BMCR 2002.01.06

Public Goods, Private Goods

, Public goods, private goods. Princeton monographs in philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. viii, 148 pages. ISBN 9781400824823 $19.95.

Raymond Geuss’ (G.) concise and lively book presents an admirably clear conclusion. ‘There is no such thing as the public/private distinction, or, at any rate, it is a deep mistake to think that there is a single substantive distinction here that can be made to do any real philosophical work’ (106). Any political or moral theory which claims that there is such a single and useful distinction between the public and private cannot therefore be correct. G. has a specific target in mind when drawing this conclusion, namely modern ‘liberal’ theories which take such a distinction and restrict the justifiable area of state concern and interference to the public sphere.

G. reassures us that we should not despair of employing ‘public’ and ‘private’ as useful means of distinguishing spheres of concern, provided it is understood that in a given context what is public and what is private depend upon the particular use to which we want to put that distinction (113). We do not, then, encounter two distinct spheres which can then be used to limit the political. Rather, politics can and ought to begin by asking why it wants to employ such a distinction in different situations.

G.’s conclusion is sound and the vigour of his argument and the range of the material he marshals in its support are impressive, moving from ancient historical and philosophical sources through the history of philosophy to Wittgenstein and beyond. His argument is developed by using three case studies drawn from the ancient Mediterranean world, each of which is discussed in a separate chapter: Diogenes the Cynic masturbating in the agora, Caesar deciding whether or not to cross the Rubicon and march on Rome by weighing his personal dignitas against the consequences for res publica, and Augustine’s concerns for inner spiritual contemplation.1 All three offer opportunities for showing different ways in which different distinctions between private and public may play a role in moral, political, and theological thinking. These are followed by a chapter in which G. takes on modern ‘Liberalism’ itself, tracing its roots in Mill and Dewey and drawing on the lessons of the previous examples.

I have a lot of sympathy with G.’s conclusion, but — perhaps surprisingly for someone who spends much of his time working with ancient texts — I am not so confident about the role and purpose of these classical ‘case studies’ in the strategy of his argument. To be sure, G. concedes happily that he is not writing a history of the terms ‘public’ and ‘private’, or of the contrasts between them.2 Rather he wants to focus on a ‘concrete instance’ (11) of human behaviour from classical antiquity in order to show the very lack of a unitary conception. Even so, I am not certain why G. feels it is important or useful to look back to ancient texts for examples of alternative models of public/private contrast, particularly since this threatens to produce a series of historiographical and interpretative problems which are best avoided if possible. Anticipating some such worries, G. is rightly wary of claiming that the stories relate what actually happened. ‘Important as it is to get the facts right, to the extent to which this is possible, my intention in this essay is not, in the first instance, historical, so I will ignore the many interesting issues that arise about the reliability of the various sources. The same thing holds for the story of Krates and Hipparchia, and the claim about what Caesar said before crossing the Rubicon’ (116 n.1, cf. 11; the story of Krates and Hipparchia appears only at 126 n.1).

Certainly, whether the story or quotation is accurate or reliable may indeed be beside the point, but broader questions of sources are not. When we read Diogenes Laertius’ story of Diogenes’ public masturbation and his explanation for the shock of the various bystanders, whose ancient public/private distinction do we see? Diogenes the Cynic’s fourth-century B.C. Athenian understanding? Diogenes Laertius’ second-century A.D. version? Or Diogenes Laertius’ Hellenistic and later sources’? ‘Reliable’ or not, G. wants to make a point about a particular cultural understanding of propriety so it is worth asking which culture is being illuminated. Similar things can be said about the second example, of Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon. G. concentrates on Appian’s second century A.D. Greek version of events (rather than, say, the version as it appears in Suetonius Div. Iul. 31), so it is indeed questionable in what sense this source tells us about this particular public/private distinction as it functioned in 50 B.C.

In order to bypass such thorny difficulties, it seems likely, therefore, that G.’s interest in these examples is not principally for anything they tell us about the ancient world at all. Rather, they are supposed to present to us instances of what we would recognise now as contexts where some kind of public/private distinction is put to significant use and see them as reasons for rejecting the current, modern, assumption of a single and stable contrast.

Why, then, move back to consider examples for a remote historical period at all? Why not bypass the historical part of the story altogether and point out that we do in fact now recognise different distinctions between the public and private, only one of which, at best, is the distinction on which ‘liberal’ political thinking relies? If so, it is somewhat beside the point to show, as G. does, that ‘none of the senses of ‘the private’ mentioned in the previous sections is really identical with the sense of ‘private’ that plays a role in that part of liberal political theory which devotes itself to the protection of ‘the private sphere’ (76). G.’s chapter five, after all, takes on his target directly and does a fine job on its own without, it seems to me, relying heavily on any conclusions drawn from the case studies or on their antiquity.

In one sense, G. might be pointing to Diogenes, Caesar and Augustine to show that people ‘did things differently then’, but this will not help G.’s primary concern, that there is no single and straightforward public/private distinction to be applied in modern moral and political thinking. Why can his ‘liberal’ opponent not respond that these ancients simply lacked the concept which we have now, just as — as G. agrees — they had no concept of ‘the state’ as we do (41, 124 n.12)? In that case, the fact that things were different in the ancient Mediterranean is perhaps neither here nor there when it comes to thinking about how we now ought to go about negotiating individual and communal goods.

Perhaps G.’s attention is drawn to the ancient stories through an engagement with Benjamin Constant’s 1814 work of historical sociology, De l’esprit de conquête et de l’ursupartion, which drew a sharp distinction between ‘modern’ private pleasures and the ancients’ almost exclusive concentration on ‘the public’. In any case, G. begins with an account of Constant’s work as an example of the approach he wishes to reject (1), and his three case studies could, I suppose, be formulated to undermine Constant’s view of antiquity and therefore the contrast he wishes to draw by making clear ancient senses of public/private distinctions not so different from our own. But it is not so clear to me that ‘modern liberals’ base their view on any such historical sociology, and a victory against Constant can only settle a small part of the argument.

Let me conclude with some comments on the first of G.’s case studies: Diogenes and his public masturbation, which G. takes to be an example of something made public which, it is generally agreed, ought to be kept ‘private’.3 ‘When we say Diogenes did something ‘in public’, they say he did it ‘in the ἀγορά’ Once we have the concepts of ‘public’ and ‘private’ we can retrospectively apply them even to cases involving agents who had no analogous concepts, provided there is sufficient similarity in the situations in question and provided the agents have sufficiently similar reactions and attitudes’ (31). The proviso is important. Certainly we might call the agora a ‘public place’, but I suspect that the agora was importantly different from a modern market place. For one, access was to some degree restricted (anyone convicted of atimia could not enter).4 It is possible to wonder, therefore, whether the shock registered at Diogenes’ display was not just shock at being unexpectedly confronted by this act ‘in public’, but also the shock at the violation of various other cultural, political, and religious conventions which were applied to this particular space. Running into Diogenes masturbating in the Athenian agora was not, then, just like being flashed by a strange old man as you walk to the shops. The differences, I would say, are at least as significant as the similarities and G.’s retrospective application of modern understandings of ‘public’ and ‘private’ must be strongly qualified.

It is worth noting that besides masturbation, spitting, defecation and urination, other activities which Diogenes practised ἐν τῷ φανέρῳ, are not so readily understood by us as acts of shamelessness. G. has chosen his example carefully, therefore, emphasising something which is ‘shameless’ also to modern sensibilities. Other examples of Cynic anaischunia would not be so immediately shocking. For example, Diogenes eats in public in the agora (DL 6.58), and when criticised for doing so replies that he ‘felt hungry’ (so here is another twist on the masturbation anecdote — Diogenes is supposed to have wished that hunger could so easily be satisfied as his sexual urges, but doing either in the agora would bring public censure).5

Further, perhaps Cynicism was not simply a movement of committed moral indifferentists who therefore sometimes behave in ways which shock and appal, simply because they do not share the surrounding society’s sense of shame. It is possible to see Cynicism as a philosophy of protest, and Diogenes as taking a decision to masturbate in public precisely in order to shock and encourage a re-evaluation of actions generally seen as ‘shameful’. Which of these alternative interpretations we choose does not matter overly to G. since they share a background assumption that certain things are shameful when done ‘in the open’, but the picture of Diogenes they paint is importantly different.6 In one he is merely oblivious to the rules of propriety which everyone else accepts and wishes to maintain. In the other Diogenes sets out to challenge those very notions and at least in this sense cannot really be said to be ‘indifferent’ to their opinions (cf. 28). Rather, he makes provocative use of a public/private contrast for a particular project of moral censure, instruction, and improvement.

Worries over the precise role of the classical instances aside, this is a finely written and persuasive criticism of a pervasive current assumption. I enjoyed its vigorous argument and the broad and ambitious scope of its materials. It presents a strong challenge to the hasty assumption of a simple and consistent division between the public and private but also offers a way of thinking about these correlatives by putting them to use in different contexts for different purposes. Whether or not it tells us much about Diogenes, Caesar, and Augustine, it has a lot to tell us about more pressing concerns.


1. In fact, masturbation, erections, and semen (male ‘privates’, in short) turn up in all three examples. Diogenes is, famously, a public masturbator; the Latin word publicus, we learn, is related etymologically to pubes (35); Augustine, who was bothered enough to deny the truth of stories of the Cynics’ public sexual acts, was also interested in Adam’s prelapsarian ability to exert absolute control over his erections (69).

2. G. does, however, linger on etymological and linguistic issues when he feels they are appropriate: cf. 34-7, 43, 71. I suspect that G. would also be interested in the Latin word publica, meaning ‘prostitute’ (Prop. 4.7.39; Sen. Ep. Mor. 88.37).

3. For this story see DL 6.46 and other sources collected in G. Giannantoni (1990) Socratis et socraticorum reliquiae, Naples, Texts V B 147.

4. The story in DL 6.61 and Gnom. Vat. 743 n.175 specify that Diogenes did this ‘in the agora’. DL 6.69 instead has ἐν τῷ μέσῳ and Plutarch De Stoic. Repug. 1044B has ἐν τῷ φανέρῳ.

5. G. notes this at 15-16, but I do not think he can be right that this taboo originates in the scarcity of food in preindustrial societies such as ancient Athens, so is designed to prevent envy. I am also unsure how this ‘envy’ is supposed to apply to the example of public masturbation

6. This difference of opinion over the ‘point’ of Cynicism first emerges in Roman imperial portraits of Diogenes’ behaviour. See D. Krueger, ‘The bawdy and society. The shamelessness of Diogenes in Roman Imperial Culture’ in R. Bracht Branham and M.-O. Goulet Cazé (eds.) The Cynics: the cynic movement in antiquity and its legacy, Berkeley, 1996, pp. 222-39.