I did not take my exclusion from academic establishment lying down. My Tebbit inspired cycling to Aberdeen via Lancaster brought positive results. The Head of the Philosophy Department at St David’s University College at Lampeter offered me the post of a visiting lecturer for one term. My only worry was that the study I was at that time engaged in would be interrupted; in a one more effort to see whether there was something fundamentally wrong with my understanding of Plato I was rereading the whole of his work with the 19th century Latin commentary written by the best German Platonic scholars of the time. I was delighted when the Head of the Department told me that a new photocopied edition of the commentary with all its volumes was ready for me at St David’s College Library.
At St David’s College I held a seminar on the Phaedrus. Since the participants did not read Plato in the original, I encouraged them to bring in as many different translations of the dialogue as they could find. Each time, someone would read the text, then followed the discussion. Different translation allowed very different comments;with the text in Greek in my hands, I held the key to all the baffling discrepancies between the different translations with which the participants struggled. The seminar became one of my most important educational experiences; it showed that there was a very meaningful way in which someone with good knowledge of Greek could enrich those who might read Plato only in translations. It was a very demanding task for the participants, but it was even more demanding for me. Never before had I to work so hard; from week to week I marvelled how much better I began to understand Plato’s thoughts, how much more I could see by being confronted with different views of the text that different translators offered. The best English Platonic scholars of the past were thus there with us, challenging us and enriching us.
I was determined to show to my colleagues and students at Lampeter that the portrait of Socrates in the Phaedrus is a portrait of the historical Socrates. In order to do so, I took recourse to Aristophanes’ comedies in which he lampooned Socrates, and to Xenophon, another contemporary of Socrates. Aristophanes staged his Clouds when Plato was six years old, his Birds when Plato was fifteen, and his Frogs when Plato was twenty four. In the Phaedrus Socrates enters the scene deeply aware of his philosophic ignorance, he has not even succeeded in satisfying the Delphic adage ‘know thyself’, so ignorant he considers himself to be (229e-230a). In the Clouds Socrates’ deity, the Clouds, emphasize Socrates’ ignorance; if they show themselves at his bidding, it is not because he is wise, but because he anchors all his pride in the Clouds, his deity (360-363). In the Phaedrus Socrates in a moment of enthusiasm transcends his ignorance and depicts the supra-celestial world of true Beings, such as Beauty, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom, that is the Forms or Ideas. The divine Clouds view the earth through the immortal Forms (athanatais ideais, 289); they are the source of human language, discourse, and thought (317). In the Phaedrus the Recollection of the divine Forms is in operation whenever we understand what people say to us, for we can understand speech only by bringing into unity by reasoning the manifold of sensory perceptions, the flow of sound, and this is possible only by virtue of the unifying power of the Forms (249b-c). In the Clouds Socrates appeared on the stage hanging high up in a basket (218), occupying himself with the observation of the sun (225). On this occasion I took recourse to Xenophon who in his Memorabilia, that is his recollections of Socrates, shows how intimately Socrates’ awareness of his own ignorance was linked with his faculty of observation and with true knowledge that far surpassed knowledge of the most famous philosophers of nature: ‘In general, with regard to the phenomena of the heavens, Socrates deprecated curiosity to learn how the deity contrives them: he held that their secrets could not be discovered by man, and believed that any attempt to search out what the gods had not chosen to reveal must be displeasing to them. He said that he who meddles with these matters runs the risk of losing his sanity so completely as Anaxagoras, who took an insane pride in his explanation of the divine machinery. For that sage, in declaring the sun to be fire, ignored the facts that men can look at fire without inconvenience, but cannot gaze steadily at the sun; that their skin is blackened by the sun’s rays, but not by fire. Further, he ignored the fact that sunlight is essential to the health of all vegetation, whereas if anything is heated by fire it withers. Again, when he pronounced the sun to be a red-hot stone, he ignored the fact that a stone in fire neither glows nor can resist it long, whereas the sun shines with unequalled brilliance for ever.’ (IV.vii.6-7, tr. E. C. Marchant).
This does not mean that Socrates was unable to see Anaxagoras’ greatness; in the Phaedrus he says that it was Anaxagoras’ influence that gave Pericles the great elevation of his thought and his proper appreciation of the nature of Reason (270a), and on his last day he recollects how enthused he was by Anaxagoras’ thought that Cosmic Reason orders everything and is the cause of everything (Phaedo 97b-c).
In the Clouds Socrates is looking down upon the traditional gods (226); in the Phaedrus he says that the traditional gods derive their divinity from the intellectual nourishment with which their view of the Forms provides them (247d, 249c).
In the Birds Aristophanes’ two heroes, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, who can’t stand life in Athens any more, build a Clouds-cuckoo-town in the sky (819), thus trumping Socrates who in the Clouds projected and hung up his thoughts high in the air. In the Birds a messenger from the earth tells the founders of the Clouds-cuckoo-town that before the birds built in the sky, everybody on earth imitated Socrates (1282); one could surpass Socrates’ influence by ‘over-Socratizing’ him. How did it happen that modern Platonic scholarship conceived the idea that Socrates in Plato’s dialogues is Plato’s invention, that Plato could present an invented Socrates to Socrates’ contemporaries, who knew him well, who were all influenced by him, whether they were his friends or foes?
In the Frogs Aristophanes attacks not only Socrates himself, but his disciples and followers as well. The comedy is full of forebodings; if the city is to survive and prosper again, Aeschylus, the great writer of tragedies, must be brought back from the dead, for the citizens of Athens need good education and intelligent decision-making, which only he can offer. In parting with Aeschylus, Pluto, the God of the underworld, exhorts him: ‘Save the city by your good advice, and educate the fools (1503-4).’ As Aeschylus is on his way to save Athens from the impending doom – a year later the Peloponnesian ended with unconditional surrender of Athens to Sparta and its allies – the chorus sings: ‘It is very pleasant not to sit at Socrates’ feet in idle talk having thrown away art and abandoned that which is greatest in tragedy’ (1491-5). In the Symposium Plato shows us Aristophanes as one of those sitting at Socrates’ feet and listening to Socrates’ lecturing him on art, and in particular on the art of comedy and tragedy; the Symposium is situated dramatically in 416, eleven years prior to Aristophanes’ staging of the Frogs. In fact, the taunts of the chorus of frogs were very flattering concerning Socrates, for only a man of Aeschylian stature could relieve the chorus from sitting at Socrates’ feet, but they were not so concerning Socrates' followers and disciples depicted as men who threw away all art. Plato was twenty four when he was watching the Frogs, and he had abandoned poetry, and tragedy in particular, under the influence of Socrates.
How can Platonic scholars, if they ever read the Frogs, suppose that Plato remained silent face to face with such a personal attack on his friend and teacher, and on himself? The Phaedrus culminates in Plato’s emphasizing the task and the ability of a true disciple to defend (275e5) his philosopher-teacher, for the true philosopher chooses the right soul (276e6) in which he implants words founded on knowledge, which can defend both themselves and him who planted them (276e7-277a1). By writing the Phaedrus, Plato had shown that his soul was the right soul; in him Socrates had obtained a worthy follower, a philosopher whose discourse was capable of defending itself (276a6). For Plato it was simply his duty as a philosopher to defend philosophic discourse against its detractors, especially such a famous and influential detractor as Aristophanes.
To appreciate more fully Aristophanes’ attack on Socrates in the Frogs and the effect it had on Plato, Socrates’ dream concerning mousike had to be referred to, which Socrates recalled on his last day. In the Phaedo he says that the dream visited him in different guises repeatedly in his life, always saying the same thing: ‘make mousike and cultivate it’ (60e6-7). Socrates believed that the dream was urging him to do philosophy, for he considered philosophy to be the greatest mousike (61a3-4). Socrates' interpretation of mousike as philosophy helps us to understand both Aristophanes' need to shake off Socrates' views concerning art and Plato's need to vigorously defend Socrates against Aristophanes' disparaging remarks. Challenged by the taunts of the chorus of frogs, Plato in the Phaedrus defends philosophy and Socrates, and thus he defends Socrates' followers, and himself in the first place. For in the Phaedran palinode, which is itself a piece of exquisite mousike, Plato's Socrates identifies a man of philosophy (aner philosophos) with a man of mousike (aner mousikos, 248d), and in the scene that follows the palinode we find Socrates engaged in philosophic discussion, ‘thus honouring mousike’ (259d4-5).
Plato in the Phaedrus does not play down or apologize for of Socrates' derogatory view of poetry; he explicitly includes poetry in his criticism of the written word (278c), which even at its best is but a pale shadow of the living word of a philosopher that truly elevates the soul. The authentic living word is the domain of philosophy (277e-278e), in which Socrates and his followers are at home. The Phaedrus was Plato’s answer to the Aristophanic challenge, for it outlined the principles of moral transformation achieved by moral discipline induced by true philosophy, and proposed philosophic rhetoric as the unfailing art of persuasion, which was needed if any positive political transformation of society was to be achieved and Athens saved.
After St David’s College I went for one term to St Andrews University, where I held a similar seminar on Plato’s Theaetetus. Unlike the Phaedrus, this is a late dialogue, but in one respect it is very similar to it: it gives us a very genuine picture of Socrates, which I could again demonstrate by comparing it with Aristophanes’ Clouds and Xenophon’s Memorabilia. In the Theaetetus we find Socrates on his way to the office of King Archon where he is summoned to face the charges of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens, which were raised against him. At the trial he began his Defence by doing his best to reduce the charges to Aristophanes’ comic ‘misrepresentations’ of him in the Clouds, and so it is no wonder that on his way to King Archon’s office Aristophanes was very much on his mind.
In the Clouds we find Socrates in the ‘thinkery of wise souls’ (94), carried on stage in a basket hanging above the stage (218) and proclaiming that he walks in the air (224). In the Theaetetus Socrates in a flight of enthusiasm depicts a true philosopher, who holds aloof “because it is really only his body that sojourns in his city, while his thought, disdaining all such things as worthless, takes wings, as Pindar says, ‘above the sky, beneath the earth’, searching the heavens and measuring the plains, everywhere seeking the true nature of everything as a whole, never sinking to what lies close at hand.” (173e2-174a2).
In Aristophanes’ comedy we find Socrates’ disciples bent down, with their heads searching deep down beneath the earth, beneath Tartarus (192), each bottom turned towards the sky and thus ’itself by itself’learning to do astronomy (194).
In the Apology, in his Defence speech Socrates attempted to reject Aristophanes’ comic picture of him as a misrepresentation, but the very fact that the Clouds has been preserved testifies to it that Aristophanes’ satirical picture of Socrates and of his disciples survived Socrates’ rejection of it. The Theaetetus indicates that Plato in his ripe age found it imperative to present the reader with the truth about Socrates to which Aristophanes’ comedy pointed.
Two more themes closely link the Theaetetus to the Clouds. Firstly, it is the art of midwifery, which is presented in Plato’s dialogue as essential to Socrates’ philosophic discourse, and which can be seen depicted in the Clouds in Socrates’ intercourse with Strepsiades. Socrates urges him to produce his own thought (737), to deliberate about things step by step (741), correctly analyse and investigate them (742).Strepsiades was in the end thrown out by Socrates as useless, yet Aristophanes used him to express his own insight into the educational aim of Socrates’ questioning. For when Strepsiades’ son Pheidippides - whom Strepsiades sends to Socrates to be his pupil - asks what he is to learn from Socrates, Strepsiades answers: “You will know yourself, how ignorant and how thick you are” (842). This is an effect of Socrates’ midwifery – expressed in the language of comedy – to which Socrates points in the Theaetetus.At the end of the dialogue he points out to Theaetetus what will be the minimal positive effects of the painful maieutic questioning: ‘you will be gentler and more agreeable to your companions, having the good sense not to fancy you know what you do not know’ (210c2-4).
Secondly, the two works are linked together by Socrates’ preoccupation with stripping naked the souls of his interlocutors. In the Clouds a disciple of Socrates boasts about his master’s great accomplishments: “Last evening we had no meal in the evening.” Strepsiades asks: “What did Socrates devise for the barley meal?” Disciple: “On the table he sprinkled fine ashes: then he bent a skewer, used it as a compass and snatched the mantle from the wrestling school.” The definite article that qualifies the wrestling school indicates that Aristophanes speaks here of one that was well known as Socrates’ favourite haunt. But what is the meaning of the definite article that qualifies ‘the mantle’? It is the mantle of false knowledge, of ignorance paraded as knowledge, which is the worst kind of ignorance, of which Socrates strips his interlocutors.
To obtain clarity concerning this point we must follow the theme of ‘the mantle’ as it reappears at crucial points in the course of the comedy. Strepsiades is about to enter Socrates’ school. Socrates orders: “Come now, take off your mantle... It is the custom for novices to enter naked” (497-8). Un-teachable, Strepsiades leaves the school and tells his son: “I straightway forgot everything that was taught to me.” His son Pheidippides asks: “Then, that’s the reason you’ve lost your mantle?” In fact Strepsiades did not forget his mantle at Socrates’ school, he discarded it in the process of thinking that he had undergone there: “I’ve not lost it, but I’ve thought it away” (855-7). Strepsiades’ ‘I’ve thought it away’ renders Socrates’ method of stripping his interlocutors naked, and at this moment in the play he seems fully reconciled to the process of ‘stripping’, for he is eager for his son to become Socrates’ disciple. However, by the end, after the son turns against him, he sets Socrates’ Thinkery (94) on fire, proclaiming himself to be the one “whose mantle you took away” (1498) and thus showing that it was the stripping that hurt him most.
The joke concerning Socrates’ stealing the mantle from the wrestling-school was bound to be misunderstood; it is instructive to see how one of the greatest classical scholars of the past century struggled with it. In his commentary on the Clouds Dover writes: “The point may be simply that Socrates’ high-minded diversion of the students’ interest from their empty bellies to the abstractions of geometry did not last long, and he had recourse to the crudest remedy. The stealing of clothes and property from baths, wrestling schools, and gymnasia was a well known category of crime, severely punished. ... The real problem, however, lies in the definite articles: ‘the wrestling-school’ (there were many at Athens) and ‘the himation’ [the mantle]... Possibly ‘he stole his himation from the wrestling-school’ was a colloquial expression meaning ‘he’s not to be trusted’ or ‘he hasn’t a penny to his name’.” (K. J. Dover, Aristophanes, Clouds, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1968, note on line 179, pp. 118-119.)
Aristophanes himself in the parabasis to the written edition to the Clouds complains that this comedy, which he himself considered the wisest of his comedies (522) and which cost him the greatest labour (523-4), was misunderstood, and that he left the stage defeated by his unworthy coarse rivals (524-5).
Socrates’ robbing the mantle from the palaistra was presumably misunderstood even by the audience, Socrates’ contemporaries, and was bound to be even further misunderstood by later generations, who knew the comedy only from reading it or from hearsay. Plato therefore decided to shed light on this crucial point early on, in the Charmides, which is dramatically set some nine years before the Clouds and thus presents us with Socrates as he was known and caricatured by Aristophanes. Socrates returned from the army at Potidea and as soon as he had some sleep he went to the wrestling school of Taureas. Chaerephon, who is closely associated with Socrates in the Clouds, extolled to him Charmides’ beauty: “Has he not a fine face? ... Yet if he would consent to strip, you would think he had no face, he has such perfect beauty of form.” Socrates: “What an irresistible person you make him to be, if he has but one more thing – a little thing – besides ... if in his soul he is well developed ... Let us strip that part of him and view it first.” (154d2-e6).
Plato stresses this theme again in the Protagoras, where Socrates is bent on stripping Protagoras’ mind concerning knowledge (352b1-2). But even this was apparently not enough, and so in the Theaetetus Socrates applies his method of stripping to Theodorus, a famous mathematician, using the images and the vocabulary that at last give the reader a proper key to Aristophanes’ joke. When Theodorus tries to avoid Socrates’ questioning, Socrates rebukes him: “And if you went to wrestling-schools in Sparta, would you think it proper to watch other people who were naked, some of them with rather inferior physiques, and not take your own clothes off and show your figure?” (162b1-3). Theodorus attempts to escape the ordeal, suggesting that he might persuade the Spartans to let him have his clothes (162b4-5); the reprieve is brief. He cannot reject Socrates’ demand that he at least defends the memory of Protagoras, his mentor and friend. Theodorus acquiesces: “I was talking nonsense just now, when I claimed that you’d let me keep my clothes on and not make me take them off ... you seem to be like Sciron [a legendary highwayman] ... acting like an Antaeus [another legendary robber] you don’t let go anyone who comes up to you until you’ve forced him to take his clothes off and wrestle with you in an argument (169a7-b4).”
After St Andrews I returned to Oxford and addressed all university departments outside Oxford and Cambridge with an offer of similar seminars. I thought that any university could afford paying me for one Term; I wanted to give on each occasion a seminar on a different dialogue of Plato, hoping thus to deepen profoundly my understanding of the whole of Plato. But by then the effect of my Tebbit-inspired cycling trip to Aberdeen evaporated and all responses to my offer were negative.
Then Northern Dairies £3.000 grant expired; from then on I lived on supplementary benefit, which in its turn was disconnected in March 1988. When that happened, I visited the DHSS office and asked for a loan until August. ‘How do you want to repay the loan?’ asked the officer to whom I was speaking. I replied: ‘In August a World Congress of Philosophy is going to take place in Brighton. I shall go there and hold a ten day hunger strike in protest against my exclusion from academic philosophy. As a precondition for any interview for the Press I shall ask that my loan to you should be repaid.’ The officer asked me to wait. After some ten or fifteen minutes he returned: ‘Mr Tomin, you will be receiving your Supplementary Benefit’. Then I received a letter telling me that in March a tribunal will take place, in which the matter would be adjudicated. I wrote to all Members of the Sub-Faculty of philosophy at Oxford University, asking them to come to the tribunal to testify that my work in Ancient Philosophy was worthy the benefit; the tribunal was then delayed until the second day of the congress.
With the tribunal hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles, I intensified my work. I finished my study of the Latin commentaries on Plato’s dialogues and once again found nothing militating against the ancient tradition on the dating of the Phaedrus. What remained to be done was a thorough re-examination of the ancient biographical evidence.
The ancient biographical tradition, preserved by Diogenes Laertius, says about the dating of the Phaedrus simply: ‘There is a story that the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue. For the subject has about it something of the freshness of youth.’ One reason for discrediting it has been found in Diogenes’ clause ‘For the subject has about it something of the freshness of youth’, which was taken as the basis on which the story of the dating was founded. As early as 1792 the element of ‘youthfulness’ was identified by Tennemann with the theme of love. As a consequence, Diogenes’ source has been dismissed as a pedant who could not see Plato in his later years writing with passion on love. Tennemann himself did not think of substantiating his own suggestion, and I found the only attempt to do so in Krische, who refers to Aristotle. (A. B. Krische, Platons Phaedrus, 1848, p.5.) But in Nicomachean Ethics 1156a31-b4, to which he refers, Aristotle says that the young are amorous because they are emotional and indulge in pleasure: ‘they fall quickly in and out of love, changing often within a single day’. But such love has nothing in common with the Platonic love of the Phaedrus, and the ancients could hardly have been mistaken on this. In Plato’s dialogue, the true loving relationship between a philosopher and his disciple is entirely free of sex and its steadfastness is guaranteed by the immortal Forms or Ideas of Beauty, Temperance, Justice and Wisdom (250b-d), on which their minds are focused. But even the slightly less perfect form of love, which Plato discusses at the end of the Palinode, that is love occasionally sullied by sex, has nothing in common with love characterized by Aristotle as juvenile: ‘Such a pair as this also are dear friends, but not so dear as that other pair ... they have exchanged the most binding pledges, which it were a sin to break by becoming enemies. When death comes they quit the body wingless indeed, yet eager to be winged, and therefore they carry off no mean reward for their lover’s madness: for it is ordained that all such as have taken the first steps on the celestial highway shall no more return to the dark pathways beneath the earth, but shall walk together in a life of shining bliss, and be furnished in due time with like plumage the one to the other, because of their love.’ (256c-e, Hackforth’s translation.)
Another ancient Life of Plato has been preserved, written by Olympiodorus, a Neo-Platonic scholar of the sixth century AD, which too maintains that the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue. This information was dismissed by Hackforth as a mere echo of Diogenes. On reading Olympiodorus I realized that Hackforth is wrong in this. For Olympiodorus says ‘That Plato was practiced in dithyrambs as well is clear from the Phaedrus, the dialogue that plentifully breathes dithyrambs, for Plato wrote this dialogue as his first, as is reported’. Olympiodorus does not ground the dating of the Phaedrus in Plato’s youthfulness. Quite on the contrary; in the ancient information according to which the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue he finds confirmation of the biographical tradition according to which Plato began by writing poetry in dithyrambs.
Then, in the Commentary on the Phaedrus written by Hermias, another Neo-Platonic scholar, I made truly momentous discoveries. He begins his commentary by refuting the allegations of juvenility, which from old sullied the reputation of the dialogue, but the juvenility against which he defends the Phaedrus is very different from ‘juvenile love’ imputed to Diogenes or to his source by modern interpreters. According to Hermias, what the ancients saw as a streak of juvenility was not the theme of love, but the contentious manner in which it was presented, as well as the contentious manner in which Plato argued against Lysias. ‘Let us now present the critical remarks that some persons raise against Plato concerning this writing [i.e. the Phaedrus] ... In the first place they say that he did not work out appropriately the discourse against eros and for eros, but like a youngling ambitiously contended on each side. Then they say that Plato’s writing against the discourse of Lysias and competing with him, lampooning the rhetorician in the manner befitting the writers of comedy and accusing him of artlessness, appears like the work of a malign and contentious youngster.’
Hermias’ testimony is supported by Themistius of the fourth century AD who in his Orationxxvi addressed philosophy [identified with Plato] as follows: ‘and you were not afraid that someone might accuse you of juvenile behaviour when you contended against Lysias’ (329c).
The very fact that Diogenes Laertius supports the ancient tradition concerning the dating of the Phaedrus by noting that the ancients saw in the dialogue something ‘juvenile’ or ‘boyishly mischievous’ makes it very unlikely that Diogenes was the source on which Olympiodorus based his dating of the dialogue. For the theory of the fall and ascent of the souls, which is central to the Phaedrus, is central to the Neo-Platonic doctrine of the soul; if Olympiodorus could have placed it into the years of the acme ofPlato’s creativity, he would have done so, just as Heidegger did so within the framework of Platonic scholarship of the twentieth century, according to whom the Phaedrus is in every respect the most accomplished dialogue (M. Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol.I, ed. Neske, 1961, p. 222). But in the time of Olympiodorus and Hermias the ancient dating of the Phaedrus was presumably too well documented. For the best Hermias could do in his commentary was to argue that the Phaedrus was free from any marks of juvenility, without contesting its dating as Plato’s first dialogue; he argues that the character of contentiousness, viewed by the critics as juvenile, can be equally well ascribed to the Republic, where Plato argues against justice and for justice, or to the Sophist, where he argues both for being and for not-being, that is to dialogues that were regarded as products of Plato in his maturity.
There was one more problem to contend with concerning the ancient tradition on the dating of the Phaedrus. Prominent commentators on Plato’s Phaedrus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries counter Diogenes’ and Olympiodorus’ testimonies by taking recourse to Cicero, who did place the dialogue into acme of Plato’s creative life. For in the Orator Cicero refers to Socrates’ praise of young Isocrates in the Phaedrus, and says: ‘ea de seniore scribit Plato et scribit aequalis’ – ‘Plato wrote it when Isocrates was in middle life, himself being his contemporary.’ They argue that the word senior would not be applied to a man under fifty.
I found that Cicero’s earlier work, de re publica, fully supports the view of the modern commentators that Plato wrote the Phaedrus after his visit to Sicily, that is at least ten years after the death of Socrates. For Cicero says there that Socrates discarded the study of nature, and that so did Plato as long as Socrates lived, but that after Socrates’ death Plato devoted himself to the study of nature under the influence of the Pythagoreans, whom he joined on his journey to Italy and Sicily, and that then in his dialogues he attributed to Socrates, out of his love for him, his own thoughts on the subject (i. 15-16). Towards the end of the de re publica Cicero reproduces the Phaedran proof of the immortality of the soul amid the cosmological speculations derived from the Timaeus, and in doing so he clearly views the Phaedrus as one of Plato’s late works.
But scholars have failed to notice that after the Orator Cicero has changed his view concerning the dating of the Phaedrus. For in the Tusculan Disputations, written after the Orator, he again reproduces the proof of the immortality of the soul from the Phaedrus (i.53,54), as he did in his early de re publica, but now he insists that Plato’s views on immortality were Plato’s own (i.39,49). He suggests that Plato derived the Phaedran proof from the Delphic maxim ‘Know thyself’ (i.52), adding that those who disagree with Plato and Socrates in this matter could neither solve this problem so neatly, nor appreciate the subtlety of the solution (i.55). Further on in the Tusculan Disputations he adds to the Phaedran proof the notion of the soul’s simplicity derived from the Phaedo and maintains that ‘influenced by these and similar reasons Socrates sought out no advocate, when on trial for his life’ (i.71). Here Cicero speaks of the historical Socrates as a man who had been persuaded by Plato’s arguments on the immortality of the soul and at his trial and on the day of his death acted under the influence of Plato's arguments. This suggests that after Cicero wrote the Orator, he received reliable information that Plato conceived of his Phaedran proof of the immortality of the soul prior to Socrates' death. What else could have given Cicero this assurance if not the information according to which the Phaedrus was written by Plato during Socrates’ lifetime?
My conflict with British classical philosophers entered the public domain in connection with the approaching 18th World Congress of Philosophy. I appealed to the congress with an Open Letter, which was published in The Times Higher Education Supplement:
‘Philosophy for Life’
May I allow myself to bring the subject of unemployment to the attention of the world congress? The capacity of human society to create time for free activity, and thus for philosophy, has been of interest to philosophy since the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; its degeneration into a machine for the mass production of dispensable human beings became a central preoccupation of Marx. Marxist philosophy indeed offers a radical solution to the problem: it offers freedom as the culmination of human progress, brought about as a result of a consciously pursued “historical necessity”. Yet, the societies established under the influence of Marxist philosophy have shown that dependence on “historical necessity” does not promote free activity. Real progress in this domain seems to require the free endeavour of individuals, of philosophers, of society as a whole.
Philosophy has claimed schole, that is free time for free inquiry, as its birthright. In exchange it presented mankind with treasures of thought for each generation to appropriate. It is in the interest of society, of its cultural well-being, to provide philosophers with the free time needed for the task. And if society as a whole loses sight of this, philosophers worthy of that name have no excuse for doing likewise.
The work needed to appropriate the heritage of philosophic thought has presented philosophers through the ages with an indispensable activity independent of the vagaries of political systems and job markets. If true to itself, philosophy can generate freedom, intellectual and moral self-reliance, being-for-others as a precondition for truly being-for-oneself; it can generate hope where unemployment sows despair and turn the waste of human potential to benefit.
The climate of academic philosophy today must be questioned from within this perspective. Are graduates of philosophy prepared to stand on their own feet as philosophers, even if struck down by unemployment? Is not philosophy presented to them in a distorted form so that they readily discard it the moment they cannot gain a living from it? Wherever it takes effect, such a distortion must effect the roots of academic philosophy itself, and ultimately disqualify it from its place in higher education; philosophers themselves become dispensable, surviving at universities, if at all, by the grace and favour of politicians, who keep them as a mere cosmetic. To underline my point, let me cite classical philosophy – that branch of philosophy that more than any other seems to be confined to centres of academic excellence.
Academics in the past did a splendid job in opening the gates to a fuller appreciation of ancient philosophic thought – we have excellent lexicons, grammar books, critical editions of the texts, commentaries on Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. Never since ancient times has there been such an opportunity for a comprehensive and immediate understanding of the Greek philosophic texts as there is now. Yet, classical philosophers based at our universities are today so far removed from enjoying direct access to the original texts that an immediate understanding of Greek texts seems to be beyond their horizon. How could this state of affairs have arisen?
Ancient Greek is a dead language, but it is a human language none the less; the only way to learn it adequately is through Greek literature. One of the great assets about mastering Ancient Greek is that it can be done only through reading and rereading Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus and Thucydides, Aristophanes and Euripides ... Hesiod and Homer in the original.
The language is absorbed by us in proportion to our acquiring the rich heritage within which it is preserved and which it discloses to us. A wide reading of Greek literature is thus an absolute prerequisite medium for adequate understanding of Plato and Aristotle. But what is the approach to Ancient Greek in our schools? Students are drilled in vocabulary and grammar, not as a means to understanding of the texts directly in Greek, but as tools to mastering the translation of prescribed, selected texts.
Apart from the reward of good marks and their tutor’s praise, such labour is practically meaningless, given the range of translations of the classics with which past generations of academics have endowed us. Many years of energy are invested in a discipline whose end results are graduates and academics for whom the direct reading and immediate understanding of texts in the original remains beyond their reach.
And yet, our custodians of classical philosophy do set out to present to their students a comprehensive understanding of Plato and Aristotle as part of the curriculum. Such an understanding, based on a fragmentary experience of the originals complemented by a load of secondary literature, must of necessity fail to meet any real confrontation with the totality of Plato’s or Aristotle’s texts.
Each subsequent generation of students is less able to find its way to an authentic apprehension of Plato and Aristotle, and thus becomes less qualified still to challenge its teachers; students are encouraged, if not forced, to spend most of their time with their teacher’s interpretations, and with the secondary literature which their teachers have themselves imbued. If ever the dominant interpretations are questioned from without the academic structures, then the whole body of classical philosophy closes its ranks in self defence – frustrating discussion, exercising its monopoly on academic publications and on lecture rooms.
Is there any inherent necessity governing this unfortunate development? Any classical philosopher in East and West may reflect upon his or her work, and ask whether it is not the academics themselves who in this way are the losers. Is such drudgery worth their pay, if they lose sight of the only worthwhile reward, namely an understanding of the subject they teach? They can reverse their course. Although years of conditioning have habituated their brains to translate the moment their eye falls on the original text, it is surely time to start again, differently, to dare to read and read, to break through to a direct understanding of the texts.
Such a radical reversal must have far reaching consequences. The new approach would entail sharing it with students, for whom the subject would thus be opened as a lifetime’s endeavour, not to be embraced or discarded according to the fluctuations in the job market. In the present academic and social climate in East and West one must face the eventuality of a growing number of unemployed classical philosophers, deeply devoted to their subject that in its essence requires a life-long pursuit. To provide them with elementary conditions for decent human existence would be the duty of society, and it would be the duty of universities to impress the situation on politicians of the day. Of crucial importance would be a continuing contact with employed academics, profoundly stimulating to both sides.
Concretely, in classical philosophy, seminars would have to be opened, where Plato and Aristotle would be read and discussed in the totality of their work, seminars frequented by employed, yet open to unemployed classical philosophers. Furthermore, unemployed philosophers would have to be given the possibility to publish the results of their work and thus present a genuine challenge to their employed colleagues.
As an unemployed philosopher, may I be granted permission to participate at the 18th World Congress of Philosophy? I should like to attend.
May I voice one more request? I came to Britain from Czechoslovakia eight years ago, at the invitation of King’s College Cambridge and Balliol College Oxford. The Czechoslovak authorities granted me permission to stay abroad for five years. I hoped to spend those five years at British and American, French and German universities, in active contact with classical philosophers and with students of philosophy. The object of my stay was to return home enriched and strengthened for the task of overcoming the gap between the official and unofficial philosophy in my country. Subjects such as classical philosophy cannot be pursued as befits them in the “underground”, however much support such an “underground” might attract from abroad.
It took me seven months in Oxford to realize that the Master of Balliol knew what he was saying when he told me after my arrival that there was no place for me in the British academic establishment. I realized that by refusing to give up my approach to philosophy, and to classical philosophy in particular, I was committing myself to a lifetime of unemployment. I decided to return home. At that point the Czechoslovak authorities deprived me of my citizenship.
Would the congress support my demand for the restoration of Czechoslovak citizenship? The matter does not concern myself alone; the freedom to travel, the freedom to communicate ideas, to challenge each other freely in our approach to philosophy, across the frontiers and ideologies, is essential for philosophy in any civilized country, including Czechoslovakia.
It is exactly 20 years since the attempt to create, in Czechoslovakia, a free society within a socialist framework was interrupted by the military intervention of five Warsaw Pact countries. Each day of the week in which the 18th World Congress of Philosophy takes place is an anniversary of the days on which Czechs and Slovaks faced Russian tanks in massive, non-violent resistance – until our kidnapped leaders were returned from Moscow to Prague. Since then our rights and freedoms have been eroded step by step. Insisting on the rights of Czechs, whatever their persuasion, to leave the country and to retain their citizenship would make a significant contribution towards healing some of the wounds inflicted on my country.’