Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Two letters to Oxford University separated by forty years devoted to Ancient Greeks

The first letter I wrote in May 1978; I do not have it but Barbara Day reported it extensively in The Velvet Philosophers (The Claridge Press, 1999). She writes: ‘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 …Tomin presented his students with a new idea. He was doing his best for them, he said, but they needed something more. 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. 27-29)

‘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)

The second letter I wrote on May 7, 2018:
Dear Vice-Chancellor,
In 1977 I organized in Prague a philosophy seminar for young men and women barred from higher education by the Czechoslovak regime because of the involvement of their parents in an attempt to combine socialism with basic human freedoms during the Prague Spring of 1968. I was studying Plato and the best I could do for my students was to present to them Plato’s dialogues. Each week I chose a dialogue, worked on the Greek text, then with it in my hands I communicated Plato’s thoughts to my students. It kept both me and my students interested.
In May 1978 I invited Oxford academics to my seminar. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of this event I wrote ‘Plato’s first dialogue – the Phaedrus in the light of its dating’. In a letter of 27th February 2018, I offered it to the director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Arts Faculty of Charles University; I am still waiting for a reply. If I do not get permission to present the paper at the Faculty, on Wednesday May 16 2018 I shall be presenting it at the entrance to the Arts Faculty on Jan Palach’s square from 12.00-13.00. It will be celebration with protest. I will be celebrating the possibility to go to Prague and to give the paper in front of the Faculty and protesting against my having been refused to give it at the Faculty.
Here I must say in defence of Dr Jirsa, the director of the Institute: if he does not allow me to present the paper at his Institute, he will simply follow the examples of Oxford and Cambridge academics. How is it possible that I haven’t been allowed to present the results of my work on Plato at Oxford University and that I am not to be allowed to do so at Charles University?
At least a part-explanation can be gleaned from the interview entitled ‘Philosophers in knots over Dr Tomin’s Plato thesis’ published in The Daily Telegraph on August 25, 1988: ‘A leading scholar responded yesterday to complaints by Dr Julius Tomin, the Czech dissident philosopher, that he cannot get his controversial work on Plato published in Britain. “He holds that the Phaedrus is Plato’s first dialogue, which is contrary to the beliefs of pretty well all scholars in the field in this century,” said Dr David Sedley, editor of the Classical Quarterly, and director of studies in classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge … If Dr Tomin were right, it would affect a great deal of Platonic scholarship. “I think people just have great difficulty in seeing how it can be right,” he said. “It means he is asking people, to give up nearly everything else they believe about Plato’s development, but he is not telling us enough about why we should give up all these other views … It is a scholarly disagreement and I think he should try and present his views if he can, but there is no obligation on journals to accept articles for publication.”’
Dr Sedley went on to say: “He was simply picking up what Platonists of antiquity thought about the order of Plato’s work, and assumed it to be true. His way of reading Plato has become so much set around this particular view, that I think he feels an extraordinarily strong commitment to preserving it. But from our point of view we see this as a very old-fashioned view which was shared long ago and, to most of us, does not seem to have these great merits.”
I haven’t come across any views of Platonists of antiquity about the order of Plato’s work. Diogenes Laertius says in his ‘Life of Plato’ that there is an ancient story according to which the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue, and in what he says about the Lysis implies that Plato began to write dialogues while Socrates was still living: ‘They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed: “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!” For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.’ My view was then and has been ever since that these two indications, meagre as they are, ought not be thrown away without proper investigation. This set me on a collision course with Platonic scholars who view the Phaedrus as Plato’s late dialogue and all Plato’s dialogues as written after the death of Socrates. I can point to four articles in which I expressed my views: ‘Dating of the Phaedrus and Interpretation of Plato’ published in Antichthon in 1988, ‘A Preliminary to the Study of Plato’ published in Symbolae Osloenses in 1992, ‘Plato’s First Dialogue’ published in Ancient Philosophy in 1997, and ‘Plato’s disappointment with his Phaedran characters’ published in The Classical Quarterly in 2000.
Since none of these articles had the desired effect – I remained excluded from academic contacts and activities in the field – I began to write a book on Plato. Ten years ago, I published the first volume, The Lost Plato, on my website. Years followed when I got stuck; during those years I devoted myself to recording Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, Alcidamas, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Pindar and Homer in the original; some of these recordings I put on my website. Then my recorder got broken and I had no money to buy a new one. This proved to be a godsend. If I had had a recorder, I would have spent the rest of my days recording the Greeks, for I enjoyed it so much and it made the Greeks so much more alive to me than just reading them in silence. With no digital recorder, I had to discover a different way of intensive engagement with the Greeks. I started a blog where I began to confide my thoughts as they came to me in course of my studies. And so I began to make progress again in understanding Plato.
I am still hoping that I will be allowed to present ‘Plato’s first dialogue’ at Charles University. I published it on my website and informed the Heads of the departments and institutes about it, and I am sure they all would wish for it to be presented at the Faculty and discussed. There are three experts on Plato at the Institute of Philosophy and Religious Studies: Professor Karel Thein who studied Plato in Paris under the tutelage of Jacques Derrida and worked as a Visiting Professor at Corpus Christi at Oxford in 2003; Dr Jirsa, the director of the Institute, who studied Plato under the tutelage of David Sedley and Gábor Betheg in Cambridge; Dr Jakub Jínek who studied philosophy in Germany under the tutelage of Professors Giovanni Reale and Fransisco Lisi. Furthermore, in this year the Czech Republic celebrates the centenary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. T. G. Masaryk, the first president, was a philosopher, considered himself a Platonist, and wanted the Czechs to make a contribution to mankind as a whole; his motto was ‘Truth prevails’. It would be great if Charles University was the first university at which the importance of viewing the Phaedrus as Plato’s first dialogue for our understanding of Plato could be discussed. After all, Plato is a cultural treasure that we all can share.
In any case, after returning to England I shall translate the paper into English, put it on my website and ask for permission to present it at Oxford University in April 2019, to mark the 40th anniversary of the first Oxford visit to my philosophy seminar in Prague. In preparation, let me translate the first page of ‘Plato’s first dialogue – the Phaedrus in the light of its dating’:
“Diogenes Laertius in his ‘Life of Plato’ preserved an ancient tradition that the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue. Platonic scholars rejected this tradition without enquiring what the Phaedrus and Plato’s other dialogues would look like if we took the ancient tradition as a hypothesis.
The first question is whether the date of the dialogue can be determined on this hypothesis. The Charmides will be of help, for the discussion with which it ends indicates that it was written in the early days of the Thirty Tyrants, that is in 404 B.C. Socrates’ partners in the dialogue are Critias and Charmides who took part in the reign of the Thirty. At the end of the dialogue the young Charmides decides to let himself be educated by Socrates in the virtue of prudence, self-control and temperance. Critias approves his decision and commands him to stick to Socrates. When Socrates asks what they are conspiring about, Charmides answers that they have done their conspiring. Socrates asks whether Charmides is going to resort to force. Charmides replies: ‘I’ll resort to force since Critias orders me, and therefore you had better consider well.’ – Socrates: ‘But there is nothing left for consideration. When you’re intent on doing something and use force, no men can resist you.’ – Charmides: ‘Do not resist me then.’ Socrates ends the discussion and thus the whole dialogue with the words: ‘I won’t resist you.’
Charmides is dramatically staged in 429 B.C., the year in which Plato was born. Socrates has just returned from the siege of Potidaea where he spent a few years. The last time he saw Charmides as a boy, and now he meets him as a young man in all the power of his beauty. Charmides is well aware that Socrates is deeply taken with him, makes the best of it, commands him, with a youthful playfulness threatens him with force – and Socrates lets himself be commanded. But Plato could conceive the dialogue in this manner only before the Thirty summoned Socrates and four others to Tholos and ordered them to bring Leon from Salamis, as they wanted to put him to death. Socrates said about it at his trial: ‘This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes; and then I showed again, not in word only but in deed, that, if I may be allowed to use such an expression, I care not a straw for death, and that my great and only care is lest I should do an unrighteous and unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong; and when we came out of the rotunda the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end.’ (Plato, The Apology 32c-d, translated by B. Jowett)
If we consider the Phaedrus as Plato’s first dialogue, and if the Charmides was written in the early days of the Thirty, that is in 404 B.C., then we may suppose that the Phaedrus was written in 405 B.C. This means that it was written in the same year as Aristophanes’ Frogs, which allows us to determine the dating of the Phaedrus with precision. For towards the end of the comedy the chorus of the Frogs is elated that Aeschylus returns to Athens from the underworld, and so he won’t have to sit any more around Socrates having thrown away mousikê, the greatest art. Had Plato written the Phaedrus prior to the Frogs, Aristophanes could hardly have lampooned Socrates because of his unnamed follower’s abandoning mousikê.”
In the paper I go on to view the Phaedrus as Plato’s response to Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates, for in it he shows that philosophy is the greatest mousikê, to which he has found his way because of Socrates. Viewed in this way the Phaedrus becomes a document of great historical value and significance, shedding light on the closing months of the Peloponnesian war. There is thus much to be discussed both with the Czech and with the Oxford Platonic experts.
The 40th anniversary of my invitation to Oxford dons deserves to be commemorated, for it profoundly affected the fate of my country, as can be seen in Roger Scruton’s ‘A catacomb culture’ (TLS February 16-22, 1990): ‘Tomin then emigrated and, so far as the Western press 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 … we won the confidence of a large network of people, none of whom knew the full extent of our operations … Many of our visitors were extremely well known in their own countries … 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-1980’s, 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 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 time of miracles. Two weeks later Čarnogurský was released 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 [Václav Havel], and within weeks we were to see our friends occupying the highest offices in the land … 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) in Brno, and of the Palacký University in Olomouc.’ – The full text is available on my website.
I hope I will be allowed to present my paper on Plato at Oxford University in the near future.
Best wishes,
Julius Tomin

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