“Secret government programs that pry into people’s private affairs are bound up with ideas about secrecy and privacy that arose during the process by which the mysterious became secular”

Secret government programs that pry into people’s private affairs are bound up with ideas about secrecy and privacy that arose during the process by which the mysterious became secular. The mysteries of the Church are beyond the knowledge of any man and, therefore, outside the scope of the state. During the Reformation, Protestants rejected many mysteries as superstitions, and what was mysterious then began to move from priests to princes. By the seventeenth century, the phrase “mysteries of state” meant both state secrets and monarchical power and right—not what God knows, and we do not know and must accept, but what the king knows, and we do not. In 1616, in a speech to the Star Chamber, James I talked about his “Prerogative or mystery of State,” proclaiming, “That which concernes the mysterie of the Kings power, is not lawfull to be disputed.” But monarchical notions about the royal prerogative were challenged by the very existence of books like “The Cabinet-Council, Containing the Cheif Arts of Empire and Mysteries of State, Discabineted,” published in 1658. It was an age of political reformation, rich with arguments that knowledge that was once the privilege of the king ought to be revealed, taken out of the king’s cabinet. In the early modern world, a mystery came to mean any kind of secret that could be revealed to an ordinary man.

It was at just this moment in the history of the world, on the knife edge between mystery and secrecy, that the United States was founded—as a republic whose politics would be open to scrutiny, its mysteries of state discabineted. The Constitution was meant to mark the end of an age of political mystery. (The claim was loftier, as is inevitably the case, than the reality.) In a republic, there ought to be no mysteries of state: all was to be revealed to the people. It would be revealed, chiefly, in print, and, especially, in newspapers, where, as Thomas Jefferson explained, the “contest of opinion” was waged. The danger, in a republic, wasn’t an inquisitorial priesthood. It was a corrupt journalist. And so when Jefferson attacked newspaper printers the best way he could think to insult them was to accuse them of cultivating mystery: “They, like the clergy, live by the zeal they can kindle.” The objection to mystery in government lies behind Jefferson’s commitment to the separation of church and state.

“Secresy is an instrument of conspiracy,” Jeremy Bentham argued, in an essay called “Of Publicity,” first published in 1843, a year before the Mazzini affair. “It ought not, therefore, to be the system of a regular government.” By “publicity,” Bentham meant what is now usually called transparency, or openness. “Without publicity, no good is permanent: under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.” He urged, for instance, that members of the public be allowed into the legislature, and that the debates held there be published. The principal defense for keeping the proceedings of government private—the position advocated by those Bentham called “the partisans of mystery”—was that the people are too ignorant to judge their rulers. “This, then, is the reasoning of the partisans of mystery,” Bentham wrote. “ ‘You are incapable of judging, because you are ignorant; and you shall remain ignorant, that you may be incapable of judging.’ ” But Bentham insisted not only that publicity could educate the public (who would learn about politics by reading the proceedings) but also that it would improve the nature of political conversation (because elected officials would behave better if they were being watched).

Something creepy happened when mystery became secular, secrecy became a technology, and privacy became a right. The inviolability of the self replaced the inscrutability of God. No wonder people got buggy about it.

Jill Lepore, “The Prism”, The New Yorker (24 June 2013), 33-35.