Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Velvet Blues

Twenty six years ago, on November 17, 1989 the Velvet Revolution began in Prague. If not the revolution itself, its aftermath was indirectly linked to my philosophy seminars, which I held in Prague in 1977-1980 for young people barred from university education because of their parents’ participation in an attempt to humanise socialism in our country in Prague Spring 1968. How could the aftermath of the Velvet revolution of 1989 be linked, however indirectly, to my philosophy seminars of late 1970s? In 1978 I invited Oxford dons to my seminar. Roger Scruton’s ‘A Catacomb Culture’ published in the Times Literary Supplement, February 16-22, 1990 is well qualified to establish the link: ‘The publicity-conscious Tomin then emigrated and … Kathleen Wilkes, Alan Montefiore, Bill Newton-Smith and myself … We decided that, although our purpose was charitable … it should not be openly pursued, and that we could henceforth best help our Czechoslovak colleagues working secretly … We were able to set up a network of secret classes – not only in Bohemia, but also in Moravia and Slovakia … a small sum of money had been given for the relief of our Czechoslovak colleagues [the Jan Hus Foundation trust was founded] … Many of our visitors were extremely well known in their own countries … We also encouraged our French, German, American and Canadian colleagues to establish sister trusts, thereby acquiring an international dimension which was to prove invaluable in the hard years to come … We were obliged by our trust to support educational and cultural activities in Czechoslovakia … We therefore began to establish other, purely nominal organizations through which to pay official stipends, so that the names of our beneficiaries could not be linked either to us or to each other … In the mid-1980s, thanks to a generous grant from George Soros (who will surely be commemorated in future years, not only as a great Hungarian patriot, but also as one of the saviours of Central Europe), we had expanded into Moravia … it was a time of miracles … Čarnogurský was made Deputy Prime Minister of his country … another of our beneficiaries was President [Václav Havel], and within weeks we were to see our friends occupying the highest offices in the land … Among those who had worked with us we could count the new rectors of the Charles University, of the Masaryk University in Brno, and of the Palacký University in Olomouc.’

I was in Oxford in the years that preceded the Velvet revolution. Deprived of my citizenship in 1981 I did my best to compel the Czechoslovak authorities to restore it. One of the highlights of my campaign was an open letter to the World Congress of philosophy in Brighton in which I wrote: ‘It took me seven months in Oxford to realize that the Master of Balliol knew what he was saying when he told me after my arrival that there was no place for me in the British academic establishment. I realized that by refusing to give up my approach to philosophy, and to classical philosophy in particular, I was committing myself to a lifetime of unemployment. I decided to return home. At that point the Czechoslovak authorities deprived me of my citizenship. Would the congress support my demand for the restoration of my Czechoslovak citizenship?’ (The open letter was published by The Times Higher Education Supplement on August 19, 1988)

My campaign for the restoration of my Czechoslovak citizenship culminated during Gorbachev’s visit in Britain; I wrote to him: ‘May I use the opportunity of your visit to Britain to express support for glasnost and perestroika in your country, and to protest against the lack of both in Czechoslovakia? In an attempt to give my support and my protest more weight, I shall begin on Wednesday, the day of your arrival, a ten day hunger-strike … Would you join the voices of hundreds of British students and academics who in recent years have petitioned the Czechoslovak authorities to restore my citizen’s rights … When my citizenship is restored, I shall use the expert knowledge in my academic field acquired during my stay in Britain to the benefit of my country. My ambition is to open at Charles University in Prague an International centre for the Study of Ancient Philosophy where academics from Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and other East European countries would regularly meet their colleagues from Britain and other Western countries to maintain our common cultural roots.’ (ApriI 3, 1989)

A few months later, a day after the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Nick Cohen put an end to my hopes. In ‘The Pub Philosopher’ he wrote: ‘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. Tomin believes that they could change utterly philosophers’ understanding of Plato … He thinks Oxford should “help itself” by recognizing that he is right. There is not the faintest possibility that this will happen.’ (The Independent Magazine, November 18, 1989)

In February of this year I wrote to Mr Jirsa, the Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies at Charles University in Prague: ‘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 the Institute.

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 classical philosophers at Charles University 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, where 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 offer, and so I renewed it on October 11, on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the letter that Professor Radovan Richta, Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Sociology and Member of the Presidium of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, wrote to Professor A. Diemer, President of the International Federation of Philosophic Societies. In the letter 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.’

I received no reply to my offer. Let me note that I made similar offers on the same dates to the Master of Balliol, Professor Drummond Bone, to which I received no response.

in a book published to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Barbara Day wrote: ‘it had become apparent that Julius would not find a job answering his ambitions … 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).

Whoever decided that I must remain unemployed opened for me glorious years during which I could devote myself fully to the study of the Ancient Greeks, informing my Oxford colleagues regularly about my progress and challenging them to open discussion on Ancient Philosophy. But I miss academic contacts, and I miss students. So let me end my Velvet Blues with quotations from Barbara Day’s book that hark to the days in which I could meet students: ’In February 1980 … Steven Lukes [a don from Balliol] also made use of the re-emergence of The Times and published his description of Tomin’s seminars: “The lectures take place in a crowded apartment, with Dr Tomin translating, at times explosively interjecting his own comments, but patiently and carefully pursuing the argument wherever it leads. Abstraction is no barrier to rapt attention. One lecture on Kant, dealing with the most difficult and intricate points, lasted five hours and the audience never faltered. There is a constant sense of drama. Questions are insistent and probing, and the answers matter. The lecturer is treated with respect but not deference.’ (p. 50)

It did not last: ‘During the same days Bill Newton-Smith, Fairfax Fellow in Philosophy at Balliol College was preparing to leave for Prague … It was the 7th March, and just before boarding the plane to Prague he bought the latest issue of the New Statesman. It proclaimed ind red on the front cover: “Inside Prague: Philosophy and the police state”; inside was a four page article by Julius Tomin … He identified 1977 as the year when the state, unable to handle the problem of Charter 77, handed over authority to the security services. Most of the population remained happy to function within the system of security. But the identifiable individuals who made up Charter 77 had put themselves outside the security net. “One finds oneself in the realm of inner freedom and then one faces the question of how to live so that the free life would be worth the sacrifice. That is where philosophy can help.” … Newton Smith set out to visit the Tomins. A few minutes before he arrived Julius, Zdena [my wife] and Lukáš [my son] had been served with a summons to appear at the central police station. Tomin believed the summons was connected with the New Statesman article. However, the present business was philosophy. Newton-Smith was not disappointed: “I have never encountered someone with so much dedication to philosophy that actual and impending problems of the magnitude facing him were set aside. For the next five hours we had an intense, non-stop discussion of the problems of perception and the nature of truth.” The next day they continued the discussion. Tomin explained  to Newton-Smith the difference between Oxford students and those in Prague, who needed to know why they were risking prison for the study of such a thing as philosophy … The lecture (on “The Rationality of Science”) took place in Ivan Dejmal’s flat, and started at 7.30 that evening: The eager, concentrated attention of the dozen students created an intellectually exciting atmosphere. Their excitement was infectious and I was looking forward to their reactions.” Fifteen minutes into the session the door bell rang. Dejmal, who normally monitored the arrivals, was engaged in transcribing the lecture; another student ran to open the door to what he assumed to be a late arrival, and rushed back in order not to miss a word of the lecture. Seven policemen, some in uniform, some in plane clothes, burst in behind him. The uniformed police took the names and details of the students, whilst the secret police demanded that Newton-Smith accompany them. Tomin was ordered to translate their orders to Newton-Smith, which he refused to do. As Newton-Smith was dragged from the flat his last sight was of Tomin, hands bleeding from struggles with the police taking up his lecture and reading from the point where they had been interrupted.’ (pp. 51-52) [I don’t remember the bleeding. I remember taking Bill firmly by hand; the police had to force my hand open so that they could take him away.] I finished reading and translating Bill’s lecture. It was the last complete lecture read in my philosophy seminar.

When Dr Kenny, the Master of Balliol, was giving his lecture in my seminar on Saturday 12th April, his lecture was interrupted before he could properly begin; Kenny and his wife were taken away, my students and I were taken to the Central Police Station in Bartolomêjská street.

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