Thursday, October 16, 2014

A note on the 3rd book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics

I have finished recording the 3rd book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. As a consequence, I shall have to spend a few more days with Aristotle.

The content of the 3rd book is indicated in its first sentence: ‘We must, with a view to the science which we are seeking, first recount (prȏton epelthein) the subjects that should be first discussed’ (peri hȏn aporêsai dei prȏton; translation W. D. Ross). The English ‘recount’ does not express well what is involved in epelthein. Elthein is the aorist infinitive of erchomai, which means ‘to come’, ‘to go’; the preposition epi means ‘on’, ‘upon’.  Epelthein is the aorist infinitive of eperchomai which means ‘to come upon’, ‘go or come against’, ‘attack’; its physical connotations mark the involvement of the whole personality of the speaker-listener in approaching the subject which is to be discussed. The physicality is involved a fortiori in the concept of aporêsai. Poros originally signified ‘means of passing a river, ford, ferry’, then generally ‘pathway, way’; it is etymologically associated with peirȏ ‘pierce, run through’ and peraȏ ‘drive right through’, ‘pass right across or through a space’. Prefixed by the privative alpha (a sterêtikon), aporos means ‘without passage’, ‘having no way in, out, or through’; aporia means ‘difficulty of passing’. (Cf. Liddell &Scott, Greek-English Lexicon)

The difficulties that Aristotle puts forward in the 3rd book concerning the theory of Forms are closely related to the arguments on the basis of which he refutes the theory in the 1st book of Metahysics; these arguments resemble those that Parmenides urges against the Forms of young Socrates in Plato’s Parmenides. Siebeck therefore conceived that the Parmenides was directed against Aristotle’s verbal criticisms of Plato’s theory of Forms. Thanks to Siebeck, I began to consider the possibility that Plato wrote the Parmenides in preparation for his third and last journey to Sicily. What are my reasons for this dating of the dialogue?

In the opening part of the Parmenides we learn that Zeno, a disciple of Parmenides was reading his treatise to interested listeners, one of whom was Socrates. Towards the end of the reading Parmenides entered the party, accompanied by Aristotle who ‘later became one of the Thirty’ (127d2-3). The Thirty would have put Socrates to death had their rule not been overthrown (Cf. Plato, Apology 32c-d, 7th Letter 324b-325a; Xenophon, Memorabilia I.ii.29-38). All those who knew of Aristotle’s objections to Plato’s Forms were bound to ask: Isn’t Plato pointing his finger at his disciple of the same name? Or even more poignantly: doesn’t he intend to appeal to Aristotle himself?

Zeno in his lecture defended Parmenides’ thesis that ‘all is one’ (hen einai to pan, 128a8-b1) by pointing to absurd contradictions in which things would be involved, if they were many. Socrates remarked that he saw nothing surprising in Zeno’s depicting contradictions concerning things apprehended by our senses, for such things are affected by many contradictions. Socrates would be really surprized, if Zeno distinguished and set apart the Forms of things alone by themselves, such as similarity and dissimilarity, many and one, rest and motion, and then show that these in themselves are entangled in exactly the same perplexity (tên autên tautên aporian) as the things which we can see. (129d6-130a2)

Intrigued by Socrates’ suggestion, Parmenides subjected his theory of the Forms to severe questioning, refuting with ease the reasons on the basis of which Socrates had considered the Forms, as well as the arguments he came up with in the course of the ensuing discussion. Yet instead of rejecting the theory as indefensible, Parmenides ended the discussion with a passionate defence of the Forms: ‘The Forms are necessarily involved in these and many more difficulties, if these Forms of things exist and one is going to define each Form as something in itself. So that the hearer is bound to be in difficulty and to argue that the Forms do not exist, and even if they do exist, they must of necessity be unknowable to human nature; and he will seem to have reason on his side, and as we were remarking just now, will be very difficult to convince. Only a man of considerable natural ability will be able to learn that there is a kind (genos ti) of each thing, an absolute essence (ousia autê kath’ hautên) … If a man, casting an eye over all the present and any similar difficulties, will not allow the Forms to exist and will not define the Form of each single thing, he will not have anything to which to turn his mind, and so he will utterly destroy the power of reasoning’ (tên tou dialegesthai dunamin pantapasi diaphtherei). (134e8-135c2)

Before leaving Athens, Plato had to protect his disciples from objections against the existence of the Forms; although he directed this defence of the Forms at every one of his disciples, he appears to have aimed it especially at Aristotle, who was the most gifted among them and who had urged arguments against the Forms.

The unceremonious manner with which Aristotle in the 1st book of the Metaphysics rejected the Forms on the basis of arguments marked in the Parmenides as irrelevant, while speaking about himself as one of Plato’s disciples – using the first person plural in the sense of “we Platonists” – indicates that he wrote the 1st book after Plato left Athens for Sicily and before he returned. Nobody expected that Plato would come back; he was in his late sixties when he went to Sicily, and he went there to help establish a state in which philosophers would rule.

Ross notes that the 3rd book of the Metaphysics refers to the 1st book as “our prefatory remarks” (995b5) and “our first discussions” (997b4)’, that the 3rd book ‘announces itself as following the 1st book’, and that the close connexion between the 1st book and the 3rd book is further indicated by the use of the phrase ‘the science which we are seeking’ (hê epistêmê hê zêtoumenê) and the use of the first person plural in the sense of “we Platonists”. (W. D. Ross, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, OUP 1924, p. xv) Convinced as I have become that the 1st book was written in the interval between Plato’s leaving Athens in 361 BC and his return from Sicily in 360 BC, the close connection between it and the 3rd book made me believe that the latter was written during that period as well.  Reading aloud and recording the 3rd book compelled me to revise this dating, for I found that in all relevant respects it stands in sharp contrast to the 1st book.

In the 1st book Aristotle refuted the theory of Forms, but in the 1st chapter of the 3rd book he introduced the Forms (ta eidê) as a matter ‘which it is also necessary to investigate’ (tȏn anangkaiȏn esti zêtêsai, 995b14-17). Then in the 2nd chapter he says with reference to his critical view of the Forms in the 1st book: ‘The sense in which we say the Forms are both causes and self-dependent substances has been explained in our first remarks about them; while the theory presents difficulties in many ways, the most paradoxical thing of all is the statement that there are certain things beside those in the material universe, and that these are the same as sensible things except that they are eternal while the latter are perishable. For they say there is a man-himself and a horse-itself and health-itself, with no further qualification, – a procedure like that of the people who said there are gods, but in human form. For they were positing nothing but eternal men, nor are the Platonists (houtoi, ‘these’) making the Forms anything other than eternal sensible things.’ (997b3-12, tr. W. D. Ross) In the Parmenides this argument is hinted at; Parmenides asks: ‘And would you make an idea (eidos) of man apart from us and from all other human creatures, or of fire and water?’ Socrates replies: ‘I am often undecided (en aporiai), Parmenides, as to whether I ought to include them or not.’ (130c1-4; tr. B. Jowett.) The argument is left there in limbo.

In the opening sentence of the 6th, that is the last chapter of the 3rd book, Aristotle asks: ‘In general one might raise the question (aporêseie an tis) why after all, besides perceptible things and the intermediates [i.e. the mathematical objects], we have to look for another class of things, i.e. the Forms which we posit’ (ha tithemen eidê, 1002b13-14). He argues that ‘if there are not – besides perceptible and mathematical objects – others  such as some maintain the Forms to be, there will be no substance which is one in number, but only in kind: – if then this must be so, the Forms also must therefore be held to exist. Even if those who support this view do not express it accurately, still this is what they mean, and they must be maintaining the Forms just because each of the Forms is a substance and none is by accident.’ Aristotle at this point refers to his earlier considerations: ‘But if we are to suppose both that the Forms exist and that the principles are one in number, not in kind, we have mentioned the impossible results that necessarily follow.’ (1002b12-32, tr. W. D. Ross.)

Nevertheless, at the end of the chapter Aristotle reopens the question of the Forms, asking whether the principles are universal or individual. If universal, he argues, they will not be substances, for no common predicate signifies ‘a this’ (tode ti), only ‘such’ (toionde), but the substance is ‘a this’ (hê d’ ousia tode ti). But if the common predicate is to be ‘a this’ and set out apart (ekthesthai, 1003a10; Jaeger in his Oxford edition of the Metaphysics notes: ekthesthai idem est quod chȏrizein tas ideas), Socrates will be several animals – himself and ‘man’ and ‘animal’, if each of these indicates ‘a this’ and a single thing. If the principles are not universals but of the nature of individuals, they will not be knowable; for knowledge of anything is universal. If there is to be knowledge of the principles there must be other principles prior to them, namely those that are universally predicated of them. (1003a5-17) – Aristotle ends his 3rd book of the Metaphysics by thus indicating a solution to Parmenides’ last and most powerful objection against the Forms, which concerns their knowability.

Parmenides argues in the dialogue that if the Forms exist, they are completely separate from us and as such unknowable to us; they can be known only by the most rigorous knowledge, which only God can possess. And if God has this perfect knowledge, his knowledge does not know us, or any human thing; just as our knowledge does not know anything which is divine, so by parity of reason they, being gods, do not know the things of men. Socrates is appalled: ‘To deprive God of knowledge is monstrous.’ (133c-134e)

The appeal to religious piety, with which Parmenides’ critical examination of the Forms ends, stems from the very foundations of Plato’s theory of the Forms. The Forms are divine beings par excellence. God is divine thanks to them (pros hoisper theos ȏn theios esti, Phaedrus 249c6) and from them he derives his capacity to order all things and care for all (diakosmȏn panta kai epimeloumenos, Phaedrus 246e5-6).

Aristotle devoted his 3rd book to the task of facing and overcoming difficulties, aporiai, opening it as follows: ‘For those who wish to get clear of difficulties (euporêsai literally ‘walk well’) it is advantageous to discuss the difficulties (diaporêsai; the prefix dia gives diaporêsai the force of ‘going through all the difficulties’) well; for the subsequent free play of thought (euporia, literally ‘easy walking’) implies the solution of the previous difficulties (tȏn aporoumenȏn), and it is impossible to untie a knot of which one does not know. But the difficulty of our thinking (hê tês dianoias aporia) points to a “knot” in the object; for in so far as our thought is in difficulties (hêi gar aporei), it is in like case with those who are bound; for in either case it is impossible to go forward.’ (Tr. W. D. Ross, 995a27-33) Aristotle’s listeners/readers were bound to be reminded by these opening lines of the Symposium, where Poros (‘ways and means of achieving, discovering’), the son of Mêtis (the deified Wisdom), joined by Penia (Poverty), fathers Eros, a philosopher par excellence. Devoting his whole life to the pursuit of philosophy (philosophȏn dia pantos tou biou, 203d7), Eros is all the time on the roads, all the time searching; what he finds is again and again escaping him (203b-204a). In the Parmenides it is a very young Socrates who is instructed in philosophy by the venerable Parmenides; in the Symposium the wise woman Diotima prepares presumably an even younger Socrates for the difficult life of a philosopher and introduces him to the Form of Beauty. Playfully alluding to these two dialogues, Aristotle in the 3rd book of the Metaphysics dons the cloak of a searching philosopher and retrospectively marks the arguments raised against the Forms in the 1st book as inconclusive, as part of an on-going investigation.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A break

Yesterday I decided to discontinue my work on the blog for a few days. I wrote about the decision to the Master of Balliol, Professor Drummond Bone in an email in which I invited him to my blog. What follows is the passage from the email in which I give the reasons for the break:

‘When I began writing the blog, I was recording the third book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics for my website. I thought I could do a little bit of both each day. But it did not work, for each of these, Aristotle and my blog, make a total claim on me.

In order to record Aristotle, I must understand what I am recording as fully as possible. I begin by reading the chapter I am about to record as a whole, so that I can divide it into manageable parts, each of which makes a meaningful whole. Then I study the whole chapter with Ross’ commentary, in which centuries of scholarly efforts to understand Aristotle are accumulated. Only then I do record the text. When I read the text aloud and record it, I often find that I had not fully understood this or that sentence. So I must stop and erase the recording, read the sentence again in context, which often means reading the whole passage again and again, reverting to Ross’ commentary if need be. I am satisfied only if I succeed in properly expressing in my reading aloud what Aristotle is saying. When I then listen to the recording I reap the fruit of all that work, for only at that stage can I fully experience the benefit of entering the domain of Aristotle’s thoughts. Aristotle calls his metaphysical writings akroaseis, which Ross translates as lectures (994b32). Rosses’ ‘lectures’ misses the point, for it derives its meaning from the activity of the lecturer, the writer, the author. Aristotle’s term akroasis means ‘hearing’, listening; it is focussed on the mind of the listener.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
Working on my blog, I usually make the first draft in the morning. Then I do some walking or cycling in the surrounding Cotswolds, do some chores around the house, listen to the radio, read Melville’s Moby Dick. I thought I could squeeze in a recording of Aristotle; I tried, but it did not work. In the time that separates the first draft from the second one, the second from the third, my mind is all the time subconsciously-consciously reverting to it, concentrating on it, working at it. Each entry in my blog is concerned with past events that have bearing on the situation in which I stand at present, it claims the totality of my being as it is focussed on this or that event. And so it happened that I had to interrupt my recording of Aristotle.

I interrupted my work on Aristotle in the middle of the 4th chapter of the 3rd book. I have now decided to return to Aristotle and finish recording the 3rd book, and only then revert to the blog. This work will take four or five days. It would be great if in the meantime you reconsidered my offer of ‘Socrates, Plato, and the Laws of Athens’ and of ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ and allowed me to present these two lectures at Balliol. It would mean that I could end my Blog on a happy note and fully return to my work on Aristotle, which is closely connected to my work on Plato.

My next paper will be on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as their thoughts are reflected and interlinked in Plato’s Parmenides. The Parmenides is a late dialogue; in my view Plato wrote it in preparation for his third and last journey to Sicily. Aristotle was at that time 23 years old and had been for 6 years in Plato’s school. Plato’s Parmenides is preoccupied with criticism of the theory of Forms, which we find in the opening book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. A great 19th century German scholar Siebeck believed that the Parmenides was directed against criticisms urged by Aristotle in discussion with Plato. Ross notes that Siebeck’s ‘theory has but little evidence in favour of it’ (Ross’ note on Met A, Ch 9, 991a12,13). I believe that Siebeck is right, but it will take a lot of work to properly support his view. My recording of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is part of that work. If you allow me to present the lecture on ‘Plato, Socrates, and the Laws of Athens’ as well as the lecture on ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ at Balliol, and if both lectures will be attended by students and academics working in the fields of study to which these two lectures respectively refer, so that both will be properly discussed, I will stop working on my blog in its present form, and return to my work on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. For my work will then cease to be pursued in exclusion from the academic community; I will be engaged in joint scholarly endeavours.’

My blog is now in the hands of the Master of Balliol.

Friday, October 3, 2014

An invitation

Today I have decided to bring my blog to the attention of Oxford dons:
Dear all,
Allow me to invite you to my blog ‘Questions’ (, which is inspired by the approaching 25th anniversary of Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub Philosopher’ (published in The Independent Magazine on November 18, 1989). Nick Cohen in the article referred to two controversies, which are as important today, as they were important in 1980, when I arrived in Oxford from Prague. The first controversy concerns the study of Ancient Greek. The traditional approach is illustrated by Kenneth Dover, the late President of Corpus Christi in his autobiography (Marginal Comment, 1994). Reflecting on his high-school years at St Paul’s he says: ‘A very important ingredient of our work was “composition”, which meant the translation of sophisticated literary English into Greek or Latin prose and of passages of English poetry into Greek and Latin verse.’ (p. 37) Of his teaching at Oxford in 1950 he says: ‘My tutorial work was much the kind of thing I had experienced as an undergraduate at Mods: translation from sophisticated English, prose and verse, into Greek and Latin … I myself had always found that six hours or more spent on a composition (and I sometimes spent twelve) taught me more about the language than the same amount of time on reading texts.’ (p. 67)
When Dover speaks about ‘reading texts’, he in fact refers to ‘reading and translating texts’, for the method of which he speaks deprived its adepts of the ability to understand Greek texts directly without translating them into English. This approach to Greek has been in ever more accelerated decline, of which classicists and classical philosophers are well aware, but appear to be so deeply affected by it that they cannot adopt a different approach. The Greeks did not translate their Homer or Plato into Hebrew, Scythian, or Latin to understand it, they understood it in Greek. My approach to the study of Ancient Greek is all about understanding Greek directly, in Greek. To promote this approach to Greek texts I have published on my website ( my readings of Pindar, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Lysias, Isocrates, and Alcidamas.
To Cohen’s misrepresentation of this first controversy I briefly refer in my blog dated Sept 30, entitled ‘Three questions,’ with reference to Professor Ackrill’s response to Cohen’s article. With reference to correspondence with Jonathan Barnes dating back to November 1989 I indicate in my blog dated Oct 1, entitled ‘A confrontation,’ how this controversy could be properly brought to light for the benefit of all those who want to enjoy Ancient Greek literature to the full.
Concerning the second controversy Cohen writes: ‘Tomin’s work has raised a second controversy. He has revived an ancient tradition that The Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue, written soon after Socrates’ trial and death [the italics are mine, J.T.]. Barnes thinks that even if Tomin’s views were not “baloney”, there are no interesting consequences.’ Contrast with this what David Sedley said in his interview for The Daily Telegraph (August 25, 1988): ‘He [Tomin] holds that the Phaedrus is Plato’s first dialogue, which is contrary to the beliefs of pretty well all scholars in the field in this century … It means he is asking people to give up nearly everything else they believe about Plato’s development.’ Sedley says further on in the interview: ‘It is no good trying to ask people to revise their view on this particular bit of Plato’s work without rethinking the whole of Plato’s development.’ But rethinking Plato on this basis was what I have advocated and promoted as far as I could ever since I arrived in Oxford. This point is brought in Cohen’s article well to the fore: ‘Tomin believes that they [that is ‘Tomin’s views’] could change utterly philosophers’ understanding of Plato.’
It is imperative that this controversy is properly aired and discussed. Ever since I arrived in Oxford in 1980, I have tried to convince Oxford classical philosophers that it is in their best interest to allow such discussion and get engaged in it; so far in vain. The controversy came to light on the occasion of the World Congress of Philosophy held in Brighton in 1988. References to it could be found in The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Economist. Cohen brought the growing public interest in this controversy to an abrupt end. To present my views as ‘baloney’, he misconstrued and misrepresented them. There never was ‘an ancient tradition that The Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue, written soon after Socrates’ trial and death’. According to the ancient tradition Plato wrote the Phaedrus prior to the death of Socrates, and it is this dating of the dialogue for which I have found telling arguments over the past thirty four years, as can be seen in my texts on Plato on my website.
On the first anniversary of ‘The Pub Philosopher’, offering Professor Blumberg, the Master of Balliol, a paper on ‘The Early Plato’, I asked him whether it would not be in the interest of Balliol College, its classicists, classical philosophers, and its students, if the principle of open and public scholarly discussion replaced innuendo and misinformation. This question is as relevant today, as it was 24 years ago.
With best wishes,

Julius Tomin

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A reminiscence

Radical Philosophy 37 (Summer 1984) published ‘The Latter Days of Philosophy’ introduced by the Editor: ‘The following piece is extracted from a longer article Julius Tomin sent to The Guardian in response to their series on philosophy earlier this year. The Guardian did not publish anything by him.’ Enclosed in it is an episode which I here describe anew.

Walker wrote in The Guardian (January 19, 1984): ‘The Czechs were polite, but they really did not want to hear any of the Marxist-inclined people like Steven Lukes because they had enough of Marxism, and they did want to hear right-wing people like Roger Scruton not because they were any good, but simply because they were conservative and this was new.’

Steven Lukes did not lecture on Marxism in my seminar, but Charles Taylor did; his lecture was not a success. The blame lay entirely with me. Charles Taylor visited my seminar the day my wife returned from hospital bruised all over her face – the consequences of an assault. Zdena Tomin was at that time the only spokesperson of the Human Rights movement Charter 77 left at large; the other two spokespersons were imprisoned. I worked as a night watchman in Prague Zoo and I was at work when our neighbour phoned me that a masked man attacked my wife. Before she was taken to the hospital Na Františku, she asked the neighbour to phone me that I should visit her as soon as possible. So I left the Zoo immediately. Zdena told me in the hospital that before getting into the ambulance, she hid her handbag in a bush in front of our house; it was full of Charter 77 materials.

Instructed by my wife, I retrieved the bag, returned to the Zoo, and spent the night writing a letter to the President of the Republic: ‘Was it to be a murder? Coming home from night-watch I would have been the first to find her dead. Was I to be accused of her murder?’ I typed the letter with as many carbon copies as the typewriter could take, left the Zoo at dawn – it was in June, the nights were short – and distributed the copies putting them into the letterboxes of Charter 77 signatories I trusted. With every copy delivered I began to breathe with greater ease; our chances of surviving the incident were growing. (The letter was promptly published in the German newspaper Die Welt.)

Later in the day I revisited the hospital. The chief nurse refused to let me see my wife; she said that she was in a coma and that the doctor forbade any visits. I told her that I visited my wife in the hospital during the night: ‘I go now to the Central Committee [of the Communist Party] to inform them about the incident. When I come back, I shall insist on seeing my wife.’ When I returned to the hospital after visiting the Central Committee I was allowed to see my wife; she had a severe headache but wanted to go home as soon as possible.

The next day I learnt that my wife was not to be murdered in our house; both she and I were to be abducted. I was summoned to the local police station; the interrogator wanted to know where I had been in the night, why I did not go for the usual night-round through the Zoo. When I then went in the evening to do my night-watch duty, the men in the porter’s Lodge looked at me aghast. They had been told that I had been kidnapped the previous night. The deputy director of the Zoo came to see me, completely drunk: ‘The other night I was told that you were kidnapped and that I should call the police, which I did.’ So I spent the night writing a letter about the incident on the basis of this information, this time addressed to the Minister of Internal Affairs. After returning from the night shift and posting the letter I began to translate it into English. I was in the middle of that work when I was visited by some German students. I had completely forgotten that I had promised them a talk on Erich Fromm’s To Have or to Be? Several months previously I had been given the book for that purpose. The students invited me for lunch in Vikárka, a famous restaurant at the Prague Castle. Only some of the group were then supposed to return with me to my flat for the talk, for the flat was too small for the whole group. The students reserved a big hall in the restaurant, just for the group. After the meal, we were about to leave when a torrential rain started to pour down. The Germans paid well, and so we were allowed to stay and have the talk in the restaurant. I devoted my talk to the Charter 77, for its struggle for Human Rights in our country well exemplified Fromm’s notion of ‘to Be’ embraced in preference to ‘to Have’.

That afternoon I brought my wife home from the hospital, and in the evening Charles Taylor came to lecture in my seminar. He offered me five topics. I chose Marxism, for I was sure I could interpret a lecture on Marxism even half asleep. The result was far from glamorous; I was tired and could not do anything but translate what Taylor was saying; I was too tired to interact with him. It was a pity, for we needed a thought provoking discussion on Marxism. In the purges that followed the 1968 invasion of our country by the five Warsaw Pact countries Marxist philosophers turned into anti-Marxists simply as a consequence of being expelled from the Communist Party. In the tense atmosphere of the years that followed it was virtually impossible to have a meaningful discussion about Marxism.

Was it not imperative to overcome such a lack of reflection for the sake of moral and intellectual integrity? Properly challenged and engaged, Taylor could have induced such reflection, but on that evening I was not up to the task. The audience was disappointed, and I realized that we could not afford any more similar performances. For the next lecture, the following day we were heading for an abandoned quarry deep in the woods surrounding the Karlstein Castle. On the way to the railway station I told Charles Taylor: ‘You gave us yesterday a standard university lecture, which is not enough for us. We put our lives at stake for the sake of these seminars, to enjoy free philosophic thought. We do not pay you a penny and yet we ask from you your best.’ Barbara Day reflects on the event: ‘Sitting by a campfire in the June evening Taylor spoke for four hours on Romanticism. Many of those present remember this as the most successful seminar they attended.’ (The Velvet Philosophers, Claridge Press 1999, p. 41)

John Pilger's video 'A faraway country' provides a glimpse into the historical, social, and political situation in which I organized the philosophy seminars.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A confrontation

In ‘The Pub Philosopher’ (The Independent Magazine, November 18, 1989) Nick Cohen wrote: ‘His [Tomin’s] most serious accusation is that British classical philosophers cannot understand Ancient Greek and are deliberately misleading their students. “I’m the only classical philosopher in Britain who can read Plato without having to translate it in my head”, he said … Tomin’s criticism has not been well received. “It’s crap,” said Jonathan Barnes. “I have absolutely no idea how he can say it.”

In a letter to Jonathan Barnes of 20 November 1989, a reader of the article protested against Barnes’ dismissal of my criticism: ‘Both you and I and many others know it is not “crap” … We know that Greek, unlike modern languages, is taught in our best schools and by our best teachers through the medium of English and that this restricts permanently the students’ and the academics’ ability to make the language their own. In my own field of academic publishing it is openly acknowledged, without unease or dissimulation, that the best and the most senior of Oxford classical philosophers understand their Greek in part through the medium of translation.’

Jonathan Barnes replied: ‘You say that “the best and the most senior of Oxford’s classical philosophers” don’t understand Greek properly. You name no names, but I am vain enough to imagine that I must be included in your charge. What you say is a false and foolish calumny – had you made it in public it would, I think, have been libellous.’

Barnes clearly admits that understanding Ancient Greek properly means understanding it directly, without translating it into English in one’s head. Furthermore, he appears to be claiming that this is how he understands texts he reads in Ancient Greek. I therefore wrote to him on November 26 1989: ‘Nothing would please me more than if I learnt that I was wrong and you were right. For in that case you could help us transform radically the teaching of Ancient Greek and Ancient Philosophy in Czechoslovakia and put it on a sound footing. Since the matter is of paramount importance, would you agree to submit yourself together with me to a test that would establish the truth about it?’

I suggested that the proposed test would be a valuable educational experience for students and academics interested in learning Ancient Greek properly. A third person would read aloud a passage from Plato in Greek to Barnes and to me, I would choose a passage for Barnes, he would choose a passage for me. Each of us would then reproduce the passage in our own words in English. We could do so only if we understood the text directly in Greek. Any intelligent person with a good grasp of English would be competent to judge our performance with Plato’s text in the English translation in their hands. Needless to say, I received no reply from Jonathan Barnes to my challenge.

The Guardian of January 7, 1984 announced Martin Walker’s three-part investigation into ‘What’s gone wrong with philosophy in Britain?’ In his view the evil lay in Oxford’s preoccupation with classical philosophy: ‘Oxford dons could counter any suggestion that they and their classics are out of touch by referring to a brave and thrilling experience that many of them had recently enjoyed. It began when Julius Tomin … asked for moral and intellectual support … It is cruel, but illuminating, to point to the contrast between Oxford’s Czech experience and the effect of Vietnam upon American philosophy. Simply, Vietnam thrust moral, ethical and political issues to the forefront of American intellectual life’, he wrote in The Guardian on January 19, 1984.

In fact, the ‘Czech experience’ put into question the moral, ethical and political foundations of intellectual life at Oxford University, and the British Press did its best to cover up and misrepresent this fact.

Let me quote one more paragraph from the reader’s letter to Jonathan Barnes: ‘I have the closest contact with some of the best of your students, and even now they are adamant that the man or woman who understands “Greek Greek” does not, with the exception of Julius Tomin, exist: certainly they do not recognize their tutors at Oxford as doing so. You yourself and your colleagues know this, you admit it among yourselves: why then, do you not have the confidence of the privileged to allow it to be told at large?’

Addressed to classicists and classical philosophers, the reader’s question is as relevant today, as it was apposite when addressed to Jonathan Barnes almost a quarter of a century ago.