Wednesday, November 21, 2007

You all belong here

For a couple of weeks now I've been making the 50 mile drive twice a week over the mountain pass to the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute where I teach a group of inmates excepts from ancient Greek texts such as Aristotle's Ethics, Plato's Republic, Euripides The Bachaae, and Thucydides History of the Pelopenisian Wars. It's the second time I've taught this course in this setting and it continues to afford me with ample opportunities to study and learn in a setting that is by definition extraordinary and exclusive.
The men in this class are there because they crave the opportunity to improve themselves. They are in prison because they have each of them committed a felony (possibly several). It is hard to capture adequately the way the setting imposes itself on you when you enter. The razor wire on the perimeter walls, the impenetrably opaque glass of the control booth, the guards grim and taciturn, their voices rendered inhuman by the tinny speakers, the remotely controlled steel doors sliding and clanging, the surveillance cameras, the empty tile corridors, the smell of chemical solvents, the stairwell leading to yet more locked doors....and then the classrooms and the inmates, dressed in denim uniforms, seated quietly and orderly at desks that look almost too small for them. They look at you directly when you enter. They address you as "Mister ___" and you respond likewise. Some of them smile; others simply look at you noncommittally, reserving judgement. Just outside the room, through the windows which run the full length of my classroom I watch a guard's thick torso and consciously averted head slide along and out of sight.
It takes as long as it takes to say Good evening to begin the process of feeling out. I plunge into things and instantly feel at ease. But there is no denying the peculiar way that words and utterances resonate in here. Words we toss about so diffidently out there on the outside, words like "wrong" or "freedom" or "self control". This is a place that wants to make words mean something, stand for something. It's a place full of bullshitters; therefore it is a place where the truthful utterance has a ring to it all its own.
Lately we've been reading in the The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle and we've been grappling with his views on happiness, moral virtue, the role and the limitations of reason, the importance of environment and habits, the difficulty of holding oneself in that "mean state" between excessive and defective emotional states, the essence of friendship, and the pleasure that surpasses all others, being unique to man, namely, that of understanding.
Aristotle describes a path to happiness that is fraught with variables and complexities. He ascribes responsibilities to society and individual alike, but ultimately he makes the individual virtuous man the arbiter of his own good. It is not a way made easy by simple moral prescriptions or principles; rather, it is the marriage of true or right feeling to an honest and capable intellect, embodied in the actions of a man disposed always to find that path by which he can be most free of those feelings and forces which would diminish or enslave him and thus reduce his ability to choose what is good and beautiful. It is a way animated as much by pleasure as by reason, but it is a pleasure that is triggered by the truly beautiful as opposed that which only appears to be so. It is at its core a way marked by inquiry and study and elemented by the pure and enduring pleasure that comes from learning something true.
If you flip Aristotle's ideas and describe the way to misery what you arrive at is a rather sobering picture that is all too familiar to us but perhaps unsettlingly so to my class of prison inmates. The ways to misery are myriad and seemingly hard to miss... bad upbringing, bad habits, lack of training and mentoring, impoverished experience, corrupted feelings, bad friends, bad luck...the list goes on. Often I see men in the room nodding grimly or smiling in a rueful way. Language like "enslaved by passions", "bad habits", and "good character" all land squarely in the ear and dare one to make light of their content. This is a place where abstractions intersect with concrete, steel, flesh and blood, and memories.
I ask them to ponder a problem that Aristotle may not have a ready answer for...whence come those virtuous passions that reliably orient the virtuous man's moral compass towards true North? How does one come to desire spontaneously that which is truly beautiful and good?
We kick around reactions to the question but it is apparent that the question will not and perhaps cannot be easily disposed of.
One of the inmates wonders if the process of trial and error, of learning from one's mistakes may be the way. If I think something is good and it turns out not to be then I have to reevaluate what is good. But all of this reasoning, I ask, does it give birth to new and better desires? How do we educate the heart? I ask, not knowing myself how I should answer this question.
Another class member suggests that habits have the potential to become ingrained; we can be programmed to feel things. How does this notion sit with you? Does it satisfy your desire to be a free agent?
Finally one of the men offers up his opinion that it comes down to individual character. I ask him to consider whether this would be true at every stage of life...what about three years old? I ask. I do not pose these questions just to be contrary; rather, it seems to me to be important to acknowledge the difficulty of the subject matter and to perhaps remind ourselves that questions are our constant companions in our quest for understanding.
Another man, not prone to participate except infrequently, then suggests that all of us are who we are, for better or worse.
We are marked then from birth? I ask him.
He nods, not enthusiastically but as if he can't imagine any other possible explanation for what seems to stand between man and happiness.
I look at the men, some of whom have exchanged glances as if to confirm a common perception of the man who just spoke... he seems to be one of those with a low tolerance for ambiguity.
The class is nearly over. I ask them if the way we are proceeding in class is a useful method for interpreting the text of Aristotle. One of the guys says that he was nervous at first about it but that he is pleasantly surprised by how much he gets him and how much he even sympathizes with him. "I wrote my sister and told her I was reading Aristotle. She wrote back and said, "Say what?"
Everyone chuckles.
Another student raises a hand. He wants to know if I know anything about a conspiracy theory involving Aristotle stealing his philosophy. I tell him I don't but that I'll look into it for the next class. The student nods and adds that another inmate not in this class had asked him what he was reading in this class. When he told him about Aristotle and the other ancient Greeks, the man had scoffed and said, "You know he stole all that stuff from Egypt."
A classmate speaks up. "He's probably just trying to devalue what you're doing in know how it is."
I notice a few heads nodding at this. The man who initiated this line of conversation nods too but he adds, "I'm just curious that's all."
It occurs to me then that this other man, not a member of this group, has nevertheless somehow become inserted however peripherally into our group. I say, "Just for the sake of argument, lets grant his assertion that Aristotle stole his ideas from Egypt. Why don't you ask this guy which one of these ideas he'd most like to to see returned to Egypt and given credit for?"
This gets some laughs from nearly everyone in the room. Not all though. One guy in particular seems disinclined to laugh. His expression gives nothing away. It makes me wonder.
Our time is almost up. I want to end on an genuinely affirming note. I hold up my copy of the Ethics. "I just want you to know that after these first four or five sessions together, my impression of you guys is that you all belong here."
Inmates from other rooms have begun filing out of the wing and my students rise to follow suit. I turn to gather my things from my desk and as I do I replay the last sentence I just uttered to them. Suddenly I hear someone laughing at a joke or a comment inaudible to me. I occurs to me that perhaps they've misconstrued my meaning...."you all belong here."
It's too late however to say or do anything. They're on their way out, on their way back to their cells. All I can is retrace my steps out of the penitentiary and replay the entire class in my car on the long drive over the mountains.


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