Philosophy Through the Bars

Dr. Harper is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Three years ago, I received a inquiry for some reading materials. It came from the librarian of the Iowa State Peni­tentiary, a man serving sentence for a serious crime.

"Perhaps these men are at­tracted by our claim to be working for the cause of liberty," someone punned. "Surely they have little interest in the philosophical subjects with which we deal."

That judgment proved to be wrong, as later evidence revealed.

After receiving the large supply of FEE materials, the librarian read them all, including the books, within a period of five weeks. Then he wrote, "As for me, the most in­teresting release is The America We Lost." That is one by Mario Pei, Professor of Romance Lan­guages at Columbia University.

The librarian continued, "We could use all the releases you would care to send us, and I’m sure they will have a big circula­tion here."

Thereafter, he sent me his an­nual library reports regularly. They reflected pride of accomplish­ment that would challenge the de­votion to responsibilities of most any librarian, anywhere. This man obviously served his fellow pris­oners well, helping to further their education. They must miss him, now that he has been released on parole.

Together with another prisoner, this man — in addition to his regu­lar library duties — helped to de­velop and had patented a new type of electric stylus for library work.

As a bit of background with which to compare prisoner read­ing, a recent survey revealed that five out of every six college gradu­ates had done no outside reading at all of a serious nature during the preceding few months. Those who can read have a theoretical advan­tage over those who can’t, but they will surely narrow that advantage with passing time if the ability is not used. Hardly an adequate substitute for good reading, someone has reminded us, are many of the programs on radio and TV.

Prisoners Who Read

As a sample of the educational work done by this library, note these figures for the year ending in May 1953:

Number of books circulated



Number of magazine issues circulated


Number of persons (approximate average)



Books per person

































Useful Arts










Fine Arts





Natural Science





General Works










Total nonfiction









A book "circulated" is not neces­sarily read, of course. But even so, how many people do you know who can equal that record for apparent reading, other than perhaps a few college students with their as­signed readings? Note especially the average per person of one book a month of serious reading — soci­ology, biography, history, and the like.

Prisoners Who Write

"But," someone will suggest, "why shouldn’t these men do lots of reading? They have plenty of time. The rest of us are too busy to read. For them it is important to have their minds as well as their muscles exercised, as an important form of therapy."

In a sense this is true. Their confinement surely offers a certain opportunity, if used to advantage. Many of these men are proving that much can be learned from books without going to college, and that they are learning far more, year for year, than a large propor­tion of college students do. And a year in college costs $1,750, more or less.

Many of these men, I have dis­covered, are accomplished writers with highly talented minds. After all, we know that it takes no more than a moment’s violation of the code of societal discipline, and a brilliant mind may be put behind bars for years or the rest of his life. There he will be found, along with the less talented "habitual criminal."

We know, for instance, that many great works of literature have been written by men who used wisely their time of confine­ment in prison. Among such works, in whole or in part, are:

Socrates, Apology

St. Paul, Epistles

John Huss, letters

Jeanne D’Arc, testimony at her trial

Tommaso Campanella, The City of the Sun

Walter Raleigh, History of the World

Richard Lovelace, To Althea from Prison

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

William Penn, testimony at his trial

Daniel Defoe, A Hymn to the Pillory

Thomas Paine, To James Monroe

William Lloyd Garrison, Freedom of the Mind

Dostoevsky, letters

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Henry, short stories

Mohandas K. Gandhi,… His Own Story

Perhaps even more important than a list of works actually writ­ten while in prison would be those inspired by contemplation while so confined, but written after release.

A Journalistic Endeavor

The librarian of the Iowa State Penitentiary sent me a copy of The Presidio, the prison magazine prepared and published monthly by the men there.1 They do an excellent journalistic job, editorially and otherwise.

Take the November 1956 issue, for instance. In it you will find a quote from Franklin about truth and sincerity, an article by the prison author, Tom Runyon, a re­print of an item by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, and the Warden’s regular page that is al­ways worth reading. There is an article on capital punishment, fol­lowed by a touching illustrated story, "The Presidio Presents the Last Mile" (to the gallows) which ends with this classic:

“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.-Stephen Grellet

Then there is a thoughtful article by Bob Russell, "Freedom’s Not the Answer." His theme is to the effect that if you were to give him his freedom tomorrow with­out first orienting him to play his part in a free society better than when he went in, you are "doing me a wrong and society an in­justice." And then he would be brought back one day. In pleading for occupational training and therapy in social conduct, Russell makes the telling point that "men who leave here after training in our small radio shop do not return. This is not just a coincidence. They do not return because they have found an acceptable way to earn a living, and a new self-respect in that ability…. Insecurity cannot survive in a being who knows he is equipped to do a job and do it well. . . . Freedom is not the an­swer if we are to leave here no better than the day we arrived."

A Lesson for Our Time

Further on in the magazine is to be found an article which richly repays the limited price of admis­sion to the penwork of these men —"Always" by Pete Tenner. This article seems worth quoting at length. It is a notable piece of thinking about a philosophical disease of our time which widely afflicts those of us outside prison bars:


I heard a man make a statement recently that left me so shaken that I had to force myself to stay away from this typewriter long enough to be sure I had brought my emotions under control. . . .

Who the man is, the one who made the statement, is of no real impor­tance. But what is important is the fact that he is a graduate of a fine Midwestern college, and holder of a degree in sociology. Even that might not have too great a significance ex­cept that during a lecture to a small group, he announced he had recently accepted the post of institutional so­ciologist in what is regarded as a progressively operated Midwestern prison, in order to make a study of, and to classify, each inmate, so as to be able to help both the inmate and society, in any way he and his pro­fession could. Always keeping in mind, of course, three things:

No. 1. Society is always right!

As for the other two things he is always going to keep in mind, I’m afraid I’ll never know, because when I heard what appeared to be an in­telligent man, a college graduate with a degree in sociology . . . make the flat, unqualified statement that society is always right—and realized that this was the man to whom the job of assisting in the rehabilitation of fallen men was being entrusted—I’m afraid I blew sky high. . . .

I questioned him at length about his reasons for making such a re­markable statement. But, no matter how I tried, I was unable to elicit any departure from his original state­ment. Society is always right.

I even tried suggesting that per­haps he meant society always had the right to set up specific rules, and punishments for the violation there­of, which, although injuring the indi­vidual, might serve to benefit society as a whole. "No," said the sociologi­cal expert, "Society is right at all times."

Time ran out and I relinquished the floor, amazed and literally stunned with the realization that in spite of historical fact to the contrary, this man was sincere in his belief that society is always right and therefore, if he were to be consistent in his logic, entirely immune to error! .. .

In 29, or 33 A. D. (depending on which Bible you read) Roman so­ciety, through its representative Pon­tius Pilate, turned Jesus Christ over to his soldiers for them to do with Him as they would, because the chief priests and elders of Israel who were the spokesmen for the Jews (Jeru­salem Society) demanded that he do so (Matthew 27: 17-28). Was so­ciety so right then?

Through the centuries, even up until comparatively recent times, all Chinese society agreed that the kill­ing of the surplus of girl babies was right. Did that make it so?

In or about 1914, Prussian society, which at that time ruled all Ger­many, said, through their chief spokesman, Kaiser Wilhelm II, "Might is Right." Was that society right?

In 1923 there was conceived one of the most vicious systems of gov­ernment in history and through com­placency of society Nazism was spawned. In 1933 then, when Ger­man society welcomed Aryan Hitler not only as their spokesman but as their lawmaker as well, he decreed that it was a patriotic duty to slaughter the Jews right and left. Who was it then but society, good, fine, irreproachable society, not local outlaws, that went out and commit­ted offenses against God and hu­manity that are still being talked of in whispers? Just how can any de­cent thinking human claim that so­ciety was right?

Shall we leave foreign lands for a bit and skim but lightly over our own local society? Fine. We’ll start with the "backbone" of American society, Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Is there anyone reading this who would care to try to justify society and its being right in its witch-hunts at Salem? Or the burnings which fol­lowed? You won’t without also justi­fying stupidity, superstition, and maliciousness…

If you’ll look back through history… you might agree with me that society is nothing more nor less than any large group of people, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, who follow, and ordinarily live by, laws which are written into the books by those persons who were the most eloquent, those persons who were most per­suasive, and who, by that eloquence and persuasiveness, succeeded in get­ting society to elect or appoint or otherwise install them into office whether it be King, President, Gov­ernor, Mayor, Congressman, Legisla­tor, County Supervisor, Judge, or whatnot.

These are the men then, not so­ciety, who create the laws governing society, and society, being responsi­ble for the actions of these persons, must at all times be willing to accept the blame for their evil as well as praise for their good. Society is therefore just as right, or wrong, no more, nor less than those persons who represent them!

No degree from any college has ever carried the guarantee that the holder thereof would not have a dis­torted view of the subject he was taught — so — I would like to know how any sociologist is going to hope to arrive at a decent, honest ap­praisal of a man’s character and to make an honest prognosis of the man’s case with the preconceived idea that society is always right….

Don’t forget, the only perfect Law­maker, the one Man in the history of the world Who was never wrong, the one Man Who gave us ALL good laws and Who was always right in His interpretation and judgment of those laws, was crucified by that same society you now say is always right.

There you have it. A man be­hind prison bars is making valu­able use of his time while confined. I believe he is serving all of us outside in suggesting that we stop deriding the idea that there are any eternal principles. Otherwise we shall find ourselves pursuing, at a frantic pace, a futile attempt to form a world while denying the existence of any forms within which to fit it.

Perhaps those of us not behind prison bars, of all ages and walks of life, should try to rediscover the virtue of solitude put to good use in study and contemplation. Outstanding minds throughout all of history seem to have indulged. If they did not seek the solitude of a mountaintop or the silence of a desert, leastwise they learned how to synthesize those conditions in whatever their environs. Unless some of these fruits of solitude can be garnered and mixed with the rush of affairs of material living, persons and the societies they comprise will surely become lost in the illusion that "society is always right." Must we learn this from prisoners like Pete Tenner, who are availing themselves of the op­portunity forced upon them? If so, let’s learn it and be grateful.

Even though outside prison walls, one often feels barred in by a society he knows may not always be right, as judged by the perspec­tive of Eternal Truth. At such times, he has something in com­mon with a prisoner. He may find a welcome freedom from the strains of life in reading a good book, and in the use of a pen to supplement and assist his think­ing. Whether or not the product is ever published is not, in one sense, too important. It is what the proc­ess seems to do for the writer that is important, adding to his peace of mind and development.

Foot Notes

1 Fort Madison, Iowa . $1.50 yearly, do­mestic.