Friday, April 29, 2016

Cycling for Plato? – contemplating a reluctant protest

An editor of the Cherwell Magazine, Oxford’s Independent Student Newspaper, asked me to comment on my recent protests outside Balliol: ‘We would be particularly interested in finding out about your aims and what you wish to demonstrate as well as any further plans to protest.’ I replied that I was contemplating ‘Cycling for Plato’: ‘I intend to cycle to Oxford University, from Oxford to Cambridge University, then take a ferry to Holland, cycle to Freie Universitaet in Berlin, then to Charles University in Prague, then to Heidelberg University, then to Sorbonne in Paris, and end as a homeless person at Oxford. I shall ‘cycle for Plato’, for Plato deserves to be read and discussed, and I believe that there are young people at universities I intend to visit who would find as much delight in Plato as I have done, if they were provided with an opportunity to find the right way to enjoying him. I have marked the proposed ‘Cycling for Plato’ with a question mark, for nothing would please me more than if one of the Oxford Colleges found for me a room, allowed me to give lectures on Plato to students, and thus enabled me to resume my study of Plato, so that I would not have to get on my bicycle.’

This morning I woke up all in sweat. Is it not crazy, the protest that I am contemplating to undertake? I intend to end as a homeless person at Oxford. Is it necessary? My wife insists that I write to Pension Service, inform them that our divorce will be finalized in less than five weeks and that they should begin to send me Income Support as they did before she got a better pay and I was left with £28.03 of weekly state pension; she insists that I apply for the housing benefit so that I can get private housing. I told her that I informed the Pension Service of our divorce and gave them the detail of my bank account in March. If they still send the £28.03 of weekly pension to her bank account, that’s fine with me; it’s the least I can do to contribute to my children’s upbringing (my daughter is 16, my son is 14): ‘As you well know, the Pension Service charged me with a debt of £11,856.70 in 2009. All my appeals to the Pension Service to revise their decision have been in vain. I finally appealed to the Master of Balliol, asking him that a Balliol lawyer looks into the matter; on April 25 he replied “Dear Dr Tomin, I am sorry for all your troubles, but sadly can not do anything I believe to alleviate them.” – The least I can do is not to apply to the Pension Service for help unless I am completely destitute. On April 11 I was informed by the Czech equivalent of the Pension Service that my monthly pension will be 3233 Kč, which means approximately £94.34 a month. In the autumn of the last year I received a five-year back payment of my Czech pension; it should keep me going during my cycling protest.’ – Isn’t it time to swallow my pride and do as my wife suggest?

In my reply to the editor of the Cherwell magazine I wrote that my idea of a ‘cycling protest’ goes back to 1984: ‘It was the Rt. Hon. Norman Tebbit who inspired me with the idea of getting on my bicycle. I simply wanted to express my wish to be accepted as partner in an endeavour to involve students in philosophy.’ What prompted me to my ‘cycling protest’ more than thirty years ago was Martin Walker’s three-part-investigation into ‘What’s gone wrong with philosophy in Britain?’ published in The Guardian. In ‘The Latter Days of Philosophy’ I wrote:

‘Walker arrived at nothing less than foreshadowing the latter days of philosophy … He defined “philosophy’s unique strength” as that of having “the longest institutional memory of any of the academic disciplines, back to the ancient Greeks … Nothing is forgotten all ideas remain for potential recycling.” Thus the end of philosophy is in sight: “We might just be living in the last generation when this holds true. In Japan, in America, and in research centres in Europe, there is feverish activity under way to build something called the fifth generation computer, a machine that can think.” (The Guardian, Wednesday January 11, 19884)

How is the machine able to think to deprive philosophy of its standing? … Walker cannot mean philosophy as a living human activity. If we understand philosophy as always anchored in human lives, and do not mistake it for sediments of philosophic activity, the very notion that it could ever be surpassed by computers is absurd.

Walker points out the evil and proposes remedies. The evil lies in Oxford’s preoccupation with classical philosophy. It could have been exposed earlier but for the Prague interlude: “Oxford dons could counter any suggestions that they and their classics are out of touch by referring to a brave and thrilling experience that many of them have recently enjoyed. It began when Julius Tomin … asked for moral and intellectual support.” (The Guardian, Tuesday January 19, 1984)’

For three years now I have shared a lot of unemployed British philosophers. I wonder when we will begin to organize to help each other in pursuit of philosophy. Philosophy is a life-long task; who ever really tasted it cannot give it up – or resume it – according to the dictat of the ‘market’. If the universities begin to produce graduates who would insist on doing philosophy even if unemployed, philosophy will start to pay its due to problems of the present world … Socratic concept of free time – schole in Greek – gave the name to our schools; intellectual activity requires free time for its unfolding. Facing the Athenian jury, Socrates raised the claim to have schole institutionally guaranteed for the life of philosophy. The modern concept of redundancy deprives people of human dignity. It is in the power of philosophy to restore the sense of dignity and direction to free time. Philosophy can transform unemployment into time of free intellectual effort for all those who can pursue it.

And so I confront my colleagues in Oxford with the request of three hours in a fortnight jointly devoted to Plato and Aristotle; three hours during which an unemployed philosopher might participate in intellectual exchange with his more fortunate colleagues. More fortunate? As long as they do not find time for such an activity, I would not call them more fortunate.’ (Radical Philosophy 37, Summer 1984)

It was to emphasize the import of this text that I contemplated cycling to 8 universities during the 8 weeks of the Summer Term 1984, ‘knocking on their door’, hoping against hope that the door might be opened. It was in 1984, the ‘brave and thrilling experience’ of Oxford dons that ‘began when Julius Tomin … asked for moral and intellectual support’ was still fresh, refreshed by Martin Walker, and so two universities did invite me to talk to their students and academics; and so I cycled to Lancaster and to Aberdeen. What hope can I have of any success with my ‘Cycling for Plato’ in 2016?

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