Sunday, September 18, 2016

Two months with Homer’s Odyssey – afterthoughts

In the ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ (published in the History of Political Thought, vol. V, No 3, Winter 1984, now available on my website) I wrote: ‘Homer’s Gods did not know contemplation for its own sake at all. Their thinking was of course superior to that of mortals, but in devising clever schemes, their thinking nowhere transcends a purely instrumental role. Consider, for contrast, Aristotle’s concept of pure self-reflective intellectual activity as the highest End, in order to appreciate the development which the Greeks made between the two. But note that it was Homer who marked the first gigantic step towards Aristotle. In Homer the Greeks could appreciate the experience of living for hours in the realm of the poetic word, thus transcending the actual reality of their daily concerns. At first glance it looks as if the gap between Homer’s Gods and Aristotle’s God consisted in the anthropomorphic shape of the former; Aristotle’s God transcends anthropomorphism reaching into the heights of abstract philosophic speculation. But in fact, Aristotle’s ‘thought thinking thought’ is equally anthropomorphic. Reflect on Aristotle’s ‘thought contemplating thought’ when you read his passages critical of Plato; how he must have relished contemplating his teacher’s thought.’ (p. 538)

I wrote these lines in 1983, but I expressed them orally in April 1980 in what was to be an introduction to a course of lectures/seminars on Aristotle. The ‘introduction’ took place in the Head-quarters of the Czechoslovak Police, where I and my students were taken after the police invaded my flat in Prague, thus interrupting the lecture on Aristotle’s Ethics that the Master of Balliol College from Oxford University was giving in my philosophy seminar. I put ‘introduction’ in quotation marks, for it was the last time I could talk to my students. For eight subsequent weeks our attempts to meet ended each time in 48 hour detentions in prison cells.

And so I can’t help it; whenever I take Homer into my hands, there always comes a point when my thoughts go back to that day. In the opening paragraph of the ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ I wrote: ‘My discussion with Anthony Kenny on the right pursuit of philosophy took place in Prague in April 1980. At that time my philosophy seminar had been harassed by the Czech police but we still managed to meet. The arrival of the Master of Balliol was anticipated with great expectations. Some expected a catastrophe which would definitely finish my seminar. I could not imagine the police interfering once Kenny was granted the visas. That is why I hoped for a breakthrough. If the police refrained from harassing us in this case they would hardly interfere on future occasions. My aspirations would have been fulfilled. Prague would have had a place where once a week young people could come and openly discuss philosophy. That would have given us strength to be as free as the physical parameters of the situation allowed, free enough, I felt – even without the possibility to travel abroad, to publish and to speak in public – to confront the system with a problem of governing a society with free people in its midst. I hoped the regime could grow up to the task and so get positively transformed without falling apart in the process. Hoping for the continuation of my seminar I hoped for the optimal development in our country. Our philosophy seminar was a step on the road towards a society which would maintain the social and economic framework of socialism but would allow free development of individuals.’ (p. 527)

On the 25th of February I wrote to Dr Jakub Jirsa, the Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University:

‘Yesterday I put on my website two essays: ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides’ and ‘’Plato and Dionysius’. Both can be found under the heading Texty v češtině (Texts in Czech). In both these essays I view Plato in a new way, and as such they need to be discussed. Therefore, I am addressing you with a request to allow me to present these two essays at your Institute. It would be great if you or another Platonic scholar opposed my views on Plato in discussions which I presume will follow my presentations. I hope you will respond positively to my request.’

Dr Jirsa replied: ‘Thank you for your offer. I have decided not to use it.’

I responded: ‘May I ask you to justify your decision?’

To this request I received no answer; I spent the rest of my days in Prague addressing Czech academics, beginning with the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and the Rector of Charles University, asking them to support me in my two requests addressed to Dr Jirsa, but to no avail. Before returning to England I wrote a short piece ‘K zamyšlení’ (‘For thought’, in English perhaps ‘Something to think about’) in which I wrote:

‘If you look at my website, you will find that I have devoted a number of years to Plato, Aristotle, and the whole cultural heritage of Ancient Greece. I can see that it is in a sense unfair to ask philosophers at the Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies – who have so much else to think about: their careers, grants, writing and publishing, research stays at foreign universities – to discuss Plato and Aristotle with someone who devoted almost fifty years of intensive work to the subject. But is it fair to the students of Charles University to deprive them of the possibility to attend and take part in such an event?’ (See ‘3 My recent Prague venture’ posted on March 29.)

The first chapter of the ‘Pursuit of Philosophy’ is entitled ‘To Resume an Interrupted Discussion’. I sent an off-print of the article to Dr Kenny. I wrote to him that I didn’t think it right that the power of the Czechoslovak police to interrupt a philosophic discussion were to be respected even years after the interruption had taken place.

But apparently, to have a public discussion with me in those days was unthinkable – under the baton of Oxford philosophers, in Prague and Brno and Bratislava ‘secret’ philosophy seminars were taking place (‘secrecy’ jealously guarded by the Czech Secret Police, Oxford dons & Co?). After my departure from Prague to Oxford, on Thursday October 15, 1980 the Czechoslovak Communist Party cultural weekly Tvorba published a letter addressed by Professor Radovan Richta to Professor A. Diemer, President of the International Federation of Philosophic Societies. 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 remember being taken to Paris by Alan Montefiore, a Balliol don who gave a lecture in my seminar in Prague in 1979; he wanted me to express my thanks to French philosophers. I was happy to comply, for I had a bad conscience concerning the French. Le Monde devoted a few lines to my visit; Jacques Derrida was incensed: ‘Who informed Le Monde? Do you want to destroy all our work in Prague?’

And so Dr Kenny made a compromise. He invited me to Balliol to read with me Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, just the two of us. We met weekly, it took a whole term. We read it together from alpha to omega. It was one of the most valuable experiences I had during my stay at Oxford.

Why did I have a bad conscience concerning the French? At the beginning of July 1975 I visited the French Library in Prague. Normally the only newspaper available to the public was the L’Humanité (a French Communist Party daily), but on this visit a door was open to the room in which I saw a pile of newspapers. I entered the room and for the first time in my life saw Le Monde. I opened one issue, and there I found an exchange of letters between Karel Kosík, perhaps the most important Marxist philosopher in Czechoslovakia of those days, and J.-P. Sartre. The headline said: A la suite de la confiscation par la police d’une partie de ses manuscrits Le philosoph tchéchoslovaque Karel Kosík écri à J.-P. Sartre <Mon existence a pris deux form: je suis mort et en mȇme temps je vis> (‘In consequence of the confiscation of some of his manuscripts by the police, the Czechoslovak philosopher Karel Kosík wrote to J.-P. Sartre <My existence acquired two forms: I am dead while at the same time I live>. The exchange of these letters had a profound impact on me. When I came home I wrote a letter to Rudé Právo, the Communist Party daily, in which I recounted the main points Kosík made: ‘He has been prevented from performing work that would correspond to his abilities. He has been excluded from participation in the activities of academic institutions. He cannot publish. One thousand pages of his manuscripts were confiscated by the police.’ I then asked whether all this was happening in accordance with the laws of the republic: ‘If it is not happening in accordance with our laws, what can I do as a Czechoslovak citizen to help promote the restoration of legality. If it is happening in accordance with our laws, which laws are these, and what can I do to facilitate such change of our laws that this treatment of a citizen of this country becomes precluded.’

It was as a result of this all that I visited Professor Machovec and some other proscribed philosophers, asking them to meet regularly and inform each other about our work. In consequence, the philosophy seminar in Pařížská Street was open. It was at the break of our early December meeting 1976 that Václav Havel, who occasionally visited the seminar, gave me to read a document Charter 77 and asked me, whether I was prepared to sign it. I liked it and signed it. In consequence, in early 1977 Milan Machovec was forced to close the seminar in Pařížská Street. And so I opened a philosophy seminar in my flat, in Keramická Street. Without the French Library and Kosík – Sartre letters in Le Monde there would have been no Oxford visits in the ‘secret seminars’ in Prague of 1980’s.

Secret seminars? Let me quote from Roger Scruton’s ‘A catacomb culture ‘ (TLS, February 16-22, 1990): ‘Following the example set by Kathleen Wilkes academics began to visit their Czechoslovak colleagues, many of whom they met in the seminar organized by Julius Tomin … The publicity-conscious Tomin then emigrated and … Four of the philosophers who had visited Tomin’s seminar – Kathleen Wilkes, Alan Montefiore, Bill-Newton Smith and myself … decided that, although our purpose was charitable … it should not be openly pursued, and that we should henceforth best help our Czechoslovak colleagues by working secretly … Visitors came from Holland, France, Britain, the United States and Germany … 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 one of the saviours of Central Europe), we had expanded into Moravia … Last summer, however, the organizer of our work in Slovakia, Ján Čarnogurský, was arrested … But the blessed Agnes of Bohemia had just been canonized, and it was a time of miracles … Čarnogurský was released … By then another of our beneficiaries [Václav Havel] was President, and within weeks we were to see our friends occupying the highest offices in the land.’

As it appears, for all this to take place, my open seminar had to be destroyed, I had to be excluded from academic circles, had to be turned into a kind of Karel Kosík in the West – with no J.-P. Sartre around.

I still have not properly explained why I had a bad conscience concerning the French. The problem was that when I learnt French I learnt it merely passively. I would have loved to invite French philosophers to my seminar, but my French was not good enough for it. I did not want to be informed in advance of any foreign visit to my seminar, I had to be ‘prepared’ to translate any lecture a visitor to my seminar would be giving, without having it on paper – I did not want any prepared papers, I wanted each visitor to give us her/his best, without paper. I could do this in English and in German, that’s why I invited academics from Heidelberg and West Berlin, Oxford and Harvard universities to my seminar; I could not do it in French.

French textbooks helped me most during the 1970’s in my endeavour to learn Ancient Greek. In the French Library in Prague I had the complete Classics in the parallel French-Greek Budé edition, all there, just for myself. My French was good enough to elucidate for me the Greek text, but after performing that function, it fell off; it did not remain in my head as a foundation to which the Greek original would be attached.

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