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Democratization, revolutions and technology have enabled the public to invade the private. The state has penetrated into private lives, the technology has created state of ubiquity, while our identities are vacillating into virtual, unstable and unsecure roles. In the state of constant negotium, the subtle state of otium has become almost impossible to achieve. Contrasted with leisure, free-time or relaxation, concept of otium is including contemplative aspects which can be seen as actions. Navigating around differing philosophical ideas, this paper aims to avoid them as much as possible so the concept could be presented independently, in its entirety. Boredom and disinterestedness will prove to be critical in establishing their true importance in the context of private civilization, conflicted with mass culture, mass entertainment, mass media. In arts and humanities, the concept will point out to certain destructive aspects of ambition and careerism.

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  • 1 Ortega y Gasset 1957: 18.

1We live in an overcrowded age. The concept of the multitude is both quantitative and visual, as it can be established quite simply – just by looking, as when the population of the metropolises start spilling over to nearby public beaches, brimming with life under the August sun, when work is done and the holiday season commences. The last decade or two witnessed such proliferation, the “agglomeration of plentitude”1 that the art of living has adapted to include the skills of finding a good beach spot, an empty table, a secluded café.

  • 2 Arendt 1988: 320.

2This rise of the masses was complemented by the arrival of technocratic, highly specialized professionals, antagonistic towards the ideals of renaissance humanism, or “animal laborans”,2 whereas the mass media and social networks enabled visibility for those resembling what Eco allegedly once termed “the legions of imbeciles”. What led to this? The rise of a technocratic man was inevitable and he assumed his position as next in line to Plato’s aristocratic, timocratic, oligarchic, democratic and tyrannical man. It would be distasteful to complain, though. In underestimating the newly arisen opportunities, we could neglect the possibility that we actually might be living in a golden age.

  • 3 Mann 2012: 723-740.

3Increased democratization, coupled with the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, signaled the birth of the first modern states. The previously diffused social power of the State became increasingly centralized. Infrastructural power of the State, in a significant part enabled by technological innovations, complemented the ambition for exerting its social power.3 How does that relate to us, to the questions of leisure, otium or boredom?

4It is exactly under these circumstances that we can find what appears to be accidental freedom. Before the capacity of the State, of the public, enabled the expansion of its power and its role in the lives of others, there existed a large and unregulated area in which the individual wasn’t constipated by the multitude. This sort of accidentality was allowed by the inability of others, of the public, to intrude upon the private and the individual, primarily due to lack of technological means to achieve such infiltration and only secondarily by the more diffused political organization. How and where can we imagine it? On a sparsely populated and rarely visited Ionian island or an Adriatic fort belonging to the Domini da Mar of La Serenissima? Or as quaint living on the fields of Aquitaine, in a neglected simplicity to which Eugène de Rastignac abandons his family to pursue a career in Paris? It would be futile to attempt to locate it, for it is in this sort of accidental freedom that also François Villon vanishes:

  • 4 Bonner 1960: 23.

He might have died on a mat of straw in some cheap tavern, or in a cold, dank cell; or in a fight in some dark street with another French coquillard; or perhaps, as he always feared, on a gallows in a little town in France. We will probably never know.4

  • 5 Primarily in the context of Western civilization, of societies to which this context can be attribu (...)

5There are no ever-vigilant medical or social workers in the currently dissipated area of accidental freedom. Neither are there social networks. The State, the public, the res publica was simply not able to seep through all the pores of the society and hence, from this inability, the accidental freedom was enabled. What little remained of it during the 20th century, now seems to be completely gone. This dissipation will have disastrous effects on how we approach concepts of leisure or otium, or even the simple boredom. Finally, it signals the conflict between what I attempt to casually term as the public and the private civilization.5

  • 6 Arendt 1988: 22-79.
  • 7 De Vecchi 2020: 33-51

6First of all, we should be reminded of Arendt’s distinction between the public and the private realm.6 In order to fully examine the concept of otium, slight modifications were made. However, this attempt is motivated by other reasons, too. On one hand, the distinction between the public and the private civilization is partly grounded in social ontology embedded in phenomenology, and roughly corresponds to the terms such as “personal world”, experience of the world from the “personalistic attitude”, derived from the separation between the theory of the personhood and the theory of the society.7 On the other hand, it is motivated by the insufficiency of oppositions such as private and public life, vita activa and vita contemplativa, otium and negotium, or just a division between the work and leisure.

7The two most serious consequences of the prevalence of public civilization are ubiquity enabled by technology and vacillation of our roles and identities, resulting from its violent separation between the public and the private life. Apart from that, the emergence of public civilization is the starting point of divergence between leisure and otium.

  • 8 Ortega y Gasset 1957: 19.

8Private life can be understood as our free time, after-work hours, our vacation or preference of night-clubs, of sexual partners, of literature, etc. While it signals only the temporary absence from public life, they remain interdependent, defining each other. There is no one without the other. Private life is unable to defy the ubiquity imposed by technology. It is what remains once the day is spent at work, a brief moment of repose and privacy. A mere remnant, increasingly threatened by technological capacity to produce and enforce the state of ubiquity, hence disabling the potential for achieving the state of otium in fullness of its meaning. At the same time, we are able to be found anywhere and to reach anyone. It doesn’t have detrimental effects only by limiting privacy in the favor of accessibility to the others, but is also contributing to tension, anxiety and social pressure as our availability was firstly exploited by work. It is public civilization that is imposing ubiquity, not negotium, work or public life. As such, the private civilization did not only exist outside of that of the multitude, but it came to be sharply opposed to it, even under attack by it. We are overflown with social acts, more than ever before - as if the social reality has commenced a full-blown invasion on the physical reality? More accurate, the social reality of the masses is encroaching on that of the individual. Just as Imperial Rome, the quintessential age of the masses, was characterized by colossal buildings,8 we can only wonder – is there a grander, more colossal edifice than the internet itself? Transfer of most of our activities online is one of the prime examples of ubiquity.

9While the private civilization remains intersubjective and consisting of social experiences, it is made of the individual rather than the collective, of individuals rather than of the multitudes united by conformity. The private civilization takes into consideration the plurality of private lives, the privacy of one’s life without the ambition to protrude over it. Inside of it, we remain cives, citizens to each other, to the “happy few”, held together by loose links of cortesia and gentilezza, with respect to differing sensibilities and the ways of being in the world. It is contrasted by those belonging to the generic, automatic, collectivistic, mass consuming public civilization. Can there truly be such a thing as a civilization composed of individuals abstaining from the masses and the public?

  • 9 Ortega y Gasset 1957: 20.

Not only the human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.9

  • 10 Vandebosch 2015: 119-128.

10In this case, the term aristocratic is far removed from being understood as solely belonging to aristocratic social class, just as aristocrats aren’t automatically presumed to possess the aristocratic qualities.10

  • 11 Braudel 2009: 171-203.

11Another great tragedy of public civilization, after the establishment of ubiquity, is that of the vacillation of our identities. Anyone can become everyone. Today, the process of vacillation is gaining velocity. Supplanted by technology, it expanded upon our privacy and the sense of identity. Opposed to the anonymity of the public civilization, the Private one is composed of individuals with more realized personhood, defying the categorization into plural subjects of philosophy of the social with moderate success. They are conjoined in what is reminiscent of the longue durée11 of shared virtues.

  • 12 Benveniste 1976: 392–398.

12The private civilization is created or rather nurtured instead of chanced upon, consumed or just passively joined. What comes out of otium, whether as a result of immaginare, inventare, or facere and creare, is not required to be presented, put into action, revealed to the public, as it can exist for its own purpose – it is more a matter of authorship, similar to that of an artisan. It can manifest through the modification of common objects with a higher degree of originality and authorship, their reconfiguration, and different articulation. Its culture isn’t consumed but produced, as even in otium or in contemplation, while we read a poem or a passage from a novel, we preserve our own auctoritas, just as the word “author” comes from the Latin word auctor derived from Proto-Italic augeō meaning to “to increase, to enrich” as pointed out by Emile Benveniste.12

13The private civilization is entirely conditioned by otium, and under contemporary conditions, the nature of the concept cannot be fully realized unless with great difficulty. Otium is the center-point, the root of the private civilization just as much as the private civilization is built upon the gradually enriching layers, values of the concept of otium. In what sense? Private civilization comes about, is formed or established in contrast to, in opposition to, as a reaction to the public one: one of the masses, enabled by the rise of the masses, with the distinction closely resembling the one between the individual and the many, the multitudes. Private civilization is the one opposed, defending itself against the public one. Private civilization is individualistic, respectful of an individual person, focused on it, and while such statements cannot be fully applied to antiquity, it is useful to be reminded that it doesn’t negate the necessity of an existence of a community.

14The contemporary period, marked by vacillation of identity and state of ubiquity, is dominated by the violent imposition of values related to work, jobs, productivity. It is in this context that the concept of otium, being central to the idea of the private civilization, is examined with an intention of revitalization, rethinking inside of a new situation. Should it then be considered as some sort of a resistance? This paper does not intend to become too ambitious in that regard, instead limiting itself to exploring it more as a form of a cultural strategy, confined to the individual, on a personal level. Resistance of such sort should be thought of more as a certain discipline or art of living along the well-known and somewhat romantic lines proposed by Adorno or Croce, where the art, the aesthetical, could prove to be enough to endure one’s existence, the long and cold “winter”, at least until more encompassing solution is found.

15Leisure belongs to public civilization as a violent imposition on freedom, liberty of the individual, even if in reality it is quite rationally preconditioned by finances, material conditions, dictating our own means, etc. Leisure is a violent term. Violence is imposed by necessities of reality dictated by the public civilization – it is communal, shared, overly visible, vulgar and ubiquitous, ever-vigilant and ever-watching, regulating through common laws, enforced by common institutions. Corporations, productivity, visibility, statistics, CVs, social networks, necessity of networking itself, quotas for conference participations, quotas for necessary number of publications – they all belong to the sphere of the public civilization.

16The main difference between the concepts of leisure and that of otium lies in their relation with work. More precisely, job as in profession, necessitating our almost everyday presence in a set amount of hours per week, sometimes substituted by expected and equally preset productive output in case of freelancing professions. While leisure was and currently is regarded as rest, entertainment and similar activities practiced exclusively in one’s free time, otium isn’t constrained to after-work hours, free days, weekends or holidays. While leisure remains on the side of the public civilization, that of shared values and ideals grounded in work, productivity, constant availability and transparency, concept of otium is left to be found only inside of private civilization, secluded from the masses and dictation of violent rhythms of job, work, productivity and participation in the global economy. The main issue is inability to practice it in constrained conditions of contemporary, constant and protruding availability to others, to economic necessities of actually having a job, a substantial income. Ignoring the fact that the contemporary treatment of otium is also obliged to consider the economic preconditions for the individual’s ability to fully practice it and enjoy it, separation between it and the leisure - however hard to achieve in practice - is completed by their differing attitudes toward work. While leisure is rest, otium is lasting longer, uninterrupted, undefined in terms of available time, without strict deadlines, but most importantly – it can still produce, although its production isn’t forced by needs and appetites of the public.

17Correlation between the concepts of otium and private civilization, their intertwining or interdependency, is hard to disentangle but remains of crucial importance. The aforementioned traits, qualities of private civilization, correlate with otium’s refusal to be equated with mere leisure, as entertainment or rest, allowing it to express more interesting desires for creating, experiencing or contemplating for its own sake, for its own pleasure, further pushing it away from passivity of entertainment or idleness of resting, even more by performing activities dictated by the others, by the many, by the multitudes. By allowing an individual to do so in such a manner, otium is enabling an area of freedom, enabling more authentic living and potentially more complete realization of one’s life; a step closer towards full realization of human potential in general.

18Aside from the question of how otium could be translated into a contemporary living practice, there is another issue which needs to be addressed – the ability of otium to produce, and in the nature of its production, to further illustrate the traits of the private civilization as opposed to the public one.

  • 13 Arendt 1988: 175-181.
  • 14 D’Entrèves 2019.

19The distinctions made by Arendt aren’t giving otium its dues. In her own view, “actions” as the third component of vita activa, do include “speech”, although as a means of communication with the others, as the sphere of actions is one of the public life or “plurality”.13 In this way, they are opposed to vita contemplativa. What if otium or contemplation could be considered as an action for itself, and in what degree or form could it be required of them to make an appearance in the sphere of the public in order to be thought of as actions? Is it necessary for what is created in otium to be communicated, in order for the words to become speech and thereby a proper action? Accordingly, the aforementioned plurality is mentioned as necessary for action, as it cannot be performed in solitude, independently of different perspectives that could judge its quality, or otherwise it would risk becoming a meaningless activity.14 When put against the concept of otium, it necessitates a sort of exposure that is not inherent in the concept, but in the nature of the public.

  • 15 Late Latin form of the term.

20In otium, separation between contemplation and action can never be complete. Either if the speech is treated as action, or due to opposition of negotium, or when it is claimed that “there is no contemplation without action” (Sen. Ot. Sap. 8.5.8). In a way which Arendt distinguished action from contemplation, action should be treated as some sort of presentation of contemplation, its realization and as dependent upon the plurality, the public - just as actio serves the purpose of an act of “making real what has been contemplated” (Sen. Ot. Sap. 8.6.3). The issue arises if it is to be considered as ultimately belonging to or occurring in the spheres of public instead of the private. In a way, when contemplation indeed becomes action, our words are acts as in the speech becoming an action. Curiously enough, the term “speech” is realizing only the vocal components of the words. Act of speech can also be communicated in a written form, that much is true, but it neglects e.g. imaginare15 also being an act of conception, of conceiving, of creating inside one’s own mind.

21Otium is an act of creation. If juxtaposed against action, as in actio versus contemplatio, it seems as if otium is to be treated as contemplation. However, if one is asked “what does the contemplator of these things have to offer to a god”, the reply is “a witness to so much of his work” (Sen. Ot. Sap. 8.4.2). Not only have the republican virtues transformed over time, but we can observe the subtle transit of contemplatio toward some kind of actio. Examples of St. Augustine or Pope Celestine V are those of withdrawal into solitude for the purpose of contemplation. Once Petrarca merged the contemplation with Cicero’s interpretation of otium, new aspects started to become realized and we came upon the new ground. The idea of the happy and fulfilling life, founded on otium, could be interpreted as one of contemplation in solitude, secluded from the agglomerations. Only in these conditions, literary studies, religious or philosophical contemplation could be pursued, away from the active public life. Contemplation is becoming an act of creation. It is not only a matter of higher levels of originality and aforementioned authorship, but also an action in itself. In other words, verbae res sunt.

22In the present conditions of ubiquity and “mobile ontology” as proposed by Ferraris, it was previously established that this state couldn’t be so easily achieved. Just as the vacillation of our identities is jeopardizing the principle of auctoritas, the fact of ubiquity is detrimental for privacy as inability to withdraw from the public is a sort of the optimo iure of human dignity. In contemporary conditions, we have confronted the fact that it seems as if there is only leisure understood as free time or after-work hours, vacation or two during a year, but not otium. Its contemplative aspect has been lost in translation as “leisure”. Life spent in the public civilization, under the anonymous tyranny of the plurality, rarely permits it. In solitude, we contribute to the private one, abstaining from the multitudes. In solitude, there is only an individual, and if it should be cautioned that the invention of the individual belongs to the renaissance tradition of political thought, let us remind ourselves of the individuum as an indivisible entity.

23Otium is an act of withdrawal. If the popular opinion is violently imposed on us, especially in the public sphere of politics, it is a justifiable act of withdrawal in oneself. As a willful act, it stands in contrast to being “put aside by the many” (Aristot. Pol. 5.1304b). Removed from the public, it is an uninterrupted and unbothered flow of time.

  • 16 Juvenal 2016: X, 81.

24In regards to vita activa and the issue of constraining otium only to private or contemplative life and its conditions to be considered as an action, it is of note that if the res publica “we imagine for ourselves cannot be found, leisure turns out to be necessary for all” (Sen. Ot. Sap. 8.8.2). What has become of republican virtues of Rome? Not only the balance between the common and the particular wasn’t tipped in the favor of the former, but we can witness the metamorphosis of the virtues themselves. Terms such as aretè or otium change over time, depending on the context, responding to shifting realities, changing their own perspective while gradually moving away from the original, established meaning. Under the political circumstances of Imperial Rome, otium is almost a political act of withdrawal from the tyrannical and increasingly centralized authority, built upon the masses indulging in “panem et circenses16 as otium descends into simplified leisure of the common people. This might be seen as the point of origin of the public civilization, where the private is the one of opposition, formed against it, out of necessity and without viable alternatives to combat it in the sphere of public. Simultaneously, otium is increasingly gaining contemplative aspects, fully matured by the time of St. Augustine, even more so by that of Petrarca. Capital sin of Sloth, introduced by Christianity, is not directed against it but the idleness in general, against laziness, especially against habitual disclination to exertion, be it physical or intellectual. Yet, boredom is of crucial importance, firstly in its relation to personal freedom, secondly as a condition for disinterestedness.

25How can we trace the origins of the term “boredom” and how is it related to otium? Unlike the English language, the Italian has preserved the term ozio at least starting from, coming from the Latin otio. What about boredom or noia? The word enters the Italian language through the intermediacy of Provençal words enoja, enojar during the 12th century and originates from the late Latin word inodiare with the supposed root odi, odisse. The link remains unsubstantial. It is as if the word “boredom” simply replaced the word otio, perhaps initially relying on some common grounds, but gradually oversimplified itself. While contemporary leisure is to be understood as free time or simple tempo libero, brief moments of repose and relaxation and thereby relying on the simplicity of distinction between public and private life, boredom remains a sensation, emotion, mood or a state. As such, it is sine qua non of otium.

  • 17 Ryle 1973: 81-93.

26In doing “nothing publicly” we are not risking an “indolent life” (Sen. Ot. Sap. 8.6.5). Otium, as action, is unbothered by the plurality or the public. As a basis for commitment toward artes liberales, the key word remains “free”. Not only free of the constraints of the public life or negotium, but also of ambition, interest, careerism which often accompany our affairs in public life. Value of freedom, of choice, ultimately that of boredom, is crucial. It is not a negative social act.17 If a person is without the choice, either feeling constrained to do something by lack of other possibilities or forced by own ambition, by careerist interest, then it is transgressing the principles of otium. It would be wrong to misinterpret it as an intellectual ambition or hard work, and it should be guarded against it.

  • 18 Jakobson 1966: 6.
  • 19 Ferraris 2014: 7.

27Boredom is an important component because it signals disinterestedness. It allows for the “steady course of life” (Sen. Sap. Ot. 8.1.1), natural flow of time, allowing for the time to almost “feel itself”, importance of which could not be overstated. Just as the role of boredom is to enable the flow of time or course of life to be felt, we are arriving to what is starting to closely resemble the poetic function of language, defined as a message focused on itself, a message for its own sake.18 If in the terms of language and poetics the aesthetical qualities are to be derived from the self-centeredness of the message, the same could be applied to the time split between the public and the private, to our own time, to the structures and aesthetic qualities of our own lives. As mentioned, otium is to be found not in simple leisure, entertainment, free time, in diversions lasting for an hour or two, but can only be conceived, can only thrive and is bounded by seamless lines which separate it from the others, from the daily choirs, duties, contracts and obligations and other social acts.19 It delineates the private from the public and allows the impression of the passage of time, sensations, thoughts and feelings or sense of beauty to be centered on themselves. It allows the time to be felt, our identities, our sensibilities to be experienced more fully, without the interest. With these qualities, it guards against both the dangers of ubiquity and vacillation of identity. There is no poetic function without self-centeredness, in a state of constant protrusion of the public into the private, pressured by deadlines, ambition and careerism, rents or credit payments, in the state of constant availability to the others.

  • 20 Shaftesbury 1900: 127-128.
  • 21 Shaftesbury 1991: 36.
  • 22 Kant 2000: 204-210.

28Either coupled with ethics as when both the beautiful20 and virtuous21 are characterized by disinterestedness or solely regarding the aesthetical,22 disinterestedness is safeguarding against careerism and ambition. Natural flow of time cannot be experienced if the interest is what motivates our thoughts and actions. It is detrimental for the state of otium. Enabled by boredom and disinterestedness, it is performed without interest “for the sake of pleasure, seeking nothing from it”, even if it doesn’t produce any result, “for it is sweet and has its own seductions” (Sen. Ot. Sap. 8.6.1), resembling a certain kind of dolce far niente. If public life becomes somewhat neglected in doing so, the worst thing we would risk would be that our “attention may pass from the human to the divine” (Sen. Ot. Sap. 8.6.2). Surprisingly enough, this is a description of a meditative prayer. If by adhering to these values one could still somehow manage to serve the many, it would be beneficial and the one would eventually perform a public service. However, this is not required.

29Could boredom be thought of as a potential resource? Its greatest value lies in the liberty not to be used as such. Boredom signifies abstaining, the availability of choice and liberty – while a person could feel bored if constrained inside of a prison cell or during a factory shift, that person is not presented with a choice. In this case, boredom has to be endured, it is an unavoidable fact, an immovable sensation. However, if boredom comes as a sort of “aftermath” of personal freedom, where the individual is free to indulge in activities at her or his own leisure, boredom achieves its true potential. Not merely as a resource, but a signifier of options, freedom from burdens, work or daily chores. Should such an individual be warned against detrimental effects of boredom or leisure, or perhaps be mindful of falling too deep into the state of otium? If the greatest danger that can come out of it is for others not to witness the fruits of our own leisure, it should be said that the true depth of this danger is ultimately determined by the quality of one’s own otium. Insofar, the dangers of prolonged exposure to the public civilization far outweigh possible negative consequences of such a detriment. Even more so, as the ability to simply get bored becomes a contemporary luxury.

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1 Ortega y Gasset 1957: 18.

2 Arendt 1988: 320.

3 Mann 2012: 723-740.

4 Bonner 1960: 23.

5 Primarily in the context of Western civilization, of societies to which this context can be attributed.

6 Arendt 1988: 22-79.

7 De Vecchi 2020: 33-51

8 Ortega y Gasset 1957: 19.

9 Ortega y Gasset 1957: 20.

10 Vandebosch 2015: 119-128.

11 Braudel 2009: 171-203.

12 Benveniste 1976: 392–398.

13 Arendt 1988: 175-181.

14 D’Entrèves 2019.

15 Late Latin form of the term.

16 Juvenal 2016: X, 81.

17 Ryle 1973: 81-93.

18 Jakobson 1966: 6.

19 Ferraris 2014: 7.

20 Shaftesbury 1900: 127-128.

21 Shaftesbury 1991: 36.

22 Kant 2000: 204-210.

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Aljoša Krajišnik, «The private civilization»Rivista di estetica, 79 | 2022, 7-18.

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Aljoša Krajišnik, «The private civilization»Rivista di estetica [Online], 79 | 2022, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 21 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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