Friday, October 16, 2015

2 Lasting repercussions of what happened thirty five years ago

Richta’s Letter to Professor Diemer was introduced in Tvorba by a lengthy article by Kořínek and Pulcman entitled ‘How a Campaign of Provocation is produced’. The authors wrote:

‘Tomin organized in his flat several “unofficial lectures” on ancient philosophy … He sent letters to four universities in the West which contained, beside stupid slanders against the Czechoslovak state authorities as allegedly “usurping” the right to determine who is to lecture in science and what the students must study, haughty calls to Western intellectuals – from natural historians to theologians – to come and see his “lectures” and to witness how he was persecuted by the authorities … And so Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America hurried to give support to Mr Tomin … And then there began a wild campaign to which the press in the West devoted dozens of pages, and the broadcasting stations hours of time: behold, in the CSSR philosophers are allegedly “persecuted”, “interrogated”, “detained” and even “deported” (e.g. New Statesman 30.5.1980). They allegedly created under the leadership of Mr Tomin an “unofficial university” (The Times 10.10.1979, based on information from Reuters), an “underground university” (The Guardian 10.10.1979) a “parallel university” or “university of Jan Patočka” (New Statesman 7.3.1980) a “secret university of Jan Patočka” (Le Monde 5.8.1980), which has its counterpart in the “flying university of Poland, even though it is less formal and less-well developed” (The Times 15.8.1980), To crown all these falsehoods Die Welt (23.9.1980 talks of Tomin as a “professor at Charles University” … Some English, French, American, and West German bourgeois philosophers began to write protests and even put pressure on the President of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP), Professor A. Diemer, to “interfere”. But it sufficed for the president of this international association to do the most natural thing, viz. to inform himself by asking the competent representatives of Czechoslovak philosophy, and the “bubble of the “Tomin case” burst immediately.’

The article was introduced with an eloquent call for international cooperation:

‘The necessity for international cooperation, the exchange of scientific knowledge, and a dialogue are generally acknowledged by honest and respectable scientists throughout the world.  This constitutes an important part of the endeavours to maintain and strengthen peace around the world. In the spirit of the stimuli provided by the Final Act at Helsinki, the scope for cooperation and exchange of knowledge grows and intensifies even in social sciences. The steadily increasing importance of scientific contact is expressed and actively endorsed by representative forums in the social sciences; and the stream of world congresses of philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, economists and historians has convincingly showed the advantages of this permanent dialogue … Side by side with this undoubtedly fruitful and beneficial policy, which is the only policy possible for the future, we have been confronted, particularly in recent years by the efforts of militant anti-communist forces to stop, prevent and reverse the hitherto positive development … In the last two years a provocative action against the CSSR, artificially raked up around the so-called “Tomin case”, acquired such a character.’

There is quite a lot of truth in what the authors say. Shortly after the publication of their article I was invited to the Oxford Union. The Oxford Union wanted to invite me to give a talk, but on this occasion they want me to take part in a debate. I was invited to speak on the motion ‘The price of détante is too high’. I was expected to talk for the motion, which I could not do, for any positive development that had taken place in Czecholovakia in 1960s happened in the atmosphere of détante. I spoke against the motion; it was comprehensively defeated. I was never invited to the Oxford Union again.

During the past thirty five years I made many attempt to enlist the support of British Mass Media in my effort to engage Oxford dons in discussing Plato, in vain. Let me quote from a letter I wrote to the Editor of The Independent on November 17, 1994:

‘Five years ago, on November 18, 1989, The Independent Magazine published “The Pub philosopher” in which Nick Cohen described me as ‘the “pub philosopher” whose poverty forced him to earn a living by delivering lectures in a Swindon saloon bar’. Is it a mere coincidence that since then I have not been allowed to lecture at the Swindon saloon bar, my three years contract with the publican having been broken without a word of explanation?

The gist of Nick Cohen’s article is as follows: “The judgments passed by Oxford dons on Julius Tomin seem outrageously brutal … Jonathan Barns, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford … said: ‘He would not be accepted as a graduate here, let alone be given a teaching job. He’s like a recalcitrant student who can’t admit he’s wrong’ … Barnes thinks that even if Tomin’s views were not ‘baloney’, there are no interesting consequences. Tomin believes that they could change utterly philosophers’ understanding of Plato.”

In response to the article I wrote to Professor Barnes and asked him to encounter me in an open public discussion on Plato. He refused. I renewed the challenge to him year by year, in vain.

Charles’ University in Prague has recently given me a post of a tutor in Ancient Philosophy. Delighted, I had accepted the post, but I wrote to the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University that before leaving Oxford I would seek an opportunity to present the main results of fourteen years of my research at Oxford to Oxford philosophers and students for critical scrutiny.

With this in mind, I offered to the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University a series of 8 lectures on Plato, seven of which I presented to them in written form, so that they could prepare well their criticism of my exposition of Plato. In my invitation I wrote to them: “If the discussions on my lectures prove my views to be wanting, I shall openly admit in Prague that for thirty years of my study of Plato I had been blind, until Oxford philosophers opened my eyes. If our views on both sides remain unshaken, at least I shall be better qualified to present to students in Prague not only my views, but the opposing views as well. If my views prevail, it will be the beginning of a rethinking of Plato that will require international cooperation.”

This appeal of mine has been answered only negatively. An Oxford don wrote to me: “I do not think you are being fair to the philosophers in Oxford. You were admitted to the Oxford Aristotle Reading Circle, and used to attend regularly, and often were able to have your say about the text we were reading. You are wasting your effort trying to get people in Oxford to spend time discussing your ideas with you: they just have not got any time to spare.”

It seems to be indeed the case that Oxford dons “have not got any time to spare”. The Oxford Aristotle Reading Circle had been dissolved four years ago, after many years of uninterrupted existence. Oxford dons seem to have no time any more to engage each other in stimulating discussions with the texts in the original in their hands. This closure has inflicted a wound on Ancient Philosophy that nothing can heal but the reopening of the Oxford Aristotle Reading Circle. I had the privilege to attend it for more than ten years, until its dissolution, and I enjoyed every minute of it, although I regretted that Plato was never chosen for discussion. We read and discussed Plotinus, Aristotle, St Augustine, Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, and Alexander Aphrodisias.’

I received no reply to my letter, but shortly after my sending it to The Independent the Dean of the Faulty of Philosophy at Charles University informed me that my place of a tutor in philosophy was given to someone else. It surprised me, for I was given no date by which I should get to Prague; the place offered to me was just for a year, no dates specified.

On March 19, 1995 Hester Lacy wrote in The Independent on Sunday: ‘Philosophy has not always been the people’s choice, as landlord Noel Reilly discovered when he engaged the dissident Czech academic Dr Julius Tomin to deliver nine half-hour lectures in the Beehive pub in Swindon in 1988. “his great interest was Plato, though he disagreed with his fellow philosophers about the chronological sequence of Plato’s works,” explained Reilly at the time. Unfortunately, Dr Tomin delivered only four lectures [as far as I remember, I delivered only three lectures, J.T.]. “He was a nervous man. I think the hurly-burly of the public house upset him,” said Reilly, whose attempts to turn his pub into a “place of culture” sadly ended in bankruptcy.’

By coincidence, I met Reilly at Oxford early in March of that year. I hailed him: ‘Hello Noel, how are you? How is the Beehive doing?’ – Reilly told me: ‘I am no longer in the Beehive. I was given a grant to study English literature at Oxford University.’

Concerning Hester Lacey’s claim that Reilly’s engaging me in his pub ‘sadly ended in bankruptcy‘, let me refer to Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub Philosopher’:

‘Last year the Department of Social Security cut off his [Tomin’s] benefit of £67 a week because he refused to take a job as anything other than a philosopher. He is able to continue his work in Oxford’s libraries solely because Noel Reilly, the landlord of the Beehive pub in Swindon, read of his plight and decided to pay him £5,000 to deliver three lectures a year to regulars. The talks are very popular. About 350 came to the last lecture at the Beehive.’

Let me yet quote the last paragraph from Cohen’s article. Written on the eve of the Velvet revolution, it chimes well with the Tvorba article: ‘Last October Rude Pravo, the mouthpiece of the Czech Communist Party, happily reported Tomin’s story. Under the headline PAID TO MAKE SPEECHES, it said: “Even in a public bar words can earn money, or rather make money. The recipy for this was found in Britain by the Czech emigrant Julius Tomin. Since 1980, when he emigrated, he has struggled as hard as possible to keep going since no university has shown any interest in him. Only now has he found an audience interested in his disputations – namely a public house in Swindon. No other milieu will put up with him.”’

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