Mural of Toni Morrison, Vitoria-Gasteiz, País Vasco, Spain.

Plato in his Republic tells the famous myth of the cave (514a–517a), describing people chained and forced to look at shadows of real things which move behind their backs. When one of them is able to break out and see the real world, illuminated by the sun, he is moved by compassion (ἐλεεῖν, eleein: 516c) and decides to descend back into the cave in an attempt to liberate his former fellow-prisoners. This is, obviously, a myth and an allegory, which has been interpreted many times in the history of the Western thought. In this essay I’d like to consider not primarily its symbolic significance, but a situation in which a philosopher and a Classicist literally returns to the cave – that is, to the prison.

For the past four years, I have taught as a volunteer in the women’s state prison, a mere twenty minutes away by car from the University of Michigan, where I have been teaching for the past 29 years. Michigan law prevents any state monies from being directed toward secondary education for felons, so the entire program is run through volunteer teachers. In my own backyard, Huron Valley Correctional Facility, there are almost 2,000 prisoners packed into a space designed for 1,200; inmates are housed in offices and libraries, where the roof leaks into the classroom space; and overdoses and suicides are not infrequent. 30 students and I met in a classroom at HVC once or twice a month for a course in Great Books entitled “Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition”. I say 30, but on a given day, several students were called out for suicide watch or were doing time in solitary confinement.


Originally published on Antigone Journal, July 2021. Click here for full article.