Lessons from the Greeks: Privacy in Aristotelian Thought

Posted on 16/03/2018

Aristotle contemplates the latest data protection scrolls

Privacy is not a concept that has emerged in the Digital Age. It was just as much a concern for the Ancient Greeks. In Book One of Politics, Aristotle carefully distinguishes between the oikos – the private family life – and the polis – the public realm of political affairs. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at his definitions and see what bearing they might have on our modern understanding of privacy.

The Oikos and the Polis

Aristotle defines private family life as a combination of three hierarchies: master and slave, husband and wife, and father and son. By contrast, political life in the public sphere of ancient Athens is a series of partnerships between private family units. Aristotle thinks that the public state is prior to the private individual as he believes that the individual could not exist (in a civilised way) without the support of the partnerships that define the state.  

“… a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god.” Pol. [1253a] [1]

The Modern Oikos

Things have certainly changed in the intervening couple of Millennia. In modern Western cultures, the hierarchy of master and slave has disappeared from the family unit, and the archetypal husband and wife unit is a partnership (although many actual relationships fall short of this aspiration). The father and son hierarchy (if expanded to the gender-neutral ‘parent and child’) is perhaps the only one still standing – at least until adolescence. Aristotle’s conclusion to Book One is that the proper objective of a private life is the development of the virtuous character of one’s children for “…the children grow up to be partners in the government of the state.” Pol. [1260b] [1]

The Modern Polis

The story of the oikos seems to be one of the abolition of hierarchy and a move towards partnership. The story of the polis is perhaps the opposite. Our democracy is more inclusive than Athenian democracy – by the time of Aristotle the franchise had only been extended as far as adult male Athenians who had completed military training – but weaker. There are multiple power structures over which voting has little control. Three elections a decade and the occasional referendum cannot be considered to be an effective democratic control over even those aspects (various layers of government) where individuals acting collectively could exert an influence. Increasingly, multinational corporations exercise power outside of governmental jurisdiction – and therefore beyond democratic control.

Having access to personal data helps organisations to have greater influence over individuals. The European Union has recognised this and legislated to return ownership of data to the smallest unit – effectively the modern oikos as parents will have control over their children’s data. The GDPR empowers individuals to take control of their data. Given this opportunity, we would all do well to remember the quote (often attributed to Aristotle): 

“The virtue of justice consists in moderation as regulated by wisdom.”

If you would like to discuss the impact of GDPR on your organisation, please get in touch by calling 0203 2878 243 or emailing

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