Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Justice

September 4, 2020
With support from the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, during the 2019 Fall Break, Matthew Larsen's students visited Corinth, Greece to survey sites of ancient prisons. Photo: Matthew Larsen

By Catie Crandell

Princeton scholars are approaching the pressing issues of justice and incarceration in the current moment from the vantage point of the historical periods that they study. As Matthew Larsen explains it, “a lack of imagination about the future of criminal justice and incarceration is in some sense related to the lack of understanding about the history of incarceration.”

Larsen, Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows and lecturer in the Department of Religion, is working on a multi-year Humanities Council Magic project that brings attention to hitherto understudied carceral practices and geographies. He explains the transitional moment that led him as a scholar of early Christianity to tackle contemporary issues of incarceration: “I became awakened to this massive ethical problem and basically became convinced that, when my grandkids look back at this moment it’s going to be one of the most ugly and confusing things in history.”

Taking this frustration with the current moment to the texts of his academic studies, Larsen found an archive that had gone almost completely unaddressed in carceral studies. “The more I looked the more I became totally shocked that there wasn’t a book on this topic,” he explains. For various reasons, “most people assume that incarceration was invented in the late 18th or early 19th century in Europe,” but it in fact has a much longer history; “I don’t think we can find a moment when we weren’t doing this,” Larsen attests.

Benjamin Morison and Beatrice Kitzinger thought through a similar conundrum as they created the syllabus for a course, “The Pursuit of Justice: Humanist Approaches from the Classical Tradition,” which was to be offered this fall through the Princeton Prison Teaching Initiative to incarcerated students in the Justice Studies BA program in Rutgers University’s Newark School of Criminal Justice,  but has been postponed due to the pandemic.

Morison, Professor of Philosophy, and Kitzinger, Assistant Professor of Art and Archaeology, conceived of the course as a partner for the Program in Humanistic Studies course “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture,” for which both regularly teach. The two courses were intended to overlap in a final conversation between “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” and incarcerated Rutgers Justice Studies students about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  While teaching in the prison is not feasible at the moment, “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” has introduced a new discussion feature that invites conversation about the relevance of contemporary social justice issues and the ancient and medieval texts on the syllabus.

“We were trying to do two things at once,” explains Morison, “respect the … syllabus at the same time as fitting into the justice rubric.” The primary source texts for many justice studies courses are compiled in Michael Sandel’s Justice: A Reader, which accordingly has a presence in Kitzinger and Morison’s syllabus even though, as Kitzinger notes, “it begins in the Enlightenment. It’s a very rich selection of texts, but for me, the immediate response was ‘what about all the thousands of years before?’ What happens when we start considering these issues in antiquity, and through the media of poems and plays and visual arts, not only case studies and tracts?”

While the reader tells one story about the history of justice, the ancient and medieval texts on the “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” syllabus offer other rich angles: Plato’s “Republic,” for instance, bears the subtitle “on Justice”; the Oresteia is centered around generational justice, raising questions such as “If a harm is done to your parents, do you avenge that harm?”; Boethius’s “Consolation of Philosophy” was written while the philosopher was in prison facing death. So, while there may not be a book by Plato or Aristotle called “About Prisons”, Morison jokes, incarceration is still a crucial context for reading ancient and medieval works.

Larsen’s archeological investigations of carceral spaces in the Mediterranean offers physical proof of the histories that have been neglected by justice and carceral studies. “My students and I have personally had the chance to stand inches away from the skeletons of prisoners who were shackled and executed in late-seventh century BCE near Athens,” Larsen boldly asserts. He often cites the gist of the prison graffiti and letters he has been documenting, giving these ancient inmates a feeling of relatability: “I am here, I don’t have basic food and clothing, and I just want someone to hear my trial” is one common thread. Another illustrates common repercussions of imprisonment: “I’m in prison for a debt, I admit it. However, because I’ve been in prison, my herd has died, my crops have withered, and my wife is ill. Please let me out. If you keep me in here, I am going to die and my family is going to die too.”

The relationship between historical perspectives and contemporary justice issues is definitely not a unilateral one. As Morison and Kitzinger note, most canonical texts can be read in a different light when they’re taught in the context of justice studies, and especially in the prison classroom. For instance, Kitzinger talks about her personal relationship to Beowulf. The first time Kitzinger taught Beowulf at Princeton, she focused on her disciplinary roots as an art historian when teaching the poem, developing a “perspective rooted in the material world and the manuscript transmission that informs how we think about the text.”

Returning to “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” a second time, she found herself “thinking much more about the conversations I had had with students when I taught the text ‘inside’ several years before, at San Quentin prison in California, and what seemed urgent to them.” Consequently, her lecture came to focus “considerably more on issues of community and perspective in the poem, outsider and insider status for some of the characters,” she explains.

Morison echoes this sentiment, highlighting the fresh perspectives that he gains “whenever you teach a text to a new type of audience or a different group.” When it comes to groups of students in prison education programs, these new perspectives can be especially enlightening. “Several of the incarcerated students I’ve taught have had very direct responses to the texts we’ve looked at together, responses which were much more unmediated by worries about the authority of the canon; that is definitely something that is worth trying to recapture in the course on campus.”

The Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies supported the incarceration project, and ProCES supported the “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” project.

Humanities Council Logo
Italian Studies Logo
American Studies Logo
Humanistic Studies Logo
Ancient World Logo
Canadian Studies Logo
ESC Logo
Journalism Logo
Linguistics Logo
Medieval Studies Logo
Renaissance Logo
Film Studies Logo