More often than not, current events offer an opportunity for meditation.  This is the case today: The friends of a politician turned international financier, now to be tried for rape, have rallied round him, claiming his privacy has been invaded.  Though in this case the claim is downright preposterous, by appealing to the right to privacy, these farcical lawyers have actually raised an important issue: Is it true that a democratic society implies a particular concern for individual privacy, whether the individual be particularly attached to it or the legislators particularly keen on protecting it?

The answer appears to be yes and no—yes in theory, but no in practice.

What constitutes the realm of privacy is the sphere of which the individual may be considered the sole legitimate master, whether it be a material, an intellectual, or a spiritual one, as opposed to whatever may be considered as the legitimate concern of the whole body politic.  But the reason why such a sphere may exist, why the individual may have such a dignity, is the real question.

Democracy may be defined as a political device through which individuals, each wanting to obey no one except himself, but able to conceive of the benefits of an association with others, ensure a maximum profit from a minimum infringement on their freedom.  A society is democratic in direct proportion to the feeling its citizens have that, while living in it, they are their own rulers; it is a society of absolute kings, all privately ruling together over the same kingdom, a society of men who are each a “perfect and solitary whole” (Rousseau) or enjoy, by nature, “a perfect freedom without asking leave or depending on any other man” (Locke).  How, then, could democracy not be the regime where privacy reigns supreme?  What can be more sacred than the preservation of the sphere within which the individual has no master but himself?  Citizens in a democracy live side by side behind the walls of their respective fortresses, of their privacies.  Without ever admitting it, they can never be true friends.

Nevertheless, while a democratic society may appear ever intent on widening the circle of each citizen’s private life, and reinforcing its borders, its inner logic induces it to narrow privacy to the point of abolishing it altogether.  The mother of all democratic principles is the absolute freedom (or the sovereignty) of the individual, under the guise of the sovereignty of that abstract entity called the People.  So it follows that there can exist no such sovereignty as long as there remain, within the kingdom at large, smaller kingdoms that no other sovereignty but that of the individual is supposed to rule, which is precisely what an area of privacy is.  The inner logic of the sovereignty of the people is to tolerate no limits.  And inasmuch as each citizen may view the will of the people as his own, how could he tolerate the will of a private individual to be allowed to stand in the way of the will that is supposed to be his own?  (After all, wasn’t that the prevailing situation under the infamous monarchical systems?)  The ground of democratic ideology is that each man is, by nature, his sole legitimate master; that very fact makes entirely logical the latent hostility toward privacy that surreptitiously prevails in democratic societies.  Why should such freedom instill any particular moral obligation to respect the freedom of one’s fellow citizens?  On the contrary, under such circumstances, privacy must be naturally viewed as a new version of those lairs from which thieves would spring to rob the passersby and to which they would retreat to hoard their booty and evade the fist of justice.  When the ultimate authority is the individual himself, the only reason for A to respect B’s privacy is that if A wants his privacy, he must endorse B’s; but fear of retaliation has nothing to do with an obligation that must be fulfilled irrespective of what A and B may be relative to each other.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the logical condition for all citizens to be sovereign together, and at the same time, is for none to enjoy any kind of sovereignty on his own.  Thus, fanatical democrats from the start advocated the “total alienation of the individual to the collectivity” (Rousseau, The Social Contract), or proclaimed that anything smacking of privacy be considered “abject” (Robespierre, speech to the Convention, January 1794), while criticism of private property was not born with socialism but with democracy: “There is no right over one’s private possessions that is not subordinate to the right of the collectivity over all private property” (Rousseau, The Social Contract).  In other words the logic of democracy implies, first, that there is a contradiction within each individual between his citizenship and his privacy, and, second, that the citizen not only overcomes the private individual but is happy with that second birth.  (For the famous Marquis de Sade, the future French republic was to be a society in which the citizens might be both kings and slaves, both victims and torturers.)

This means privacy will keep losing its value, as long as it is defined as necessary only to protect naturally unlimited individual freedom.  Such freedom, contrary to the opinion prevailing nowadays, is indeed not respectable per se, but is even, as the existentialists discovered, intrinsically absurd.  Having a domain where one can do whatever one pleases does not make sense for anyone except the owner.  That is to say privacy can be considered sacred only if it can be conceived of not merely as an area where a designated individual is given free rein, but as the actual sanctuary of something sacred, in the eyes of both the private individual and outsiders.  If privacy is defensible, it must be because there is more to the private self than sheer freedom, even though freedom may be necessary to ensure the individual’s responsibility for what he is.  Then the question is, what can each human being consider sacred in each and every other human being?  Since such sanctity is not a quality that can be conferred by men (whatever men can do, men can undo) and cannot stem from a reciprocal agreement (“I respect you so that you respect me” means that I respect myself first of all, and not you), it must be that each man recognizes the existence of something in each man that no man can have done and no man may undo, what the poet long ago called the pars divina of human beings, what Christians refer to in professing all men are created in the image of God.  This does not mean, as the moderns, even some Christians, would have it, that each man, even though unique, has been created to live as he pleases, as a world unto himself.  It always meant that each man had been created to play a unique part in a world carefully devised by an infinite wisdom for everything and everyone in it to serve a purpose, to have a reason to exist.  Hence the real meaning of privacy, and the real reason for it: to let each man act the part he has been assigned, in a play written not by him but for him, whose lines he is supposed to recite in his own personal way but that neither he nor any other has any right to modify any more than the average actor on a stage.  Far from being the very opposite of the public sphere, the private one is a way of contributing to it, though on a free and voluntary basis.  Far from being the playground of unfettered freedom, the sphere of privacy is actually the shrine of all the natural duties of the human being.  The rationale behind the legitimizing of privacy is that each man should be left to fulfill his natural duties (a parent, a neighbor, a member of his community) by himself because he is by nature the best qualified to do it.

Which leaves us with little hope for the survival of privacy in our societies.  Inasmuch as they are democratic, they cannot believe an individual may be anything other than what the will of the People allows him to be.  In a democracy, there is no God to the People but the People, and nothing is sacred for the People unless they have decreed it to be so; the privacy of the citizens must be limited to that which is granted by the people.  Democracy is intrinsically totalitarian.

Now it could be argued that it is not because modern man is wary of his neighbor’s desire for privacy that he does not strive to maintain for himself all the privacy he wishes to take from his fellow citizens.  But that actually means the survival of privacy in our societies depends on the average citizen’s resistance to the logic of democracy.  I’m not sure that the average Westerner today is keen on defending his privacy, because I don’t see him ready to give up his faith in the system that is reputed to make him a king.

First of all, it is immensely flattering for the average citizen to be considered a sovereign, so he is bound to welcome any opportunity to bypass the evidence that his sovereignty is a sham and eager to be convinced by the most spurious proofs (e.g., elections) of his proclaimed sovereignty.  Democracy may be threatening his privacy, yet he will insist it is “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Churchill).

Second, a man endowed with perfect freedom cannot have a reason to enter society besides his own personal advantage.  But if this is the main purpose of society, he must be willing to see his private universe dwindle in proportion to the protection he expects from the association.  If one wants one’s antiques protected, one must establish a notarized list of them; if one wants one’s health insured by society, one must reveal everything about one’s physical (and mental) condition; if one claims a right to something, officially approved rights must be enumerated.  Inasmuch as democratic society becomes a society of assisted individuals, it is a society in which a supposedly benevolent state must know everything about its citizens, theoretically in order to service their needs.  Big Brother is not a figment of Orwell’s imagination; it is the messiah unknowingly awaited by all who expect assistance from the sovereign people.  So much so that the information the individual has yielded about himself is likely to be viewed not as an invasion of his private sphere but as the triumph of the private will over the will of the others, since the latter’s very assistance may be seen as proof the public stoops to the private, and that the individual citizen has appropriated the res publica itself.  How then could one defend one’s privacy if one does not understand he has lost it?

Moreover, the progressive decline of any interest in privacy is accelerated by a sort of spurious satisfaction given to the residual need for it, unless it is by the aforementioned loss of the meaning of real privacy.

As has been said, democracy induces a tension within each individual between his privacy and his citizenship.  In periods of revolutionary exaltation, such tension is weakened by the individual becoming exclusively a citizen (a patriot, as he was called in 1793 France).  But in more normal times this tension must be eased somehow to make the system viable.  So there follows a sort of tacit agreement that each citizen be granted leeway to develop a benign semblance of privacy to satisfy the vanity of the individual: in other words, a politically correct privacy.  It is a nonconformist conformity or, literally, eccentricity: One must wear clothes, but one may choose their most hideous shapes and shades.  One is allowed to entertain a certain personal difference from the others that can be seen as a sign one possesses one’s private domain, but only a small difference, having no bearing upon the decrees of the popular will, constituting no threat to its power.  Not a model, still less a norm, but a peculiarity to be shared by others if they wish, to be ignored if they don’t like it.  A sort of cheap originality that should least of all look as if it were anything substantial, like reflecting the particular role that by nature the individual could fulfill privately within the fabric of society.  But on the contrary a difference that is all the more fashionable as it denies that there is anything natural except what is allowed by the general will.  Homosexuality is a prime example: It is outwardly provocative and inwardly symbolic of an ideology, like the democratic one, claiming men are only what they feel like being.

What is not realized is how spurious a privacy is when proportionate to the futility of the individual’s freedom, and, in view of that futility, unable to assert its own worth except by becoming visible to all—i.e., going public!  Perhaps the spuriousness of such grotesque privacy is not perceived, because it is seen as a triumph of the private sphere over the constraints of citizenship.  To go public may mean it must be considered natural for a man who is supposed to enjoy his natural freedom that the full use of that freedom not be restricted to his privacy: Why not behave openly the way I am entitled to feel?  (Homosexuals crave to “come out.”)  But that only means the most outspoken eulogists of the right to privacy are nowadays the voyeurs and exhibitionists.