Thursday, April 28, 2016

Cycling for Plato?

An editor of the Cherwell Magazine wrote to me:
Thank you for your email to the editors. Could you comment on your recent protests outside Balliol, ideally as soon as possible?

I answered:

Dear Sophie,
I arrived at Oxford on Monday afternoon. I stood in front of Balliol from 4pm to 6pm. My little poster saying ‘Let us discuss Plato’ was hanging on the corner of the board advertising Balliol College to visitors. I spent most of those two hours reading Plato’s Philebus, for it is a late dialogue of Plato, and in the light of my work on Plato’s Parmenides I am now interested in Plato’s late dialogues. As far as I can tell, nobody paid any attention to me or to my little poster. Then I went to the Bodleian Library to continue my reading of the Philebus. For this, I took Bury’s edition of the dialogue published by the Cambridge University Press in 1897. The book is in pristine condition; it could not have been read by many scholars during the 120 odd years it has been on the open shelves.

When the Library closed, I returned to Balliol for the night. I crouched in my sleeping back in the corner of the entrance behind the closed half of the gate, taking care not to be in the way of those who were coming in and going out from the little door in the other half of the gate. Then it started to rain very heavily. My umbrella and survival plastic bag protected me from the open space of the Broad Street, the Balliol gate protected me on the other side. Then came the porter and asked me to move: ‘You cannot stay here!’ I explained to him that I offered the Master of Balliol a paper on Plato and wrote to him that if he does not permit me to present the paper to Balliol students and academics, I shall stand for some time on Monday-Wednesday in front of Balliol in protest, and that my staying overnight in front of Balliol will be part of my protest. The porter called the University Security men. They asked me to move, threatening me that they would call the police if I didn’t. I said: ‘Call the police. My philosophy seminar in Prague was broken by the Czechoslovak police. It will be in style if my protest at Balliol ends by being interrupted by the British police.’

And I thought: ‘In April 1980 Dr Kenny, the Master of Balliol, was giving a paper to my students on Aristotle’s Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics. The dispute between me and Dr Kenny turned to Socrates and Plato. Kenny maintained that Socrates was a good man but not a great philosopher, whereas Plato was a dubious character but a great philosopher. I disagreed: ‘Tony, you obviously make a cut through Plato’s dialogues, finding Socrates in those dialogues which you consider of negligible philosophic import. I don’t make any such cut through Plato’s dialogues’. It was at that point that the police forced their way in and interrupted the discussion. It was in consequence of this dispute with the Master of Balliol that I realized that in all my reading of Plato I have not found anything that would militate against the ancient tradition that the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue. Ever since then I have done my best to renew that interrupted discussion, so far in vain. The paper I have offered to the present Master of Balliol on Plato’s Parmenides is the most recent and most important result of my viewing Plato on the basis of that ancient tradition. My protest at Balliol is my latest effort to bring the discussion about; if it is interrupted by the British police, so be it.’

The police duly arrived, the rain was falling, the police insisted that I move. They insisted that the place I occupied was the property of Balliol College; if I wanted to protest, I could do so on the pavement in front of the College. The police were firm but very decent. They waited for me to put on my shoes, pack up my sleeping bag, put everything in my bag – and mercifully, in the meantime it stopped raining. And so I paced for some two hours in front of Balliol waiting for the pavement to dry. When the pavement dried I spread on it the survival bag, on it my mat, and spent the rest of the night in my sleeping bag.

The next day I visited Balliol, for I wanted to speak to the Master. The porter said the Master was not there. ‘Could I speak to the Master’s secretary?’ I asked. ‘Nobody is there’, said the porter. – ‘Can I speak to any students?’ I asked. – ‘No, you can’t!’ said the porter resolutely.

And so I went in search of the Cherwell Magazine. It is not easy to find, a kind woman at the Poliice station at St Aldates helped me to get there. I was received by a deputy editor. We had a lengthy talk. She called the editor, gave me the phone, and we agreed that I would resume my protest at Balliol from 4pm-6pm; the editor would come, interview me, and take some photos. To my pleasant surprise, this time I was approached by some students who became interested in my protest, and we had a lengthy talk on Plato, on the study of Ancient Greek, and on philosophy. The editor found us deep in discussion, listened, became himself deeply interested, and took the photos he wished.

Then I spent one more night in front of Balliol and in the morning resumed my protest from 10-11am. I was again approached by students, and we enjoyed our discussions.

It may be seen as unfair for me to challenge Oxford dons to discuss Plato with me when I have had the privilege of devoting myself to the study of the Greeks fully for 50 years. For how much time could they possibly have had for studying Plato? And most importantly, I learnt Greek so that I understand the Greek texts directly, in Greek, without translating Greek in my head into English, whereas they all must translate Greek into English in order to understand it; for that’s how they learnt Ancient Greek at school.

But is it fair to the students not to give them an opportunity to see what difference it makes if one is fully committed to the study of the cultural world of the Ancient Greeks, and if one can understand Greek directly, without having to translate it in one’s head into English?

During the first day of my protest I thought that it was time to give up and for the rest of my days devote myself to my studies, simply enjoying my daily trips to the world of the Ancient Greeks. But my wife is divorcing me, all her attempts to secure for me social housing have failed so far; living as homeless is my prospect. When I came home, I read your email in which you ask whether I plan any further protest, and I realised that in view of my situation I do not have any other choice.

I have decided to ‘Cycle 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 (to academics of three of these universities I sent an invitation to my philosophy seminar in Prague in 1978; the philosophers at the Trinity College invited me to Cambridge in 1979 and it was Trinity College that paid my grant for the first seven months of my stay at Oxford; I would have liked to invite philosophers from Sorbonne to my seminar; but my French was not good enough for the task of interpreting their lectures to my students; J.P. Sartre’s exchange of letters with the Czech Marxist Philosopher Karel Kosík in Le Monde inspired me to open an unofficial philosophy seminar in Prague in 1975). I shall leave Oxford on May 6. (I want to give my vote to the Labour candidates in the local elections on May 5. – My ‘dissident career’ began in 1957 by my refusing to vote; inspired by Tolstoy I viewed the act of voting as an act of compliance with the regime, which I viewed as wrong. My next act was my refusal to do the military service, followed by my imprisonment.)

My ‘Cycling for Plato’ has been precipitated by the fact that I have nowhere to live, but the idea as such goes back for more than thirty years. In ‘A Letter to British Philosophers’ from May 12, 1984 I wrote: ‘It was the Rt. Hon. Norman Tebbit who inspired me with the idea of getting on my bicycle. I simply want to express my wish to be accepted as partner in an endeavour to involve students in philosophy. Originally, I wanted to cycle to eight universities during the summer term, each week of the term to one university. I planned getting on the road without any invitation. But then I lost courage for doing so; nevertheless, I informed the eight universities of my aborted plan, sending them the ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ as a ‘sample’ of my thought. As a result, two universities invited me to come. Let me express my gratitude and admiration for philosophers at Lancaster and Aberdeen Universities; for to be ready to listen to what an unemployed colleague has to say takes a lot of intellectual courage. I shall leave Oxford on Thursday May 24, on Monday May 28 I shall talk at Lancaster University on ‘Philosophy from the viewpoint of an unemployed philosopher’, on Tuesday on ‘Plato as he cannot be discussed’. On Monday June 11, I shall talk at Aberdeen University on ‘Philosophy with pleasure’. I chose my title for Aberdeen to counter Gosling and Taylor’s The Greeks on Pleasure (Oxford 1982), from which I quote: “Aristotle’s ecstatic language about the delights of philosophizing is not likely to arouse an answering echo among many practitioners, let alone among non-philosophers.” (p. 5-6) With high unemployment among intellectuals for years to come it is the task of primary importance to rediscover philosophy as an essential intellectual activity, to rediscover delight in thought.’

I shall ‘Cycle for Plato’, because 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. If the Cherwell Magazine could do anything in this matter, it would be great.



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