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A New Meaning of Public

Hotel de Ville, ParisHôtel de Ville, Paris

“Public” has a long history.  In Roman antiquity the adjective publicus could refer to a collective body of citizens or subjects (as in res publica) and its property.  The Romans also contrasted publicus with the domain of the private household to denote public spaces like streets, squares, or theaters.  Publicum, the noun form, had a more specifically political meaning and referred to the area, property, or income of the state.  This association of public with the state gained renewed currency in early modern Europe, the classic age of dynastic state-building) and this link persists today: candidates run for public office, state agencies are housed in public buildings, state parks are public property.

Discussing the NewsA group of nouvellistes, 1750s, discussing the news in the Luxembourg Gardens (Paris).

Café de Procope (Paris)The Café le Procope, showing Voltaire and Diderot in Debate
(from a watercolor)

Yet there is another, more recent meaning of public.  We use it in the sense of audience, as in speaking of the public for a book, a concert, a play, or an art exhibition.  Reading public, music public, theater public — such usages began to appear in the seventeenth century and had become common by the eighteenth.  Unlike earlier meanings, these were unrelated to the exercise of state authority.  They referred rather to publics whose members were private individuals rendering judgment on what they read, observed, or otherwise experienced.  A burgeoning print culture provided one medium through which these publics made their opinions known; new or expanding arenas of sociability like coffee­houses, salons, and Masonic lodges were another.  These publics arose in the context of an expanding culture of consumption where cultural products were available to those who could pay for them, regardless of formal rank.  The commodification of literature wrought by the popularity of the eighteenth-century novel, the cultural amenities available to patrons of fashionable resorts like Bath in England or Bad Pyrmont in Germany, the evolution of theaters from courtly into commercial institutions, the entertainment districts lining the boulevards of Paris or clustered in the pleasure gardens of London’s Ranelagh and Vienna’s Prater, all exemplified the expanding networks of print and sociability characteristic of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  They heralded the arrival of “the public” as a cultural and political arbiter, an entity to which contemporaries increasingly came to refer as a sovereign tribunal.  Friedrich Schiller wrote in l782 that “the public is everything to me, my school, my sovereign, my trusted friend.  I shall submit to this and to no other tribunal,” London’s Theatrical Guardian affirmed the public’s sovereignty over the stage when it declared in 1791 that...

“the public is the only jury before the merits of an actor or an actress are to be tried, and when the endeavors of a performer are stampt by them with the seal of sanction and applause, from that there should be no appeal.”

In 1747 the French art critic La Font de Saint-Yenne, the first to call for the establishment of a public museum in the Louvre, justified his proposal on the grounds that “it is only in the mouths of those firm and equitable men who compose the public ... that we can find the language of truth.” In the political realm “public opinion” acquired agency and legitimacy, even in the eyes of a theoretically absolute sovereign like Louis XVI, who wrote that “I must always consult public opinion; it is never wrong.”

[Excerpt from James Van Horn Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), 1-2]