For the latest issue of Cabinet Magazine, devoted to the theme of punishment, I talked to Danielle S. Allen about criminal justice in ancient Athens, the civil rights movement, and the Trayvon Martin case, among other things. To read the entire interview, go here, or, better yet, go buy Issue 46 of Cabinet, in stores now.
Your book The World of Prometheus offers a perfect way of giving historical depth to this issue on punishment, but it may also be interesting to reflect on how punishment in ancient Athens is relevant to our understanding of punishment in the contemporary world and, in particular, in the US. I’ve read both Prometheus and Talking to Strangers, your more recent book on Brown v. Board of Education, and one thing that struck me is how many of the same themes run through both books. You observe in Prometheus that the value of approaching punishment through the Greeks is that we’re able to “sharpen our thinking about punishment on the stone of the unfamiliar ancient world.” Does this remain for you the ultimate reason for studying ancient conceptions of punishment: that it gives us a point of access for understanding the problem of punishment itself by looking at an unfamiliar conception of it?
I can tell you the origin story of the book, which is simply that, as an undergraduate, I took a class on Athenian politics in which we read a lot of the speeches that were given in Athenian law courts. I was really taken aback by the fact that there was very little mention of imprisonment in those speeches, and I suddenly realized that I couldn’t imagine a world where prisons weren’t a major part of how we think about punishment. That captivated me, and I wanted to understand a world where imprisonment was not the dominant mode of understanding punishment. In that regard, the origin of the book was absolutely the shock of discovering, by looking at the ancient world, that our world is contingent, and that one particular contingency is the degree to which we use incarceration. It bears some thinking as to how we got there and what a world without extensive incarceration looks like.
Well, that might be right about our contemporary context; the ancient story is somewhat different. Generally—there are minor exceptions to this—Athenian methods of punishment strove to protect the body of the citizen, and this established a distinction between citizen and slave, between citizen and foreigner, resident alien, and so forth. The citizen stood out as having that bodily protection. In the early phase of the democracy, the main modes of punishing were monetary fines and exile. What happened, though, was that poorer citizens would find themselves imprisoned indefinitely: there were monetary penalties, and you would be thrown into prison until you’d paid them. So imprisonment wasn’t itself a penalty, except that poorer citizens began to have these indefinite periods in prison because they couldn’t actually pay the fine. Imprisonment as a penalty seems to have been developed in order to equalize the penal system, so that poorer citizens could pay with their bodies. In that regard, it was a different approach to the body than the physical punishment used for slaves and foreigners. It wasn’t really so much a matter of chastising or wounding the body, but rather of accepting the idea that the body could stand in for property. That’s what happened at that historical moment: the body became a form of property, and the person could use that property to pay their debts. Only the citizen had such rights and control over his own body [...]