Tracing Impressions of Privacy in Paratexts

A small group of scholars assembled in the Italian city of Verona on 16 and 17 May 2024 for a symposium dedicated to the study of early modern privacy in paratextual sources. Some twenty interested students in book history from the University of Verona also attended the opening day.

The symposium was organized by Liam Benison (University of Verona) and Jelena Bakić (Free University of Bolzano) with the aim of developing a scholarly conversation between the fields of privacy studies and paratextual studies. The idea for the project grew out of the researchers’ early work on privacy conducted with the support of Mette Birkedal Bruun and colleagues at the Centre for Privacy Studies (PRIVACY).

Although paratexts have the highly ‘public’ aim of presenting a written work to its audience, many early modern paratexts include representations of the authorial persona. While these are typically rhetorical, Jelena noticed through her research on sixteenth-century books written by Italian women that the paratexts also recorded social, cultural, gender and emotional expressions that might be considered private. Meanwhile Liam had become aware through his study of privacy in early modern utopianism that the paratexts of utopias also played with the thresholds between private and public. They therefore decided to bring together a small group of experts to explore the synergies of paratext and privacy in more depth.

The symposium was funded by the University of Verona and supported by Federica Formiga, Associate Professor in book history and contemporary publishing in the Department of Cultures and Civilizations at the University of Verona.

Verona, although known today more for the romantic heroes of an early modern English play, was once an important centre of publishing in the Venetian Republic. The city has maintained a long legacy of book culture, being home to what claims to be the oldest, continually active library in the world. The Biblioteca Capitolare was founded beside the cathedral in the fifth century as a scriptorium for writing and copying books on vellum and parchment. Today it houses many important early manuscipt and printed books including incunabuli.

The symposium was divided in two parts. Thursday morning was devoted to four lectures discussing the state of the art and methodologies of the fields of privacy studies and paratextual studies. 

Mette Birkedal Bruun (Director of PRIVACY, University of Copenhagen) presented via Zoom a survey of the work of scholars at PRIVACY who question assumptions about the public and private as being quite separate spheres and purely modern phenomena. She stressed the importance of asking the ‘wh’ questions such as for whom is something private, how, why, where and when?

Federica Formiga discussed the importance of paratexts as sources for interpreting the reception of books. She highlighted the use of rhetorical techniques such as the captatio benevolentiae used in early modern dedicatory epistles to capture the goodwill of readers, negotiate patronage relations and define works for a particular audience.

Michaël Green (University of Łódź and co-founding editor of the Brill book series Studies in the History of Privacy) discussed some important considerations when publishing in the field of privacy studies, including the use of definitions (however loose), a clear structure, and editors’ expectation of the use of multiple or corroborative sources.

Finally, Jelena Bakić looked at how methodologies from the fields of early modern paratext and privacy studies could be combined for a productive study of the meaning of privacy through paratextual sources. Highlighting Maria Terzoli’s view of paratexts as ‘autobiographic public space’, Jelena argued that, while we cannot expect to discover an author’s experience of privacy through the public medium of the paratext, we may discern ideal conceptions of privacy when paratexts are contextualized through an understanding of contemporary social, cultural, gender and emotional expectations. Jelena concluded with the reflection that we can read in paratexts the mechanisms by which people’s private thoughts or feelings were managed or reshaped when communicated in public, and therefore, evaluate the success of social and political regimes in controlling the private.

The programme for Thursday afternoon and Friday morning was dedicated to discussing papers presented by eight researchers.

Federica Formiga considered paratextual traces of the competition between Jewish itinerant printer Gershom Soncino (1460–1534) and his more successful and renowned rival Aldus Manutius (c. 1450–1515). Stefano Cassini (Università Cattolica del Santa Cuore, Milan) compared Manutius’ paratexts and letters to shed light on how he re-presented events of his life in his paratexts.

Valentina Sestini (Sapienza, University of Rome and Editor of the journal Paratesto) discussed the topos of exile and ‘unjust misfortunes’ narrated in the paratexts of Muzio Oddi (1569–1639). Laura Mattioli (University of Durham) examined how Anton Francesco Doni’s ‘Mondo Savio e Pazzo’ (‘Wise and Mad World’) was privatized in expurgated editions published to conform with Counter-Reformation ideology. Finally Alexa Zildjian (University of St Andrews), considering power and secrets in British paratexts, showed how a person’s relative anonymity might be exposed by becoming the subject of a dedicatory epistle.

On Friday morning, Lars Cyril Nørgaard (PRIVACY) examined how private states are made public in the paratexts of early modern Lutheran funeral books from Denmark. Paolo Tinti (University of Bologna) showed examples of the paratexts of early modern academic books that reveal aspects of scholars’ relations. Michaël Green (University of Łódź) examined prefaces of the scholarly books of the French Huguenot Jean Rou (1638-1711) for traces of privacy.

The papers demonstrated a rich variety of ways in which aspects of the private may be perceived as imbricated with the public aims of the paratext. The researchers are now working on a book project.

The Rise and Fall of Privacy: An Interview

Tiffany Jenkins discusses her upcoming book with the Centre for Privacy Studies at Copenhagen University

Tiffany Jenkins, Edinburgh-based author and Doctor of Sociology, is working on a longue durée investigation into the history of privacy.

The provisional title for Jenkins’ book is Strangers and Intimates: The Rise and Fall of Private Life. Impressively, Jenkins begins her enquiry with the Ancient Greeks and traces the history of privacy through the early modern period to the present.

I had an intuitive sense that all the discussions on privacy at the moment were ahistorical.

Two PRIVACY scholars, Anni Haahr Henriksen and Frank Ejby Poulsen, had the chance to sit down with Jenkins and ask her a few questions about her interest in privacy, her experience with tracing the complex concept historically and her impression of the Centre.

Why privacy?

I had an intuitive sense that all the discussions on privacy at the moment were ahistorical. Much of it focuses on the last few decades and on the changes brought with technology, but I thought one piece of technology can’t change human behaviour completely. There must be something else going on.

I wanted to ask whether privacy was natural. Eternal? So, I began an investigation. Where does it come from? What causes it? What threatens it? And how novel is it?

Can a historical awareness of privacy inform contemporary discussions?

A longer view allows us to understand not just where privacy comes from and what brings it about, but what is or is not unique about the contemporary period. It allows a broader and deeper study of the influences at play than you get in the many discussions today.

Luther’s challenge to a monolithic authority germinated the seeds of private life

Tiffany Jenkins and PRIVACY scholars in June 2022

At the Centre for Privacy Studies, we focus on the early modern period as a birthplace of privacy. Do your results align with this hypothesis, and what were your expectations when starting out?

When I started my investigation, I thought privacy might be tied to prosperity and bourgeois society, and to developments in architecture. These are important, but not as important as the idea of conscience, which is the real beginning of privacy.

The dawn of private life has three components: freedom of conscience and religious freedom; what would become known as civil liberties; and the establishment of sexual and domestic mores as private matters. Each does not start out fully formed, nor does one inevitably lead to the other. Nor they do emerge at the same time, or develop in a straight line, at the same rate.

The early modern period was crucial to the birth of privacy

Luther’s challenge to a monolithic authority germinated the seeds of private life.  That, over the course of centuries, with many twists and turns, brought about freedom of conscience. Of course, conscience was limited, and it was supposed to stop at religion. But once these ideas were out in the world, it was not possible to contain them.

All that means, that I too reached the conclusion that the early modern period was crucial to the birth of privacy!

Have you identified other cornerstones or patterns of development in the history of privacy?

The most important factor is the relationship between the public and private spheres: most discussions of privacy are shallow and don’t account for that broader determining relationship, which sets the role of authority and where its borders lie. Another key influence is the conception of human beings – what are they capable of and what do they need.

If you understand the relationship between public and private, and the conception of the self at any given period, you can tell what the vision of privacy will be. Essentially, it comes down to ideas about authority – what is it for and the limits to it and the conception of the self.

Conscience […] is the real beginning of privacy

Which would you identify as the major epochs in the history of privacy?

I would say, the seventeenth century: conscience. That was the foundation stone.

The birth of the public and the private sphere is the second – in the eighteenth century. For it is important to understand that for the rise and fall of private life is not a simple story of the progressive growth and decline of a private space free from the reach of authority. One of the most critical influences on the private sphere, on its expansion and definition, is the rise of public life.

The third is the nineteenth century and the liberal arrangement with between the state and the liberal subject.

The divide between public and private which had been established in the Victorian era was eroded

For the twentieth century, progressivism in the early part of the century triggered a shift in the relationship between the state and the individual, which meant authority creeped into the private world.

Then, a key moment that brought us to where we are in today, was in the sixties and seventies which saw the rise of the authentic self and the politicisation of private life encapsulated in the feminist mantra the ‘personal is political’. That changed everything for public and private life: the private self was projected ever outwards, whilst political scrutiny and activities had the private world in sight. Thus, the divide between public and private which had been established in the Victorian era was eroded. And all this this happened before the age of the internet.

That is what we are living with today and that explains a lot of our ambivalence about public and private.

Privacy is not natural, but a historically and culturally specific set of ideas.

What were your biggest insights about privacy and its history?

My biggest insight is that privacy is not natural, but a historically and culturally specific set of ideas. And that technology is not the driver many think it to be.

Sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it?

No, it sounds ground-breaking.

Has the Centre for Privacy Studies, its research, and your discussions with us enlightened you or changed your perceptions?

It was a really informing and invigorating visit for me. And it actually has given me some ideas that will go into the book, and may help also with the conclusion.

Strangers and Intimates: The Rise and Fall of Private Life will be published by Picador in 2023. Find out more about Tiffany Jenkins’ work here: https://tiffanyjenkinsinfo.com

Cosmopolitanism as transcending the private and the public

This post follows my previous post that presented a biography of Joseph-Honoré Rémy.

Analysing this 1770 pamphlet, Le cosmopolisme, I find a certain view of cosmopolitanism that seeks to transcend the private and the public realms. There are two main points in which this is done. First, with the rhetorical strategy of the ‘cosmopolite’ author inserting himself in a transnational space. Second, with the content of this cosmopolitanism that seeks to inform private and political virtues.

Cosmopolite

The author is anonymous, but is presented as an Englishman and a cosmopolite. As an Englishman, he inserts himself as a private citizen of a foreign country in the French public realm by taking part in the celebration of the union of the two European powerhouses that are France and Austria. He then criticises heavily his ‘own’ homeland, England, for waging brutal wars. He calls England for a partnership with France now allied with Austria, a partnership in which only commercial and trade competition are allowed.

Dictionnaire de Trévoux 1771

As a ‘cosmopolite’, the author is exercising a different function. The word is very loaded at the time. It appeared in the French dictionary in 1690, but became popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. The 1721 edition of the ‘Trévoux’ dictionary defines a cosmopolite or cosmopolitain. The 1771 edition adds that the current usage is now in favour of cosmopolite and not cosmopolitain. It denotes both a person traveling or for whom no place is foreign, and a philosopher (with an allusion to Diogenes of Sinope).

In this understanding, several author have penned their work using the word ‘cosmopolite’. The author who contributed the most to make it famous is Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron (1706-1760) who published Le cosmopolite, ou le citoyen du monde in 1750. The opening lines are very famous and Lord Byron used them as epigraph to his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:

The universe is a kind of book of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one’s own country. I have leafed through a large enough number, which I have found equally bad. This examination was not at all fruitless for me. I hated my country. All the impertinences of the different peoples among whom I have lived have reconciled me to her. If I had not drawn any other benefit from my travels than that, I would regret neither the expense nor the fatigue.

Fougeret narrates his travels in search of ‘man’, knowledge, and a true homeland. Reflecting upon the countries and its inhabitants in a cynical fashion, Fougeret concludes that his original homeland, which he hated, is not so bad after all.

This philosophical reflection upon the whole world and the whole humankind in a political setting led to a development of a certain kind of cosmopolitan ideal. Many authors had been appalled by the atrocities committed during the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century. In particular, legal scholars had criticised the lack of legal structure to prevent barbaric acts and protect the individual in international wars. The eighteenth century also saw its share of wars with the Seven Years’ War in particular. The development of the slave trade and the treatment of the inhabitants in the colonies also contributed to developing ideas of natural rights and other criticisms of the current political and legal state of world affairs. Rousseau, who had re-edited and commented upon Saint-Pierre’s Plan for Perpetual Peace, famously wrote about the ‘grandes âmes cosmopolites’ in his 1755 Discours sur l’origine et les fondemens de l’inegalité parmi les hommes.

Cosmopolisme

The first sense of cosmopolitanism was related to the travelling cosmopolitan. In a medical book written in 1775 about bathing waters, the authors write the expression ‘cosmopolitisme’ in italics because it did not exist in the dictionary, in order to describe the action of travelling. The authors warn against the potential risks of excessive travelling and lack of any restraint in experiencing new things, as the exact opposite of the fears, superstitions and restraints of the past, which surrounded the use of bath waters and prevented medical research to see their benefits on health. ‘Notre liberté, notre fureur d’aller, notre cosmopolitisme en tout genre, peuvent devenir excessifs & entraîner bien des inconvéniens’.[1]

A word that appears in parallel with ‘cosmopolitisme’ is ‘cosmopolisme’, which had equally two meanings attached to it. The relation between travelling, the act of ‘cosmopoliter’, and potential health risks are reiterated with the expression ‘cosmopolisme’ as the psychological condition of confused identity that the all too frequent traveller would fall victim of:

COSMOPOLISME. Il faut aimer un lieu ; l’oiseau lui-même qui a en partage le domaine des airs, affectionne tel creux d’arbre ou de rocher. Celui qui est atteint de Cosmopolisme, est privé des plus doux sentimens qui appartiennent au cœur de l’homme.

Qui croirait que l’on peut exercer à Paris le Cosmopolisme, encore mieux que dans le reste de l’univers.
COSMOPOLITER. Parcourir l’univers.[2]

In this sense, cosmopolitanism is related to the act of travelling, but also the reflection that the cosmopolitan, the traveller, experiences when encountering other populations, cultures, and mores: a reflection upon humankind—the universal and the particular.

The earliest eighteenth-century record of ‘cosmopolitisme’ I could find is in a 1756 critique of Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité by Italian mathematician and astronomer Giovanni Francesco Mauro Melchiorre Salvemini di Castiglione (1708—1791). It is also the first reference to a philosophical conception. It is not exactly clear what the author means by ‘cosmopolitisme’ as it is referred to in passing:

Je ne m’arrêterai point à détailler les avantages de la communauté des biens. Ce sujet a été traité par plusieurs auteurs estimables, lesquels l’homme corrompu par les richesses n’a reproché qu’une pauvreté vertueuse & un cosmopolitisme trop profondément raisonné.[3]

This excerpt is taken from a general discussion about ownership. It seems that, in this context, this ‘cosmopolitisme’ is a consideration about the general equality among men in the state of nature, which would justify a ‘community of goods’ to some philosophers, against whom even a corrupt man would only reproach a ‘virtuous poverty’ and a ‘too deeply reasoned cosmopolitanism’. It may be a direct reference to Rousseau’s mention of ‘les grandes âmes cosmopolites’ as quoted above.[4]

However, the first formulated conception of cosmopolitanism is Le cosmopolisme by Joseph-Honoré Rémi (1738—1782), priest in Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle, and lawyer at the Parlement de Paris. Rémi participated to the first volume on ‘Jurisprudence’ of the Encyclopédie méthodique, project which was meant to be an extension to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie.[5] Rémi wrote this pamphlet for the wedding of Louis XVI. There are several relevant excerpts for cosmopolitanism, which I will here quote and comment:

Pourquoi le Cosmopolisme est-il donc si rare sous cette planette ? A peine a-t-il un sens parmi nous : la plupart de nos langues si riches en mots honteux & barbares, n’ont rien qui peigne les premiers sentimens de l’homme social. Un sourire risiblement dédaigneux est la récompense de quiconque ose parler d’humanité aux nations. Noble & touchante humanité ! à ton foyer s’allume & s’épure dans nos ames le feu sacré des vertus privées & des vertus politiques (6) ; mais on t’abandonne, on te méprise, on t’insulte avec orgueil, on encense d’odieux Simulacres, & tes temples sont déserts. Nous avons des Maîtres pour enseigner à nos enfans les langues des nations qui n’existent plus ; en est-il un seul destiné à leur apprendre celle de la nature ?[6]

The endnote (6) is explained later in the book with a quotation of Fénelon:

 (N°.6.) Page 25. « J’aime mieux ma famille que moi-même ; j’aime mieux ma patrie que ma famille ; mais j’aime encore mieux le genre humain que ma famille [sic: patrie] ». Telle étoit la morale de ce Fénélon, qui dans une Cour où l’égoïsme national étoit honoré des plus glorieux titres, osa prêcher éloquemment le Cosmopolisme, & érigea à l’humanité un monument digne du siécle de l’Encyclopédie. Le sentiment associé à la raison, n’a jamais rien produit d’aussi noble & d’aussi attendrissant que le Télémaque.[7]

‘Cosmopolism’ is, for Rémi, related to the ‘first sentiments of social man’, which is to say that when man in the state of nature meets another man, he experiences a feeling, which is one of humanity for meeting with another human being. This feeling of humanity is about recognising one another as members of the same species, the same community of human beings, rather than from different communities. Rémi juxtaposes this natural feeling of love towards humanity, ‘cosmopolism’, to another artificial feeling, negative this one, of egoism towards one’s nation. Nation should here be understood as ‘state’, or more rightly ‘kingdom’. This ‘national egoism’ proclaims the superiority of advancing national interest at the cost of human interest. What Rémi alludes to here with ‘national egoism’ are the wars led by Louis XIV in the name of absolutism, whose policies Fénelon criticised.

Fénelon

This feeling of humanity, for Rémi, warrants virtues (‘private virtues’, and ‘political virtues’). According to the dictionary, virtue is a disposition of the soul to do good and avoid evil.[8] So, for Rémi, ‘cosmopolism’ is the doctrine of doing what is good and avoiding what is bad for humanity, both in the private and public (political) spheres. Fénelon is cited as a leading figure of this movement of thought with his work Telemachus, combining sentiment and reason, that is to say humanity as a feeling and a rational argument for the love of other fellow human beings in the world. Telemachus is ‘worthy of the century of the Encyclopaedia’, the work of reference for reason.[9]  This may be for Rémi a reference to how Telemachus, in the novel, fights morally, thanks to his wisdom, the excesses of passions—both his and others’—that lead kings to wars and destroys the lives of his and other’s peoples. Mentor helps him throughout but leaves him with the freedom of choice over his actions. The novel is therefore perceived as an ode to liberty.[10]

Telemachus listening to Mentor
Charles-Joseph Natoire. Télémaque écoutant les conseils de Mentor, 1740, Troyes, Musée des Beaux-Arts.

The reference to Télémaque in a pamphlet published for the wedding of Louis XVI, who was then fifteen, is certainly a way of hoping that the young king will follow the pedagogical advice set in the book that Fénelon intended for the education of the dauphin of France, Louis Duke of Burgundy (1682—1712). In search of his father, Telemachus goes to hell and visits Tartarus where he sees bad kings agonising; he then visits the Elysian Fields, where good kings, who govern their people wisely, rest in bliss.[11] Telemachus is considered a work of ‘republican monarchism’ because it ‘combines monarchial rule with republican virtues’.[12] It is a ‘classical republicanism’ that Fénelon develops in Telemachus, that is to say republican virtues from Ancient Greece and Rome. These republican virtues are the interest for the common good and disinterest for riches, or selfish and artificial gains and rewards by the court. In general, the ‘country’ is opposed to the ‘court’ in classical republicanism, as Pocock notes.[13] In Telemachus, Fénelon displays similar ‘classical republican’ virtues. Bétique (Boetica) is a country described in book seven. There, the inhabitants are free and equal, live in accordance with nature, and are disinterested although gold and silver abound since they are of no use for the common good and corrupt. Edelstein’s interpretation of Boetica is that it is not an ‘utopian’ place in the same sense as More’s Utopia or Bacon’s New Atlantis because it is meant to be an example for contemporary society, and is not thought in isolation but with international contacts and with the prospect of perpetual peace.[14] Moreover, Edelstein argues that it is a republican state because the basic political structure is participative, the inhabitants are free and equal, they are ready to fight to defend their liberty, and they shun luxury and corruption in favour of peace, union, and liberty, by wisely using their ‘right reason’.[15]

Considering Rémi’s argument, it seems that a relevant passage in Fénelon’s Télémaque is in book 9, when Mentor addresses various Greek kings after they decided to make peace and avoid waging war:

Tout le genre humain n’est qu’une famille dispersée sur la face de toute la terre. Tous les peuples sont freres, & doivent s’aimer comme tels. Malheur à ces impies qui cherchent une gloire cruelle dans le sang de leurs freres, qui est leur propre sang. La guerre est quelquefois nécessaire, il est vrai : mais c’est la honte du genre humain qu’elle soit inévitable en certaines occasions. … Quiconque préfére sa propre gloire aux sentimens de l’humanité, est un monstre d’orgueil, & non pas un homme : il ne parviendra même qu’à une fausse gloire ; car la vraye gloire ne se trouve que dans la modération & dans la bonté.[16]

Shortly after, Mentor suggests that the Greek kings meet in an assembly every three years to renew their alliance and discuss matters of common interest. Mentor emphasises that being united is the only way to make Greece prosper inside and stronger outside.[17] In other words, Mentor suggests that the kings organise a sort of commonwealth or res publica.

Fénelon makes another direct reference to a ‘universal republic’ in book 17. Mentor advises king Idoménée on how to settle an international dispute between him and another king using arbitration. Mentor then takes a hypothetical example of a republic that the king would consider with horror if there were no laws and no legal institutions, but where each family would use violence against their neighbours to make their own justice, and asks Idoménée rhetorically:

croyez-vous que les Dieux regardent avec moins d’horreur le monde entier, qui est la République universelle, si chaque peuple qui n’y est que comme une grande famille, se croit en plein droit de se faire par violence justice à soi-même sur toutes ses prétentions contre les autres peuples voisins?[18]

Through Mentor, Fénelon argues for a ‘universal republic’, which does not mean a world state with a republican democratic government, but a state of law in international affairs, the same way there is a state of law inside a given ‘republic’. It is an argument against absolutism in that Fénelon emphasises that kings are not above the law, not even regarding internal state affairs. Fénelon’s argument is as much the need for legal settlement in international affairs—and thereby the reduction of wars—as it is the observation that the human race is one ‘family’ and therefore ought to be under a common law.

To Rémi, cosmopolisme is associated with the language of nature, of the very first feelings that men had when becoming social creatures. In other words, in the golden age of the state of nature before the social contract was formed, as described in natural law theories:

Cet heureux sentiment que la Nature inspire aux Individus de même espece ; Instinct sacré dont le Législateur des Chrétiens voulut faire un mérite à l’homme, en l’érigeant en vertu, & la plaçant à la tête de son code immortel ; la Fraternité combattue par les maximes de l’intolérance, & avilie par le fanatisme du zèle, n’a commencée à rentrer dans ses droits que depuis la renaissance des Lettres. Elle doit la gloire dont elle jouit, aux efforts des Cosmopolites. Ramenée par eux dans l’Europe, sous les noms de Bienveillance & d’Humanité, cette vertu pourra s’annoncer à nos neveux comme la fille du malheur & de la Philosophie.[19]

Fraternity—the feeling of being related and belonging to the same family—is a natural instinct that God—the legislator for Christians—inscribed as the first and most important law. Rémi is here referring to love as God’s law, particularly love towards fellow man: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). Rémi then goes on to argue that intolerance and fanaticism have been the enemies of fraternity, and it is only with the ‘renaissance of letters’ and the ‘efforts of the cosmopolites’ that fraternity was brought back. There is no doubt that Rémi refers here to the Republic of Letters, and the fight by ‘la petite troupe des philosophes’ led by Voltaire against religious intolerance, revealed religions, and in favour of humanitarian considerations (see the opening of Candide).[20] It is also exactly the same meaning of the word ‘cosmopolites’ that Rousseau used when writing about ‘quelques grandes âmes cosmopolites’, as seen above.[21] Rémi refers to the same thing: state wars that entail murders and other atrocities that are revolting to reason and nature, but that, nonetheless, are rewarded with the highest honours. It is in that sense that Rémi concludes that this virtue of fraternity, which the cosmopolites brought back in Europe under the names of ‘benevolence’ and ‘humanity’, is the ‘daughter’ of ‘misery’ and ‘philosophy’. The ‘cosmopolites’, the philosophers, reflected upon the calamities of wars due to ‘national egoism’, to produce works of morality and ethics for humankind.

We can take several elements from Rémi’s writings on what seems to constitute cosmopolism for him: nature, humanity, reason, sentiment, the Encyclopaedia, liberty, fraternity, individuality, belonging to the same human species, a sense of equality, and elements of classical republicanism. ‘Cosmopolism’, for Rémi, is the doctrine that ‘cosmopolites’ professed, that is to say the rational natural feeling of fraternity among individuals, because they belong to the same species, against any divisive passions or thoughts, such as national egoism, intolerance, or fanaticism.

If in Rémi’s view, there is sufficient material to form an -ism out of cosmopolitan views on the international order, this does not mean that there was a widely accepted view that ‘cosmopolisme’ actually existed. As Mercier’s Néologie shows, ‘cosmopolisme’ was a new word even as late as 1801. It is not possible to ascertain historically a fixed understanding of ‘cosmopolisme’ or ‘cosmopolitisme’ in the eighteenth century. It is however possible to witness in eighteenth-century writings the rise of a philosophical consciousness of cosmopolitanism. Rémi’s general cosmopolitan sympathy is however not offering any concrete system to achieving this goal, besides an appeal to the king’s good will in foreign affairs, and a prayer to God to enlighten kings.[22] The Revolution will mark the apex of cosmopolitanism considered as a political philosophy.

‘Cosmopolitisme’ only enters the dictionary (Littré) in 1873.

[1] Bordeu et al., Recherches sur les maladies…, 65.

[2] Mercier, Néologie, 1:131.

[3] Castillon, Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité, 164.

[4] Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 138–9.

[5] s.n., Encyclopédie méthodique. jurisprudence.

[6] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 24–25.

[7] Rémi, 73–74.

[8] Dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise.

[9] Fénelon, Télémaque.

[10] Dédéyan, Télémaque; Cuche, Le Télémaque de Fénelon.

[11] Fénelon, Télémaque, vol. 2, book XIX, 395.

[12] Riley, ‘Fénelon’s “Republican” Monarchism’, 78.

[13] Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, 401–22.

[14] Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right, 58.

[15] Edelstein, 59–60.

[16] Fénelon, Télémaque, 1: 230.

[17] Fénelon, 1: 231.

[18] Fénelon, 2: 483-4.

[19] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 19–20.

[20] Voltaire, Candide.

[21] Rousseau, Discours Sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 101.

[22] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 64.

[23] Mallet du Pan, Mercure Britannique, 4:461.

Joseph-Honoré Rémy and his 1770 pamphlet ‘Le cosmopolisme’

SEMFS Conference

On 8th-10th September 2021, the Society for Early Modern French Studies held its annual conference ‘Public and Private/Public et Privé’ online. The Centre for Privacy Studies was co-organiser, and several PRIVACY scholars presented their work. Assistant Professor Lars Cyril Nørgaard presented his research on private penitence. PhD-candidate Bastian Felter Vaucanson presented his research on spiritual intimacy in the correspondence between Mme Guyon and Fénelon. Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun was the keynote speaker with a presentation of the Centre for Privacy Studies and her research on the vocabularies of privacy and the private. I presented my original research on privacy based on my previous work on cosmopolitanism (my PhD thesis at the EUI, an article on cosmopolitan rhetoric, and a chapter on 18th-century French cosmopolitanism). My paper focused on a little known work of cosmopolitanism published in the second half of the eighteenth century in France. I analysed this work in relation to the uses of the vocabularies of ‘cosmopolite’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’, and demonstrated how cosmopolitanism transcended conceptions of the private and the public.

Marriage of Louis and Marie Antoinette 1770

In 1770, an anonymous pamphlet was published with the title Le cosmopolisme. It was written on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin Louis and Marie Antoinette. In the forewords, someone pretends to be the translator of a work written in English by an Englishman, whom he calls a ‘cosmopolite’. In reality the whole pamphlet is written by someone not yet known in the Parisian literary circles, but who would then make a career. His name was Joseph Honoré Rémy.

My research on Rémy shows that there is very little secondary literature on him. The only work I could find is the database of journalists in the Dictionnaire des journalistes, which is online. There is a list of primary sources where Rémy is mentioned, and it presents a summary of his life.

In this post I present a biography of Rémy. In my next post I will present my analysis of Rémy’s Le cosmopolisme as a cosmopolitanism transcending the private and the public realm.

Biography of Rémy

Joseph Honoré Rémy (also spelled Rémi) was born in Remiremont in 1738 and died in Paris in 1782. After studying philosophy and the humanities he decided to pursue an ecclesiastical career and studied theology. He never received his tonsure and became only abbot in Toul. The rest of his life he would be known as ‘l’abbé Rémi’ (abbot Rémi). However, he had little interest in church matters. He wished to become a man of letter (homme de lettres). Therefore he went back to Paris. He followed lectures in law and befriended practitioners until he himself could practice as barrister at the Parlement de Paris.

He was a member of a Freemason Lodge called ‘Les Neuf Soeurs’, established in 1776 to gather artists and scientists. Since the statutes of the Lodge obliged its members (in particular lawyers, doctors, and surgeons) to assist the poor and the needy, and a general duty of humanity, I think it explains why Rémy was known to defend cases free of charge in favour of victims of injustice who were too poor to hire a barrister. In my paper I add new knowledge to Rémy’s biography with my research on this lodge.

Logo Mercure de France

Rémy worked as the right hand of famous publisher Charles-Joseph Pancoucke (1736-1798) and wrote many articles and reviews as editor of his Mercure de France, the most important magazine in pre-revolutionary France.

Rémy participated several times to the Académie’s oratory prize with several eloges: unsuccesfully in 1769 with an Eloge de Molière, but received an accessit (certificate of merit) in 1771 for Eloge de Fénelon, and an honorable mention in 1773 with Eloge de Colbert, which was published. He won the prize in 1777 with Eloge de Michel de l’Hopital. It created a controversy with the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Theology, which censored the work.

The same year Rémy published Le cosmopolisme, he published a “translation” of what is supposed to be a sequel to Edouard Young’s (1683-1765) Nights, which had been translated into French in 1769. Young’s Les nuits was popular, and Rémy wrote under the pseudonym of “un mousquetaire noir” a satiric version of what he considered a bathetic work. In 1772, Rémy published a collection of various legal works under the title Le code des François. He also wrote several articles for the Rémy wrote several articles Répertoire universel et raisonné de Jurisprudence and collaborated to editing the complete works of Voltaire.

When Rémy died in 1782, he was working on an encyclopedic work that was thought as adding to the existing Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. His collaborator finished editing the first volume on “Jurisprudence” of the Encyclopédie méthodique following Rémy’s work, and also used Rémy’s research for the second volume.

In my view, Rémy was an important figure of the Parisian literary scene, as can be inferred from multiple mentions of him, and especially his death, in the Mémoires secrets. He was at the centre of many literary circles and was known to be an erudite. Therefore, I consider his early pamphlet Le cosmopolise, as capturing his Zeitgeist regarding eighteenth-century French cosmopolitanism.

In my next post I will present my analysis of this cosmopolitanism based on Rémy’s pamphlet Le cosmopolisme.

20 years after 9/11. From privacy to monitoring and surveillance

Way back in May of 2000, in a world without smartphones or social media, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) called on Congress to pass a law protecting the elementary privacy rights of all Americans.[1] It would be the opening at the time of many such recommendations made by the commission, and it reverberated similar, even more enthusiastic, pleas for action for privacy. The internet was starting to globalize and become an instrument in everyday life for everyone. The World Wide Web was an information space where documents and other web resources identified by URLs, interlinked by hypertext links, could be accessed via the Internet using a web browser and (more recently) web-based applications. As of the 2010s, the World Wide Web is the primary tool billions use to interact on the Internet, and it has changed people’s lives immeasurably. It has become known just as “the Web”.

Way back in February of 2004, Facebook was created. Three years later, the first smartphones were released.[2] Nevertheless, FTC surveys had already exposed that, regardless of gathering vast quantities of personal information from consumers, very few corporations shown anything about how this data was collected and used, and even fewer assured to provide even the most elementary protections for it. Therefore, the need to legislate was clear, even before we had smartphones, mobile devices, social networks, apps, and detailed tracking of our daily movements, locations and ultimately personal lives. So the new law was supposed to force the United States administration and the United States corporations to inform people about the kind of data collected in their searches, communications and data collection.[3] However, this never happened.

On September 11, 2001, at 8h45 a.m. on a clear Tuesday morning – exactly 20 years ago from today – the Pentagon and the Twin Towers suffered a terrorist attack by al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group. This tragic event grounded the idea that zeal for the right to privacy and freedom of movement had helped terrorists attack United States soil. With the terrorist attack, all momentum around a privacy law stopped. The focus shifted from privacy to mass monitoring and surveillance. Accordingly, the national privacy law did not happen. In many ways, 9/11 obstructed the progress of privacy laws in the United States and gave the administration and corporations more room to collect data, as Peter Swire points out.[4]

In the first few weeks after 9/11[5], George W. Bush, then President of the United States, sanctioned the National Security Agency (NSA)[6] to conduct surveillance actions inside the nation which had been barred for decades by law and agency policies. When the NSA’s spying program was first exposed by the New York Times in 2005[7], Bush admitted responsibility only concerning the “Terrorist Surveillance Program”. This NSA program monitored the communications inside the United States of hundreds of people with alleged connections to al-Qaeda without any kind of citizen’s approval or the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.[8] At the time, administration officials were confident that the existing safeguards were adequate to protect the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens.

Forty-five days after 9/11 (October 26, 2001), Bush decided on behalf of national security and trying to prevent another terrorist attack, to create and implement the USA PATRIOT Act, a law that increased the power of surveillance to be carried out by the United States administration.[9] The terrorist attacks intensified debate over the issue of monitoring and surveillance by the government and law enforcement officials, with some advocating increased tools to help track down terrorists, and others cautioning that fundamental tenets of democracy, such as privacy, not be endangered in that quest. For example, the administration convinced the major telecommunications corporations in the United States to hand over the “call-detail records” of their customers. According to USA Today, this included “customers’ names, street addresses, and other personal information.” [10] The agency’s goal was to create a database of every call ever made within the nation’s borders. All of this was done without a judicial oversight. This meant that the normalization of mass surveillance in day to day life became the rule.[11]

With 9/11, the United States administration, and consequently in a knock-on effect the other governments around the world, were authorized to access tis citizens communications in the name of security, as Cindy Cohn stated,[12] chair of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).[13] Before, the idea was that democratic governments couldn’t directly access people’s communications unless there was any doubt or suspicion. With 9/11, the NSA’s strategy became collect first and analyze later.

The Muslim diasporic community in the United States was one of the most affected by these events and by the resulting changes, with some of the data justifying the inclusion of Americans on lists of suspected terrorists and often without any valid explanation. One of the most well-known and notorious examples is that of “Baby Doe 1”, a baby, who, in 2012, was barred at an airport and targeted for “chemical testing” because his boarding pass (a set of letters SSSS) identified him as a “suspected terrorist or terrorist”. Those who get on the list can be required to provide access to smartphones, mobile devices and social media to compare with data from Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE).[14] Therefore, the USA PATRIOT Act became the instrument for the widespread privacy-violating infrastructure of the post 9/11 era.

The United States administration, with assistance from the major telecommunications corporations, engaged in massive, illegal tracking operations of surveillance of domestic communications records of millions of Americans since at least 2001. Despite several leaks, for years the NSA argued that it did not collect bulk data of Americans’ communications in the United States. However, the revelations made by Edward Snowden[15] forced the agency to amend the narrative. In 2013, Snowden working for United States intelligence, revealed documents showing that United States telecoms were collecting information on the communications of people and handing it over to the intelligence services.

In 2015, the USA PATRIOT Act was replaced by the USA Freedom Act[16] which limited the administration’s power. With the USA Freedom Act, the NSA left the collection large-scale collection of communications metadata (e.g. phone numbers, location, email addresses and call duration) constantly and without legal justification. Except that this data, which is now kept by telecom operators or corporations like Facebook and Google, is made available to the NSA upon a warrant from a secret court.

The massification of internet-connected smartphones, social networks and geolocation apps do not make it easy to stand for privacy. Everyone is carrying high-end cameras and tracking devices. The ability to collect and process data has been increasing exponentially every year. The technical capability for mass surveillance is very new. And this fact, is because the technology has changed, not because 9/11 happened.

However, in recent years there have been developments in the defense of privacy. On the one hand, because of Edward Snowden’s revelations, on the other hand, because of the encryption of electronic communications. In the months after Snowden’s revelations about massive spying by the authorities, email providers like Google started offering encrypted messages and more online sites started using the HTTPS protocol (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure). By 2021, it is the norm on most of the email and messaging services, as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram.

The United States administration has been trying to defend the successes of the surveillance police. In October 2013, the president of the NSA admitted that there was only evidence of the programme having barred 13 threats. One example is that of Najibullah Zazi, an al-Qaeda member allegedly planning bomb attacks on the New York underground.  However, a BuzzFeed investigation showed that the arrest would have been possible without the 9/11 surveillance rules.

Two decades after 9/11, one of its legacies is that many programs that were created to give people more security, have not worked. We have given up privacy for very little. Postponing reflection, puts democracy at risk. The lack of privacy in general, is creating a whole generation of people who are afraid to share their opinions. And last but not least, another Pandora box (that will not be addressed here) concerning privacy was opened in the last year and a half with the current pandemic …

 

[1] See https://www.ftc.gov/public-statements/2000/02/privacy-internet-evolving-legal-landscape (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[2] The iPhone was released in the United States on June 29, 2007.

[3] See https://www.commerce.senate.gov/2020/9/revisiting-the-need-for-federal-data-privacy-legislation (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[4] Leading privacy and cyber law scholar, former Chief Counselor for Privacy, in the United States Office of Management and Budget, and the first person to have had United States government-wide responsibility for privacy policies.

[5] “9/11” is shorthand for the terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, to the Pentagon and the Twin Towers which occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001. If the term identified literally a date, it also became an acronym for the events of September 11, 2001. Two of the hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Almost 3000 people were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which triggered United States initiatives to combat terrorism and defined the presidency of George W. Bush. See https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/9-11 (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[6] The largest and most secretive intelligence agency of the United States, so intent on remaining out of public view that it has long been nicknamed “No Such Agency.” It breaks codes and maintains listening posts around the world to eavesdrop on foreign governments, diplomats, terrorists, drug lords, etc.. However, it ordinarily operates under tight restrictions on any spying or disseminating information on Americans.

[7] The White House asked The New York Times not to publish the article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/politics/bush-lets-us-spy-on-callers-without-courts.html and https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/18/opinion/mass-surveillance-isnt-the-answer-to-fighting-terrorism.html (acessed 08 Sep 2021).

[9] https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL31408.html#TOC3_1 (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[10] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-05-10-nsa_x.htm (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[11] With a strong evidence with the current pandemic that will not be addressed here.

[12] Cohn has been named to TheNonProfitTimes 2020 Power & Influence TOP 50 list, honoring 2020’s movers and shakers. In 2018, Forbes included Cohn as one of America’s Top 50 Women in Tech. The National Law Journal named Cohn one of 100 most influential lawyers in America in 2013, noting: “[I]f Big Brother is watching, he better look out for Cindy Cohn.” See https://www.eff.org/about/staff/cindy-cohn (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[13] A non-profit organization dedicated to protecting privacy in the digital environment. Cohn first became involved with EFF in 1993, when EFF asked her to serve as attorney in the First Amendment challenge to the United States export restrictions on cryptography. See https://www.eff.org/about (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[14] United States administration central database on terrorism from military and intelligence sources around the world. Includes contains highly classified information provided by members of the Intelligence Community such as CIA, DIA, FBI, NSA, and many others.

[15] Computer analyst whistleblower who provided the Guardian with top-secret NSA documents leading to revelations about US surveillance on phone and internet communications. See https://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded#section/1 (accessed 08 Sep 2021).

[16] A long acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Enforcing Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline over Monitoring.

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.

https://kettererkunst.de/still/kunst/pic570/426/411502444.jpg

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.https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.uni-muenster.de%2Fimperia%2Fmd%2Fimages%2Freligion_und_politik%2Fkleinefaecher%2Ffittosize_1024_536_bc0e90aa26afd84523b2059a0a27d99d_m13_1_reiseanleitungen.jpeg&f=1&nofb=1

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.

Private

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]

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fcdn.philasearch.com%2FA09454%2FE00737%2F0073700012.jpg&f=1&nofb=1We 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, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2011.01.005.

[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.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/parenting/coronavirus-quarantine.html

[3] https://www.thelocal.es/20200423/what-we-know-about-new-rules-for-taking-children-outside-during-lockdown

[4]https://ki.se/en/nasp/the-coronavirus-risk-for-increased-suicide-and-self-harm-in-the-society-after-the-pandemic

[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).

[8] https://www.thelocal.es/20200319/why-everyone-in-spain-wishes-they-had-a-dog-during-the-coronavirus-lockdown
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/nyregion/dog-walking-coronavirus.html 

Is this 1563 or 2020? Privacy & Plague: Reading a 1563 Plague Order during the Current Covid-19 Crisis

A month ago, I started seeing one of my old sources, a 1563 Plague Order for the City of Westminster, in a new light.
“Maybe this could be of current interest”, I thought, and stored it in a drawer for later thought. As the weeks passed, I pulled the Order out my drawer more and more often. Then, a week ago, I realised with a mix of intrigue and disbelief that the draconic measures of the Elizabethan Plague Order were not just the emergency measures of the early modern state, they were the measures of the modern state. In the week that has passed, the similarities have only become more pronounced. From my home desk, history has seemed to warp and repeat itself. In all this, one thing seems certain: measures for fighting against epidemics have not in their essence changed since the 16th century, but surely, notions of privacy have.

The otherwise little used word “Quarantine”, originally a forty-day period of isolation, has rapidly moved from passive periphery to active centre stage in our daily vocabulary.

Across the globe, the spread of the Corona Virus is intensifying by the day. And country after country joins the ranks of those with citizens that are affected by the contagious disease. Throughout these countries, the dual-method for dealing with the threat of mass contagion is simple: quarantine and a tracking down of every person with whom the sick citizen has had contact. These precautions, the isolation of an individual, either in the individual’s home, or as we have seen, in hotel resorts, hospitals or even a cruise liner, and the searching out of the person’s movements, activities, and daily interactions, are, from society’s point of view, necessary for the common good. But to the individual citizen, they are also direct, physiognomic, spatial, and informational invasions on the individual’s personal privacy.

As such, the legal and health regulatory developments that are presently being instated across the world beg the question: is health a public or a private issue?

According to a recent tweet by the influential eco journalist, Adam Ramsay, the case is clear: “health isn’t private”. [1]

Instead, Ramsay explains, “Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s. Healthcare has to be public because health is public.”

Broadly speaking, we might identify this form of logic as a “common good” sort of argument that reminds us of the prevalence that the benefit of the many takes over the benefit of the few.

At the Centre for Privacy Studies we investigate notions of privacy in early modern Europe in the period between 1500-1800. Needless to say, the question of how to contain and abate mass epidemics was an issue of concern in this period also. My own focus at the Centre is on the City of Westminster during the rule of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), whose reign saw several visitations of the plague.

You might ask what the plague in the 16th century has to do with a virus epidemic in 2020. Well, for one, they have the quarantine in common. Second, they share a similar rhetorical focus on “the common good” as well as a complementing vilification of private interest. Finally, they share a fundamental shift in the balance of power between individual and state. A shift that is perhaps best understood as an invasion or annexation of territory that the state had more or less formally relinquished to the private citizen, but in cases of emergency reclaim to their absolute domain. It is difficult to talk about rights and privacy in 16th century England, but we might, by negative inference, be able to detect the thresholds that the state saw fit to regulate and invade in emergencies. Thresholds that it might not otherwise have bothered with.

The 1563 Plague Order for City of Westminster:

[2]”Fyrst we wyll and command you in the name of our sayde soueraigne Ladye … to … shutte up both … doors and wyndowes towards the streates or common ways by the space of fortie dayes.”

This command is from the Plague Order, issued in March 1563 by the Secretary of State, William Cecil. It commands the civic officials of Westminster to shut up any houses with infected members, placing the sick and their households in quarantine.

In the Order, clear rules for disregarding the quarantine are delineated. That is, should a member of the household be let out – or should a visitor or customer be let in – that same person would be “committed to the upstockes” for about seven days and then brought to the “common gayle” to remain there for a full forty-day quarantine.

[3] Picture from Siobahn O’shea’s blogpost “How bad were the medieval stocks?”
The measures, quarantine in the case of sickness and corporal punishment in the case of disregarding the quarantine, might seem draconic to modern ears. Yet, in China and Italy, two of the most severely infected countries to take measures against the present Covid-19 epidemic, corrective regulations have been passed to discipline those that trespass against their quarantine – or even misinform the health authorities about their activities. The need to assess whom an infected individual might have infected unawares is an important part of containing the spread of the virus, but it is also information that is fraught with details about our private lives. Details we might not want to share either with the authorities or even with family members. There is no evidence in the 1563 source that any such care towards detecting potentially infected individuals took place.

In 1563, quarantine measures were still relatively new in England.[4] And, as we have seen ample evidence of in the past months of Covid-19 coverage, quarantine is still very much in use. Some things however, have changed since 1563.

As stated, quarantine was still a new measure in 1563 and with new visitations, new means were developed to perfect quarantine measure. One of the improvements was the building of pesthouses, or of pest fields, as in the case of the parish of St. Martin’s in the Field. Pesthouses were places to which sick members of a household could be sent for the remaining duration of their life, or in some happy cases, the duration of the quarantine. The infected households in question would still be shut up, but with a significantly smaller risk of catching the disease themselves. Before the pesthouses were used, households would simply be shut up with all of the inhabitants inside, sick or not.

So, in a household of, say, seven, even if only one person were ill, the entire household would be put under quarantine until the house was opened again forty days later. How many, we might wonder, would survive such conditions?

The local parishes of Westminster were at the core of organising everything from shutting up houses, taking away the dead, detecting the infected, collecting money for charity, and doling out “victuell and fuell” to the “persons shutte up and forbidden to come abrode.”[5] The number of deaths during the 1563 plague are fraught with uncertainty, but based on the parish registers of Westminster and London, scholarship on the period estimate a 1000 deaths per week for several months.[6] According to John Charles Cox’s The Parish Registers of England, the parish of St. Martin in Field noted a total of 177 burials in 1563, “145 of which are followed by the word peste.”[7] This might not seem like a daunting number but according to the parish registers, yearly burials would be in the tens and twenties, not in the hundreds. This is evident in Cox’s table over burials between 1562 and 1564 in five nearby London parishes.

[8] John Charles Cox, The Parish Registers of England, p. 145.
To some extent, the 1563 Plague Order informs us of how the state reacted in the face of emergency – quarantine measures, punitive regulation and organisation of poor relief for the quarantined, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how the people reacted. Did they keep the quarantine? And if not, how were such trespassing detected and monitored?

Looking into praxis – Newman’s work on the 1636/37 bubonic plague:

The early modernist, Kira L. S. Newman, seeks to answer some of these questions in her excellent research on the bubonic plague in 1636-1637 London and Westminster.

The question of whether or not quarantined citizens respected their quarantine is answered with a resounding “no” in Newman’s sources. Watchmen were posted outside houses and on corners to keep an eye on the infected households and make sure that none left or entered. In fact, Newman’s sources show a whole list of necessary occupations taken on by the local parishes. The sources from the parish of St. Martin in the Field are particularly detailed and describe the expenses towards a whole corpus of personnel: “nurses, watchmen, bearers and searchers.”[9]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Newman’s investigations show that it was not the poor, nor the wealthy, that broke their quarantine, or tried to bribe the searchers not to report on an infected member of the house – or bribe the watchmen to look the other way when customers and visitors came calling. No, it was the industrious middleclass. The tailors, the shoemakers, the shop keepers, the innkeepers and other forms of small business owners whose livelihood were pulled from down under them with the severe restrictions on mobility and heavy death tolls in their clientele.

Newman writes that “There was a conspicuous absence of the poorest from the Session Rolls.”[10] The poor, she argues, would be given food and fuel free of charge and therefore might have had less incentive to disregard quarantine orders. But not all poor people had a home or space to share that was theirs. What did the poor people that rented rooms do? The answer to this question is vividly given in the 1563 plague order: they were not shut up. They were shipped out.

Rhetoric and vilification:

“And further, where it is evidently knowen that in the sayde Citie of Westminster, there be greater numbers of people inhabytyng, and as it were swarmyng in every rome, than can reasonably have their sustentation by their honest labours or trade of lyvyng, by reason that for gredinesse and lucre many owners or tenauntes of houses, do take into them other inhabitants and famylyes, to dwell in some part of theyr chambers, shoppes, cellers, or leanetoos, paying for the same also such excessyue weekly, or other kynde of rentes, as they can not mayntayne them selves in sekyng the same by sundry kyndes pf disorder”.[11]

This section of the order is so strikingly rich in its portrayal of the social situation in Westminster. Its portrayal of private property and private greed vs. public good reveals a system that did not have the state apparatus to deal with overpopulation, nor, significantly, the means to contain the spread of the infection. The reasons for Westminster’s overpopulation are compound. For one, Westminster was the seat of power. When Westminster was not visited by the plague, parliament, the royal court and the legal courts were open for courtiers and those with political and legal affairs from all of the country. The wealthier of these would have houses in Westminster for this specific purpose. Similarly, the well-connected would stay with wealthy friends. Everyone else would have to rent houses, rooms, or beds according to their means and status. In turn, such activity brought in servants or demanded that temporary servants be taken on for the duration of a stay, meaning that those in need of a job, or wanting to sell their goods at the market would flock to Westminster too.

Unlike the lockdowns of France, Spain and Italy, the City of Westminster was not shut up nor locked down. Much like Boccacio’s group of imaginative noblemen and women in The Decameron, the rich fled to their country houses and the poor remained.

All those that in the state’s eyes were “swarmyng in every rome” were sent back to where they came from. And those that defied these orders, perhaps in an attempt to make some extra money by continuing to lend out their “shoppes, chambers, cellars or leanetoes” were publicly shamed for their private interest – their “greedinesse and lucre”. Additionally, those that did rent a place, be it in a shop or chamber – were deeply vilified in the Lord Secretary’s description. It is unthinkable by the logic laid out in the Order, that such persons would be able to sustain themselves by an honourable profession. The Order’s careful wording evoke powerful images of greedy self-interest and dehumanised hordes of criminals, endangering the health of the city. The connection that Lord Burghley forges between greed and private interest is by no means novel. In the Acts of Parliament, we see an even more directly expressed vilification of private interest as “private greed”, “lucre”, “profit” and “gayne”. The table below gives an overview of non-formulaic priv*-words, in the Acts of Parliament from 1547 to 1603.[12]

The diagram shows the number of occurrences of priv*-words (words that have their root in the Latin privatus) across the reigns of Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary Tudor (1553-1558), and Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

Vagrants, day-labourers, season workers and their families were, according to the Plague Order, thrown out of their homes, be they rented or lent. Those with permanent settlement in Westminster on the other hand were, if suspected of being infected, shut up in their home, or in the case of servants, in the home of their master. In the first case, such action robbed citizens of the roof over their heads. In the latter case, it robbed citizens of their personal mobility.

The Plague Order from 1563 is unambiguous and unapologetic in its intrusion into private property. The privacy to do what you want – with and in – your property or lodging is unflinchingly interfered by the authorities when the state is in a state of emergency.

Health Status – to be or not to be publicly marked?

With 21st century eyes, these actions are very serious potential violations to personal freedom and privacy. But that does not mean that 21st century governments have not enforced similar measures in states of emergency. In Denmark, we have all been encouraged to work from home and stay indoors and in this moment of writing, all shops, cafés, bars and restaurants are being shut down.

An Emergency Act was passed this week in the Danish Parliament. The Act was passed with a unanimous vote across the political parties. One thing, however, was fiercely debated before the Act was put through; namely, the inviolability of private property. In the Act, the government wants to have the possibility to grant officials the right to search and enter private property without a search warrant. The permission has not been put into use, but it is now in the government’s arsenal, should circumstances call for such drastic measures.

Turning to another example of state muscle-flexing, the French prime minister, Emmanuel Macron, has declared war on the virus and placed the entire country under a 14-day lockdown. During this lockdown, non-essential excursions will be fined.

In the province of Hangzhou, as reported early this month in the New York Times, a new system of classification is introduced to control citizen’s movement and determine their virus status and thereby assess their right to mobility. [13] The app, Alipay, is used to give citizens a health code: Green is good and gives free access to public space and transport, yellow means seven days’ isolation and red results in a 14-day quarantine. The status of your health is based on your movements and the people you have been in contact with. All trackable through the app. As with so many of the measures now put in place, we find historical equivalents. None are found in the 1563 Plague Order, but the Plague Order from 1578, not directed at plague in Westminster but in the countryside, gives an Elizabethan example of publicly marking health status. In the order, it is explained that those quarantined at their farms are allowed to care for their livestock and manure their fields. But it is also noted that such persons “be neverthelesse retrained from resorting into companie of others either publicaly or privately during the said time of the restraint, and to wear some marke in their uppermost garments, or beare white rods in their hands at such time as they shall goe abrode”.[14]

In the case of the app Alipay, used in China, the concerns in terms of privacy and mobility tracking are of course significantly more far-reaching. Emergency Acts are rushed through parliament in countries across the world and as much as such emergency legislation is for the benefit of the common good, citizens also voice valid concerns.

Privacy in a State of Emergency

In a recent article in the L.A. Times, the newspaper answered a question about governmental infringement on the private sphere: “What can the government force people to do in the name of containing the coronavirus?”[15] We might notice the overt hostility and scepticism in verbal phrasing of the question. The word “force” springs to our attention, but also the formulation “in the name of” indicates a deep mistrust towards state interference. What this question brings to mind is the monopoly on legitimate violence vested in the state. The monopoly on legitimate violence is one of the defining aspects of Max Weber’s understanding of statehood. The 1563 Plague Order and the rampant Covid-19 crisis reminds us that this monopoly is constantly negotiated across the different zones of society as perception of what pertains to the public domain expands and contracts. In France, parliament started out by advising its citizens to stay indoors and avoid social engagements and physical contact. Because the initial advisory precautions have been disregarded, the state has now enforced a strict curfew that the law enforcement is tasked with controlling the adherence to. And even more dramatically, the Spanish government has now called in the military to patrol the streets and ensure compliance to the official regulations on personal mobility. [16]

What we might conclude from looking at epidemic induced states of emergency from 16th century England to the present day globalized world is that in cases of emergency the public sphere becomes more elastic as it expands to regulate more and more aspects of society. At the Centre for Privacy Studies we are particularly interested in notions of privacy in the overlaps and thresholds between different societal zones. A visualization of these societal zones in a non-emergency state could look something like this:

But as the headline of the L.A. Times article manifests, the proportional interrelation between the zones undergoes a significant, if not dramatic, shift in cases of emergency:

Naturally, the measures against epidemics have changed, but quarantine and disciplinary actions towards those who disregard the quarantine remain core measures, and have been so for over five hundred years.

During this period, our notion of privacy in northern Europe has changed dramatically, especially in the past two hundred years. And worries about what the state might force you to do are expressions of this. But predominantly, citizens seem to agree with Adam Ramsay: Health is a public issue. Such status legitimises the expansion of the public sphere in cases of health emergency today and historically. The question then is whether our more developed and legally manifested notions of privacy even matter in emergency situations. When it comes to state nullification of private spheres, be they personal, informational or spatial, has the situation over the past five hundred years merely changed from ignorance to informed consent?

Leaving that polemical question to linger, I will thank you for your attention. Please comment and please share any sources you might be working on that, like the 1563 Plague Order, gives you that crazy sense of being in a warped space-time continuum.

Sources Cited:

[1] @AdamRamsay (Adam Ramsay), “The Coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private. As a species we live in herds. Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s. Healthcare has to be public because health is public.“, Twitter, 28 Feb. 2020, twitter.com/AdamRamsay/status/1233341409815646209

[2] Wyllyam Cecill Knight, High Stewarde of the Citie of Westminster, and Ambrose Caue, Knight, Chauncelour of the Duchye of Lancaster, Two of the Priuie Counsell to the Quenes Moste Excellent Maiestie, to the Baylyffe, Headboroughs, Constables, and Other Officers within the Sayde Citie … Greeting Knowe Ye That Our Sayde Soueraigne Lady the Quene, Hauyng Compassion of the Estate of That Her Citie, Because of the Long Visitation Thereof with the Plague …, Early English Books, 1475-1640 / 1881:05 ([S.l.] : Jmprinted by Richard Jugge, Printer to the Quenes Maiestie, Cum priuilegio Regiae Maiestatis, [1563], 1563).

[3] Siobhan O’Shea, ‘How Bad Were the Medieval Stocks?’, Interesly, 2018 <https://www.interesly.com/how-bad-were-the-medieval-stocks/> [accessed 6 March 2020].

[4] Kira L. S. Newman, ‘Shutt up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History of Crime, Corruption, and States (Spring 2012, pp. 809-834), p. 809.

[5] Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.

[6] J. Charles Cox, The Parish Registers of England (London Methuen, 1910), p. 144 <http://archive.org/detail/parishregisterso00coxjuoft> [accessed 16 March 2020].

[7] Cox, 1910, p.145.

[8] ibid.

[9] Newman, 2012, p.811

[10] ibid. p. 823

[11] Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.

[12] The data is mined from The Statutes of the Realm: Printed by Command of His Majesty King George the Third, in Pursuance of an Address of the House of Commons of Great Britain. From Original Records and Authentic Manuscripts, 10 vols (Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1810), iv, part I <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000017915502> [accessed 30 October 2019].

[13] Paul Mozur, Raymond Zhong, and Aaron Krolik, ‘In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags’, The New York Times, 1 March 2020, section Business <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/01/business/china-coronavirus-surveillance.html> [accessed 17 March 2020].

[14] Wyllyam Cecill Knight, 1563.

[15] ‘Q&A: What Can the Government Force People to Do in the Name of Containing the Coronavirus?’, Los Angeles Times, 2020 <https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-03-02/coronavirus-government-restrictions-legality> [accessed 3 March 2020].

[16] ‘Coronavirus Spain: Government Sends in the MILITARY to Police the Streets amid Lockdown | World | News | Express.Co.Uk’ <https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1255657/coronavirus-spain-lockdown-military-patrol-streets-madrid-valencia-santa-cruz-tenerife> [accessed 19 March 2020].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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