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.

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