At 8:15 on the evening of Saturday, April 12, I was conducting a private seminar on Aristotle’s Ethics in the apartment of Dr. Julius Tomin in Prague. Five minutes later the meeting was surrounded by uniformed and secret policemen, and the seminar, which had lasted just over an hour, was brought to a premature end. Of the twenty-three people present the three foreigners (myself, my American wife, and a visiting French mathematics teacher) were taken off to one part of the police headquarters in Bartolomejska Street. Eighteen of the Czech citizens, including Dr. Tomin, were detained in another part of the same building, and two Czechs were allowed to return home. We foreigners were deported to Germany after being interrogated and held for some eight hours. The Czechs were detained for two days and then released with the warning that if they attended such a meeting again they would be charged with an offense under section 202 of the Penal Code. Section 202 forbids hooliganism in public places; offenses against it are punishable with imprisonment of up to two years.
To explain why the Czech police should regard an Oxford philosopher’s lecture on Aristotle as a manifestation of public hooliganism, we have to trace the story back for some years. Dr. Tomin obtained a doctorate in philosophy at the Charles University in Prague in the mid-Sixties, under the supervision of the internationally respected Professor Jan Patocka. He held a teaching and research post at the university and lectured in America under the auspices of a group engaged in Marxist-Christian dialogue. As a result he was offered a visiting position at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the academic year 1968-1969. His year in Hawaii immediately followed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia: friends in the West urged him to stay, and he was offered a permanent post. But he insisted that he must return to his own country: “You can buy my time,” he said, “but you cannot buy my mind.”
On his return he found the university closed to him, and since then he has held a number of jobs, as a publishers’ reader, as a turbine operator, as a night-watchman at a zoo (this last, he says, was an ideal job, allowing many uninterrupted hours for reading and writing philosophy). He has written a book on Descartes and another on Aristophanes, plus a volume of collected papers on Plato. In January 1977 he and his wife were among the 242 original signers of Charter 77, a manifesto calling for the implementation in practice of the rights granted by the Helsinki pacts which came officially into force in Czechoslovakia in 1976.
In 1977 Tomin started to give unofficial courses in philosophy—held in private houses, but open to all who wished to attend them. One of the purposes of unofficial courses such as these is to offer some form of higher education to young people who have had difficulty in getting university places because of their …