The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe

By James Van Horn Melton | Go to book overview

Introduction
What is the public sphere?

“Public” has a long history.1 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.

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 publicsuch 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; newor 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 eighteenthcentury 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

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1
On the history of the term “public, see Lucian Hölscher, “Öffentlichkeit, in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politischen-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, ed. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck, vol. IV (Stuttgart, 1978), 413–67.

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