Monday, May 11, 2015

A fool’s hopes?

In the ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ (available on my website) I wrote: ‘My discussion with Anthony Kenny on the right pursuit of philosophy took place in Prague in April 1980. At that time my philosophy seminar had been harassed by the Czech police but we still managed to meet. The arrival of the Master of Balliol was anticipated with great expectations. Some expected a catastrophe which would definitely finish my seminar. I could not imagine the police interfering once Kenny was granted the visas. That is why I hoped for a breakthrough. If the police refrained from harassing us in this case they would hardly interfere on future occasions. My aspirations would have been fulfilled. Prague would have had a place where once a week young people could come and openly discuss philosophy. That would have given us strength to be as free as the physical parameters of the situation allowed, free enough, I felt – even without the possibility to travel abroad, to publish and to speak in public – to confront the system with the problem of governing a society with free people in its midst. I hoped the regime could grow up to the task and so get positively transformed without falling apart in the process. Hoping for the continuation of my seminar I hoped for the optimal development in our country. Our philosophy seminar was a step on the road towards a society which would maintain the social and economic framework of socialism but would allow free development of individuals.’

I wrote the ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ at Oxford, some three years after leaving Prague (it was published in the History of Political Thought in 1984). In Prague, in 1977, John Pilger had asked me how the Charter 77 signatories were affected when people like President Carter spoke out about human rights. I answered by expressing my doubts whether President Carter really wanted to help us: ‘The question before which we stand is how to develop socialism freely, and to develop socialism freely doesn’t mean to impose upon us the kinds of freedom you are living with. We must develop new concepts of freedom which come from our own situation. The voice of Carter is so strong that it may deafen our initiative in developing the questions of freedom from the inside, making us expect that it will come from outside; it must come from the inside.’ – See

My interest in Ancient Greek literature and philosophy played a crucial role in my getting involved in the Czech ‘underground’. In Prague was, and I believe still is, a French Library, a joint venture of the French Embassy and Prague University Library. I began to visit the Library when I decided to learn French in the mid-1960's. In 1970's I discovered that in the French Library was a complete Budé edition of the Greek classics. I think I was the only one who ever used it; it was there just for me. The reading room was at the top of the building; one day, going downstairs I saw a door open to a room that was normally always closed. There were some French students in the room, and on the table was lying Le Monde from Sunday 29th – 30th June (1975). I found in it a letter entitled: ‘Following the confiscation by the police of a part of his manuscripts, the Czechoslovak philosopher Karel Kosík writes to J. P. Sartre ˂My existence has acquired two forms: I am dead and at the same time I live˃ [A la suite de la confiscation par la police d’une partie de ses manuscrits Le philosophe tchécoslovaque Karel Kosik écrit à J.-P. Sartre ˂Mon existence a pris deux forms: je suis mort et en meme temps je vis˃].

I quote from Sartre’s answer: ‘I cannot become engaged for anybody except myself [Je ne puis m’engager pour personne sauf pour moi]; but I have discussed your dear and unhappy country often and at great length [mais j’ai assez souvent et longuement discuté de votre cher et malheureux pays] so that I may assure you that you have many friends [pour vous affirmer que nombreux sont vos amis] who will join me in shouting [qui crieront avec moi]: “If Karel Kosík were guilty [Si Karel Kosik était coupable], then every man [alors tout homme] (not only the intellectuals [non seulment les intellectuels], but the farmers, the workers [mais les paysans, les ouvriers]) who thinks on what he does [qui pense à ce qu’il fait] is equally guilty [est également coupable].” Starting from this simple thought [C’est à partir de cette idée simple] it will be necessary to envisage actions by which [qu’il faudra envisager les actions par lesquelles], by helping you [en vous aidant], we shall help ourselves [nous nous aiderons nous-mêmes].'

Sartre’s words must have sunk deeply into my subconscious. In ‘The celebration goes on’ (Post of April 15) I wrote: ‘The Petition [of 60 Czech Charter 77 signatories against the publication of my paper ‘Inside the Security State’] did not prevent the publication of the article in the New Statesman, but it appears to have exercised its influence. When a Dutch journal wanted to publish it – it was already translated into Dutch – the Editor of the New Statesman refused to give permission for its publication. I learnt this from the Editor. He told me while donating to me Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals). Coincidentally, Alan Montefiore, one of the Oxford dons who had visited my seminar in 1979, asked me: ‘Do you think we have betrayed you?’ I answered: ‘How could you betray me? It is you whom you have betrayed.’ – When I told Alan Montefiore ‘It is you, whom you have betrayed,’ my reply must have been inspired by Sartre’s words.

On 4th July 1975 I wrote to the Editor of Rudé právo, the daily newspaper of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. I referred to what Kosík wrote to Sartre: 1. He has been deprived of the possibility to do work, for which he is qualified. 2. He is excluded from participation in the activities of our scientific institutions. 3. He cannot publish what he writes; his books have been removed from public libraries. 4. The Police confiscated 1000 pages of his preparatory notes for the works On praxis, and On truth. I asked the Editor, whether these allegations were true: ‘If true, is all this happening in compliance with our laws? If not, what can I do as a citizen, so that the respect for the law may be restored in this country? If it is in compliance with the laws of this country, what can I do, so that the laws are changed, so that it becomes prohibited to treat citizens of our republic in this way?’


As far as my Oxford colleagues and the British Press are concerned, Kosík’s words apply to me: ‘My existence has acquired two forms: I am dead and at the same time I live.’

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