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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 19 May 2018
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 19 MAY 2018 23 GREECE thy of light), whipped, sown into a sack with a serpent, ape and dog, and thrown into the sea. Hard labour was also a common sentence, usually in mills, mines or quarries. These places were almost exclusively underground, with tight and claustrophobic passageways and cells. The Mamertine Prison (previously Tullianum) was located within the sewer system of Rome. Conditions were squalid and most prisoners were chained to workbenches where they performed their labour, slept, and died. The prisons in the England of Queen Victoria show a people who believed a single act does not define a person. A person may commit a sin, but there must always be opportunity for them to redeem themselves. A move away from harsh penalties began when juries, in the knowledge that capital punishment was possible for most crimes, started to refuse to convict defendants. The idea of the loss of freedom itself becoming the punishment was supported by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham's panopticon concept, allowing prisons to be built where a large number of prisoners could be watched by a single watchman. The High Sheriff of Bed- fordshire, John Howard, proposed in his 1777 report 'The State of the Prisons' reforms to make prisons harsh but liveable, with prisoners provided with a healthy diet and reasonable living conditions. A prisoner paid penance for their crime by losing their freedom, but prisons progressively became more humane. Prisoners were given increased opportunities to better themselves, eventually to be released back into society ready to make a contribution to the community they had let down with their crime. Nineteen years after Socrates drank his hemlock in the Athens state prison, Plato wrote his best known work, Republic. Within this he uses dialogue between Socrates and various Athenians and foreigners to present his idea that most people live their entire lives within prisons. To prove this he describes a cave inside which prisoners are chained. All they see are shadows projected onto a wall by objects passing behind them. And Socrates asks; if all their lives these prisoners only saw these shadows, would they believe the shadows are real and all there is in the world? Socrates suggests that our experiences impose a prison upon us, a prison created by our upbringing and our surroundings, a mental prison that constricts our thoughts and decides our behaviour. In the cave the chains that prevent a prisoner from leaving represent our ignorance. The shadows cast on the walls represent the illusions we mistake for the pre- sent world. And finally, freed prisoners represent those in society who see the physical world for the illusion that it is. The mental prison Socrates describes is insidious because it is invisible. How can we overcome prisons we do not know are there? How can we free ourselves if we do not know we are trapped? These prisons exist in our time exactly as they did in his. And so the answer Socrates gave applies to us today just as it did in his Athens – thought and questioning. And he modelled this answer so he could help all Athenians escape their mental prison. He questioned the value of clinging to past glories to gain pride. He questioned the notion of material wealth and argued its pursuit came at a cost to the person. And he questioned Athenians fixation with physical beauty, a fixation he considered came at the cost of improving one's mind. For asking these questions Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death. His sentence reflected an Athenian society that was fearful, a society that did not want its youth to question the very foundations of their world for prisons. But in our world we are free to ask these questions. We can examine our lives for prisons that trap us. We can look deeper than routine so that we can make our lives meaningful, lives we choose, lives that are deliberate not imposed. We can experience the world the way we want to. We can think. We can learn. We can change. We can throw off the chains of prisons that trap us. And we can remake the world to meet our values and beliefs. “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” said Mary Ann Evans. “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom, courage,” said Thucydides. In a life that is short spending our time in prisons is a tragedy. We all deserve to live a life we want to live, free of constraint, full of achievement that gives us joy. Not achievement for others, but for ourselves. And this we can achieve by thinking and questioning, just as the prisoner Socrates taught us. We take a final look at the cave and turn, ready to continue our journey through Filopappou Hill. Behind us the ghost of the philosopher Socrates and of ancient Athens fades away. We leave their achievements with them, and take with us their teachings; to question deeply, to make deliberate choices, and to be true to our hearts. And we see with the eyes of today. We see not what was but what is. And now we can be free. Truly free.
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