Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Can the past be transformed? – reflections on my forthcoming protest in Prague

In the ‘Information’ about my forthcoming protest in Prague (see ‘From Bertrand Russell on Plato’s Phaedo and Meno to my forthcoming protest in Prague’ posted on Oct. 11) I wrote: ‘I put on my website Roger Scruton’s ‘A catacomb culture’ published in February 1990, in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. It well describes the role that Oxford philosophers played after I left Prague for Oxford and my open philosophy seminar was supplanted by ‘secret’ activities. As I was typing Scruton’s article on my notebook, with every paragraph I had to think: ‘And during all those years I was excluded from any normal cooperation with philosophers in my field of interest, although I devoted all my efforts to enlarging and deepening my knowledge of Ancient Philosophy and Ancient Greek culture.’

In his article Scruton wrote: ‘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 … 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 … One visitor – Jacque Derrida – was even imprisoned on fabricated charges … Many of our visitors were extremely well known in their own countries: Richard Rorty, Alain Finkielkrout, C. H. Sisson, David Pryce-Jones, Michael Berkeley, Judith Weir, Julian Mitchell, Jean-Paul Vernant, Jürgen Habermas, Leon Krier, Quinlan Terry, Peter Fuller, Carol Rumens, Thomas Nagel, Steven Lukes, David Selbourne, and many others. Each would travel with books, tapes and transcripts while, through independent channels, we would smuggle printing equipment, photocopiers, binding machines, and the countless other requirements of the “catacomb culture” … Of course, “education” can always be a mask for politics; as it was in Czechoslovak schools and universities over the past twenty years.’

Barbara Day writes in The Velvet Philosophers: ‘After Tomin had refused permanent emigration, the police offered a 5-year visa, which, after some delay, he accepted. The visa was valid for the UK and Australia; he attributed the latter to the recent visit of David Armstrong, a philosopher from Australia, who had visited Prague in July (ostensibly on trade business) and talked to the Tomins on several occasions.’ (The Claridge Press, 1999, pp. 64-65).

The truth was very different. After the police had disrupted the Master of Balliol’s lecture on Aristotelian Ethics (April 12, 1980) in my flat in Prague, we, my students and I, tried for several more weeks to meet. Each attempt ended with our imprisonment and 48-hour detention in a police cell. In the end I told the police that I would make no more attempts to hold my seminar, and asked for permission to leave the country for five years. The man in charge said: ‘Mr Tomin, I’ve never heard of any such thing. But if you want to emigrate, you will get the passport in a week.’ A few weeks later I was told that my request had been granted; I was given permission to leave the country for five years. I knew that if one applied for more than six countries, one got permission to visit all countries in the world. And so I applied for permission to go to Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, and USA.

Then I was visited by David Armstrong; his visit was announced to me as forthcoming by Kathy Wilkes during her stay in Prague in May. He invited me, my wife, and our two children to Hanavský pavilion, one of the nicest restaurants with a brilliant view of Prague. After a gorgeous meal David invited me to his hotel. As we were entering the lift, he told me: ‘Julius, when you get to Oxford, write to me and ask me to find you a place in Australia.’ I said: ‘David, you know nothing about me. I was promised two years in Oxford. During those two years I shall do my best to get better in my subject. I shall be informing you about my progress. If during those two years you come to the realization that I could be of any use in Australia, write to me and invite me.’ Armstrong replied: ‘Julius, it seems there will be a lot of trouble with you in the West.’ I said: ‘David, it seems there will be a lot of trouble with me in the West.’

A few days later I received a letter from the Ministry that my passport was ready. All countries I applied for were crossed out with the exception of Britain and USA; one country was added, which I did not ask a permission to visit: Australia.

During those two years at Oxford I did my best to get better in my chosen subject, but it became clear that the better I became in my study of the Ancient Greeks, the less likely it became that I might ever get accepted within academic circles. And since every university should endeavour to get as good specialists in any subject taught at the university as the money they have at their disposal can buy, the only way to deal with the situation with which I presented my colleagues was that of Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub Philosopher’ (published in The Independent Magazine a day after the Velvet Revolution began, i.e. on Nov. 18, 1989; now available on my website): ‘Jonathan Barnes, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, impatiently brushed aside the suggestion that the Conservatives’ 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.’

The only way this could work was never to allow any possibility for me to have an open discussion on Plato with Oxford philosophers (or any other philosophers in the West), and after the Velvet Revolution, with Czech philosophers as well.

Scruton wrote: ‘We were obliged by our trust to support educational and cultural activities in Czechoslovakia … Is our work now finished? We were half-inclined to hope so. But our Czech and Slovak colleagues had other ideas. Their educational system, standing for decades on the brink of annihilation, has at last been placed in the hands of the people who can save it. But they need expertise, books and equipment; they need to rebuild the curriculum in all those subjects where Marxism was an obstacle to learning, or where party privilege ensured that only favoured children could be accepted for study. They need to restore those disciplines – law, economics and political science – which were effectively stifled by political decrees. Our work, they tell us, is not ending but beginning.’

In my ‘Information’ I wrote: ‘On November 16-18 I intend to stage ‘Three days with a pub philosopher devoted to philosophy’ in front of the Faculty of Arts on Palach’s square. The recommended texts: ‘The Pub Philosopher’ and ‘The Pursuit of Philosophy’; both these texts are available on my website. On Nov. 16 I shall read ‘Self-reflection as an imperative’, on Nov. 17 ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides’, on Nov. 18 ‘Plato and Dionysius’; the texts are on my website. Time: 10-12 am. I intend to stage the ‘Three days’ as a celebration and as a protest. I shall celebrate the start of the Velvet Revolution [November 17, 1989], for without that revolution it would be impossible for me to stage the ‘Three days’ in front of the Faculty of Arts. I shall protest against my exclusion from any meaningful cooperation with philosophers in the Czech Republic and in the world at large.

Needless to say, I should much rather present the three papers at the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at the Faculty of Arts. I shall therefore buy the air-ticket at the last moment, just in case the Director of the Institute were to invite me to give the proposed lectures at the Institute at a mutually convenient time.’

If Jakub Jirsa, the Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at the Faculty of Arts, invites me to give the three lectures at the Institute, and my views on Plato and on the human nature (‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’) are properly challenged in open discussions – my views on these subjects differ radically from the views held by philosophers at the Institute – he will transform the past involvement of academics from Oxford and other Western universities in my country; for if it happens, the genuine desire to help to promote education in my country, by which, I hope, many of those who took part were motivated, will finally assert itself. But it will take all that was genuine in that endeavour to make it possible.

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