This week’s commentary by Rev. Gregory Jensen. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.

Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society

Privacy in our culture has come to serve not a deepening of community life but an ever deeper sense of social isolation.  Even otherwise laudable behavior is increasingly justified not by the goodness of what is done but by the modern sense of privacy.  Even among those who ought to know better, the Gospel is presented in terms that are almost wholly personal without any sense of its public character and demands.   Our sense of isolation from each other has become so profound that even to suggest that there is a human nature and that true happiness is only possible when we live in conformity to our nature, is seen a provocation and an assault on the radical autonomy of the individual.  

Paradoxically, when privacy is in the service of isolation it is also the source of what Peggy Noonan (The Eyes Have It) describes as our increasingly "exhibitionist culture."  She writes that more and more we "know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know.”  While technology has a role to play here, Noonan sees the cause as rooted in the loss of what I would call the right sense of personal privacy.  Lose this, Noonan says, and "we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God."  And with this loss comes as well the loss of a truly civil society.  "We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. “ 

Not that the modern sense of privacy is all bad.  Without privacy, without a door I can close (and the trust that you will respect that closed door) I cannot from time to time withdraw into solitude.  Rightly understood, privacy is the functional expression of solitude.

Solitude as a discipline of the spiritual life is both the antithesis and the cure for culture’s wild and destructive vacillations between isolation and exhibition.   Privacy serves, or rather should serve, those moments in my life when — like Jesus — I withdraw from the ebb and flow of daily life "to a quiet place" to pray (see Luke 9:10).  It is in these moments of recollection that I am able to restore myself and to re-evaluate and, if need be, correct how I go about meeting the myriad personal and professional demands of life.  And so just as privacy serves solitude, solitude in turn serves my wholesome involvement in the broader society.   

What critics, and even defenders, of the free market and democracy often forget is that both institutions are rooted in the solitude that privacy defends.   Neither social isolation — which sees my neighbor as a threat to my dignity — nor exhibitionism — which in the final analysis is merely another form of lust –is a sound anthropological foundation for a free market economy, democracy, or a civil society. So where ought we then to look?  

Rodney Stark (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) is correct when he argues that Western culture owes much of its success to Christianity in general and monastic life in particular.  Monasticism is a life of disciplined solitude in the service of community; it is also part of the shared cultural and spiritual patrimony of the Christian West and East.   As such it represents not only our best cultural self, it also can serve as a meeting place for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians as we work to respond to an increasingly secular and fragmented culture at home and the threats of Islamism worldwide. 

Though we need not ourselves be monks or nuns (though I think we do well to promote and encourage monastic life within our respective Christian communities), this should not stop us from seeing in monastic life a rich source of anthropological wisdom with which to respond to our culture’s deformed, and deforming, view of the relationship between the person and society.   Most importantly, among these is an inconvenient truth that even Christians are likely to overlook.   

Important as they are, economic activity, scientific research and even public policy shaped by the Gospel are insufficient.  True human freedom — personal and political — is a divine gift and so always outside our control.  Though he was not a monk, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), gives voice to a central monastic insight for our time.  In his monograph, “Prayer and Holiness,” he writes that, "The man who does not pray remains a slave, enclosed in the complex mechanisms of the natural world and of the movements of his own passions by which he is dominated even more than by the world outside."  Individualism and exhibitionism, to say nothing of the brutishness and violence that are common in all areas of contemporary culture, are the symptoms of our servitude.   

In response to this self-imposed slavery and for the sake of a truly humane and civil society, we must cultivate in ourselves a right sense of privacy and so of solitude and community life. Monasticism is a tangible sign that such a life of solitude and of civic engagement is possible. It reminds us as well that we must place our great material and cultural wealth and technological prowess at the service of something greater than our own comfort or economic success.  


  • http://www.howtovanish.com Bill

    I fully agree. Another danger in this exhibitionist society is the common indictment issued to privacy seekers that if you want privacy you must have something to hide. This article clearly demonstrates that one reason why privacy is necessary is for personal growth.

    Religious, economic and other personal freedoms require some risk. Freedom to have a “quiet place” where we can withdraw from time to time risks that some people will use it unwisely. But without it, we are truly all in slavery.