John Howard, Public Knowledge, and Friendship

face of a prisoner

Howard understood truth to be separate from persons and more important than persons, including his friends and himself. According to one of Howard’s friends, Howard

would trust the report of no person, where he could examine himself, having, as he told me, often experienced how little dependence was to be placed on accounts or measurements given in the most celebrated books of travels, &c.^

Howard personally collected information about prison and hospital conditions. He had this information published in books. Howard wanted others to recognize this information, not as his account, but as truth independent from his person. Howard’s concern for first-person observation echoed a fundamental theme in eighteenth-century natural philosophy and subsequent science. Modern science seeks to separate truth from God, peer reviewers, personal and institutional prestige, and academic rankings.^

Emphasizing his devaluation of himself relative to truth, Howard subjected himself to grave risks in order to collect information. To learn about the conditions of quarantine, Howard in 1786 exposed himself to the plague on a ship traveling to Venice. He fell ill with fever, but recovered. In 1789, against the entreaties of his friends, Howard made arrangements for his death and set out to encounter the plague again on a planned three-year trip to Russia, Turkey, Egypt, the Barbary Coast, and other areas in the East. Howard explained his motives thus:

Should it please God to cut off my life in the prosecution of this design, let not my conduct be uncandidly imputed to rashness or enthusiasm, but to a serious, deliberate conviction that I am pursuing the path of duty, and to a sincere desire of being made an instrument of more extensive usefulness to my fellow-creatures than could be expected in the narrower circle of a retired life.^

One of Howard’s friends declared, “Of him, it might truly be said, ‘Amicus carus, sed carior Veritas’” (a friend is dear, but truth is dearer).^ Howard died on his trip through the East. But the information that he collected was preserved and published in an expanded version of The State of the Prisons. Few today who know of John Howard have read that information.

Public acclaim for Howard conflated creating public knowledge and communicating with friends. Howard was called “the prisoner’s friend” and “the philanthropist.”^ ^ Howard didn’t typically establish ongoing relationships with prisoners. Given the scope of his inspection tours, he couldn’t have spent much time with specific persons in prisons even if he had been interested in doing so. Howard made prison conditions public knowledge and hence a public concern. That action has little relation to the practice of ordinary communication among friends.

A monument erected in 1790 above Howard’s grave in Kherson, Ukraine, highlighted the extent to which Howard’s public image conflated different communicative practices. This monument, which included a bust of Howard, was inscribed with similar epitaphs in Russian and in Latin:

Хоч би хто ти був тут друг твій похований. {Whoever you may be, here your very close friend is buried.}

Ad Sepulcrum stas Quisquis es Amici. {In this tomb lies your friend, whoever you are.}^

The Russian inscription uses the familiar form of “you.” It also uses the word “друг,” a term for a very dear, personal friend, not merely one friend among many. Latin lacks these social inflections. Around the world, Howard was considered to be both a very dear, personal friend to prisoners and a philanthropist, a lover of everyone.

Ordinary communication with family and friends involves much different practice of communication than does creating public knowledge. A person might be a particular prisoner’s friend, and do nothing to address general problems of prison conditions. Moreover, even a person who caused great harms to humanity might be a good friend to some human. Public acclaim for Howard mistakenly encompassed within the good of public knowledge the good of ordinary communication with family and friends.

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