Forty years ago, in May 1978 I invited academics of four western universities to my philosophy seminar in Prague. I will celebrate the anniversary in Prague with a lecture on ‘Plato’s first dialogue – the Phaedrus in the light of its dating’. In preparation for the lecture I shall devote the intervening posts on my blog to those aspects of the dialogue, which on my proposed dating – 405 B. C., the last year of the Peloponnesian war – come to the fore. I shall be writing these posts in Czech.
Before I turn to Czech, let me begin the celebration in English by quoting a few paragraphs from Barbara Day’s The Velvet Philosophers (The Claridge Press, 1999):
‘Tomin’s decision to start an open seminar was not originally a way of testing authorities, but a genuine desire to introduce young people to the Ancient Greeks and especially Plato … He loved argument, debate, the crossed swords of protagonist and antagonist; which was also new and exciting for the Czech students of the 1970s, accustomed in their university lectures to sit and take notes of authorised opinions … In May 1978, when the course was gradually winding down for its second summer break, Tomin presented his students with a new idea. With their permission he would write to some western universities and suggest that their professors become involved in the teaching …
‘Tomin drafted a letter in both English and German to be sent to two English-speaking universities (Oxford and Harvard) and two German Universities (Heidelberg and the Free University in Berlin). In the letter Tomin describes how he came to set up the seminar, and the attention it has received from the Ministry of the Interior – “to their credit let it be said that they have hitherto not put any further obstacles in our way, at least not directly; they are content to carry out prosecution of individuals by sacking them from their jobs, preventing young people from studying at secondary schools, and so on. At times, though, they still threaten us: ‘We’ll destroy you – you and your Plato!’” Julius describes his frustration at having foreign mail confiscated … But, he points out, there is still one possibility – foreign visitors can come to Czechoslovakia.
‘He is broad in his description of what subjects they would welcome – “We wish to understand the world we live in … We shall welcome natural scientists who will try to bring closer to us the world of the natural sciences … We wish to understand the society we live in – we shall welcome economists and sociologists … We wish to understand Man – we shall welcome psychologists, philosophers, theologians … We wish to understand the development of mankind – we shall welcome anthropologists, historians, futurologists, ecologists … There is only one condition – you need to have the desire to come to see us, to share with us the fruits of your own study and research.” And to close, he arrives at the practical point of when they should come: “we meet to study philosophy in my flat every Wednesday at 6 p.m., from September to June.” … Tomin posted these letters in the normal way, but at the same time gave copies to trusted visitors for posting outside Czechoslovakia. One of these visitors was the General Secretary of Amnesty International, Paul Oesterreicher’ (pp. 28-29)
‘After nearly a year, the message he had cast into the waters had brought results … Wilkes’s first seminar, on Aristotle, took place on Wednesday evening at the flat in Keramická Street; starting at the usual time of 6.00 p.m., it lasted until midnight. Wilkes subsequently observed that: “… the discussions were the most stimulating that I have experienced. It was impossible to receive a ‘standard counter’ to a familiar argument, because they have had no chance to learn of the ‘standard’ arguments; all comments were first-hand; absolute concentration was sustained throughout the session – not surprisingly, given that they were willing to take risks to attend.” (p. 35) … The chief focus of Tomin’s work was Plato; Wilkes subsequently observed that “Tomin’s views, formed in unavoidable isolation from secondary literature, were based on in-side-out familiarity with the entire Greek corpus. Persecuted though they are, he and his colleagues are free to ignore as faintly comic the intellectual demarcation lines of the West …” Very often Tomin and Wilkes held opposing opinions, but part of the joy of this visit was the discovery that differences helped to deepen the relationship.’ (p.38)
What went wrong?
Barbara Day gives a prominent space to Roger Scruton’s visit to my seminar in The Velvet Philosophers: ‘For his lecture to Tomin’s seminar, he spoke on Wittgenstein’s private language argument. He remembers that there were about 25 people present … After the seminar, from 6.00 till 9.00 p.m., Scruton and the Tomins went to a restaurant; the next day he met Tomáš and Lenka on the quiet, wooded Shooters’ Island in the Vltava. As he talked to them he … 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 … he also thought how much more effective they could be if the teaching were freed from the influence of personality.’ (p. 45)
The students in Prague were freed from 'the influence of personality'. It was the Czech secret police that did the dirty work. But who or what is it nowadays that prevents the Oxford University and the Philosophy Institute at the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University in Prague from allowing me, let alone inviting me, to present to their students and academics a lecture on Plato?
Roger Scruton in 'A catacomb culture' published in TLS February 16-22, 1990 describes the role the ‘secret seminars’ played in preparing the way to the Velvet revolution of 1989. Because of its importance, I made it available on my website.
As Barbara Day writes, ‘Tomin’s guiding principle was that if one’s actions are not illegal or dishonourable, then they should be carried out in the open.’ (p. 35). Roger Scruton writes in his article: ‘The publicity conscious Tomin then emigrated and … We decided that, although our purpose was charitable, and in violation of neither English nor Czechoslovak law, it should not be openly pursued … we won the confidence of a large network of people, none of whom knew the full extent of our operations … We also encouraged our French, German, American and Canadian colleagues to establish sister trusts, thereby acquiring an international dimension which was to prove invaluable in the hard years to come … 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 as one of the saviours of Central Europe), we expanded into Moravia … Last summer, however, the organizer of our work in Slovakia, Ján Čarnogurský, was arrested, charged with “subversion in collaboration with foreign powers” … Yet, by a miracle, the judge defied his instructions and passed a verdict of innocent … Two weeks later Čarnogurský was made Deputy Prime Minister of his country … By then another of our beneficiaries was President [Václav Havel], and within weeks we were to see our friends occupying the highest offices in the land.’
On February 27 I wrote to Dr Jakub Jirsa, the Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, that I would like to celebrate the 40th anniversary of my inviting western academics to my philosophy seminar with a lecture on Plato at his Institute. So far, I haven’t received his answer; if I don’t receive it by May, I shall go to Prague and celebrate the anniversary by reading the lecture in front of the Philosophy Faculty on Palach’s square. It will be celebration with protest. I shall celebrate that it will be possible for me to go to Prague and read the lecture in front of the Faculty, and protest against the refusal of the Faculty authorities to allow me to present the lecture at the Faculty.