Saturday, May 9, 2015

2. Why in May?

Kathy Wilkes visited Prague later in May. She was interested in what happened when Dr Kenny, the Master of Balliol, visited my seminar. It was on that occasion that it occurred to me that the ancient story might be true according to which the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue. The moment I expressed the thought I became aware of its significance, but I had no idea at that moment that my whole subsequent life would be influenced by it, for it would put me at loggerheads with the entire Platonic scholarship as it developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Let me quote Barry O’Brien’s ‘Philosophers in knots over Dr Tomin’s Plato thesis’ published in The Daily Telegraph of August 25, 1988: ‘A leading scholar responded yesterday to complaints by Dr Julius Tomin, the Czech dissident philosopher, that he cannot get his controversial work on Plato published in Britain.’ The scholar referred to was Dr David Sedley, editor of Classical Quarterly and director of studies in classics at Christ’s Church College, Cambridge. Barry O’Brian says: ‘If Dr Tomin were right, it would affect a great deal of Platonic scholarship,’ quoting Dr Sedley: “I think people just have a great difficulty in seeing how it can be right. It means he is asking people to give up nearly everything else they believe about Plato’s development, but he is not telling us enough about why we should give up all these other views.” – Dr Sedley would not publish my views on the dating of the Phaedrus because I was not telling my colleagues enough about why I thought it was Plato’s first dialogue, and I could not tell my colleagues why I thought it was Plato’s first dialogue because I was not allowed to present a paper on the subject to my colleagues, let alone to have my views published. To cheer me up, an Oxford don donated to me Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

I described Kenny’s visit in ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ which I have put on my website. It was published in the History of Political Thought in 1984. I shall use it to refresh my memory.

The Master of Balliol arrived at our apartment about half an hour before the actual beginning of the seminar. He told me that he would be talking about the pursuit of happiness as it is discussed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean and the Eudemian Ethics. He asked me to translate Nicomachean Ethics 1177a12-6 and Eudemian Ethics 1218b31-1219a39 for my students at the beginning of the seminar, for in his talk he would refer to these two passages. My text of the Nicomachean Ethics was heavily underlined and marked with exclamation marks; though I had not read it for three or four years, I was confident I could manage. But I never read the Eudemian Ethics, and so I left Kenny and his wife in care of my wife and went to the kitchen to read the Eudemian text. I just read it once when my wife summoned me to open the seminar: ‘The living room is packed with people.’ Kenny opened the seminar by asking me: ‘Julius, would you translate Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 1177a12-6 and Eudemian Ethics 1218b31-1219a39 for your students? For I will refer to these two passeges in my talk.’ I replied: ‘I shall read each sentence aloud in the original and then translate it in Czech.’

When I finished translating, Dr Kenny argued that in the Nicomachean passage happiness consists in the contemplative activity and philosophy becomes thus the primary source of happiness, whereas in the Eudemian Ethics philosophy is one of the optional activities, which only those should pursue who are called upon to do so. Kenny argued that the Eudemian conception was critical of the Nicomachean conception. If a person organized his life with a view to the promotion of philosophical speculation without being called upon to do so he would be not wise but cunning, not phronimos but panourgos. ‘The type of person whom many regard as the hero of the Nicomachean Ethics turns out, by the standards of the Eudemian Ethics, to be a vicious and ignoble character,’ Kenny maintained. ‘In the Eudemian Ethics happiness consists of an ideal functioning of every part of the soul,’ he said.

At this point I exchanged the role of an interpreter for the role of a discussion partner: ‘In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle considers the life in philosophy to be the source of happiness because the activity of intellect is the highest one. Why should I see it opposed to the ideal functioning of the other parts of the soul in the Eudemian Ethics? May not Aristotle be pointing in the direction of the theory fully developed in the tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics when he says in our Eudemian passage: ‘The End (telos) is the best as being an End, since it is assumed as being the best and ultimate, for the sake of which all the other things exist’? (1219a10-11). In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that philosophy is the ultimate source of good life for it is independent of external circumstances. Even if deprived of exchanging ideas with his colleagues (sunergoi) he may do philosophy (1177a12-b1). This is especially important for us in Prague who may face imprisonment any day. It further reminds me of Socrates. In the Apology he says: “as long as I am able to I will not stop doing philosophy (29d).” In prison, he transformed his last day into the best day of his life by discussing philosophy with his friends. Phaedo opens his narrative of Socrates’ last day by remarking that he could not feel sorry for Socrates, as one would be expected to be at the approaching death of a good friend, ‘for the man appeared to me to be happy’ (eudaimȏn gar moi hanêr ephaineto, Phaedo 58e3), and Socrates compares himself to swans who sing most beautifully and rejoice most on their last day (85b).’

Kenny did not oppose my ‘Socratic’ interpretation of the Nicomachean passage. He questioned instead the philosophic credentials of Socrates: ‘Julius, wouldn’t you consider Plato a much better philosopher?’ I replied: ‘Tony, you obviously make such a cut through Plato’s dialogues that you find Socrates only in dialogues, which you find unworthy of being called philosophy, and Plato in dialogues which you find worthy of it. I do not make any such cut through Plato’s dialogues.’

At this point I told Kathy: ‘I’ve suddenly realised that in I have found nothing in Plato’s dialogues that would compel me to reject Diogenes Laertius’ story that the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogues.’ (III. 38) – Kathy exclaimed: ‘It can’t be his first dialogue.’

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