Sunday, October 25, 2015

An Appeal to the Master of Balliol

On October 11 I wrote to the Master of Balliol a subsequent appeal, to which I have received no answer:

Dear Master,

Thirty five years ago, on Thursday October 15, 1980 the Czechoslovak Communist Party cultural weekly Tvorba published a letter addressed to Professor A. Diemer, President of the International Federation of Philosophic Societies. The Letter was written by Professor Radovan Richta, Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Sociology and Member of the Presidium of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Richta wrote: ‘Tomin is a man who is worth nothing in philosophy … It is self-evident that Mr Tomin would not find  the means to live for a single week if he were interesting merely for what he did in philosophy … I think that the people who supported and visited Mr Tomin will find themselves convinced, in a short time and on the basis of their own experience, that there has been no case of suppression of freedom of philosophers in the CSSR, but rather that it was a case of one person who wanted to profit from the hopes of some circles to intensify the world crisis and to poison efforts at international cooperation.’

Less than ten years later, a day after the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Nick Cohen, a prominent British journalist, wrote in ‘The Pub Philosopher’: ‘Jonathan Barnes, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, impatiently brushed aside the suggestion that the Conservative’s reduction in funding for British philosophy since 1980 might explain why there was never an academic post for Tomin at Oxford. “That’s not the point at all,” he 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.” … Tomin has revived an ancient tradition that the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue … Barnes thinks that even if Tomin’s views were not “baloney”, there are no interesting consequences.’ (The Independent Magazine, November 18, 1989)

Ten years later, in a book published to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Barbara Day wrote: ‘A fund set up by the philosopher and Vice-Provost of Worcester College, David Mitchell (under the patronage of the Northern Dairies Educational Trust) yielded enough to keep the family for another two years, but it had become apparent that Julius would not find a job answering his ambitions within that time, or ever … his knowledge of certain parts of Plato’s work was more thorough than that of any philosopher in Oxford, but his limited acquaintance with the breadth of western philosophy would have been unacceptable in any of the posts for which he diligently applied.’ (The Velvet Philosophers, The Claridge Press, 1999, p. 67).

It is not true that I diligently applied for academic posts; my work on Plato and Aristotle demanded a total commitment. My ambitions were great, but very different. In an open letter to the 18th World Congress of Philosophy in Brighton I wrote:

‘Philosophy has claimed schole, that is free time for free inquiry, as its birth-right. In exchange it presented mankind with treasures of thought for each generation to appropriate. It is in the interest of society, of its cultural well-being, to provide philosophers with the free time needed for the task. And if society as a whole loses sight of this, philosophers worthy of that name have no excuse for doing likewise. The work needed to appropriate the heritage of philosophic thought has presented philosophers through the ages with an indispensable activity independent of the vagaries of political systems and job markets. If true to itself, philosophy can generate freedom, intellectual and moral self-reliance, being-for-others as a precondition for truly being-for-oneself; it can generate hope where unemployment sows despair and turn the waste of human potential to benefit. The climate of academic philosophy today must be questioned from within this perspective. Are graduates of philosophy prepared to stand on their own feet as philosophers, even if struck down by unemployment? Is not philosophy presented to them in a distorted form so that they readily discard it the moment they cannot get a living from it? Wherever it takes effect, such a distortion must effect the roots of academic philosophy itself, and ultimately disqualify it from its place in higher education; philosophers themselves become dispensable, surviving at universities, if at all, by the grace and favour of politicians, who keep them as a mere cosmetic. To underline my point, let me cite classical philosophy – that branch of philosophy that more than any other seems to be confined to centres of academic excellence.

Academics in the past did a splendid job in opening the gates to a fuller appreciation of ancient philosophic thought – we have excellent lexicons, grammar books, critical editions of the texts, commentaries on Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. Never since ancient times has there been such an opportunity for a comprehensive and immediate understanding of the Greek philosophic texts as there is now. Yet, classical philosophers based at our universities are today so far removed from enjoying direct access to the original texts that an immediate understanding of the Greek text seems to lie beyond their horizon. How could this state of affair have arisen? Ancient Greek is a dead language, but it is a human language none the less; the only way to learn it adequately is through Greek literature. One of the great assets about mastering Ancient Greek is that it can be done only through reading and rereading Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus and Thucydides, Aristophanes and Euripides … Hesiod and Homer. The language is absorbed by us in proportion to our acquiring the rich heritage within which it is preserved and which it discloses to us. A wide reading of Greek Literature is thus an absolutely prerequisite medium for adequate understanding of Plato and Aristotle. But what is the approach to Ancient Greek in our schools? Students are drilled in vocabulary and grammar, not as means to the understanding of the texts directly in Greek, but as tools to mastering the translation of prescribed, selected texts. Apart from the reward of good marks and their tutor’s praise, such labour is practically meaningless, given the range of translations of the classics with which past generations of academics have endowed us. Many years of energy are invested in a discipline whose end results are graduates and academics for whom the direct reading and immediate understanding of texts in the original remains beyond their reach.

And yet, our custodians of classical philosophy do set out to present to their students a comprehensive understanding of Plato and Aristotle as part of the curriculum. Such an understanding, based on a fragmentary experience of the originals complemented by a load of secondary literature, must of necessity fail to meet any real confrontation with the totality of Plato’s or Aristotle’s texts. Each subsequent generation of students is less able to find its way to an authentic apprehension of Plato and Aristotle, and thus becomes less qualified still to challenge their teachers; students are encouraged, if not forced, to spend most of their time with their teachers’ interpretations, and with the secondary literature which their teachers have themselves imbued. If ever the dominant interpretations are questioned from without academic structures, then the whole body of classical philosophy closes ranks in self-defence – frustrating discussions, exercising its monopoly on academic publications and lecture rooms.

Is there any inherent necessity governing this unfortunate development? Any classical philosopher in East or West may reflect on his or her work, and ask whether it is not the academics themselves who in this way are the losers. Is such drudgery worth their pay, if they lose sight of the only worthwhile reward, namely an understanding of the subject they teach? They can reverse their course. Although years of conditioning have habituated their brains to translate the moment their eye falls on the original text, it is surely time to start again, differently, to dare to read and read, to break through to a direct understanding of the texts.

Such a radical reversal must have far reaching consequences. The new approach would entail sharing it with students, for whom the subject would thus be opened as a lifetime endeavour, not to be embraced or discarded according to the fluctuations in the job market. In the present academic and social climate in East and West one must face the eventuality of growing number of unemployed classical philosophers, deeply devoted to their subject that in its essence requires a life-long pursuit. To provide them with elementary conditions for decent human existence would be the duty of the society, and it would be the duty of universities to impress the situation on politicians of the day. Of crucial importance would be a continuing contact with employed academics, profoundly stimulating to both sides.’ (The open letter was published by The Times Higher Education Supplement on August 19, 1988)

Thanks to the British welfare system I was able to devote myself fully to philosophy during the past thirty five years. This has given me a great advantage in any discussions on philosophy I have had during these years, be it in Oxford or in Prague. I have fully used this advantage, which meant, unfortunately, that I was progressively deprived of any opportunity to engage in such discussions (See e. g. ‘Reflections on a recent conference of classical philosophers’ on my website).

Dear Master, in February of this year I wrote to you: ‘Thirty five years ago, in April 1980 the Master of Balliol, Dr Anthony Kenny, gave a lecture on Aristotle in my Philosophy seminar in Prague. To commemorate this anniversary, I should like to present a lecture on ‘Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s testimony’ at Balliol.

My views on this dialogue differ from the accepted views. I should therefore greatly appreciate it if a specialist on Plato’s philosophy would chair the lecture and open it with an explanation of the currently accepted views. The interpretation of Plato’s philosophy in its entirety depends on the interpretation of this dialogue; I hope that Oxford classical philosophers will use the occasion to vigorously defend the accepted views in discussion following the lecture. My views on the dialogue are available to the public on my Blog I devoted to it nine entries, beginning with the entry of October 16 2014 ‘A note on the 3rd book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics’; so far the last is the entry of February 6, 2015 ‘Aristotle’s response to Plato’s Parmenides in Metaphysics M’.

I hope you will accept my proposal and I look forward to hearing from you soon.’

I received no reply to my letter. Allow me to repeat my request. In the meantime, I have made substantial progress in my work on the proposed theme, to which a number of recent entries on my blog can testify. (See especially ‘Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy – the third day’, posted on September 11, and ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides in the light of its dramatic setting’, posted on October 9.).

I hope to be hearing from you soon,
Julius Tomin

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