Simon Midgely, Education Reporter, wrote in The Independent on Saturday 20 August 1988:
‘Czech exile invokes Plato in dialogue with authorities
An exiled Czech philosopher claims he is being cold-shouldered by the British philosophical establishment because of his unorthodox views on the chronology of Plato’s Dialogues and his insistence on reading philosophical texts in ancient Greek.
In an open letter in The Times Higher Education Supplement, Julius Tomin, aged 49, calls on 1.000 international philosophers attending a world congress of philosophy in Brighton next week to support his demand for the restoration of his Czechoslovak citizenship.
Dr Tomin was deprived of his citizenship eight years ago after he staged a series of alternative philosophical seminars in his home. The authorities would not give him an academic post because of his political views.
He arrived at Oxford in 1980 where he delivered a series of lectures but subsequently failed to secure a permanent academic post despite applying for several.
The Czech government says he can return, but as a foreigner with no civil rights – with no possibility of employment or state accommodation.
Dr Tomin, who specializes in the study of Plato, contends that the British classical philosophical establishment has closed ranks against him because his revisionist theories of ancient philosophy are too revolutionary for comfort.
He also claims that he is being denied opportunities to promote, by publication in scholarly journals or via public lectures and seminars, his view that the Phaedrus is the first Platonic dialogue, coming before the Republic. He adds that his insistence on studying Plato in the original ancient Greek runs against the grain of British philosophical practice which involves studying texts in translation and secondary sources.
These charges are briskly contended by leading Oxford philosophers such as John Ackrill, Professor of the History of Philosophy, and Dr Anthony Kenny, Master of Balliol.
They say Dr Tomin has had opportunities to promote his unorthodox views – he has taught several classes at Oxford, read papers and given occasional lectures. Plato is, moreover, studied in the original Greek at Oxford where there are as many as 20 philosophers who can read ancient Greek fluently. They add that it was not that surprising that he had been unable to secure a permanent academic teaching or researching post in a British university at a time when philosophy departments are being cut in size and competition for jobs is intense, they add.
Professor Ackrill said: “There is no prejudice against him as a Czech or somebody who has got an unusual view..” He added that most philosophers did not consider Dr Tomin had made his case for the Phaedrus being the first dialogue. Nor was it clear what the implications for the study of Platonic thought would be, had the case been made.
Dr Kenny said it was very hard to think that an unusual view of the order of the Platonic Dialogues would stand in the way of his getting a job. “It is very sad that he has not got a job. I am very sorry that he is in an unhappy state. I think it is a great pity that his Czech citizenship has been taken away. I think it should be restored.
Professor Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, said that while not qualified to judge Dr Tomin’s scholarly work on Plato, he appeared to have made a strong case which should be argued. Whether the case was reasonable or not was another matter.
As far as getting an academic post is concerned Professor Dummett said: “Universities are not free to help people. Before the war universities had resources to create posts for refugee scholars escaping prosecution in their own countries.” But now with government spending cuts the only posts being created were in business studies, computation and engineering.
To add to Dr Tomin’s problems, on Tuesday he is appearing before a social security appeal tribunal in Oxford to oppose a ruling that he is ineligible for social security because he is not available for work. He says he is available for work – as a philosopher.’
The tribunal, to which The Independent refers was to take place originally in March. I wrote to all Members of the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy, asking them to come to the tribunal as witnesses, to testify that I used my time in a manner worthy of supplementary benefit, preparing myself as well as possible for an academic post in philosophy, when and if it became available to me. Professor Michael Dummett from New College Oxford expressed his willingness to testify on my behalf. In a letter of March 9, 1988 he wrote to me:
‘Dear Dr Tomin,
Thank you for your letter. I am very sorry indeed to hear that you are having trouble about supplementary benefit. If you would tell me on what date the tribunal will be held, I will certainly attend it if I am free to do so at that time. I am willing to act as a witness, if you really think that I can say anything that would help.
And so the tribunal was postponed; in the end it took place on the day when Prof Dummett could not come, for he was giving a lecture at the World Congress of Philosophy. On August 17, 1988 he wrote to me:
‘Dear Dr Tomin, I promised to be present at your tribunal hearing if I could; unfortunately, I cannot, since I shall actually be giving a talk on that morning at the World Congress. I hope very much that your plea is accepted. I enclose a statement I have written on your behalf, in case it should be of any use. I feel sure that you ought to have legal assistance: you should at least enquire from a solicitor whether it would be possible for you to obtain Legal Aid for this purpose.
One further suggestion. I know that you have been eager to be invited to give a paper to the O. U. [Oxford University] Philosophical Society: but officers of the Society have expressed the view to me that it would be inappropriate for you to address the Society on the subject which currently concerns you most keenly, the dating of Plato’s dialogues, because most of the members are not classical scholars, and would be unable to evaluate your arguments. I strongly recommend you to make an approach to the Philological society, which I know used in the past frequently to hear papers on precisely such subjects.
The Editor of The Times wrote on Thursday August 25, 1988:
The dissident Czech philosopher, Dr Julius Tomin, is an articulate champion of classical Greek studies in general and its philosophy in particular. It is hard to quarrel with his comments at the World Congress of Philosophy this week that both these subjects are in declining health. It is hard, however, to come full-square behind his view that supplementary benefit of £67.32 should be paid to him on the grounds that he should do no work other than his chosen study.
A simpler philosophy has to apply here. His case will have to be determined according to the rules. Those rules have to be interpreted for individual cases. But precedents should not be established which encourage social security applicants to define the area of their skill so narrowly as to make it wholly impractical for them to take an available job. For a bricklayer to say that he only works on one kind of building – and not on another for which a job happens to be available – is unduly restrictive. A philosopher, who can teach or write in many parts of the country, is no different in that respect.
In Dr Tomin’s case there is no evidence to suggest that his benefit has been put at risk for refusing obviously unsuitable jobs. Indeed, it would be good to be reassured that he has not, as has been suggested, refused academic offers outside Oxford. That university may, indeed, be pre-eminent in his branch of the subject but free choice of work-place and exclusive concentration on the Greeks is a luxury few academic philosophers in Britain now enjoy.
A decision on the case has been postponed. It will essentially turn on whether he is or is not available for work under the appropriate section of the Social Security Act and whether he has placed undue restrictions on the work he is willing to accept. He has said that if the decision goes against him he will sweep the streets of Oxford or seek some other menial task to keep his head clear for his real work.
This seems somewhat silly. It has always been open to philosophers to shun the material world. Dr Tomin’s field of study is full of them – from Diogenes the barrel-dweller to the great Heraclitus, who is said to have lived off grass and died on a dung heap. If he wishes to follow their lead, so be it.
But many great philosophers have mixed their craft with other callings. Hobbes taught widely. Locke was involved with politics. Russell was mathematician, campaigner and polymath. It is to be hoped that the friends who encouraged Dr Tomin to Britain may prevail upon him to bend his ways and, when he has bent them, find him a home from which he can continue to lay bare the wisdom of old.’
On the same day, August 25, 1988, Barry O’Brien wrote in The Daily Telegraph:
‘Philosophers in knots over Dr Tomin’s Plato thesis
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 Classical Quarterly, and director of studies in classics at Christ’s College Cambridge.
“He is extremely ingenious in his use of arguments, but he has not yet made out the kind of case that people are going to be able to take seriously.”
Dr Tomin, a hero of British academics when he defied the Czech authorities by holding “underground” philosophy seminars in Prague in the 1970s, has ruffled academic feathers since coming to Britain in 1980 by challenging current views on Plato’s philosophical development.
Despite the support he enjoyed as a dissident, he has failed to gain an academic post in Britain, and is living on £67-a-week supplementary benefit while continuing his work at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Papers submitted by Dr Tomin to the Classical Quarterly had all been related to one view he had particularly strong views about, said Dr Sedley.
“I know Dr Tomin feels that his views are misunderstood and that this is a terribly important thesis that scholars are simply blind to, but we have not turned these articles down because we disagree with his conclusion, but because we didn’t think that the arguments were strong enough to publish in their present form.
If Dr Tomin were right, it would affect a great deal of Platonic scholarship.
“I think people just have a 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.
“Obviously, what I am saying will sound as blinkered to him as he sounds to me, but that is the nature of the debate at the moment, I am afraid.”
Dr Sedley said he had urged Dr Tomin to write a book. “In my view it is no good trying to ask people to revise their view on this particular bit of Plato’s work without rethinking the whole of Plato’s development.”
Dr Tomin, who has based his research on the original Greek texts disregarding modern commentaries, had obviously laboured under a great deal of difficulty in his early life while working in Czechoslovakia, said Dr Sedley.
“I believe I am right in saying he did not have access to all the work of 20th-century Platonic scholarship. It was only when he moved to England that he discovered that this view he held wasn’t the conventional view. Scholarly disagreement “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. “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 Tomin had much to contribute to Platonic scholarship. “He has published articles on Aristophanes, on Xenophon and so on. There is a great deal he could be doing if he did not have this total obsession with one thesis which nobody else agrees with.” The Czech philosopher’s latest thesis is now with Classical Quarterly awaiting a decision. “I am not in a position to say whether we will accept it or not. We are waiting to hear the referee’s report,” said Dr Sedley. Dr Tomin agreed that his thesis had put him into conflict with many academics because Socrates had to be taken much more seriously as a philosopher if Phaedrus had been written during his lifetime as Plato’s first dialogue, as the ancient life of Plato by Diogenes Laertius suggested. He had been criticised for not reading modern works on Plato, but added: “I didn’t go to the Greek to be pushed around by secondary literature.”’
The Economist wrote on August 27, 1988:
‘Available to think
Picture the scene. On one side of a large municipal-style table in a prefab government office sit three middle-aged, middle-class home counties worthies. On the other is unshaven, overwrought, gesticulating and heavily accented man trying to argue, like Aristotle, that philosophy is the key to the best life; and, like Socrates, that a life without philosophy is not worth living.
The philosopher is Mr Julius Tomin, an unemployed Czech dissident who has swapped a secure living with little freedom of expression in Prague for more freedom but less security in Oxford. The social-security department now wants to withdraw Mr Tomin’s dole on the grounds that, by refusing to accept work other than that for which he is qualified (ie. teaching philosophy), he has made himself unavailable for work.
In true philosophical tradition, the argument at the tribunal revolved mainly around definitions. What, for instance, did applying for job mean? According to Mr Tomin, it meant sitting in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library researching Plato. On his logic, if he writes scholarly papers and has them published, he is more likely to be offered a teaching job. The worthies, it seemed, were more used to thinking in terms of scanning the noticeboard at the local Job Centre.
Mr Tomin’s chances of teaching philosophy at Oxford are “zero”, according to an Oxford philosopher: “It’s all a very sad story, but it’s at least half his fault.” Mr Tomin was first invited to give a short series of lectures at Oxford in 1980 after a group of Balliol philosophers had visited his seminars in Prague. They enjoyed a brief moment of glory when they were arrested mid-seminar and sent packing back to Britain. They came back deeply impressed by Mr Tomin’s bravery.
Bravery does not guarantee brilliance. Even the best philosophers find it hard to get work in Britain these days. In the past four years, seven university philosophy departments have closed and since 1980 the number of lecturers in the subject has fallen by a third to 378. Mr Tomin has not helped his cause by alienating the Oxford philosophy establishment. He is obsessed with trying to show that Plato’s “Phaedrus” was his first dialogue, a theory which has been robustly rebuffed by Mr Anthony Kenny, master of Balliol and the man who invited him to Oxford in the first place. “From the point of view of style, content and everything else, it’s clearly a late dialogue, and that’s all there is to it,” says a classical philosopher firmly.
If the tribunal finds against Mr Tomin in a fortnight’s time, the Job Centre will beckon. If he is to work at all, he is determined to do a manual job, to leave his mind free for philosophy. In that, he will be following a noble tradition. Wittgenstein, no less, did the same.’
I must have mentioned The Economist article to Anthony Kenny some time later, for in a letter of June 27, 1989 he wrote to me:
‘I am grateful to you for drawing my attention to the report in last August’s Economist. The report is quite inaccurate. I have never expressed an opinion to a journalist on the dating of the Phaedrus: it is a topic on which I have never done any research.’
I must query Anthony Kenny’s memory, for he used almost exactly the same words when he invited my wife Zdena to dinner in order to explain to her why my case was hopeless. But his distancing himself from his own pronouncement is noteworthy. No British philosopher, as far as I know, has ever done any research on the dating of the Phaedrus. Let me repeat the words of Richard Sorabji, a leading British classical philosopher, that he wrote to me soon after I came to Oxford:
‘The “secondary literature” is conveniently summarized in five pages in R. Hackforth Plato’s Phaedrus (pp. 3-7). So in twenty minutes I think you could know as much as I know about it.’
As I already mentioned, I have demonstrated that Hackforth’s main argument for his dating of the Phaedrus late, after the Republic, misrepresented both the Phaedrus and the Republic; I have done so in the packed Lecture Room at the Philosophy Centre in 10 Merton Street in 1982, which was the only opportunity I was given to discuss the issue with Oxford philosophers. The discussion was artificially curtailed on that occasion, and yet, as Dr Sedley said in his interview for The Daily Telegraph, philosophers all believe that I must be wrong: “He [Tomin] 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.“ But Oxford and Cambridge philosophers can preserve their comfortable belief in the developmental theories generated by German scholars since 1830s and perfected by them at the beginning of the 20th century only by steadfastly rejecting and avoiding any further discussion on the dating of the Phaedrus.
Dr Sedley was entirely wrong when he said in his interview for The Daily Telegraph that in Prague I did not have access to all the work of 20th-century Platonic scholarship, and that I discovered that my view wasn’t the conventional one only when I moved to England: “[Tomin] was simply picking up what Platonists of antiquity thought about the order of Plato’s work, and assumed it to be true.” Prague University Library, to which I had an access in all my days in Prague was a good library, and it was impossible to touch any book on Plato written in the twentieth century without stumbling upon the modern theories about the development of his thought.
ll modern developmental theories of Plato can be reduced to few simple thoughts. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, had no positive doctrines of his own. In his early dialogues, all written after Socrates died, Plato remained faithful to his teacher, reproducing Socrates’ philosophic questioning circumscribed by his ignorance (in dialogues such as the Euthyphro, Crito, Apology, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Clitopho). In these dialogues Socrates examines and refutes views of his interlocutors without offering any solutions to his queries. Then Plato travelled to Sicily where he met the Pythagoreans and discovered the beauty of mathematics. He thought that mathematics cennot be derived from sensory experience, and so he formed his theory of Recollection of knowledge the souls had in their possession in theirpre-incarnate being (the Meno). Then and only then Plato arrived at his doctrine of Ideas or Forms, which are separate from the objects of our sensory perception (the Phaedo). The theory of Ideas or Forms is prominent in the Phaedrus, it therefore must be late. This is why Dr Sedley said that I was ‘asking people to give up nearly everything else they believe about Plato’s development’
What allowed me to question the developmental theories was my reading of Aristophanes in Prague in mid 1970s. For in the comedy Clouds, in which Aristophanes lampooned Socrates in the year 423 BC, that is when Plato was six years old, I found that Socrates himself contemplated Ideas, although he viewed them from within the position of his philosophic ignorance. For Socrates’ deity, the Clouds, sing on descending to earth: ‘let us shake off the rainy cloud and see the earth by our far-seeing eye through the immortal Ideas’ (athanatais ideais, lines 287-290). The alternative manuscript reading, athanatas ideas instead of athanatais ideais, which gives the meaning ‘let us shake the rainy cloud off our immortal Form and see the earth by our far-seeing eye’, points in the same direction. For both readings point to Socrates’ characterization of the Clouds as the divine source of our thoughts, of human speech, and of reason (haiper gnomen kai dialexin kai noun hemin parechousin, 316).
Barry O’Brien reported in The Daily Telegraph of September 2, 1988: ‘Dr Tomin received a letter from the Classical Quarterly, the leading journal on ancient literature, rejecting his latest thesis on Plato.’ The paper of which he speaks is the ‘Dating of the Phaedrus and interpretation of Plato’. Because I demonstrated that all proofs for the late dating of the Phaedrus that could be found in Hackforth were faulty, there was a great need of a new proof. Martha Nussbaum answered the demand in her book The Fragility of goodness (Cambridge University Press, 1986). To her book I therefore paid attention in the paper.
In fact, Nussbaum’s proof was not really new, for a French Platonic scholar Robin presented it in his book on Platonic love in 1908; Hackforth did not mentioning it, let alone rely on it, for he knew his Plato too well. Robin maintains that the eros that consists in sexual gratification, which is denounced as harmful to the body and the soul in Socrates’ first speech in the Phaedrus, is rehabilitated by Socrates’ second speech, in which the first speech is comprehensively refuted. Robin argues that the eros of the first speech has a striking resemblance to the tyrant-eros of Republic 572e-573c, and that Plato would not return to a view already rejected in the Phaedrus, certainly not without explicit justification; the Phaedrus must therefore follow the Republic. (L. Robin, La Théorie Platonicienne de l’Amour, Paris, 1908, repr. 1964, p. 70-71.)
What Robin overlooked is Socrates’ statement in the second part of the Phaedrus, in which Socrates critically reviews his preceding speeches on love and says that his first speech discovered the form of ‘sinister’ love ‘on which it very properly pours abuse’ (266a5-6). What Socrates refutes in the Phaedran second speech on love is not his denunciation of the debased eros of the first speech, for this is re-affirmed, but the identification of eros as such with the debased erotic drive that was brought forth in the first speech.
Inspired by Robin and unaware of his oversight, Martha Nussbaum argues ‘that Plato, in the Phaedrus, systematically criticizes the middle-period view’ (Fragility, p. 87). She maintains that Plato reproduced his middle-period view in Lysias’ speech and in Socrates’ first speech, which he then subjected to criticism in Socrates’ second speech. Strangely, Lysias’ speech, in which purely sexual gratification is openly glorified, and Socrates’ first speech on love, in which Lysias’ approach to love is denounced, coalesce so closely in Nussbaum’s mind that at one point she talks of Lysias’ speech as if pronounced by Socrates, while in the dialogue it is in fact read by Phaedrus to Socrates, after Phaedrus had spent the morning in Lysias’ company, listening to Lysias’ speech as it was read by its author (227a-228e; 230e). She writes: ‘The prevailing opinion that finds the two early speeches degraded and disgusting has failed to appreciate their force ... one reason why they have been lightly regarded is that Socrates ... utters them under a kind of compulsion and quickly recants.’ (p. 202).
To make the reader appreciate the force of Lysias’ speech with its advice to a youth to submit to loveless sex with a rich and influential suitor, she points to the analogous choice faced by a young woman today: ‘For in our culture it is clearly such a woman who is most likely to be in Phaedrus’ sexual position, more or less surrounded by potential “suitors” who are more powerful and more established than she is.’ (p. 207).
She emphasizes that Lysias is a successful, established man, a prominent defender of democratic freedom who will soon become famous for his courageous opposition to the oligarchs.She says that if we consider what a modern young woman would say to herself or what she would be advised by a concerned feminist ‘we will be on the way to understanding what is serious about Lysias’ (p. 208).
Nussbaum connects Lysias’ speech to the middle-period Phaedo by arguing that the difference between the ascetic view which is promulgated in the Phaedo and the Lysian concept of sex ‘is only a difference about means: about whether it is easier to remain intellectually calm by having sex in this non-erotic way, or by abstaining’ (p. 210).
In this way she substantiates her introductory claim that if we cease seeing the Greeks through the lens of Christian beliefs ‘we can not only see them more truly; we can also see how true they are to us’ (p. 15). One does not need to be a traditionalist Christian to have doubts concerning Nussbaum’s explaining away of the difference between the Lysian sex and ascetic abstaining, but what is much more serious and to the point, Nussbaum in her endeavour to free herself from Christian beliefs omits to pay due attention to Plato’s text. Linking Lysias’ speech with the Republic, Nussbaum argues that by the very choice of Lysias, the son of Cephalus, as the author of the first Phaedran speech Plato reminds us ‘of Republic I, with its stern warning against the “mad” influence of the passions. Lysias’ speech to Phaedrus will be continuous with his father’s [i.e. Lysias’ father’s] sane advice.’ (p. 200).
But although in Republic I Cephalus praises old age for freeing people from the grip of erotic passions, he would be surprised to find his words understood as advising a destitute youth to submit himself to a rich suitor; for what he denounces is a man’s being guided in his actions by pleasure-seeking (329a5, 329a6, 329c7); the suitor in Lysias’ speech in the Phaedrus is driven by sexual desire (231a3, 234a7) and is after pleasure derived from purely sexual gratification (233b7).
Nussbaum identifies Lysias with the suitor of Lysias’ Phaedran speech and Phaedrus with Lysias’ beloved. But this is a mistake, although a mistake widely shared, as can be seen by paying due attention to the text of the dialogue. For when Phaedrus is displeased with Socrates’ dismissive attitude to Lysias’ strangely erotic piece (227c4-5) and calls on him to produce a better speech (234c-235d), Socrates ripostes: ‘Have you become so serious because I criticized your beloved’ (236b5-6)? Phaedrus is not Lysias’ beloved, he is his lover. Socrates addresses Phaedrus explicitly as Lysias’ lover at the end of his second speech of love (257b4-5), after he revealed to him the nature of philosophic love, integral part of which is abstention from homosexual intercourse; he does so, exhorting him to live his life so as to be fully devoted to his Love for Lysias mediated by philosophic discourse. Towards the end of the dialogue Socrates once again clearly designates Lysias as Phaedrus’ beloved, exhorting him to convey to his beloved (279b2-3) the philosophic import of the whole dialogue.
In reversing the relationship, Nussbaum (and the majority of other interpreters of the dialogue) was probably misled by Socrates’ words which he utters in search of inspiration as he embarks upon his second speech: ‘Where is that boy (243e4) I was talking to? He must listen to me once more, and not rush off to yield to the non-lover (243e5-6) before he hears what I have to say.’ Phaedrus responds: ‘Here he is, all the time quite close beside you, when you want’ (243e7-8). She seems to have identified the non-lover of which Socrates here speaks with Lysias, and then interpreted the Lysias-Phaedrus relationship in the light of the momentarily proposed Socrates-Phaedrus relationship. Yet the non-lover here spoken of is the non-lover of Socrates’ first speech (237b; 241d-e), who is quite distinct from the non-lover of Lysias’ speech, let alone from Lysias himself. The non-lover - beloved relationship of Socrates’ first speech is a purely imaginary relationship, which allows a sharply critical denunciation of the Lysian suitor as driven by the ‘sinister eros’, but precludes Socrates from conjuring up any positive fulfilment of that relationship (241d-242a). In the second speech, since Socrates is now bent on discovering the true eros that inspires a philosopher, he requires a strong presence of the beloved, and this is why Phaedrus slips into the role of Socrates’ beloved at Socrates’ bidding. Thus Phaedrus in the dialogue plays a dual role: throughout the dialogue he is the lover of Lysias, but at the onset of Socrates’ second speech on love he for a moment plays the inspirational role of Socrates’ beloved. And as for Lysias, he can be identified neither with the suitor nor with the beloved of his own erotic piece. From the former he is expressly protected by his designation as Phaedrus’ beloved, from the latter by the wealth of his family and by the passive role of the Lysian boy throughout the piece. Lysias’ speech is intended as a display of his rhetorical skill and of his insight into the mentality of a crafty suitor; it is a paignion, a plaything, although Lysias may have written it so as to tease Phaedrus.
Nussbaum writes: ‘We remember that a central example in the entire argument for the middle dialogues’ view of value was the sexual pleasure of the passive homosexual, and that this was the only pleasure that the hedonist interlocutor Callicles agreed with Socrates in finding truly disgusting. Now [that is in the Phaedrus] it appears as a metaphor for the good life.’ (p. 231).
Given her interpretationof the Phaedrus, it is strange that concerning the dating of this dialogue she ranges it alongside the Laws and the Philebus, which are presumably Plato’s two latest dialogues. For in the Philebus (46a-47b) Socrates refers to the satisfaction of the passive homosexual as an example of degenerate and disgusting pleasures, and in the Laws the Athenian Stranger outlaws homosexuality: 'concerning sexual intercourse (836c3) … a man must not touch a man for it is an unnatural activity’ (836c5-6). But she did not have to go to the Philebus and the Laws to discover her mistake; Socrates in the Phaedrus views not only the lot of the passive homosexual as truly miserable and totally devoid of pleasure (the passive homosexual finds his elderly suitor in the daily intercourse with him most revolting, 240b6-c1; this verdict is fully corroborated at a later stage in the dialogue, cf. 266a5-6), but in the second speech he denounces the pursuit of homosexual pleasure as shameful and unnatural, as that upon which the depraved part of the soul is bent(251a1).
Nussbaum contends that if we doubt that the Gorgias’ example of the passive homosexual is reconsidered in the Phaedrus, ‘we have only to consider the role played in the Phaedrus by Ganymede, boy beloved of Zeus, carried off to be cup-bearer of the gods - whose name gives our English word “catamite” its origin. Socrates tells us that the word “himeros” was made up as the name for passionate desire by Zeus himself when he was the lover of Ganymede, after the flowing stream (rheuma) of passion that went (ienai) from him bearing particles (mere) which were received by his beloved (251c, cf. 255b-c). We are to realize, too, that Ganymede, made cup-bearer, became himself, in turn, a pourer of liquids.’ (p. 231).
Does Nussbaum have a point in the end, and does she here discover the true Plato? There can be little doubt that the image of Ganymede deifies the passive homosexual. In Aristophanes’ Peace the beetle chosen to carry Trygaios to heaven is fed on ‘finely moulded shit’ obtained from a prostituted catamite (v. 10); when in heaven, the beetle feeds on ‘Ganymede’s ambrosia’ (v. 720-24). But this is precisely the reason why any attempt to transform homosexuality into an elevating spiritual relationship had to reinterpret the original image; and this radical reinterpretation is what Socrates is interested in achieving both in Xenophon’s Symposium and in Plato’s Phaedrus.
In Xenophon’s Symposium Socrates says: ‘And I maintain that even Ganymede was carried by Zeus up to Olympus not because of his body but because of his soul.’ To corroborate this claim, Socrates there derives Ganymede’s name from the Homeric ‘he rejoices in hearing’ and ‘in his mind he knows profound counsels’, which makes Ganymede ‘pleasant of thought’ not ‘pleasant of body’ (viii, 30). In the Phaedrus the reinterpretation is more imaginative and more radical. The image of Ganymede is introduced only after the charioteer in the lover’s soul beholds the Form of Beauty and, empowered by the sight of it, checks and subdues the wayward horse’s sexual impulses, that is the soul’s lower appetites. Himeros, the flow of longing, is the flow of particles emanating from the youth and flowing towards the lover’s soul through his eyes (251c5-8); only secondarily, as a faint echo, the selfsame particles of the boy’s beauty, refracted from the lover, enter the youth through his eyes (255c6). A theory of vision based on Empedocles’ notion of effluences (D-K fr. 89) provides here Plato with a powerful tool with the help of which he profoundly transforms the homosexual imagery of the ancient myth. To impose sexual connotation on ‘the flow of himeros’, as Nussbaum wants it, would make Zeus into the catamite and Ganymede into the lover; she got the direction of the flow of himeros simply wrong. Throughout Plato’s text the lover is the active agent. In her chapter on the Symposium Nussbaum herself writes that ‘in all of surviving Greek art, there are no boys with erections' and that 'Dover concludes, with some incredulity, “The penis of the erastes [the lover] is sometimes erect even before any bodily contact is established, but that of the eromenos [the beloved boy] remains flaccid even in circumstances to which one would expect the penis of any healthy adolescent to respond willy-nilly”.’ (p. 188).
When Plato’s Socrates interprets himeros as particles of beauty that flow from the face of the beloved towards the eyes of the lover, and from there, refracted, back in the eyes of the beloved, he radically spiritualizes the Zeus-Ganymede relationship. If contemporary views on homosexuality bar us from attentively reading Plato’s texts, then something is badly out of joint.
I do not know what was in Dr Sedley’s rejection letter, but I have in my hands a letter of 23 March 1987 in which Jonathan Barnes, the Editor of the Phronesis, rejected my paper:
‘You do, I think, point out a number of serious errors in Nussbaum’s treatment of the Phaedrus. But I am about to publish a lengthy review of Fragility (which I commissioned some time before I received your paper); and I don’t really think that there is room in one journal for two articles devoted to the book.’
In less than a fortnight after the social security tribunal I received a call from Barry O’Brien from The Daily Telegraph. I was offered a £5.000-a-year post, and I accepted the offer. A flurry of publicity followed, and although here and there an authentic word of mine found its way to the press, almost all reports struck a false note in unison – false to my ears, but apparently not in the ears of the readers. On September2, 1988 Barry O’Brien reported in The Daily Telegraph in his article ‘Philosopher called to the bar’: ‘[Tomin] has failed to gain an academic post since he came to Britain in 1980.’ The next day he reported in The Daily Telegraph in ‘Pub philosopher signs off dole’: ‘Dr Tomin, an expert on ancient Greek philosophy who has failed to gain an academic post since he came to Britain in 1980 ...’ On Wednesday September 14, 1988 A J McIlroy wrote in The Daily Telegraph in ‘Pub philosopher turns to Plato after dole defeat’: ‘Dr Tomin, who won international fame by holding seminars in his Prague flat in defiance of the Czech authorities in the 1970s, has failed to gain an academic post since he came to Britain in 1980.’ Kathy Beech wrote in The Independent Saturday 17 September 1988 in ‘Bar room philosophers to meet the real thing’: ‘Dr Tomin, 49, who has failed to get an academic post since coming to Britain in 1980.’ Paul Hoyland in The Guardian of October 7 in ‘Czech philosopher proves pubs are no bar to discourse: ‘Dr Tomin ... after failing to get a university post.’
I did not come to Britain to obtain an academic post. I obtained from the Czech authorities something quite unprecedented – a five year leave to study abroad. As I wrote in my Open Letter to the World Congress of Philosophy, 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 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. At the same time I was only too well aware that ancient studies were going in a completely wrong direction. When I invited Oxford dons to my Prague seminar, it was a challenge: if they were to rise up to the challenge, they had to rethink their approach to the subject.
Approaching each Latin and Greek sentence as a puzzle to be solved by grammatically analysing, restructuring, and translating it into English, French, German, or whatever was the mother tongue of the reader - this is not a way to preserve an interest in learning Greek, since good text editions, commentaries, translations, and a good dictionary already exist. The subject requires a complete turn-around. Instead of ever narrower specialization it requires reading and appropriating the great treasures of Greek literature in their totality in the original. For only in that way one could learn to understand Greek directly in Greek, and thus overcome seeing the texts through the prism of one’s own mother tongue. Since my own endeavour to understand Greek was facilitated by learning it from English, German, and French text-books, I believed and still believe that my experience could be made use of and be brought to a higher level if my English, French, German colleagues were prepared to read and discuss Greek texts with me, reading the given text aloud in Greek, and then discussing it on that basis. I made that suggestion to the organizers of the Triannial of Classicists that took place in Oxford in 1981. I was given a room, I took with me my Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes, enough to choose from. Two dons came, Dr Kathy Wilkes and Myles Burnyeat. They let me read and translate a few texts, sitting silently, not joining in. Many years later, in the mid 1990s, Myles Burnyeat was giving a seminar on Plato’s dialogue Euthydemus at the Philosophy centre. In the discussion I wanted to make a critical comment, and quoted the passage in question aloud in Greek. Myles Burnyeat shouted: ‘No-one in my seminar will read Greek aloud.’
I have a dream that one day there will be a room at Oxford where on the open shelves there will be all the classics in the original and in translations, with good commentaries, good grammar books and several dictionaries, all at hand, and that in this room classicists and classical philosophers will regularly meet to read and discuss their chosen texts in the original. Good commentaries, translations, dictionaries and grammar books will be at hand, so that any disputed sentence could be confronted with all the wealth of insight invested into its proper understanding by past generations of scholars. Students will be welcome to attend these meetings, and so will be academics from other countries. The Greeks thus will become our shared, and truly common heritage. – Is it not unbelievable that no such room exists, and no such seminars take place at Oxford or Cambridge? English is our common language, and from its privileged position derive certain responsibilities. It is time that British classical scholars and classical philosophers become aware of that.
The nearest I ever came to this dream of mine was in Professor Owen’s seminar in London, where during my first year at Oxford the best Aristotelian scholars from Oxford, Cambridge, and London universities would meet in London three times a week to ‘read’ and discuss Aristotle’s Metaphysics Z. Each participant had in his or her hands the text in the original. ‘Reading’ the text meant that one person would read his or her translation of the given passage, which then was discussed. It happened once that Richard Sorabji did not have time to prepare his translation, and so the session began by 10 or 15 minutes of silence, during which we all read and translated the text in our heads. This seminar ended with Professor Owen’s death; he died in the summer of 1981. Next to Owen’s seminar came Professor Ackrill’s seminar at Brasenose College in Oxford, which I attended during the 1980s, and where we read Plotinus, Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Sextus Empiricus, Lucretius Carus, St Augustine. These two seminars were for me tremendously stimulating, and I learnt a lot in having to adapt myself to the Oxford and Cambridge approach to the texts. But there was no place in these seminars for my approach. When Professor Ackrill retired, the seminar still trudged on for a while, and Christopher Kirwan, who chaired the meetings, asked me to prepare my translation for one session. I asked whether I could do it my way, that is by first reading the given passage aloud in Greek, then translating it, and then pointing out textual and doctrinal points that were to be discussed. Christopher answered categorically: ‘No! You will do it according to our rules!’ And so I did. When Michael Frede, the new Professor of Ancient Philosophy got Ackrill’s Chair, he attended the seminar twice, could not scintillate, and so the seminar ceased to exist. If I am not mistaken, the seminar was founded in 1890s by Professor Bywater, the editor of the Oxford text of Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. I have been missing it badly ever since.
The only classical scholar who attempted to adopt my suggestion to begin each reading of the given text by reading it aloud in Greek was Colin Mcleod in his Plotinus seminar in Christ Church College, asking me to read the text. But the attempt was soon abandoned; with great embarrassment and pain Colin admitted that my reading the text aloud interfered with everyone’s translating the text in their head.
In The Beehive in Swindon I held a ten day protest hunger strike on the occasion of Gorbachev’s visit to Britain. In my open letter to him of 3 April 1989 I wrote:
‘May I use the opportunity of your visit to Britain to express support for glasnost and perestroika in your country, and to protest against the lack of both in Czechoslovakia? In an attempt to give my support and my protest more weight, I shall begin on Wednesday, the day of your arrival, a ten-day hunger strike. The lack of glasnost and perestroika in my country is for me not a matter of academic concern. In 1981, while visiting Oxford University to devote my time to Ancient Philosophy, I was deprived of my citizenship. The law which made this possible had been enacted in 1969 in consequence of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by five Warsaw Pact countries. Would you join the voices of hundreds of British students and academics who in recent years have petitioned the Czechoslovak authorities to restore my citizens’ rights? In the summer of 1977 I held a seven-day hunger strike in support of basic religious freedoms. A few months later I defended, by a ten-day hunger strike, the philosophy seminar that I had opened for young men and women deprived of higher education because of their parents’ participation in Czechoslovakia’s attempt to bring about socialism with a human face - I was being summoned to the police headquarters every time I held the seminar. My third, twelve-day hunger strike was held in 1978 in support of the right to visit a friend: the police were ‘guarding’ day and night Ladislav Hejdanek (a leading Charter 77 signatory), banning everybody except his family from entering his flat. When my citizenship is restored, I shall use the expert knowledge in my academic field acquired during my stay in Britain to the benefit of my country. My ambition is to open at the Charles University in Prague an International Centre for the Study of Ancient Philosophy where academics from Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and other East European countries would regularly meet their colleagues from Britain and other Western countries to maintain our common cultural roots. The case which I bring to your attention, concerning an individual, bears on
the rights and freedoms of all Czechs and Slovaks.’