Saturday, June 11, 2016

‘Julius, what is a velvet philosopher?’

Yesterday I made supper for myself and my son Dan – my wife (our divorce has not been finalized as yet) is heavily involved in the Labour Party efforts to interest its members in staying in the EU, and so she is most evenings away. After supper I was cleaning the table, half-listening to the radio. Roger Scruton was talking about the beauty of the English countryside and the need to protect it.

Dan: ‘Julius, don’t make noise, I’m listening.’ When Scruton finished his talk, I told Dan: ‘Roger Scruton once gave a lecture in my philosophy seminar in Prague.’ – ‘What was the lecture about? And did you talk to him?’ – ‘On Wittgenstein. Of course I talked to him. He can talk well, but he has a dark side. My philosophy seminar offered a great opportunity for preparing the fall of Communism. The only person that happened to stand in the way of using its full potential was me, as Roger Scruton realized. But wait.’

I went upstairs to find Barbara Day’s The Velvet Philosophers. I wanted to show Dan the passage in which Day describes the aftermath of Scruton’s lecture: ‘Scruton and the Tomin’s went to a restaurant; the next day he met Tomáš and Lenka [two of my students] on the quiet, wooded Shooters’ Island in the Vltava. As he talked to them he realized how hungry they were for the outside world, for access to a wider culture and literature. He heard about their expulsion from university, and realised that Tomin’s seminars, important as they were, provided only a small part of the education they should be getting. He also wondered how much opportunity they had to express their own ideas; the seminars were dominated by Tomin, and the young students were overshadowed by his powerful personality. In conversation with the students, Scruton began to realise what a vital role the seminars played in passing on to the new generation traditions of independent enquiry; he also thought how much more effective they could be if the teaching were freed from the influence of personality.’ (p. 45)

I gave Dan the book. He asked: ‘Julius, what is a velvet philosopher?’ – ‘When my seminar was destroyed by the police and the philosophy seminars became secret, they played an important role in preparing the way for the Velvet Revolution.’ – ‘What is Velvet Revolution? Why Velvet?’ – ‘It started on November 17, 1989. On that day, in 1939, the Germans shot a Czech student Jan Opletal during a student demonstration against the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. [I checked it on Wikipedia; for all these years I was wrong. Opletal was shot during a student demonstration on October 28, 1939, the day we celebrate the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. He died on November 11, but November 17 became a day students traditionally remember him.] – But wait, I can’t explain to you the Velvet Revolution by giving you the whole history. Roger Scruton gives the best explanation of why Revolution and why Velvet.’

I went again upstairs, found Scruton’s ‘A catacomb culture’ (TLS, February 16-22, 1990). I told Dan, ‘read the following’: “We found ourselves with a wholly new range of tasks: arranging concerts of Czech music in which the works of banned composers were cunningly inserted among the official offerings; mounting exhibitions of work that could not be displayed in Czechoslovakia; creating a nation-wide network of ecologists, linking official to underground researchers and both to their Western colleagues, in an attempt to counter what will perhaps be the most lasting legacy of Communism. And so on. Then we were struck by a heavy blow. By this time most of our trustees had, one way or another, lost their visas. But since the arrest of Jacques Derrida there had been no attempt by the authorities to threaten our operations directly. Last summer, however, the organizer of our work in Slovakia, Ján Čarnogurský, was arrested, charged with ‘subversion in collaboration with foreign powers’, and subjected to months of interrogation (which, however, he withstood with exemplary firmness). Yet, by a miracle, the judge defied his instructions and passed a verdict of innocent. The prosecution appealed and Čarnogurský was detained at the Communist Party’s pleasure. But the blessed Agnes of Bohemia had just been canonized, and it was a time of miracles. Two weeks later Čarnogurský was released under an amnesty and made Deputy Prime Minister of his country, entrusted with amending (or rather, re-creating) its law. By then another of our beneficiaries was President, and within weeks we were to see our friends occupying the highest offices in the land, their tousled Bohemian heads rising from newly acquired suits and ties. Among those who had worked with us we could count the new rectors of the Charles University, of the Masaryk University (as it is once again called), and of the Palacký University in Olomouc.”

Then I pointed to an earlier paragraph: “Following the example set by Kathleen Wilkes – an Oxford philosopher of intrepid character – academics began to visit their Czechoslovak colleagues, many of whom they met in the seminar organized by Julius Tomin. The visiting continued for little more than a year, during which period many people, including the Master of Balliol College, were summarily expelled from Czechoslovakia. The publicity-conscious Tomin then emigrated and, so far as the Western Press and the majority of Western academics were concerned, that was the end of the matter. However, a small sum of money had been given for the relief of our Czechoslovak colleagues. Four of the philosophers who had visited Dr Tomin’s seminar – Kathleen Wilkes, Alan Montefiore, Bill Newton-Smith and myself – used this money to establish an educational trust. We decided that, although our purpose was charitable, and in violation of neither English nor Czechoslovak law, it should not be openly pursued, and that we could henceforth best help our Czechoslovak colleagues by working secretly.’

When Dan finished reading, he asked: ‘When was the Czech Republic established?’ – ‘I don’t remember exactly. A few years after the Velvet Revolution’ – ‘So you began a revolution in a country that does not even exist?!’

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