Arendt on privacy

In this post, I would like to summarise Hannah Arendt‘s views related to privacy. In her 1958 book The Human Condition, Arendt develops her understanding of the public realm and the private realm, and what characterises our modern condition, the rise of the social realm.

As the title of her book indicates, Arendt’s interest is the human condition, or what it means to be human. The human condition is not human nature, but what humans do—their activities—and making sense of our life-world. Arendt sums up human activities in the concept of vita activa, as opposed to vita contemplativa. As the Latin suggests, this is an ancient conception inherited from the Romans. They considered the vita contemplativa as superior because it was dedicated to contemplative matters, while vita activa was about providing necessities. Karl Marx famously inverted this hierarchy, making the vita contemplativa a mere superstructure and the vita activa the real matter of human life.

Arendt differentiates vita activa into three types of activities: labour, work, and action. Labour concerns the activities that support life; it is about providing sustenance. Work is the activity of producing unnatural artefacts. Our interdependent activity is what Arendt calls “action”; they are interactions with other people that require initiative and not simply routine behaviour.

Labour is not distinctively human since animals also share this part with us. Work and action make us human, but only action requires the presence of a society of others in order to exist. Action takes place in the public realm and not the private realm, because the public realm is the only where there is freedom.

Arendt is hopeful about the possibility of action in the public realm, and the most important of all actions being thought. When there is political freedom, there is the possibility of thought. And when there is thought, there is political freedom. Thought is done by being by oneself, in solitude or in a private community, but it is expressed to others, in the public realm. Arendt seems to reserve this activity to scientists, and certainly not to statesmen who have as little freedom as people from the street, in their ability to act.

The public and the private realms

For ancient Greeks, freedom only existed in the public realm, insofar as only in the public realm there was an expression of the political and the possibility of equality. The realm of the public is the space of appearance, this is where one sees and is seen. It has a performative value. Through action, people distinguish themselves, by deeds or by words. So, the public space was where there was a space of freedom, and not the private space.

For Arendt, modernity is constituted by the rise of the social realm, which changes this separation between an unfree private realm and a free public realm. On the one hand it sent speech to the private realm, and, on the other, it introduced labour to the public realm. Modernity has so much modified our understanding of the private and the public that we no longer agree with ancient Greeks that privacy is idiotic since only a public political life is worth living, nor do we agree with ancient Romans that privacy is a temporary privation, a retreat from public life. In short, classical Greek and Roman thought considered the public realm, the polis or civitas the only place where man would be free. (Arendt, 38) Privacy is no longer thought of as a deprivation of the highest human capacity and “modern privacy” becomes a necessary shelter for the intimate.

Arendt names Rousseau in particular as the intellectual figure behind privacy as a retreat from social pressures, both of the household and of society at large. Society excludes the possibility of action because it requires a certain behaviour from its members. Behaviour has replaced action in the social realm because society requires conformism. Statistically, the more people there are, the less likely it is that some will deviate the social norm. Uniform behaviour “lends itself to statistical determination, and therefore to statistically correct prediction”, what liberal economists called then the “invisible hand” guiding self-interests towards a single common interest (Arendt, 43-44). “A complete victory of society will always produce some sort of ‘communistic fiction,’ whose outstanding political characteristic is that it is indeed ruled by an ‘invisible hand,’ namely, by nobody.” (44-45)

Action is characterised by two fundamental aspects: plurality and unpredictability. Plurality entails that men are equal, but also distinct.

Private realm: property

It is with respect to the public that the term “private” takes its significance. Originally it has a privative sense: to live privately means to be deprived of the essential things for a truly human life. One is deprived of the possibility to achieve something more permanent than life by being deprived of an ‘objective’ relationship with others that relate and separates through a common world. Privacy is a privation of others. For the others, private man does not exist since he does not appear. (58)

In modernity, this deprivation of “objective” relation to others has led to the mass phenomenon of loneliness. The reason for this is that mass society destroys not only the public realm but the private as well. It deprives men of their private home

The social and the private

The rise of the social coincided with the transformation of the private care for private property into a public concern. Society, when it first entered the public realm, was an organisation of property-owners who claimed the protection of their private property from the public. In other words, property-owners wanted to accumulate more wealth. According to Bodin, government belonged to kings, and property to subjects, and it was the duty of the king to govern the commonwealth for the common wealth. When wealth became private capital, the possibility to accumulate wealth became so vast that private property became close to the permanence inherent to the common world. (68)

But common wealth can never become common in the sense of the common world. It remains strictly private.

The Public realm: the common

The term “public” signifies two phenomena:

  1. Everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity;
  2. Public is the world of common things and common stories.

Everything that is seen and heard by us and others constitute appearance, and, for us, appearance is what constitutes reality. Compared to the reality of what is appearance, everything that is of the intimate is uncertain and shadowy. Everything that is part of the “intimate life”, “the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses”, are uncertain and in the shadow until they are “deprivatized” and “deindividualized” into a shape that is fit for public appearance. (50) The deprivitization is what occur in artistic transformations through storytelling. “But we do not need the form of the artist to witness this transfiguration. Each time we talk about things that can be experienced only in privacy or intimacy, we bring them out into a sphere where they will assume a kind of reality which, their intensity notwithstanding, they never could have had before.” (50) Pain, however, is only with difficulty communicated to the public, it get hardly an appearance at all.

It is certainly the case for some private experiences that are not expressed in some documents that can be conserved for the historian to consult. However, how can there be words expressed on matters of the intimate life? Artists have difficulties enough transcribing their own intimate life into a sharable experience, so few could possibly “deprivitize” their intimate life. As a result very little is retrievable for the historian unless it is in the public sphere.

Our feeling of reality depends on appearance, and therefore on the existence of a public realm where things can appear in light out of the darkness of the private. In this sense, the public defines the private. What is worthy of bright public light is relevant, it is what can be tolerated, so the irrelevant becomes automatically a private matter (51). However, that does not mean that all private matters are irrelevant. Some relevant matters can only survive in private and die in public: love for instance. (51) As a result, some things considered irrelevant by the public realm can have an extraordinary appeal for people, and they may adopt these as a way of life. Such is the modern enchantment with “small things” that people cultivate in the privacy of their home. (52)

“Second, the term “public” signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it (52). It is the man-made world, not nature. The world relates and separates at the same time, like a table relates and separates people sitting around it. (52) The problem that mass society then pose on the public realm is not so much the increased number of persons involved, “the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them.” (Arendt, 53) Historically, only “Christian brotherhood” has kept together a community of people who had lost their interest in the common world.

This “worldlessness” as a political phenomenon is only possible under the assumption that the world will not last (54). “If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men”. (55) “Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible.” (55)

The polis for the Greeks and the res publica for the Romans, were the guarantees against the futility of individual life and provided a space for permanence. The modern age marks the rise of society to public prominence and as Adam Smith notes, men of letters were drawn to public admiration and monetary rewards. Public admiration is also something used and consumed, as well as status. (56)

“Yet, even if these needs, through some miracle of sympathy, were share by others, their very futility would prevent their ever establishing anything so solid and durable as a common world.” Public admiration does not constitute a space in which things are saved from destruction by time. As a result, monetary rewards, itself also futile, becomes more “objective” and more real. (57)

The reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects. One could call it diversity. “Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position.” (57) “Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know the see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.” Differences of position and variety of perspectives are what guarantee the reality of a common world.

“If the sameness of the object can no longer be discerned, no common nature of men, least of all the unnatural conformism of a mass society, can prevent the destruction fo the common world, which is usually preceded by the destruction of the many aspects in which it presents itself to human plurality. This can happen under conditions of radical isolation, where nobody can any longer agree with anybody else, as is usually the case in tyrannies. But it may also happen under conditions of mass society or mass hysteria, where we see all people suddenly behave as though they were members of one family, each multiplying and prolonging the perspective of his neighbor. In both instances, men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived fo seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.” (58)

In my next post I shall reflect upon Arendt’s conception of privacy in relation to the rise of the social media realm.

Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth by Anna Becker

Cambridge University Press

On 23 September, the Centre for Privacy Studies welcomed back former colleague Anna Becker, now Professor MSO in the history of ideas at the University of Århus, for a book launch. Anna presented her newly published book Gendering the Renaissance Commonwealth, published by Cambridge University Press in the prestigious series ’Ideas in Context’. This ‘Cambridge School’ historical analysis of gender in the language and the concepts of Renaissance political thought presents a thought-provoking reinterpretation of looking at the period.


This fantastic book kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, it presents a historical analysis of the gendered languages of Renaissance political thought. Doing so, and secondly, it is challenging the dominant narrative on Renaissance political thought.

The dominant narrative of Renaissance political thought is that this period marked the beginning of a sharp separation between a private and a public sphere. The public is the political and reserved to male citizens. The private is the realm of the domestic and reserved to female non-citizens. Becker attributes this narrative to Hannah Arendt’s influential reading of Greek thought in general and Aristotle in particular. The view for Aristotle is that man is a political animal (zōon politikon), who can only reach his true potential in the, the public sphere, the polis, as a citizen. In opposition, the private sphere of the household is simply for social companionship, not unlike any other animal. Becker urges us to free ourselves from this reading, which has influenced many thinkers, first of all Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment. We must rethink, writes Becker, this simplified division between the public-political-male realm and the private-apolitical-female realm.

Indeed, Renaissance political thought revolved around interpretations of Aristotle’s division between the household and the city. Philosophy, for Aristotle, was divided into practical and natural philosophy. Practical philosophy was divided into three disciplines: ethics, economics, and politics. Moral philosophy in universities were taught according to this distinction. Ethics concerned the self, economics the household, and politics the city. Becker shows in her book that Renaissance thinkers pondered all three disciplines together. In this sense, the household and even the self, were political matters because the well-being of the res publica depended on good mores of individuals and a harmonious family life, res familiaris.

Becker looks more specifically at Machiavelli’s thought in one of the chapters and Jean Bodin’s thought in three other ones. It is not possible to present all the arguments and points that Becker makes, but I shall here select important ones for her overall thesis.

First, Becker explains Aristotle’s divide of philosophy upon which all Renaissance thinkers commented. Italian thinkers, such as Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370 – 1444), Donato Acciaioli (1428– 1478), and Bernardo Segni, were interested in the relationship between the individual, the family, and the state in their commentaries of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. These three communities of human life constituted three objects of the practical philosophy called moral philosophy, which sought to regulate all human life. Ethics was concerned with individual mores, Economics with family matters, and Politics with public matters. All three sub-disciplines were related with one another, so there was no sharp distinction between a “private” and a “public” sphere. The debates among Renaissance commentators of Aristotle focused on how to balance the three for a harmonious whole.

When it comes to Machiavelli, he pondered on “private” issues such as family and friendship, using the same vocabulary as his civic humanist contemporaries. However, Machiavelli argued against the accepted narratives. It is not friendship in the citizen body that makes a city great, but the lack of it. Discord, and not concord, makes better laws because conflict leads to greater debates. And the law is needed for good civil life (vivere civile). Friendship, on the other hand, leads to corruption and cronyism. This is the lesson from Florentine history, in which powerful families ruled the city almost to its ruin. By the same token, education should not be left to families because anti-republican families educate their children with these values.

Regarding Bodin (1529/30–1596), one of the main arguments turns to the gendering part of our political vocabulary; what Becker calls the “invention of a tradition.” This new tradition is the husband’s power over his wife. Since marriage and the family are the first stones of the res publica, the commonwealth, and since the trope is that a state is a big family, or a family a small state, the gendering of the vocabulary is here crucial. The private marriage of husband and wife is about power (imperium): the power of the pater familias (family father) over the submissive wife. This construction is particular to Bodin and contradicts Roman law. In the body of Roman law known as Corpus iuris civilis, Roman wives were not subjected to the power of their husband. The seventeenth century was then heavily influenced by this metaphor of the ruler as a father. The divine-right theory was a direct consequence of this idea and the tradition of paternal political power.

We are left hanging in the last chapter, which only a few paintbrushes of what a study of German political thought during the same period would be like. The reader could ask for more on Martin Luther, and how Reformation thinkers interpreted Aristotle’s practical philosophy, but Becker paved the way for this reader to accomplish that on her own using the same method of analysis.

If you want to know more about the book, stay tuned for a podcast episode with Anna Becker. In the meanwhile check our amazing previous episodes!