Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The celebration goes on

In ‘Celebrating with Homer’ I invited you to my celebration of the 35th anniversary of the visit of the Master of Balliol to my philosophy seminar in Prague. The online celebration will go on until October. In October 15, 1980 the Czechoslovak Communist Party cultural weekly Tvorba published an article ‘How a campaign of provocation is produced’, which was devoted to the involvement of Oxford dons in my philosophy seminar. The article opens with a clarion call:

‘The necessity for international cooperation, the exchange of scientific knowledge, and dialogue are generally acknowledged by honest and respectable scientists throughout the world. This constitutes an important part of the endeavour to maintain and strengthen peace around the world. In the spirit of the stimuli provided by the Final Act at Helsinki, the scope for cooperation and the exchange of knowledge grows and intensifies even in the social sciences. The steadily increasing importance of scientific contact is expressed and actively endorsed by representative forums in the social sciences; and the stream of world congresses of philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, economists and historians has convincingly shown the advantages of this present dialogue.’

But then: ‘Side by side with this undoubtedly fruitful and beneficial policy, which is the only policy possible for the future, we have been confronted with the efforts of militant anti-communist forces to stop, prevent and reverse this hitherto positive development. In the last two years a provocative action against the Czechoslovak Republic, artificially raked around the so-called “Tomin case”, acquired such a character. Some people actually began to hunt after “protests” against the actions of the Czechoslovak authorities; without asking a single question and without establishing the true state of affairs they began to defend our “colleague philosopher” Tomin.’

The authors of the article Kořínek and Pulcman don’t say a word concerning the reasons for the “protests” and for defending “our colleague philosopher” Tomin. So let me quote a few lines from my article ‘Inside the Security State’ published in the New Statesman on May 16, 1980:

‘When I go out of the door of our flat I bump into the Security [two policemen in uniform; after the Communist takeover of 1948 the police were called ‘bezpečnost’, security, to emphasize their new, people-friendly role]. Four months ago members of the Security carried a table and two chairs into the third floor of the house in which we live, right in front of our door. Against our will, two of them stay there twenty-four hours a day, in four-hour shifts. The Security does not interfere in our flat but its presence outside the doors has changed everything within. I start to play with my ten-year-old son Marek, but only because I forget for a while about Security. The moment I realize that they are outside the door through which every word is heard, let alone shouts and laughter, we stop. I like to sing – but I don’t sing well. I used to sing when no-one was at home. I start to sing – then I realize that the Security is outside and stop singing. My wife and I start talking but inevitably, the ears of the Security intrude. Our words sound artificial. We become unwilling actors in front of an unwanted audience. The possibility of being alone with each other and therefore of being ourselves is taken away from us.’

But back to the Tvorba article: ‘Some English, French, American, and West German bourgeois philosophers began to write up protests and even to put pressure upon the President of the International Association of Philosophical Sicieties (FISP), Professor A. Diemer, to “interfere”. But it sufficed for the president of this international association to do the most natural thing, viz. to inform himself by asking the representatives of Czechoslovak philosophy – and the bubble of the “Tomin case”, blown up to monstrous dimensions, immediately burst.’

The article follows a Letter from Professor Radovan Richta, Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Sociology, to Professor A. Diemer, from which I quote: ‘Tomin 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 think that the people who supported and visited Mr Tomin will find themselves convinced, in a short time and on the basis of their own experience, that there has been no case of “suppression of philosophers in the Czechoslovak Republic”, but rather that it was a case of one person who wanted to profit from the hopes of some circles to intensify the world crisis and to poison efforts at international cooperation.’

Let me end this post with another quotation from my article ‘Inside the Security State’:
‘Plato gave mankind a vision of the philosopher-ruler. It is based on fairly simple concepts: power which is not guided by knowledge is blind and destructive; it can be of no real use to anyone who does not understand the meaning of a virtuous life; it will destroy the society which is ruled by it, destroy those close to the ruler and, above all, it will destroy the ruler himself. Only the knowledge of Good and Truth enables one to return power to its rightful place, to change it from a purely destructive force into an instrument for forging a well-ordered society and the means of achieving a virtuous and happy life. The correct perception and use of power requires knowledge. It is therefore knowledge which bestows the right to govern.

Although there are many differences in content (Plato saw reality only in what is immutable and Ideal; Marx only in what is historical and material) Platonism does have something in common with Marxism. Marx perceived that capitalist society, created by the free play of economic forces, contains within itself the elements of its own destruction. The production of goods, which should merely fulfil the needs of material existence, has become an end in itself, man becoming merely the means for creation of an abstract value – capital. It is necessary radically to change the world, and the key to such a revolutionary change is a true theory of reality and its dynamics. Marxism discovers the motive force of revolution – the proletariat – and unites with it.  After the revolution Marxism provides legitimation for the most developed representatives of the victorious proletariat to rule the society. Just as in Plato’s ideal state, the possession of proper theory authorises those who will rule and govern.

As attempts to gain knowledge about the world, Platonism and Marxism are poles apart in content. So, what could be the meaning of that small agreement in form: that the correct view of the world – the scientific world-view – gives the right to govern?

An answer comes to mind. Just as Plato found it necessary to exclude from the community of his Republic the artist, the fashion-monger and the purveyor of unacceptable myths, so, in pursuit of Marx’s vision of communism as the liberation of all creative forces, it became necessary for the authorized vanguard of the working class – the Communist Party – to exclude from participation in government all those who, because of their class origin, were unqualified to direct the society.

Especially dangerous were those who paid lip-service to Marxism, but in reality tried to revise it and dilute it with divisive foreign elements. It soon became apparent that new and spontaneous forms of cultural expression, beginning with dress and hair-style and ending with poetry, song and dance, were especially dangerous for the journey of the people towards communism.

As it was very difficult to recognise who was a true Marxist, it was necessary to find a simple, accessible, and practical criterion. In Marx’s attempt to find a theory which would enable man to change the world and to create conditions for his own full development within a framework of free interpersonal relations, the destruction of all forms of idealism played a central role.

Crucial above all was the unmasking of the true nature of religion – ‘the opium of the people’ – which inculcated passive resignation in the face of poverty, repression, lawlessness and bondage. So faith in God, belief in the after-life, the burden of idealism – these were the issues on which people could be examined during interviews in the course of vetting.

It was possible to see with one’s own eyes who still went to church; it was possible to hear with one’s own ears, among neighbours, friends and even family, whether those who stopped going to church had really departed from their misguided beliefs and prejudices and whether their conversion to the scientific world-view was complete.

The problem of good government is a pressing one today, but I do not want philosophy to provide me with a solution, or credentials to be a ruler and so to propagate the Platonic “Noble Lie”. I see in philosophy the possibility of living freely, but when I speak about living freely I don’t mean some absolute freedom, but simply freedom within the framework of law. I should be able to speak as I think, and to act as I feel is correct. I should be able to relate responsibly to my words and actions, and not to have to disguise them. Confronted with power I should not have to produce some other persona, some other face, some other morality. I do not think one can do so with impunity. I do not believe one can maintain two faces without losing inner unity. One cannot “lie” face-to-face with power – even if “they don’t deserve anything better” – without one’s inner truth suffering. Philosophy which becomes the base of a free life poses a problem for the state power – how to rule free people. Charter 77 [a petition that asked the Czechoslovak government to respect basic human rights] has turned this dilemma into a problem which encompasses the whole society and which is beyond the capacities of the present power in this state to solve. To resolve this difficulty the power would have to change internally.

However, instead of this necessary inner change the power ostentatiously flaunts its repressive mechanisms. It economises on medicines, on children’s clothing and on pensions but, when it comes to curbing the activity of people trying to live a little freely, it spares neither expense nor effort. When it does not succeed in destroying one’s integrity by external limitations, it seeks to undermine it from inside.

The security outside our doors is not merely an external restriction of our freedom against which one can successfully build an inner freedom. The Security controlling all our visitors penetrates into our relationships with other people and into the most intimate recesses of our own lives. Is it possible in such a situation to maintain the search for a philosophy which would give one the strength to live freely in this society? With every freely said word and with each freely taken step we invite each other to a free life – with all the implications that the refusal of such an invitation has for every one of us. Can we, in the given conditions, relate to each other responsibly and at the same time invite one another to a free existence?’

I wrote the article in Czech in December 1979 and distributed a copy to a few friends, mostly Charter 77 signatories. The next day the Security disappeared from our house. It was one of my greatest victories.

Dr Kathleen Wilkes (she was the first from Oxford that gave a talk in my philosophy seminar, in April 1979) visited me in Prague in May 1980. On that occasion she asked me why Petr Pithart, a prominent signatory of the Charter 77, organised a petition among signatories against the publication of my article ‘Inside the Security State’; it was signed by 60 of them, Kathy told me. I replied: ‘Ask Petr Pithart.’ I do not know whether she did so; we never discussed the issue again.

The Petition did not prevent the publication of the article in the New Statesman, but it appears to have exercised its influence. When a Dutch journal wanted to publish it – it was already translated into Dutch – the Editor of the New Statesman refused to give permission for its publication. I learnt this from the Editor. He told me while donating to me Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals). Coincidentally, Alan Montefiore, one of the Oxford dons who had visited my seminar in 1979, asked me: ‘Do you think we have betrayed you?’ I answered: ‘How could you betray me? It is you whom you have betrayed.’

As the Tvorba article said, Professor Richta wrote to Professor Diemer, and the bubble of the “Tomin case” immediately burst. Or was it more complicated? It was, as my blog post of November 18, 2014 “The 25th anniversary of Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub Philosopher’” indicates.

Petr Pithart became the Prime Minister of the Czechoslovak Republic in February 1990 in the wake of the Velvet Revolution that took place in November-December 1989.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

‘Invitation’ that has a tendency to vanish from my website

After publishing the ‘Celebration with Homer – an invitation’ on my blog, I sent a Czech version of it to Czech classicists and philosophers. One of them was amazed that in my reading of Homer I read the iota subscript. I wanted to direct him/her to my website, for in my ‘Invitation to Olympian Odes of Pindar’ I explain that beginning with my reading of The 4th Pythian Ode I decided to read the iota subscript as recommended by W. S. Allen in his Vox Greca. To my surprise, the ‘Invitation’ disappeared from my website. Even worse, it disappeared from my computer as well. It was not for the first time that this happened. When it happened the first time, in 2012, my wife found it on the back-up of files she had luckily made, and so I could restore it on my website.

This time I did not want to bother my wife; I found it on the website statistics for March among files visited on that month, clicked on it, and it miraculously appeared on my screen, so that I could restore it on my website. May I recommend it to your attention?

The text is based on my correspondence with classicists at universities around the world. It began with my letter to Oxford classicists, concerning which I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University in 2012:

‘In January I wrote to Members of the Faculty of Classics at Oxford University: 'Allow me to inform you that I have put on my website my reading of Pindar’s First Olympian Ode in the original. Would you accept this as a challenge, in this Olympic year, to record in the original all of Pindar’s Olympian Odes? It would be great if a special website could be opened for this purpose under the auspices of Oxford University. It should be open to a competition of all the willing, the best recordings should be crowned by publication on the website.'

In the meantime I have informed Oxford classicists that I put on my website all fourteen of Pindar’s Olympian Odes and I reiterated my challenge. To date I have received no reply. The Olympic games are approaching, and I begin to fear that a great opportunity to promote an active interaction with Pindar’s poetry will be missed. I hope you will agree with me that the experience of reading Pindar’ Odes aloud, recording them, and listening to the recordings in the original is a cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual experience that should be open to every student of Ancient Greek. I therefore hope that you will encourage Oxford classicists to accept my challenge.’

My letter to the Vice-Chancellor was of no avail, the opportunity had been missed.

From the ‘Invitation’ I quote:

“Contributors to the website of the ‘Society for the oral Reading of Greek and Latin Literature’ ( have restored in their readings the iota subscript, read ‘zd’ for ‘Zeta’, and adopted labial reading of ‘Phi’. Inspired by them, in my reading and recording of The 4th Pythian Ode I read the iota subscript and the labial ‘Phi’; see my website I have not adopted ‘zd’ for ‘Zeta’, for Plato prevents me from doing so. I reproduce the relevant passage in Jowett’s translation:

‘By the letter i (Iota) he [the giver of names] expresses the subtle elements which pass through all things. This is why he uses the letter i (Iota) as imitative of motion, i0e/nai (ienai), i3esqai (hiesthai). And there is another class of letters, f (Phi), y (Psi), s (Sigma) and c (Xi), of which the pronunciation is accompanied by great expenditure of breath; these are used in the imitation of such notions as yuxro/n (psuchron ‘shivering’), ce/on (xeon ‘seething’), sei/esqai (seiesthai ‘to be shaken’), seismo/j (seismos ‘shock’), and are always introduced by the giver of names when he wants to imitate what is fusw~dej (phusôdes ‘windy). He seems to have thought that the closing and the pressure of the tongue in the utterance of d and t was expressive of binding and rest in place.’ Cratylos (426e-427a)

What has this passage to do with the reading of Zeta? It does not even mention Zeta.

Jowett misrepresents the original. Jowett’s ‘And there is another class of letters, f (Phi), y (Psi), s (Sigma) and c (Xi)’ stands for w#sper ge dia\ tou= fei= kai\ tou= yei= kai\ tou= si=gma kai\ tou= zh=ta (hôsper ge dia tou phei kai tou psei kai tou sigma kai tou dzêta) Jowett’s ‘such notions as yuxro/n (psuchron ‘shivering’), ce/on (xeon ‘seething’)’ stands for oi[on to\ yuxro/nkai\ to\ ze/on” (hoion to “psuchron” kai to “dzeon). Jowett’s ‘He seems to have thought that the closing and the pressure of the tongue in the utterance of d and t was expressive of binding and rest in place’ stands for th=j dau] tou= de/lta sumpie/sewj kai\ tou= tau] kai\ a0perei/sewj th=j glw&tthj th\n du/namin xrh/simon fai/nesqai h9gh/sasqai pro\j th\n mi/mhsin tou= desmou=kai\ th=j sta/sewj.” (tês d’ au tou delta sumpieseôs kai tou tau kai apereiseôs tês glôttês tên dunamin chrêsimon phainesthai hêgêsasthai pros tên mimêsin tou “desmou” kai tês “staseôs.”)”

Another curious case of vanishing? This time the vanishing of dzêta from Jowett’s translation of the relevant passage in Plato’s Cratylus?

“Note that Jowett’s ‘rest in place’ for Plato’s “staseôs” covers up the fact that the pronunciation of z (zeta) is viewed by Plato as directly opposite to the ‘st’ sound, that is the sound that ends with d (d) or t (t). Furthermore, note that although Jowett replaced “ze/on” with “ce/on”, in line with his omission of z, he translated his ce/on ‘seething’, i.e. he translated the original “ze/on”. For ce/on means ‘shaving (timber)’, ‘whittling’, ‘scraping’, which, as he obviously realized, would not suit the context.”

Monday, April 6, 2015

Celebrating with Homer – an invitation

Thirty five years ago, on Saturday 12th April 1980 Dr Anthony Kenny, the Master of Balliol was giving a lecture in my philosophy seminar in Prague on a contrast between the ideals of Aristotle’s Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics. I would have liked to celebrate the occasion at Charles University in Prague and at the University of Oxford. With that aim in mind, on February 8 2015 I offered a lecture on ‘Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s testimony’ to the President of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Charles University, and on February 9 2015 I offered it to the Master of Balliol at Oxford University. I have received no reply from Prague and no reply from Oxford, and so I decided to celebrate the occasion online, with Homer. Why Homer? There is nothing better I can think of. And so, to celebrate the event, allow me to invite you to my reading in the original of the 1st Book of The Iliad of Homer on my website

When I think of the benefits I derive from the Ancient Greeks, from Plato, Aristotle, and Homer in particular, I can’t help thinking that such benefits should be open to all. What a thought! – one might exclaim. There is a saying ‘It’s Greek to me’, i.e. ‘It’s beyond my grasp’ and ‘not worth bothering about’. It must come from the days when children in public schools were drilled in translating Greek into English, English into Greek. Good riddance, you may say – and I fully agree. If people are to reap the benefits the world of the Ancient Greeks is offering us, we must approach the Greek language, literature, prose and poetry, rhetoric and philosophy in a completely different way. A good teacher would direct his pupils/students from the very beginning to understanding Greek in Greek, using his English to elucidate the Greek not to translate it. There are plenty of translations of any text of importance, which the students ought to be taught to use to elucidate the Greek, when their teacher is not around.

Imagine I am talking to my students, opening the first lesson as follows: ‘Listen to the first line of the Iliad: Mênin aeide thea Pêlêiadeȏ Achilêos. I may translate ‘Goddess, sing the wrath of Achilles, the son of Peleus.’ To render the sentence in English, I had to change the word order. Greek is a language that declines its nouns and conjugates its verbs, which allows the poet to open his poem with ‘Wrath’ by putting mênis (‘wrath’ in the nominative) into the accusative mênin. And so the poet can compress the whole of his poem, the Iliad in its entirety, into the opening word; the poet brings Achilles’ wrath to life in his song.

The poet goes on to describe how the King Agamemnon dishonored Achilles, how Achilles, overcome with woe, begged his mother Thetis to persuade Zeus to support the Trojans against the Achaians, so that Agamemnon will learn that without Achilles he and his army are doomed. Here the theme of ‘mênis’ is reemphasized by Thetis. She promises to go to Olympus, persuade Zeus to bestow honor on her son; in verses 421-2 she tells Achilles alla su men nun nêusi parêmenos ȏkuporoisin // mêni’ Achaioisin, polemou d’ apopaueo pampan. ‘But you, now, sitting by the swift ships, // give vent to your wrath against the Achaians, and completely abstain from the war.’ The Ancient Greek language can turn the noun mênis, ‘wrath’, into a verb mêniȏ, and put it into the imperative mênie, which I must translate in a cumbersome way ‘give vent to your wrath’ to preserve the connection between mênis and mêniȏ. Putting the noun Achaios into the dative plural allows the Greek to use one word Achaioisin, which I must translate ‘against the Achaians’, losing much of the intimate connection between Achilles’ wrath and the Achaians, which the Greek mênie Achaioisin conveys.

But let us return to the beginning of the poem. Take the second verse: oulomenên hê muri’ Achaiois alge ethêken, which means ‘the accursed wrath that gave grief to countless Achaians’. Oulomenên ‘accursed’ does not need the support of ‘wrath’ to make sense of it; as an adjective in the accusative it points to mênin, which it describes; but not just to mênin; it qualifies mênin Pêlêiadeȏ Achilêos, thus bringing Achilles’ wrath once more in front of our mind’s eye – as an accursed wrath. A cognate adjective oulos ‘destructive’ comes up at the beginning of the 2nd Book. Zeus gets a brilliant idea of how to bestow honour on Achilles. He sends Agamemnon oulon oneiron, a ‘destructive dream’, which will persuade him to unleash an all-out battle against the Trojans, convinced that Zeus will grant him the capture of Troy on that day …’

I believe that any student whose mother tongue is English would benefit from getting acquainted with the very notion of a language that can change nouns and verbs according to different functions they perform in different contexts. I don’t know of a better suited language for this purpose than Ancient Greek, and of no text that is better suited for this purpose than the opening verses of the Iliad. Teaching pupils to recite a few lines of the Iliad in hexameters might be suitable even for year 6 of primary school. Those few, who would find the study attractive and worthwhile, might then choose Ancient Greek as their subject in secondary school, having been warned that if they really want to enjoy all the benefits that their time-travels to the world of Homer can open for them, they would be committing themselves to a life-long task.

I began to learn Ancient Greek in my mid-twenties, after finishing my university study of philosophy. I worked as an editor in philosophy in the publishing house of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Onto my desk arrived a translation of the 2nd volume of Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy. After reading a few pages I realised that the translation was faulty, revised the first thirty pages and brought it to Professor Patočka, the head of the editorial commission for the publication of the philosophy classics. Patočka then persuaded the publishing house to relieve me of all other duties and devote myself fully to the revision of the text. I accepted the task on the condition that I would visit Patočka after revising every 50 pages and that we would go together through all my revisions. Patočka was a disciple of Edmund Husserl, one of the greatest German philosophers; the 2nd volume of Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy is devoted to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and Hegel in the text quotes in the original every important philosophical concept he is elucidating. Of course, proper understanding of Hegel’s German depends on proper understanding of the Greek; I could not do it without Patočka, and our meetings were the best thing that ever happened to me. During our meetings always came a moment when Hegel, Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle inspired him to make captivating excursions into the thought of these giants of philosophy. And yet, perhaps even thanks to these journeys into philosophy with Patočka, I was deeply frustrated by my handicap.

I chose Patočka as the opponent of my doctoral thesis. After obtaining my doctor's degree I asked him in which direction I should pursue my further study of philosophy: towards natural sciences, which would mean that I should study mathematics, at which I was not very good, or to the history of philosophy, which would mean that I should study Ancient Greek and Latin. Patočka told me: ‘Husserl asked me on my first visit to his seminar: “Do you know Ancient Greek?” I replied “No, I don’t” “And how do you want to do philosophy?” he asked. And so I started to learn Ancient Greek.’ I decided to follow in Patočka’s footsteps.

My motivation to learn Ancient Greek was thus very powerful; it was very personal, and the question is, whether anybody in the present day and in this society can be sufficiently motivated to undertake the life-long task of getting properly engaged with the Ancient Greeks. I intend to explore this problem in my blog as part of my celebration. I shall be asking what light neurophysiology can shed on the benefits that can be derived from Ancient Greek. I shall use as a point of reference Carpenter’s and Reddi’s Neurophysiology, as I have done in ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ on my website. The authors write: “Conceptually, a neuron is quite simple. But brains are not. On the one hand we have all the unspeakable wonders of our minds, of which we are so inordinately proud; on the other hand, when we open up the skull and peep inside all we see is a porridgy lump containing millions and millions of these untidy little neurons. The fundamental problem of neuroscience is that of linking these two scales together: can we trace the relationship between molecular and cellular mechanisms all the way to what was going on in Michelangelo’s head as he painted the Sistine Chapel? Very nearly, and the trick is to force yourself to think of the brain as a machine that carries out a well-defined job. The job is to turn patterns of stimulation, S, into patterns of response, R: the sight of dinner into attack and jaw-opening; a page of music into finger movements. How it does this is clear, in principle at least. The brain is a sequence of neuronal levels, successive layers of nerve cells that project on to one another. At each level, a pattern of activity in one level gets transformed into a different pattern in the next. Thus the incoming sensory pattern S is transmitted from level to level, modified at each stage until it becomes an entirely different pattern of response R at the output.” (Roger Carpenter and Benjamin Reddi, Neurophysiology, A conceptual approach, 5 edition, Hodder Arnold, London 2012, p. 9.) – Since neurophysiology aspires to explain what was going on in Michelangelo’s head as he painted the Sistine Chapel, I feel entitled to ask in what way and to what extent it can help me to understand what goes on in my head when I am recording Homer’s Iliad.

I hope you will enjoy my reading of Homer’s Iliad.