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Public and Private

Charles Turner

Subject Law
Sociology » Government, Politics, and Law, Sociological and Social Theory

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x


The analytical distinction between public and private life has proved to be a useful tool for charting long-term social change and in particular for understanding modern society. In classical Greece the equivalent distinction would be one between participation in the (public) life of the polis and the management of one's (private) household, within an ethical framework which saw the political life as higher and more self-sufficient (Aristotle) than the life devoted to meeting mere material needs. In this world, privacy implies privation, the lack of something required for a full human life. This ideal of the polis, of politics as the highest form of human activity, has hovered over modern social and political thought since Machiavelli. But it has appeared ever more ethereal with the emergence of modern industrial society. For if in feudal society political power is the source of wealth, mature industrial society (or what Tocqueville calls “democracy”) makes possible the pursuit of wealth without recourse to politics, and the putting of self-interest before the public good. The modern state becomes either the minimum framework necessary for the pursuit of individual self-interest (liberalism) or a mechanism for the maximization of collective wealth (a possibility utilized by modern welfare states and by state socialism). In either case politics loses its status as the most self-sufficient ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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