Just Deserts: An Interview with Danielle S. Allen


Justin E. H. Smith interviews Danielle S. Allen in Cabinet magazine:

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 andTalking 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.