Stoicism and the Value of Privacy

This draft by Dr. Jan Garrett

March 15, 2004

The classical Stoics clearly cultivated the sphere of the self, as we know from our encounter with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. But the key distinction, immortalized by Epictetus, between what is in our control and what is not, does not coincide with the modern distinction between public and private.

The modern distinction extends beyond the sphere of what is in our control, in Epictetus' sense. It includes thoughts and experiences that we have that are not in our control; it includes some of our private relationships (with spouses and children), although there are limits to this privacy (as is attested by laws making abuse of spouse and children illegal); and it includes homes that we own or to which we have "usufruct," rights of use, as renters.

Although the classical Stoics had a conception of (moral) natural law, they did not develop a conception of natural rights that we would recognize as modern. They were so focused on the cultivation of the self in the sphere of what is in our control in Epictetus' sense that they did not undertake what would have been a quite different project of developing an ethics of rights that would protect this larger private sphere.

The classical writer who perhaps comes closest to this is Cicero. Many of his ideas are borrowed from the Stoics and he seems to have had a live-in Stoic philosopher on hand in his house for much of his life. But Cicero's ruminations on the importance of private property may--just may--be an effort to extend Stoic ethics in this direction.

One is legitimately wary of Cicero's insistence on private property. It can be seen as an expression of his alliance with the old-guard Roman oligarchs against what was represented by Caesar, who threatened to undermine the property rights of the oligarchs by insisting on the power of the state to redistribute wealth to the needier Romans. We may sympathize with Cicero and other friends of the Republic in their reluctance to see all power amassed in the hands of an imperial dictator (or imperial bureaucracy). But we can at the same time wonder why the Roman oligarchs had to be as unsympathetic as they were to the plight of the Roman poor and not see any injustice in the way they were frequently treated by the wealthy classes.

There is no need to abandon these reservations, but at the same time we can see that in his insistence on the importance of respecting property, Cicero is inching toward the notion of a private space in which a person can exercise freedoms that may not be available any longer in the increasingly perilous public sphere. But, of course, as long as one has a chance, one must also engage in the public sphere in order to establish laws that will protect the autonomy of the private sphere.

Cicero's writings eventually help inspire John Locke, and Locke's defense of a more or less modern right to private property, a right understood as morally binding on others "prior" to the existence of a state (the hypothetical social contract that creates the Lockean state being designed to protect preexisting property rights), is well-adapted to promote the rise of British (and world) capitalism.

Still, to regard Locke merely as a theoretician of capitalism before the term existed and his doctrine of property rights as merely a tool for the promotion of a (relatively primitive) form of landed capitalism would be to miss another dimension of Locke's project. Locke is also a pioneer of religious tolerance, both in his Letter on Toleration and in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that provides much of the philosophical underpinning for the doctrine of religious toleration.

The importance of religious toleration for private-sphere liberty is clear today. For more recent liberals like John Rawls, religious and philosophical liberty (which corresponds to fully fleshed out religious toleration) is probably the key liberty in the area of private liberties (paired, to be sure, with political liberties coordinate with the institutions of liberal democracy).

Did Cicero have any influence on Locke's notion of toleration? It is not impossible that Cicero's depiction of conversations at his home (e.g., Tusculan Disputations, the conversation in On Ends, and with only a slight stretch also On the Nature of the Gods) among thinkers who adhered to various philosophical schools of antiquity provided for Locke one very tolerant model of the possibility of coexistence of diverse views of the divine and the goal of human life. Cicero's philosophical characters are not always entirely accurate in the depiction of philosophical views (e.g., of Aristotle whose position is referred to but not represented by a character) but they are always respectful of one another even when they strongly disagree.

The connection between these conversations and the interior of a person's house or private domain is important, or at least they seem to be from hindsight from the perspective of the individual freedom-rights that are so important in the modern conception of human rights.


"Privacy" refers to the degree of control a person (or a relatively small group of persons) has over what other persons and institutions know about them. Moral philosophers who have studied the topic refer to the protective and enabling functions that privacy serves. The protective functions relate to diminishing the chances that hostile or unethical parties may try to use some minor fact about a person against him, say, by tarnishing her or his reputation in the eyes of the multitude. The enabling functions relate to making possible certain professional relationships and functions (e.g., doctor-patient, lawyer-client) and personal relationships (e.g., the intimacy of lovers).

Because the vast majority of us are not sages, we do become upset or at least distracted by the possibility that others are watching us and judging us. (Sartre's dramatic and memorable description of "being-for-another" in his book Being and Nothingness shows how the "gaze" of other persons can operate as a way of reifying and dominating the person gazed-upon. Michel Foucault seems to develop a similar idea in his account, in Discipline and Punish, of the Panopticon model prison sketched by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham.)

I am going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that for nonsages, a sense of self requires the ability to resist the elimination of privacy and that this is necessary for one who is going to make progress in the Stoic fashion. There must be a physical and temporal space that person himself controls, where the self is not subject to the judgment of another. My reasoning is that it takes time to recognize and conceptually isolate the judgments of others, and this is necessary if one is to suspend one's assent to the impressions involved in those judgments, if one is to consider their relevance, validity, or invalidity, and finally, where appropriate, reject such judgments. But when one is continually and without let-up subject to such judgments it seems humanly impossible to process them all.

A sage could endure Bentham's Panopticon without losing his wisdom, but I am discussing not the sage but the person who is trying to make progress.

If this is right, moral progress "up from moral baseness," requires a degree of physical privacy as an environmental condition. In classical Stoic terminology, privacy would be a highly preferred indifferent. Physical privacy is not "under our control" in the sense Epictetus used that phrase, because it is not something we are always able to guarantee against those who consider us their enemies or potential objects of their domination. (Hence the relevance of a right to privacy in the modern sense.)

Most of the classical Stoics with whom we are acquainted belonged to the propertied classes--even Epictetus, although born a slave, must have been a home owner or renter when he was recognized as a successful schoolmaster and teacher. Emperor Marcus Aurelius must have been able frequently to retire to his own tent even when on military campaigns. These Stoics could afford to take privacy for granted.

The imperial Roman era had its snoops and spies, of course. For an entertaining fictional treatment of this "profession" in Vespasian's Rome, see the novels of Lindsay Davis in the detective fiction section of your local bookstore. Any surveillance done under those cultural conditions, however, was surely low-tech and ineffective by our standards.

But you and I live in the era of the Ashcroftis (the reference is to the current American Attorney General), wiretaps, videocamera surveillance, satellite imaging, and computer-assisted snooping, not to mention those little drones flying thousands of feet overhead and taking pictures of human beings walking around on the ground. We cannot take privacy for granted.