Today the dominant mood is neither pride nor anger but apathy, whatever newspaper columnists would have us believe. Liberal societies have gathered quantities of data beyond the dreams of the most ambitious Communist bureaucrat—yet protests have been comparatively mild, and few have chosen to withdraw from the online portals where most of the spying gets done. […]
It was not until the eighteenth century […] that privacy began to take on the significance that it has for today’s debates. For European elites following Rousseau, privacy was associated less with civility than with a new and more amorphous moral imperative, now known as authenticity. In his political philosophy, Rousseau imagined a society in which individuals could legitimately subsume their private interests, but he considered actually existing society to be a mostly corrupting influence on the individual. In his famous work on education, he prescribes his philosophical guinea pig, Emile, more than a decade of isolation in order to fully develop his capacities before entering into marriage and society. Yet in his Confessions—the first great modern tell-all—Rousseau also provided a model for how to “share” one’s authentic private experiences with the public. The result was a surge of vapid diarists, all anxious to prove that they too had a singular inner life.
The Age of Authenticity was also the age of the modern novel—another genre for which Rousseau’s contribution was transformative. His Julie, read by some as his most persuasive articulation of the ethics of authenticity, was the best-selling book of its century in Europe. French novelists of the next century were left with no choice but to reckon with it. One of Flaubert’s great insights was to see that vapidity itself did not mean an absence of genuine feeling. When Madame Bovary’s lover Rodolphe becomes bored by his mistress’s clichéd outpourings, it is not her but him that Flaubert condemns: “He did not distinguish—this man of so much experience—the difference of feeling beneath the sameness of expression.” It’s a distinguishing mark of “modern” humans, in any case, that we feel the need to prove that our inner life is not hollow. Later novelists continued to play variations on the theme: Proust and Joyce could get away with writing about the minutiae of private life in part because of their mock-epic style, which carried their quotidian freight to philosophical destinations. A more radical risk has been taken by Knausgaard, who has forsaken the safeguard of style altogether: the Norwegian raises the stakes of authenticity by telling his story in the most artless sentences possible.
But what is the link between the cult of authenticity and the sort of privacy that works toward the social good in a liberal polity? From one perspective, the widespread retreat among artists and philosophers into the caverns of the self was a testament to the fading promise of Romantic politics; having failed to transform Europe in the wake of the Age of Revolution, they would have to rest content with transforming their inner selves instead.
At the same time, there was one slice of eighteenth-century society that did attempt to create a bridge between privacy as a self-oriented value and privacy as a precondition for the effective reform of society. This was the cult of Freemasonry. The Masonic associations were seedbeds for the revolutionary tumult that would eventually bring down the ancient regimes of Europe. Their lodges, shrouded in secrecy, were thought to allow space for the development of the moral authority they needed to question the state. A pamphlet from a German lodge in 1859 states that the private lodges do “what neither the state nor the church can. [They] will increase and spread inner virtue and probity.” But they were also meant to protect those who wanted to think and organize against the prevailing politico-economic order without being crushed or infiltrated in advance.