Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij | Ph.D.

Philosophy in Prison

In 2015 and 2106, I did philosophy sessions with inmates at Brixton Prison in South London on the Philosophy of Power. The sessions took the form of university seminars, with readings assigned beforehand, and with the bulk of the time being guided by the students’ questions and perspectives. The focus throughout was on how to apply the theories discussed on the students’ own experiences, and on society at large. The books for the sessions were donated by the University of Kent, where I was a Senior Lecturer at the time.

The format of the sessions was meant to ensure that the students were treated as serious learners, to raise educational ambitions, and to provide an alternative to the mainly vocational opportunities on offer in prison. A further aim was to help the students become better communicators, by expressing themselves clearly and confidently, and also to develop a philosophical habit of critically evaluating their own thoughts and suppositions.

I hope to get this initiative back up and running before too long. In the meanwhile, for anyone interested, I wrote a piece for the Philosophers' Magazine on the sessions, and am also including the syllabus below.

SESSION 1. Niccolò Machiavelli, the Prince, Chapters 15-19

“It is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

The Prince is something of a self-help book for aspiring rulers, written by the 16th century political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli. The particular chapters we’re reading for this session discuss how a prince should treat others.

The book is famous for its complete lack of scruples: to Machiavelli, one should only bother with things like generosity, honesty, justice, and so forth in so far as it helps make one powerful, and prevents others from taking advantage. The ideal prince, according to Machiavelli, is therefore someone who is cunning enough to always appear a man of virtue—one who keeps his word, who is generous to his people—while at any given time being prepared to act viciously and with ruthless power whenever necessary.

It’s not for nothing that we call a politician skilfully pursuing his or her own self-interest without any scruples ‘Machiavellian’.

SESSION 2. Plato, the Republic, Chapter 1, pages 16-43 (336b-354c)

“In any and every situation, a moral person is worse off than an immoral one.” – Thrasymachus

Plato lived about 2,500 years ago in Athens, where he became a student of Socrates. Socrates was famous for wandering the streets of Athens, engaging people in philosophical conversations. He was eventually sentenced to death for supposedly corrupting the minds of the youth. Plato, who might have been present when Socrates drank the hemlock that put him to death, was greatly influenced by Socrates. Indeed, virtually all of Plato’s writings consist of dialogues featuring Socrates in conversation with prominent Athenians.

The Republic is one of Plato’s most ambitious dialogues. In the reading for this session, Socrates engages Thrasymachus—a prominent Athenian teacher—in a discussion about the nature of morality. As portrayed by Plato, Thrasymachus is an early Machiavellian, maintaining that morality is simply the law laid down by the powerful in order to exploit the less powerful. In short, might makes right. For Thrasymachus, anyone obeying the laws and as such playing by the rules of morality, will lose out to the powerful who are able to lay down the rules to their advantage. What Thrasymachus thinks we should strive for is therefore to be  like the all-powerful tyrant; to be the person able to make everyone else the slaves of his passions—that, he maintains, would be the ideal of happiness.

This is also the picture that Socrates criticises towards the end of the part we’ll be reading. Socrates points out that immorality leads to discord and strife: if some people try to get an advantage at the expense of others, there will be conflict. But according to Socrates, immorality doesn’t just make for conflict between people, but also within people. When you act immorally, your soul is in conflict with itself, making happiness impossible. That’s why the all-powerful tyrant can never be happy—only the moral person, whose soul is in harmony with itself, as well as with others, is fully happy.

SESSION 3. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapters XIII (13) and XVII (17)

“During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.”

Thomas Hobbes was a British, 17th century philosophers, and Leviathan is his most famous work. Hobbes published Leviathan on the heels of the English civil war (1642-1651), and the book needs to be read with that historical fact in mind. The war saw the execution of King Charles I, and the exile of his son, Charles II, by forces wanting to hand over power from the King to Parliament. Hobbes was squarely on the side of absolute monarchy, and was horrified by the savagery of the war. According to Hobbes, the cause of the war was a rejection of the idea that the king had a divine right to rule. Question that right, Hobbes thought, and society disintegrates into war and chaos.

It is against this background that we are to read his description of “the natural condition of mankind”—i.e., life without an established government—as one that’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Hobbes didn’t think that condition was a mere fantasy: he thought the civil war came very close to it, and that, unless power was returned to an absolute monarch, life as him and his contemporaries knew it would be over. In the chapters we’ll be reading for this session, Hobbes argues that the only way to secure peace and stability is by way of a strong, unquestioned ruler—a sovereign. That sovereign is at one point referred to by Hobbes as the ‘Leviathan’, named after the powerful sea monster from the Old Testament—hence, the name of the book.

SESSION 4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Chapter 2, pages 47-69

“The crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the law of the sovereign.”

Foucault starts out his book Discipline and Punish with a gruesome description of an 18th century public execution by ‘quartering’—the cutting up of the body in four pieces (i.e., quarters)—which he then contrasts with the strict administrative rules of a prison about eighty years later. The point of the contrast is to show how, in a relatively short period of time, the process of punishment has gone from a public spectacle to an almost clinical process that’s hidden from public view. The remainder of the book tries to explain how this change happened.

At no point does Foucault mention Hobbes, but there’s something distinctly Hobbesian about what Foucault has to say. In the chapter we’re reading for this session, Foucault suggests that the spectacle of public executions provided a way for the sovereign—i.e., the unquestioned government—to demonstrate and reassert its power in the eyes of the public, “to make everyone aware, through he body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sovereign”. In short, it sends a message: “This is what happens when you disobey me”.

So why do we no longer do public executions, then? Many people would argue that we’ve essentially become too civilized for it: sometime over the past couple of hundred years, we’ve realised that people shouldn’t be treated in that way, no matter what they might be guilty of. Foucault is sceptical of that explanation. Instead, he suggests that it simply became too dangerous for the government to demonstrate its power in such a blatant fashion. The danger was that people would feel sympathy with the convicted, and band together against the government. That, according to Foucault, is why government had to hide the practice of punishment from public view.