mixed with it is one “of surfaces” (Meditations, p. 75). Under the Latin culture lies a deeper Mediterranean culture that Ortega characterizes as essentially sensuous and, again, impressionistic, living only for the moment, as opposed to Germanic culture, which is meditative and rational. Mediterraneans see clearly; Germans think clearly, writes Ortega. Both sorts of clarity are necessary and valid. Largely a Mediterranean people, the Spanish are impressionistic, which has made their culture nonprogressive: “Every Spanish genius has started all over again from chaos as if nothing had existed before” (Meditations, p. 94).

Ortega concludes this first section by suggesting not that Spaniards abandon their impressionism, but that they integrate it with Germanic rationality. By integrating Germanic idealism with Mediterranean sensualism, Spain can bring itself up to the height of its times. Any work of art that does not combine both, he argues, must in the end “produce only ambiguous values” (Meditations, p. 100). In fact, the facet that, above all, characterizes this quintessentially Spanish work of art is its ambiguity, for despite many attempts to explain the novel, no one can be really sure what it is trying to say:

There is no book more potent in symbolic allusions to the universal meaning of life, and, yet, there is no book in which we find fewer anticipations, fewer clues for its own interpretation. For this reason Shakespeare would appear to be a thinker as compared with Cervantes. … In a greater or lesser degree Shakespeare always explains himself.

(Meditations, p. 102)

Now ambiguity may be cloaking deeper meaning, or it may not. In the case of Don Quixote, it appears to be cloaking deeper, genuine ideas. The novel seems to Ortega to be integrating these genuine ideas with the surface sensations. The mystery lies in the purpose behind the ambiguity: “Is Cervantes making fun of something? And of what?” (Meditations, p. 101). That Cervantes does not explain himself may perhaps even be his “supreme gift,” and since “it is doubtful that there are other truly profound Spanish books,” Ortega finds “all the more reason for us to focus on Quixote, our great question: O God, what is Spain?” (Meditations, p. 102). Just as Don Quixote ignores the constraints of everyday, mundane reality, Spaniards themselves “must go against tradition, beyond tradition” in striving to fulfill the “very lofty promise” of what it means to be Spanish: “In one huge painful bonfire we ought to burn the inert traditional mask, the Spain that has been and then, among the wellsifted ashes, we shall find the iridescent gemlike Spain that could have been” (Meditations, p. 106). Yet although Cervantes represents “a Spanish plenitude … a word which we can brandish on every occasion as if it were a lance,” only when someone comes along who is able to pin down his meaning exactly can this “new Spanish experiment be made in its purest form”; until then, his writings should be interpreted with caution, “lest we say something improper or extravagant in our effort to come too close to him” (Meditations, p. 107).

In his introduction to the second section, Ortega writes that because the “most external” aspect of Don Quixote is that it is a novel, and because it is generally considered both the first and the best novel, he will now consider the basic question, “what is a novel?” (Meditations, p. 111). He follows the phenomenological prescription, siphoning out all that is not definable as “novel” from all that is. After an essay describing the various literary genres, Ortega devotes an essay to Cervantes’s other novels and several essays to the genre of epic poetry, which unlike the novel is generally set in a remote and idealized past. In an essay entitled “Helen and Madame Bovary,” Ortega goes on to contrast epic subjects, such as the rape of Helen and subsequent epic war between the Greeks and Trojans, with novelistic subjects, like the adulterous affair of the young doctor’s wife in the French novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). The epic figure, says Ortega, is a unique entity, not a type recognizable from daily life, like the novelistic character. Ortega goes on to point out that related to ancient epic poetry were the chivalric medieval romances, from which, in turn, novels evolved. In contrast to its two literary ancestors, epic poetry and chivalric romances, the novel relies more on how a story is told, on style or presentation, rather than the intrinsic interest of the plot or characters. In the novel, not only characters but also plot tends to be more commonplace than the exceptional heroes and. events in epics and romances. Don Quixote originates this emphasis on style over content and is therefore rightly viewed as the founding example of the modern novel.

Indeed, Ortega points out, Cervantes expressly “declares that he is writing his book against the books of chivalry” popular in Golden Age Spain (Meditations, p. 135). With the advent of the Renaissance and discovery of “the stern laws which govern the universe … adventures are impossible”; at the same time the inner world of the psychological has come to the fore, with the result that adventure itself is “reduced to the psychological” (Meditations, p. 138). Don Quixote, with its hero’s absurd quest for adventure, which he finds only in his fevered imagination, encapsulates “this great new turn which culture takes” as it moves toward the modern (Meditations, p. 138).

In the next seven essays, Ortega draws further connections and contrasts between the novel and other literary genres. For example, in an essay entitled “Realistic Poetry” Ortega again stresses the representation of reality in literature, and explains how it can move us more than the reality itself (in both the novel and the realistic poem, commonplace events may, for example, be related in an unusual or interesting way). Other genres Ortega examines in this way include mime, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, and tragicomedy. In a brief essay entitled “The Hero,” Ortega offers his interpretation of Don Quixote as “a man who wishes to reform reality,” defining heroism as residing precisely in this “will to be oneself: “The hero’s will is not that of his ancestors nor of his society, but his own” (Meditations, pp. 148-49). (Ortega positions himself here as a reformer of Spanish reality too, in his quest to bring its identity to the fore.) Spain, Ortega implies, can heroically choose its own identity, rather than allowing the past (that is, reality or tradition) to impose an identity on it.

In a final essay entitled “Flaubert, Cervantes, and Darwin,” Ortega suggests that “every novel bears Don Quixote within it like an inner filigree,” and praises Flaubert for realizing this. Ortega also praises the French novelist for understanding that “the novelistic art is a genre with critical intention and comic sinews” (Meditations, p. 163). Finally, Ortega laments recent scientific advances that he says have resulted in deterministic thought, in which free will has disappeared and “life is reduced to mere matter” (Meditations, p. 164). In particular, he protests the social impact made by the evolutionary theory of English naturalist Charles Darwin, a theory published in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). As Ortega understands the theory, it shows life to be shaped by nothing more than passive adaptation to its environment, a lamentable development: “Darwin has swept heroes off the face of the earth” (Meditations, p. 164).

Spain and its circumstances

In the very first sentence of the Meditations, Ortega announces the work as “several essays on various subjects of no very great consequence to be published by a professor of philosophy in partibus infidelium,” that is “in a land of infidels” (Meditations, p. 31). This Latin phrase suggests both how Ortega saw himself (as a philosopher) and how he saw most Spaniards (as ignorant of philosophy and possibly hostile to it). As the scholar Philip Silver puts it, Ortega was “a philosopher who … had placed his life at the service of a philosophically indigent country” (Silver, p. 3).

The nature of such service, Silver suggests, explains the seeming lack of complex philosophical content in the Meditations, which instead offers the reader an approachable and urbanely self-effacing authorial voice. Yet complex philosophical issues do (as Ortega might have said) throb beneath the placid surface of these readable essays, and the form of the book itself thus ironically parallels the surface/depth dichotomy with which much of its discussion is concerned. His discussion, while presented in everyday language and without the technical jargon used in some philosophical tracts, does in fact reflect real phenomenological thought. In Marburg, Germany, Ortega was a student of Herman Cohen, who is mentioned in the Meditations on Quixote. From Cohen, Ortega got the idea to take a given fact, such as “a man, a book, a picture, a landscape, an error, a sorrow” and “to carry it by the shortest route to its fullest [cultural] significance” (Meditations, p. 31). With this simple philosophical notion, he brings to the average reader the idea of focusing on appearance and ignoring preconceptions.

The Meditations’ literary surface, especially its inquiry into the literary masterpiece that defines Spanishness, perfectly fits Ortega’s purpose of bringing Spain up to date with the rest of Europe, which could not be achieved without addressing the nature of Spanish identity. By downplaying the philosophical nature of his inquiry, Ortega tailored his book to the circumstances that prevailed in Spain at the time he was writing. And in doing so, he once again played ironically with his philosophy, one of whose tenets is the crucial role of circumstance in shaping identity.

Sources and literary context

Reflecting the dual nature of the content in Meditations, Ortega’s sources for the essays fall into two broad categories, philosophical and literary. Of the numerous philosophical works that undoubtedly influenced his thought, those of Edmund Husserl must be counted as among the most important. Ortega would have read Husserl’s major works before writing the Meditations, including Logical Investigations (1900; 1901) and Ideas (1913). In the latter book, scholars have traced an emphasis on the role of circumstance that, they suggest, influenced Ortega’s own version of phenomenology. Ortega himself later famously claimed to have rejected phenomenology as soon as he encountered it; he referred to his own philosophy as “vital reason.” Scholars, however, have suggested that what Ortega rejected was Husserl’s return to the thought of Immanuel Kant, which became a very active area in philosophy and took off in several different directions. Ortega’s own thought at the time of the essays, these scholars believe, was largely in line with phenomenological ideas as originally formulated.

Ortega credits some philosophers for the ideas in the essays, but not all by name. He refers specifically to those with whom any moderately educated Spaniard would have been familiar, such as the ancient Greeks Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e.), or the famous German Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Ortega does not credit particular philosophers for the phenomenological ideas in the essays. However, thev have since been identified:

SourceIdea Inspired
Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)Applying Don Quixote to culture
Nicolai Hartmann (1882-1950)Seeing truth as an unveiling of a reality
Wilhelm Schapp (1884-1969)Contrasting a surface to a depth
Henri Bergson (1859-1941)Positing theories of comedy and tragedy
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)Using phenomenology to evaluate essences of Experience
Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936)Inspiring the writing of Meditations on Quixote
George Simmel (1858-1918)Recognizing that a reformer is always foiled by reality
Max Scheler (1874-1928)Discussing the relationships of love, knowledge, and philosophy

Of the essays’ literary sources, most obvious is Don Quixote itself, a book that, as noted, was very much on the minds of Ortega’s friends in the Generation of 1898 when Ortega wrote his essays. Ortega set out precisely to filter the novel through the thought of the above-named philosophers. He did so after not only Miguel de Unamuno had written his The Life of Our Lord Don Quixote but also after Azorín had used Cer-vantes’s novel to explore Spanish themes in his 1905 The Route of Don Quixote. Ortega also makes references throughout his essays to books from Spanish and other European literatures. Most of these references are to the literature of ancient Greece in the interest of defining the genre of “novel.” The essays refer especially to the epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey and also to tragic playwrights of fifth century Athens, such as Aeschylus and Sophocles.


Meditations on Quixote made very little impact among philosophers when published in 1914, although Ortega himself always considered it a favorite. The book enjoyed modest success among its intended audience, the reading public of Spain at the time, largely because of the essays’ well-known literary subject and because Ortega (though not yet the national figure he would become) already commanded an expanding audience for his lectures and journalism. As the twentieth century wore on, in part due to Ortega’s own growing recognition after the release of his seminal 1932 work The Revolt of the Masses, the slender volume enjoyed a growing reputation among philosophers. Ultimately Meditations on Quixote came to be regarded as “a masterpiece” that is both “delightfully written” and philosophically “of capital importance” (Marias in Ortega y Gasset, p. 9).

—Nelson Orringer and Colin Wells

For More Information

Carr, Raymond. Spain: 1808-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Ceplecha, Christian. The Historical Thought of José Ortega y Gasset. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1958.

Dobson, Andrew. An Introduction to the Politics and Philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Graham, John T. A Pragmatist Philosophy of Life in Ortega y Gasset. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Marías, Juliín. José Ortega y Gasset: Circumstance and Vocation. Trans. Frances M. López-Morillas. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

McClintock, Robert. Man and His Circumstances: Ortega as Educator. New York: Teachers College Press, 1971.

Orringer, Nelson. “The Two Unamunos in ‘Meditaciones del Quijote,’” LA CHISPA Proceedings 1981. New Orleans: Tulane University Press, 1983.

_____. “Redefining the Spanish Silver Age and ‘98 Within It.” Andes de la literature Española contemporanea 23, nos. 1-2 (1998).

Ortega y Gasset, José. Meditations on Quixote. Trans. Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marin; Introduction and Notes by Juliín Marías. New York: Norton, 1961.

Silver, Philip W. Ortega as Phenomenologist: The Genesis of Meditations on Quixote. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Wohl, Robert. The Generation of 1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.