Conceptions of the Private in Hermann Conring’s “Observations” on Machiavelli’s The Prince

The present post is based on the paper I shall present at the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) for its annual conference. This will be held virtually. This paper focuses on Hermann Conring’s translation of Machiavelli’s Il Principe(The Prince) from Italian into Latin and most importantly on Conring’s observations on Machiavelli. Hermann Conring published his translation of Machiavelli in 1660, and the year after he published his observations.

Conring did not leave a book that summed up his whole political thought, so one needs to look at his political views in several of his works.(Lang, 2) Several major works are worth mentioning for an overview of Conring’s political and legal thought. In 1644, Conring published De Germanorum imperio Romano liber unus or One Book on the Roman Empire of the Germans. It is a historical and legal analysis of the relationship between the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire arguing that the Roman Empire had either ceased to exist or been reduced to a shadow of its former self and the German Empire had risen in its place. In the same vein, another important work, which earned Conring the epithet of “founder of German legal history” is De origine iuris Germanici (Helmstedt, 1643) On the Origins of German Law, and De finibus imperii Germanici On the Boundaries of the German Empire (1654).

More specifically on political thought, in 1650 Conring published Theses Miscellaneae de civili prudentia, (Miscellaneous theses on civil prudence), which is his major work in political thought.

Concerning Conring’s views on Machiavelli, one could also find many references to him in Dissertatio de Ratione Status (or Dissertation on the Reason of State) (1651). This essay, as Stolleis argues, is Conring’s even though it is signed Heinrich Voss who was his student.(Stolleis, 74). As a matter of fact, at the time, dissertations defended by students merely reproduced the content of the professor’s lectures. In De ratione status, Conring investigates what a “good government” ought to do with respect to the law, the government, and the citizens. Following the Aristotelian tradition, the law, for Conring, must be suitable to the form and necessity of the state.


Searching for priv words in Conring’s Animadversiones, I have found 28 occurences, which are all a form of the adjective privatus, -a, -um, except one from the adverb privatim. In this special occurrence of privatim, Conring opposes it to populo, the people. The whole sentence is a comment to Machiavelli writing in chapter 2 on ”hereditary principalities” that those are easier to hold than new ones because people are accostumed to the rule of the ruler. Suffice that the ruler does not change the established order and is more than ordinarily diligent and competent and he can conserve the principality. Unless some unusually strong force should remove him. Conring criticises Machiavelli. For Conring, no one can foresee political affairs. No matter how careful one is, there is no easy way to conserve one’s state (status). Conring notes that experience of world affairs teaches that even ancient principalities can be shaken by internal movements, and that the ruler, either because of hatred for him or weariness of the principality, can be removed “aut a toto populo, aut a nonnullis privatim” (either by the whole people or by some privately).[1]

This example shows an interesting opposition between “toto populo” and “nonnullis privatim”, “entire” against “some”, and “people” against “privately”. It is not certain if there is a value here, but since Conring is proponent of German political Aristotelianism, one can see a reference to his theory of constitutionnal change. Since Machiavelli is writing about principalities with one ruler, these are either, in Aristotelian terms, kingships or tyrannies, which can be overturned by some privately (aristocracy and oligarchy) or by the whole people (polity, democracy). As other scholars have shown, Conring’s translation and comments on Machivalli presents an interesting position at the time between Machiavellians and Anti-Machiavellians.[2] Conring knew that Machiavellianism had little to do with Machiavelli, and hence Anti-Machiavellism as well. Conring sought to rehabilitate Machiavelli within political science, therefore seeing him as an analyst of tyrannical policies and how they concretely help conquer and maintain power in a principality, in an Aristotelian framework of constitutionalism. As Dauber notes Conring thought that Machiavelli had exagerated the opposition between popular liberty and tyranny.[3]

Apart from this example, two main categories of use for priv-words stand out. First, Conring uses privatus in his observations or translation in relation to coming out of “private condition” or “private life” or “private fortune” or “private state” and entering, in opposition, a “dignity/office of ruler/prince” or “principality”. The second category concerns “private interests” as opposed to “public interest” or “common good” “commonwealth”.

Private condition, private fortune, private life

Machiavelli’s main theme in Il Principe (The Prince) is to analyse principles that make a ruler obtain and maintain the government of a “principality”. Machiavelli does not focus on republics but on principalities with a single ruler. Several times, Machiavelli writes about the theme of this ruler accessing this position from “private” condition. For instance, at the end of chapter VI, Machiavelli writes about Hiero of Syracuse who became prince from private: Machiavelli writes “di privato diventò principe”,[4] which Conring translates as “ex privato”.[5] By the same token, Machiavelli notes that in his “private life” (translated “in private vita”), he had so much “virtú” that people said of him (using a Latin quote from Justinius) that “the only thing he lacked to be a ruler was a kingdom”. There are other examples, in chapter VII, Machiavelli gives the example of several men who were granted principalities in Greece, “di privati principi” in the original Italian, translated by Conring: “principatus Transsylvaniae, Moldaviae, et Wallachiae: qui solent dari a Turca, quondam etiam a Polono, privatae conditionis hominibus” (1017) (Such today are the principalities of Transsylviania, Moldavia, and Wallachia: which are wont to be granted by the Turcs, hereafter likewise by the Poles, to men of private condition.) Or again the example of Francesco Sforza who became Duke of Milan out of “private condition” in chapter VII paragraph 3.

We can see already that Conring adds a little bit from the Italian “da private principi” the term “condition”. From Latin condicio, it means in general the external position, situation, condition, rank, place, circumstances.[6] It seems that “private condition” here means the position and rank in a certain way of thinking, in a hierarchy. Conring also adds to the term “prince” “dignity/office” and the idea of elevation from a “private condition”. Conring translates Machiavelli ch. 6, §2 ”di diventare di privato principe” as ”ex privata conditione ad Principis dignitatem pervenit”, ”for a private citizen to become ruler”[7]. One may notice that in his translation into Latin, Conring translates Machiavelli’s spirit, but adds a few words: “private condition” and “office/dignity of ruler/prince”. In his footnote, Conring comments further ”Maximas difficultates vero experitur principatus novus, hominis ex privata conditione evecti.”[8] “The largest difficulties in truth, are the new principalities of a man elevated out of private condition.”

Conring accentuates the difference between private condition and the office of ruler, and argues furthermore that, if Machiavelli is right to state that all new principalities are difficult to maintain, it is even more difficult for a new principality acquired by a man of private condition.

Perhaps this accentuation is in the “spirit” of Machiavelli’s work as interpreted by Conring. Machiavelli, does give an example of Agathocles, the Sicilian king of Syracuse who became ruler from private but also abject and lowest origins. Is it then simply social elevation? Or is there a meaning between the distinction of “private condition” and “dignity of prince” for COnring?

The Aristotelian distinction between a private and public condition of life gives certainly an answer: man, as a zoōn politikon, can only achieve his true potential by being an active polis-forming being. For Aristotle, ethics and politics are connected, in that every community must be for the common good. The right action is the one that allows good life.

I think that there is certainly a specific meaning for Conring in that the “dignity of prince” requires to rule public affairs, which obey to completely different rules. In a second footnote comments on Machiavelli’s ch. VII second paragraph regarding these men granted a principality, who are under the will and fortune of those who granted it to them, Conring notes that Machiavelli gives 4 reasons to be under the will of fortune of those who granted it. The second one is the interesting one for us here: “Secunda; quia illi, qui ex privata conditione ad principatus evehuntur, raro intelligunt artem regendi, non assueti scilicet regere, nec ad regnandum instituti.” (Secondly, because those who elevate from a private condition to Prince, seldom understand the art of government, no one dispute that they are neither accustomed to rule nor made for ruling.) One issue for a prince who came from private condition is thus that he rarely understands the “art of government”.

Conring also gives another example with Francesco Sforza, who became Duke of Milan “ex privato vitae statu” (out of a private state of life) thanks to fortune and military forces.[9] This time the issue is not the prince himself, but the prince’s sons, who turned degenerates because they refused the troubles and inconvenience of military service.

In his note about his translation of Machiavelli’s statement that virtue is needed for the principality, Conring observes that:

“Nihil est certius, quam non sola virtute aut industria humana parari pariter & teneri respublicas. Luculentissime autem id apparet circa novos quosque principatus; praesertim eos, qui parantur ab his, qui privata aut tenui admodum in re ante vixerunt.”[10]

[Nothing is more certain: that not only virtue or human industry/diligence prepare to acquire and hold commonwealths. This appears most splendidly regarding how new a principality is, especially the ones that are obtained by those, who have lived before to a great measure in private or inferior/unimportant affairs.]

In this passage, Conring clearly opposes respublica with res privata and adds a hierarchy with aut tenui. If the private wealth or private realm is inferior or unimportant, then the common wealth or public realm is superior or important. The footnote also corrects Machiavelli’s concept of virtú by preferring the concept of human industry.

Private interest, private property v. public good

Conring translates Machiavelli writing about ”le forze proprie di Lodovico”[11] (”Ludovico’s own troops”)[12] by ” Ludovici Sfortiae privatae vires” (Ludovico Sforzia’s private troops/military forces).[13] It is the same meaning, but one can note that the idea of property is attached to “private”, and the “private” in question may be in opposition to other types of military forces (common/public?). In any case, what is here private is owned by an individual and not shared with others, let alone the whole community.

In chapter 6 Machiavelli examines principalities acquired by one’s own arms and looks at new princes who were “innovators”, such as Moises, Cyrus, Theseus or Romulus. Conring comments that it is manifest that new princes make their laws obeyed through the arms. However, Conring adds that: “populum necessum est amore boni publici vehementer flagrare, quod infrequens admodum est, plaerisque hominibus ad privata commoda attentis” (it is necessary to inflame vehemently the people to the love of public goods, because it is excessively in small numbers, and the majority of men pay attention to private interests). Conring then adds further that people are not willing to observe the law solely because of the authority of the legislator.

The distinction between private and public with a certain value for the public good or common wealth against private interest comes out from some of Conring’s choice as translator. In chapter VII, Machiavelli writes about about Alessandro: “Vedeva oltre a questo l’arme di Italia, e quelle in spezie di chi si fussi potuto servire, essere nelle mani di coloro che dovevano temere la grandezza del papa…”.[14] (Apart from this problem, Alexander saw that the Italian military forces (and especially those that he could have used most easily) belonged to those who had every reason to fear any increase of the pope’s power…).[15] Conring’s translation is: “Perspiciebat praeterea Italiae arma, et quae privatim suis commodis subservire poterant, in eorum manu esse, quibus papalis potentia formidabilis erat”.[16] Here the idea that Conring conveys is that the army in the hands of those who fear the pope’s grandezza (power or potentia) could serve Alexander’s “interest in private”. The idea is of private interests of a man to acquire a principality through external force.

The same appears a little later in the same chapter when translating Machiavelli’s passage about pope Julius, who captured Bologna to destroy the power of Venice and expel the French from Italy. “it was very much to his credit that he did everything in order to increase the power of the Church, and not any individual.”[17] Machiavelli writes: “e tutte queste imprese gli riuscirno, e con tanta piú sua laude, quanto lui fece ogni cosa per accrescere la Chiesa e non alcuno privato”.[18] Conring translates as “ac majore cum laude ideo, quia non ad privatum quempiam, sed ad Rempublicam Pontificiam locupletandam, id totum curavit agendum”. It is interesting to note that it is private as private individual, but opposed to “Rempublicam” commonwealth or public good, even if it is the Church. The res publica of the Church did not appear in Machiavelli, but Conring emphasised it. Pope Julius acted for the common good of the Church and not for anyone’s private interest.

In Ch. XVII, Machiavelli disserts on “cruelty and mercifulness, and whether it is better to be loved than feared or the contrary”. Machiavelli writes that “My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”[19] Notes by Conring on ch. XVII of Machiavelli: “Non adeo difficile est, si severe animadvertas in illa tantum crimina, quae rempublicam et civium tranquillitatem honestatemque turbant; in reliquis autem mitiorem te praebeas. Ita sane ipsa simul severitate amorem tibi conciliabis: quoniam omnes sentiunt ab illa severitate sibi et publico bene esse, nihil autem dari privatae vindictae.” (It is not exactly difficult if you severely punish only those crimes, which disturb the honor and the tranquillity of the commonwealth and the citizens, but supply milder ones to the rest. Thus, you will unite reasonably at the same time the love to you and to the severity: because all men perceive from these to be for themselves and the public good, but nothing given for private vengeance.)

Conring continues criticising Machiavelli for being wrong in opposing the two, being hated or being loved. He quotes another passage by Machiavelli himself where that being feared and not being hated can be connected. Conring notes then that “not being hated” is the civil equivalent of being loved, and therefore the two are possible, especially so since the one who is not feared is held in contempt, and who is held in contempt is not really loved.

What we can take from this passage is that, for Conring, the ruler can or even must be both feared and loved. This is done by executing harsh sentences but only in the interest of the commonwealth and the safety of the citizens. Because then they will understand it and therefore not revert to private vengeance. It is however difficult to understand Conring here, unless he exits the premisse that the discussion is focused on tyrants and their policies. What kind of idea of public good does the population of a tyranny have?

Learnings with regard to Conring’s political thought of the time

What can we make of this small study of priv-words in Conring’s comments on Machiavelli with regard to Conring’s political thought and the intellectual context of his time? It is important to understand the context of the reception of Machiavelli in seventeenth-century Germany. Machiavelli was linked to the introduction of the concept of “reason of state”, which had been debated in Italy (ragione di stato) and France (raison d’État). The first German discussion started with Arnold Clapmar’s De arcanis rerumpublicarum libri sex (1605) and contributed to three debates within discussions of politica : Staatsrecht based on Bodin’s sovereignty and Roman law; Tacitism; and political Aristotelianism.[20] Conring’s Animadversiones take place within this context. The identification of status with respublica emerged at the end of the seventeenth century; status meant “standing” as opposed to actio and mutatio and could refer to three things: 1) the power of the ruler; 2) the political system of the commonwealth; 3) the legal and social status of a person.[21] can confirm Dreitzel’s argument that Conring disagrees with the idea of reason of state as conserving the power of the ruler. Rather COnring considers the reason of state to be the Aristotelian notion of good life of the citizens, or what the upholders of politica christiana thought was gute Policey.[22] Dreitzel notes: “Following the common interpretation of status as ‘standing’, and continuing both the Roman law and scholastic doctrines concerning governing and the duty of rulers, ‘reason of state’ doctrines had, from the beginning, serious implications for the discussions of the principles governing the conduct of subjects and ‘private’ individuals within society. This enlargement was reflected in Clapmar’s definition of arcana: every science, every ‘conditio in rebus humanis‘ had to have its own arcana; thus there were also ‘arcana privata, hoc est, intima consilia communis privataeque vitae in luce hominum feliciter et decore instituendae‘ [private mysteries, that is, the innermost counsels of communal and private life which ought to be instituted felicitously and decorously before the eyes of men], which differed from the secret arts of using power, preserving a dynasty, or commanding an army.”[23]

From Conring’s distinctions of private and public, one can see the idea of superior ”standing” of a ruler, due to the different and complex nature of politica. A private person may have mastered the ”private mysteries” of communal and private life, but superior qualities are required for handling the mysteries of power and the respublica. Moreover, the only reason for political action in the respublica should be a development of common wealth, not only by satisfying private citizens, but also by instauring a love for the common good. These are ideals opposed to a private interest of a tyrant as his reason of state.

[1] Hermann Conring, ‘Animadversiones Politicae in Librum Nicolai Machiavelli De Principe’, in Opera, vol. 2 (Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1970), 997.

[2] Stolleis, ‘Machiavellismus und Staatsräson’; Rosanna Schito, ‘Alla ricerca della sovranità: osservazioni sul Machiavelli di Hermann Conring’, Giornale di storia costituzionale, no. 16 (II semestre 2008): 85–99.

[3] Noah Dauber, ‘Anti-Machiavellism as Constitutionalism: Hermann Conring’s Commentary on Machiavelli’s The Prince’, History of European Ideas 37, no. 2 (June 2011): 102–12,

[4] Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, in Opere, ed. Corrado Vivanti, vol. 1 I Primi Scritti Politici, Biblioteca Della Pléiade (Torino: Einaudi – Gallimard, 1997), 133.

[5] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1017.

[6] Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:  Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary, Rev., and enlarged. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

[7] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price, 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 19.

[8] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1012.

[9] Conring, 1015.

[10] Conring, 1013.

[11] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 121.

[12] Machiavelli, The Prince, 7.

[13] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 999.

[14] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 135.

[15] Machiavelli, The Prince, 24.

[16] Conring, ‘Animadversiones’, 1019.

[17] Machiavelli, The Prince, 41.

[18] Machiavelli, ‘Il Principe’, 149.

[19] Machiavelli, The Prince, 57.

[20] Horst Dreitzel, ‘Reason of State and the Crisis of Political Aristotelianism: An Essay on the Development of 17th Century Political Philosophy’, History of European Ideas 28, no. 3 (January 2002): 163–87.

[21] Dreitzel, 172.

[22] Dreitzel, 175.

[23] Dreitzel, 175–76.

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 of 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!

Essay: Staying home – an opportunity for privacy or a threat to privacy?

‘Please stay home for us!’ Since the outbreak of the corona crisis, healthcare workers from across the world have been successful in crowding social media with this message to the public. Indeed, it seems sensible for the common good to follow their advice, at least out of necessity. Thinking about implications for privacy, as we constantly do at the Centre for Privacy Studies, it seems obvious to ask whether more time at home might not also have positive side effects in terms of privacy. To be sure, long before the modern era, the home has been defined as a private sphere, in opposition to the public square. Along the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, residential buildings have been gradually extended, isolated from each other and become places where an increasing number of people could benefit from certain legal rights to live undisturbed by the outside world (and to some extent even by their closest neighbours). Accordingly, privacy is sometimes described in terms of physical and mental autonomy or solitude, for example as ‘a state of being alone’.[1] With this background, one could imagine that the appeal to stay at home, apart from the apparent problems embedded in transforming it to a place of work, would resonate like a romantic invitation to an existence rich with valuable privacy, whether alone or with family.

Indeed, the corona realities liberate more time for ourselves or our families. But after several weeks almost entirely spent between the walls of our homes, does it really make sense to talk about life dictated by the virus as an existence beneficial for privacy? Although families get more time together – which can surely be valuable in many cases – children have had a rising need to get out. [2] In several countries, public playgrounds have been closed during the strictest lock-downs, and the Spanish government has only recently opened up for children under fourteen to leave their home one hour per diem. [3] As for people living by themselves, the order to stay at home tends to lead to isolation, at least after the first weeks of intense puzzling with crosswords and Netflix consummation. Mental disease, and even suicide rates, are expected to increase as a consequence of rising loneliness.[4]

When I first started to reflect upon how to approach the elusive topic of privacy, which surely escapes too narrow definitions, I was a bit sceptic to approaches that put too much emphasis on the individual’s inner life or a state of solitude. In my efforts to problematise such definitions, I was struck by a stimulating question formulated by Helen Nissenbaum, professor of information science at Cornell Tech: ‘Does a person stranded on an island really have privacy?’.[5] I still find it really difficult to motivate an affirmative reply on that question. Slightly reformulated, it seems to be quite applicable on the quarantine situation: Does a person locked inside his or her home really have privacy? Isn’t rather each family or household stranded on a desert island, although equipped with a decent WiFi-connection?

Professor Helen Nissenbaum (b. 1954)

Helen Nissenbaum has been highly influential in forming US legislation on informational privacy, which is partly based on her concept of ‘contextual integrity’ regarding public surveillance. The basic principle is that no information is private as such; laws must be formulated with regard to its social context. Together with the Canadian philosopher Michael Walzer’s concept ‘spheres of justice’, the framework of contextual integrity urges information gathering to define categories depending on the social norms of various contexts.[6] While Nissenbaum specialises in informational privacy, her heuristic questioning of whether there is reason to speak about privacy on a desert island with one single inhabitant implies that social relations might be an important factor when trying to understand what makes privacy valuable.

Considering privacy as a fundamentally relational phenomenon would suggest that valuable privacy would typically emerge as a response to social experience, in dynamic with others and the outside world. Indeed, this idea coincides pretty well with some creative approaches to study notions of privacy within the field of cultural history, for example as a protest against intrusion (from authorities or fellow citizens), an act of temporary withdrawal from social life or a need to cultivate more intimate relations.[7] This would not exclude the assumption that key moments of experienced privacy are taking place in more or less secluded physical spaces, or while the individual is fully occupied with his or her inner life. But it would encourage scholars in search of privacy to investigate how such moments are related to a social context (authoritarian or friendly) that provokes a need for privacy. It would also imply that long-term isolation might be a threat to privacy.  

If privacy is understood as a response to social experience rather than just in terms of being in one’s private sphere, the social isolation following on the plea to stay at home during the corona crisis may not contribute very well to evoke the values of privacy. But it does seem to suggest a clear-cut distinction between private and public responsibilities during the crisis: the private responsibility being to stay at home; the public responsibility to provide health care to those who need it. From a historical perspective, it might be most peculiar that people are encouraged to be passive. In emergency regulations for seventeenth-century Helmstedt and eighteenth-century Altona – two of the case cities that we are currently researching at PRIVACY – private responsibilities were generally of more active character. In order to prepare for the risk of fire, private people (Privat-Leuten) were ordered to be constantly on guard to provide the city’s functionaries with water and lighting, even in the middle of the night. Today we are barely asked for more than to provide ourselves (and our elderly) with food and toilet paper. Briefly, we are encouraged to fight the corona virus in our distinct private sphere. Having reached a high degree of specialisation and material welfare, today’s Western societies provide its citizens with both physical space and room for action to perform their private lives, in states of emergency as well as under more normal circumstances.


Extract from the fire regulation of seventeenth-century Helmstedt

One thing is sure. Setting our normal lives on hold and staying home gives us quite a unique occasion to ponder and experience what privacy is and what it isn’t. Does it make sense to us, under these extreme conditions, to regard privacy as a state of being alone or as an existence in our private sphere? Or does it rather correspond to our experience that long-term isolation, or the conditions in the private sphere, make it more difficult to experience privacy? We may take the opportunity to try to detect how ‘the corona human’ is seeking his or her privacy. Perhaps by borrowing a dog from the neighbour? It has been widely noticed that dog owners in areas with strict quarantine regulations have been lending out, or even renting out, their dogs to people desperate to get out.[8] The rising interest in dog-walks might satisfy many needs in terms of privacy. It might offer socially overwhelmed family members ‘a time of one’s own’. Obversely, individuals living in self-isolation can get an opportunity to escape their cells, which may help them to live through or, even better, benefit from further days in solitude. A third person might find the dog walking business a joyful way to outsmart the authorities and reconquer his or her autonomy. Perhaps these various efforts to leave one’s private sphere indicate that the state of emergency following on the corona virus is as much a threat to privacy as an opportunity for it? 


[1] E. g. Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘Privacy’. For a rich discussion on theories regarding privacy in relation to freedom and autonomy, see Beate Rössler, The Value of Privacy, Polity Press (Frankfurt am Main 2005) [2001], p. 43–76.




[5] Helen Nissenbaum, Privacy in context: technology, policy and the integrity of social life, Stanford Law Books (Stanford 2010), p. 71.

[6] Helen Nissenbaum, ‘Privacy As Contextual Integrity’, Washington law review, 79:1 (2004).

[7] See for example Barrington Moore, Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk (New York 1984), p. xi, 71–73; Diana Webb, Privacy and solitude in the middle ages, Hambledon Continuum (London 2007), p. ix; Julie C. Inness, Privacy, Intimacy, and Isolation, Oxford University Press (New York 1992).


Towards a history of privacy: conceptual and methodological considerations

If privacy is a highly debated topic today, particularly in the USA, it is mainly because of increasing concerns in the last two decades regarding the rise of digitalization, on the one hand, and surveillance promising security against “terrorism,” on the other. As a look at the surge of the term “privacy” in an n-gram Google books search shows, this had been a rising concern since the 1960s.

Alan F. Westin published the first seminal book on privacy in 1967, Privacy and Freedom, which influenced several legal reforms in the 1970s and 1980s in the USA. He devised a taxonomy with four different states of privacy: solitude, intimacy, reserve, and anonymity. The central issue was already the interception of communications, physical and increasingly electronic. In a similar vein, the growing use of the internet triggered concerns regarding a seemingly limitless invasion of privacy. Jeffrey Rosen published The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America in 2000, and The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age in 2004, with an emphasis on privacy in a digital world. James B. Rule in 2007 Privacy in Peril, offered an account of the tradeoff involved between privacy and security or other conveniences by individuals willingly giving electronic information to government and corporations.

In his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain showed how the transition to a web 2.0 also involved a transition from a “Privacy 1.0” (data gathered by and stored in government and corporate databases) to a “Privacy 2.0” (data created and freely shared by individuals). In that spirit, in Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes in 2011, leading US scholars imagine the state of things to come and suggest policies and legal solutions to issues related not only to technological advances in surveillance but also neuroscience and genetics.

In conceptualizing privacy, these works have in common that they consider privacy as a valuable good from an individual point of view, an individual right that needs protection. Of course, I do not contend that we should not see privacy as a right that needs protection, but as a historian, and particularly an intellectual historian, this present conceptualization is problematic and is the starting point of a Foucauldian interrogation on a “history of the present.” How did we come to consider privacy as a human right? It was not present in the 1789 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but is in article 12 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Privacy is however difficult to conceptualize and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing. Daniel J. Solove, in his 2008 Understanding Privacy, noted this difficulty and suggested a new taxonomy different from Westin’s (information collection, processing, dissemination, and invasion of privacy). Solove suggests avoiding an essentialist conception of privacy with a defined “core.” Instead, one should consider Wittgenstein’s theory of language and “family resemblances” when studying privacy. Rather than looking at one issue, Solove suggests a bottom-up approach by understanding “privacy as a set of protections against a plurality of distinct but related problems” (p. 171). This set of related problems forms a cluster of disparate notions that we solely for practical purposes unite under the common denomination “privacy.”

As a parenthesis on Wittgenstein, one may note that he exiled himself in Skjolden, Norway, in a secluded and isolated hut, which was visible to all in the village downhill. A sort of “conspicuous privacy.” This points the finger on one issue, which is also identified by many book covers and also the logo chosen for the Centre for Privacy Studies: an external eye witnessing the “private.”Eye dilate

Now, a key issue in intellectual history concerns the methodological and conceptual characterization of the object of study, typically a concept, idea, any intellectual production. Consider liberty. One could chose to define liberty first, and then look to the past to identify how the defined liberty was used and thought of, and how the concept was formed. This way of writing history, however, runs the risk of anachronism. As Quentin Skinner showed in Liberty Before Liberalism, one may overlook other conceptions of liberty, a neo-Roman or neo-Republican conception, than the one determined by the dominant paradigm of liberalism. The issue is this: writing the history of an intellectual object has two occupations. First, writing the history of the object in the past. Second, writing the history of the formation of the object in the past–how we got this object today.

Privacy is no different and is a typical case of an object of study, for which the word did not necessarily exist in the past or rarely occured. As Ferdinand de Saussure put it, an object has two components: a signifié (signified), or the concept that a word is designating, and a signifiant (signifier) or the word that designates the concept. Now a historian looks at sources, documents, that prove the existence of an object in the past. However, looking at the word is only looking at one side of the object when it is an intellectual one. A concept may exist before a word appears to define it. Also, the same word may designate a different concept than the one we have today. One could see this as making the object of study two dimensional rather than one-dimensional.

Of course, the concept of privacy obeys the same methodological considerations for the historian. From an intellectual historian’s point of view, it is, therefore, a double endeavor: investigating how past human beings thought of privacy, and investigating how the notion itself developed and became a word. For the first endeavor, we often lack a word, so there is a need to consider alternative methods. For the second, we lack a clear conceptualization of what notions to look for that will create the word. A quick look again at Google books shows the beginnings of the use of the word “privacy” and a peak in the mid-17th century after the end of the English civil war.

Moreover, privacy is more than just a concept. It is also a feeling and a condition.  Beate Rossler has theorized three dimensions of privacy: decisional privacy (the privacy of actions), informational privacy (the proper “right to privacy” or “right to be left alone” from Warren and Brandeis), and local privacy (the traditional private home separate from the public). That may be a third dimension to understanding privacy as an object of study. Privacy is, therefore, a great case for a truly interdisciplinary study program and deserves to be expanded into a whole field of study: privacy studies.

The Centre for Privacy Studies opted for an ambitious methodological and theoretical approach while maintaining a firm and clearly delineated bottom-up case-based study. Centre director Mette Birkedal Bruun published two papers on the centre’s working method. One is “Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches” Annali Istituto storico italo-germanico/Jahrbuch des italienisch-deutschen historischen Instituts in Trient 44 (2018/2), 33-54. Another one is available on the Centre’s homepage. We understand privacy both as a quality and a threat from the perspective of all parts involved. In order to examine family resemblances, we not only analyze the stem “priv” in a corpus of texts–“priv- words”, i.e. words like “ “private,” “privacy,” “privy,” in various languages–but we also use a semantic mapping of words related and/or opposed to “private”–such as “common,” “professional,” “public,” etc. We also use heuristic zones to delineate the intersection, exclusion, and overlap of various spheres of privacy:

By examining how some problems related to privacy occurred at different places and times, we want to present a micro-historical observation of the human condition. All these cases could then serve for the basis of a bigger macro-analysis of the variations in thinking of and living with privacy.

This is what a scientific research program in the humanities aims to achieve: to provide society the tools to understand itself and the human condition in order to make better-informed decisions for the future. However, humankind does not understand universally the concept of “privacy” in the same way. Barrington Moore wrote a seminal anthropological and historical study comparing an Eskimo community, classical Athens, the Old Testament, and Ancient China. The first issue lies in the translation of this cluster we call “privacy” in other languages and in wondering with Moore whether it is universal at all. In my next post, I shall consider “privacy” in the French language as an example.