Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Three questions

Why did the Sub-faculty of Philosophy finally agree to allow me to lecture on Plato at the Philosophy Centre in Michaelmas Term 1995? I can only speculate: On the fifth anniversary of the publication of Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub Philosopher’ in The Independent Magazine, from November 18 to 24 1994, I held a seven day hunger-strike. Its sole objective was to regain permission to present lectures and seminars at Oxford University. Throughout the 1980s I could teach at Oxford University, without remuneration, whenever I asked for it.

Why was I deprived of permission to do so in 1991? Presumably, Nick Cohen with his article bears some responsibility for it quotes Jonathan Barnes as saying that Tomin ‘would not be accepted as a graduate here, let alone be given a teaching job.’ For some time prior to it I was giving tutorials to students from the USA at Blackfriars. After the publication of Cohen’s article my tutorials were discontinued. Students from the USA did not come to Oxford in order to be taught by a Pub Philosopher.

How was it possible that I was allowed to teach students at Oxford University for two more years, until the end of 1991? It must have been thanks to the moral and intellectual integrity of Professor John Ackrill. Since I came to Oxford in 1980 I attended his Aristotelian seminar at Brasenose College. Over the years we read and discussed in the seminar Plotinus, Aristotle, Lucretius, Augustine, Alexander of Aphrodisias and Sextus Empiricus. We discussed all these authors in the seminar on the basis of texts in the original. After the publication of ‘The Pub Philosopher’ John Ackrill sent me a postcard in which he quoted the words ‘British classical philosophers cannot understand Ancient Greek’, which Nick Cohen attributed to me, and asked: ‘Did you say this?’ I sent him the postcard back with the words: ‘I said that British classical philosophers cannot understand Ancient Greek without translating it in their heads into English’. After this exchange John Ackrill kept inviting me to his seminar at the beginning of each Term, until his retirement in 1991. He knew what advantage I derived at each seminar from understanding Ancient Greek and Latin directly, without translating these languages in my head. It was on the 4th of December 1991 that I received the following letter from M. R. Ayers, the Secretary of the Lectures Committee of the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy: ‘With respect to your offer of reading classes on Plato, starting next term, I should inform you that the Sub-Faculty deemed it inappropriate that such classes should appear on the University list.’

Monday, September 29, 2014

For contrast

Yesterday, in the opening entry I omitted to mention the date of my letter to the Editor of The Oxford Times and of his reply. I wrote the letter on April 20, 1995, the Editor replied on July 17, 1995. The Editor’s letter was associated in my mind with my efforts to obtain permission to present my views on Plato at Oxford University; I was therefore surprised when I yesterday read in my letter: ‘The Sub-faculty of Philosophy has finally agreed to allow me to present my lectures at the Philosophy Centre in Michaelmas Term, but refused to advertise them on the Lecture List or even in the University Gazette.’ I simply could not remember that I held any lectures at the Sub-faculty of Philosophy in 1995.

Then it all came back to me. I did expect that nobody would come to my lectures and was determined to use the time to make progress in my studies, but I was not prepared for the pneumatic drill that with its incessant drilling shook the whole building and deafened my ears. For the next ‘lecture’ I provided myself with good earplugs. The remaining ‘Michaelmas lectures’ reminded me of the electric power-plant in Prague where I worked as a turbine operator for five years, from 1970 to 1975. It was an old power-plant; the turbines were old and noisy. The low pressure turbine had two operators, a man at the top, responsible for the running of the turbine, and a man at the bottom who had very little responsibility. I was the man at the bottom, following orders coming from the top. There, with my ears plugged, I read Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides (all in the Oxford University Press editions supplied to me by my German friends, read with the help of Schenkel’s Greek-German dictionary that I bought for peanuts in a second hand bookshop, and with the help of Budé texts of parallel French translations-Greek originals, which I borrowed from the French Library).

My letter to the Editor began as follows: ’I am sending you a copy of my Open Letter to the Members of the Aristotelian Society. It represents a challenge to the established academics by an unemployed philosopher, and as such it concerns a broader public interested in the creation of a space for a healthy academic life. By our joint efforts, unemployment can be transformed into an exciting quest for academic excellence. Would you therefore consider informing your readers about my letter?’ I find these words as relevant today as when I wrote them in 1995, and so I wanted to find the Open Letter. Instead, I stumbled upon Thomas Nagel’s letter to Dr Gustav Husák, president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, published by The New York Review of Books on May 29, 1980 under the title ‘Help Dr. Tomin’. Does it not provide a good contrast to my Oxford experience?

‘We are outraged to hear of the repeated harassment to which our colleague Dr. Julius Tomin has been subjected in recent weeks. It is shocking that his philosophy seminar has been broken up several times by the police, and that he has been arrested on several occasions … We earnestly hope that the Czechoslovak government will put an end to this brutal and senseless repression of philosophical study and discussion.‘
A fund has been set up in Oxford to assist Dr Tomin’s group in its educational efforts … Anyone wishing to help should send a contribution to the Secretary of the Philosophy Subfaculty, 10 Merton Street, Oxford OX1 4JJ, England.

The letter is signed by thirty-one American philosophers, including Arthur Danto, Roderick Firth, Harry Frankfurt, Gilbert Harman, David Lewis, Ruth Marcus, Sidney Morgenbesser, Maurice Natanson, Hilarty Putman, W. V. Quine, John Rawles, and Richard Rorty.
Thomas Nagel
Department of Philosophy

Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey“

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A question of fairness

On May 7 of this year I offered my paper on ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ (available on my website www.juliustomin.org) to the Master of Balliol. Having received no response, I brought the paper to the attention of every Balliol Fellow, asking them to support my request that I may be allowed to present it at the College, but received no reply. In a similar way I then addressed Fellows of other Oxford University Colleges, with no positive result. It appears that Oxford academics have no time to look at the paper and consider it on its merits. May I therefore appeal to their sense of fairness? I believe that Oxford University owes me an opportunity to present the paper to its students and academics.

To make the point, let me begin with a quotation from Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub philosopher’ (published in The Independent Magazine, 18 November 1989): ‘When Julius Tomin, the then celebrated Czech dissident, fled to Oxford nearly 10 years ago, he was welcomed as a hero and an intellectual star. Now he is reduced to giving his philosophy lectures in a Swindon saloon bar. The judgments passed by Oxford dons seem outrageously brutal … Jonathan Barnes, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, impatiently brushed aside the suggestion that the Conservative’s 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.”

As if responding to the same suggestion, Barbara Day writes in The Velvet Philosophers (published in 1999 by The Claridge Press, p. 45): ‘The fact that some of his [i.e. Tomin’s] theories on Plato were dismissed by other academics was less important than the narrowness of his specialisation; his knowledge of certain parts of Plato’s work was more thorough than that of any philosopher in Oxford, but his limited acquaintance with the breadth of western philosophy would have been unacceptable in any of the posts for which he diligently applied.’ – In fact I did not apply for any posts; instead,  I regularly informed Oxford dons of the progress of my work, each time asking them to allow me to present my views to them and to Oxford students.

Let me quote from a letter in which I informed the Editor of The Oxford Times about my controversy with Oxford dons and asked him to inform his readers about my forthcoming lectures on Plato: ‘The Sub-faculty of Philosophy has finally agreed to allow me to present my lectures at the Philosophy Centre in Michaelmas Term, but refused to advertise them on the Lecture List or even in the University Gazette. May I therefore appeal to a broader public at Oxford, who may be interested in Plato as one of the most precious treasures of our common cultural heritage, to attend my lectures?’ The Editor wrote to me in his reply: ‘I have read everything you sent me, and I’ve read it twice. I keep being reminded of that World War Two story about a battleship off the coast of Scotland in a dense fog. Seeing a light appear dead ahead, the ship’s signalman was ordered to send his message: “You are on a collision course – alter your course to port immediately.” The light remained where it was. The order was repeated. The light continued to shine dimly through the fog in exactly the same place. So the signalman was given a fresh order to send: “Alter your course immediately – I am an admiral.” A signalling lamp blinked back: ‘I am a lighthouse keeper.” In Oxford University, I believe you have found your lighthouse. There are simply some things in life about which there is no point in arguing, leaving you little choice but to alter your course if you are to stay afloat.’

‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ shows that my ‘specialisation’ has been anything but narrow. Oxford dons inadvertently opened for me the possibility to devote myself fully to philosophy. There are two fields of enquiry to which I have devoted myself: Ancient Philosophy and the study of human nature. Had I been given an academic job, I could never have progressed in these two subjects as far as I did. The question is whether the students of classics and classical philosophy at Oxford University and at all the universities on which Oxford exercises its influence in this academic domain, especially students at Charles' University in Prague have not been seriously wronged by the refusal of Oxford dons to allow me to present to them my views on philosophy and defend them in an open public discussion. For I have opened a completely new approach to the subject.