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Apartment in Prague

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 parents’ political unreliability. The content of the courses is entirely philosophical: however, many of those who attend them are signers of Charter 77 or are children of notorious dissidents. Though offering such courses is perfectly legal, it is understandable that they should be unpopular with the authorities.

Almost from the beginning, Tomin and those attending his course have been harassed, suffering periods of detention and interrogation. Four students were expelled from technical college on the grounds that they had attended anti-socialist lectures; one was detained for two weeks in a psychiatric institution; many have difficulty in keeping their jobs or getting permission to travel. In October 1979 an attempt was made to have Tomin certified in a psychiatric institution as a paranoid psychopath; to their credit the psychiatrists refused to make any such diagnosis. Earlier that year Tomin’s wife, Zdena Tominova, was brutally attacked by a masked assailant. After the attack police for several months kept a twenty-four-hour watch on the Tomins’ apartment: allegedly to “protect” them from further attacks, but in effect isolating them from all visitors. This harassment, of course, was doubtless due not only to Tomin’s philosophical courses but also to his wife’s activities as a spokesman for the Charter Group during 1979.

In May 1978 Tomin wrote an open letter to four universities—to Harvard, to Heidelberg, the Free University of Berlin, and Oxford. In the letter he described his course, and said something about the harassment it had received. But the purpose of the letter was not to complain but to invite: his group, he said, would welcome a visit from any philosopher who wished to come and share with them the fruits of his or her study and research. It would be difficult to arrange the meetings by normal means of communication, he said; so he concluded, “Allow me to suggest a solution which I consider the most convenient: we meet to study philosophy in my flat every Wednesday at 6 PM, from September to June. You will be most welcome whenever you choose to join us.”

So far as I know, no action was taken at Berlin, Heidelberg, or Harvard as a result of this letter. Even at Oxford the letter was mislaid until January 1979; but when it reached the sub-faculty of philosophy in the spring term it was agreed to send three visitors, one in April and two in June. Since then philosophers have visited from Oxford, London, Canada, West Germany, Norway, and Australia; all the visits have been organized through the sub-faculty of philosophy at Oxford, which has also assisted with travel and book expenses. All the visitors returned enthusiastic about the high standard of philosophical discussion at the seminars, and there is now a long waiting list of philosophers who wish to visit Prague.

As a result of the reports brought back by British philosophers Tomin has been invited to hold visiting lectureships at Balliol College, Oxford, in the Classics Faculty at Cambridge; and in two colleges of London University. He has not so far accepted any of these invitations. Perhaps he is unwilling to apply to leave Czechoslovakia until he feels sure that he will be able to return and continue his work there.

Until last month there had been comparatively little harassment of philosophy lectures from abroad: most were allowed to deliver their lectures, continue discussion with Tomin and his students, and leave the country in the normal way. But on Saturday, March 8, Dr. William Newton-Smith, the senior tutor of Balliol College, was reading a paper to Tomin’s students on the rationality of science when the meeting was broken up, fifteen minutes after it had begun, by fourteen policemen. Newton-Smith was interrogated for two and a half hours at police headquarters; he was told that he must tell all his colleagues that nobody must attempt to write, telephone, or meet Tomin, whom they described as “an enemy of the State.” In the middle of the night the police took Newton-Smith to the West German frontier and deported him over the border. None of the students attending the meeting was arrested, and after Newton-Smith was removed Tomin took his own copy of the paper and finished translating it for the group.

On March 12 about twenty-four people attended the next meeting of Tomin’s group to hear a lecture on the phenomenology of meaning by Radim Palous, who until he signed Charter 77 was a professor at the Charles University. Again a dozen police came, dispersed the meeting quietly, and searched, interrogated, and deported the one foreigner present, Mr. Angus Cargill, a British student.

As the head of the Oxford College to which Dr. Newton-Smith belonged I sent a letter of protest to the Czech embassy in London as soon as I heard of his deportation. The letter remained unanswered so I visited the embassy in Kensington in person to seek an explanation of an episode which seemed to be in violation of a number of international agreements.

The minister, Dr. Telicka, received me courteously, and explained that police officers sometimes caused inconvenience to tourists by overzealous performance of their duties. In this case, however, he suggested, Newton-Smith had behaved improperly by giving a lecture when traveling on a tourist visa. I replied that the giving of unpaid, informal lectures was universally accepted, in all countries that I had visited, as an activity that called for no special visa. Dr. Telicka suggested that the real content of Newton-Smith’s lecture had been different from that he had handed to the police on his departure. I knew this to be false. And I wondered how in any case Dr. Telicka thought he knew the content of the lecture as given, since the police did not allow it to continue after their arrival.

Next Dr. Telicka suggested that it was illegal to lecture outside the provisions for formal cultural exchanges between our two countries. He was unable to provide any support for this contention, and I have since learned that his interpretation is contrary to the Helsinki accords. He claimed that Newton-Smith had misbehaved by associating with an illegal group. I asked what law Tomin’s group was breaking. He replied, reasonably enough, that he did not carry all his country’s laws in his head; but neither then nor in answer to a subsequent letter was he able to specify anything illegal in the conduct either of Tomin or of Newton-Smith. I told him that I was particularly anxious to know the legal situation, as other philosophers from Oxford would wish to visit the Prague group and would want to know how they stood.

As it happened, it was my own turn, in accordance with arrangements made some months earlier, to give the next lecture, in April. For some time it looked uncertain whether Tomin’s group would be able to hold their normal meetings in April. On the evening of March 19, the same day as my interview with the minister at the embassy, eight people were arrested during a lecture by Palous on “The Meaning of Meaning.” The meeting was broken up very roughly, and the eight were held for forty-eight hours, the maximum period for which detention is possible without charges pressed. On the next Wednesday, March 26, police guarded the apartment during a lecture on Aristotle, but did not intervene. On Wednesday, April 3, Tomin was taken off for three hours’ interrogation during the lecture and dumped on a heap of coal outside the police headquarters; he dusted himself off and went home to complete his lecture on Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

Once again, on Wednesday, April 10, Tomin was taken off to be detained for forty-eight hours. This meant that my wife and I were due to arrive in Prague for me to give my seminar less than twenty-four hours after his release. We telephoned from Oxford to check that our visit would still be welcome. Of course, said Mrs. Tomin: she would meet us herself at the airport, carrying a copy of my book Action, Emotion and Will so that we would be able to recognize her. She sounded cheerful, efficient, and hospitable.

Since the Czech authorities were by then very well informed of Balliol’s interest in Tomin, and since indeed the English Communist paper Morning Star, which is read in Prague, had actually published my name as the next visitor to the group, my wife and I kept wondering, as we flew to Prague on a Czech Tupolev airliner, whether we would not be turned back at the airport. But to our surprise we were passed swiftly through customs and immigration and were able to greet Mrs. Tomin according to plan. She helped us to check in at the Park Hotel and then took us off in a taxi to start a lightning tour of Prague. “I hope you will have time to visit all these beautiful buildings at leisure on Sunday and Monday,” she said, “but one cannot be sure, and if you had to leave early it would be a great pity never to have seen them at all.”

So we joined the crowd of tourists to watch the fabulous clock strike the hour in the Old Town Square, and we walked around the cathedral and through the castle courts. We were particularly moved to see the monument to Jan Hus, the Czech patriot burned for heresy in 1415; for Hus had been a disciple of an earlier master of Balliol, John Wycliffe. The Balliol-Bohemia connection, we told each other, went back quite a while.

After a snack of Moravian ham and Pilsner beer we went to the Tomin’s apartment a few minutes before seven, when the seminar was due to begin. During the few minutes I had with Tomin before the company arrived, I found him not at all keen to talk about his recent imprisonment: he was much more anxious to clear up a few points about the seminar I was to give. My topic was to be a comparison between the two major treatises on moral philosophy left behind by Aristotle: the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemean Ethics. Tomin knew the Nicomachean Ethics well, but he was unfamiliar with some of the passages I wished to discuss from the Eudemean treatise, and he wanted to make quite sure of the translation.

Gradually the company assembled: everyone was elated that there was no sign of the police, and the general opinion was that for once we were likely to be left in peace. Tomin looked tired, as well he might, but he was obviously looking forward to the evening’s philosophizing. Twenty or so people arrived, of various ages, and we began to discuss and compare the Aristotelian texts. One striking difference between the two treatises is that the Nicomachean one sees philosophy as the core and essence of the ideal life of man, whereas the Eudemean one regards philosophy as only one among a number of components of the truly happy life. To me the Eudemean view seemed clearly more sensible; but I felt that Tomin had a great deal more sympathy with the Nicomachean view. He read with great emphasis the passage in which Aristotle argues that philosophy is the best life, because it is the life which is hardest to take away. Other noble callings demand money, power, and friends; philosophy is something you can pursue even if you lose your wealth and lack support from others. It was just after this that the police arrived and broke up the meeting.

Identity cards were demanded from the Czechs. The police interpreter walked straight to me and said, “Mr. Kenny, you must come with us”; so in spite of our easy treatment at the airport they had been expecting us after all. Besides my wife and myself there was one other foreigner present, a French mathematics teacher; we three were escorted downstairs to the waiting police cars. (For a while I thought the Frenchman was one of the secret police, and responded rather frostily to his friendly overtures as we were marched down.) We did not see our Czech friends again, but we learned later that all but two were taken just after us to the same police headquarters, the Bartolomejska.

After being held for an hour, I was interrogated for an hour and a half. In general, the interrogation was a repeat of the interview I had had at the Czech embassy in London. Why had I lectured on a tourist visa? Did I not know I was consorting with criminals? Did I realize I was damaging relations between Britain and Czechoslovakia?

The question I most welcomed was “What have you been lecturing on?” It did not take me long to warm to my theme. “The relationship between the Nicomachean and the Eudemean Ethics is one of the most interesting problems of classical philosophy. Most scholars rate the Nicomachean Ethics above the Eudemean Ethics, but I believe they are mistaken, as I have argued in my book The Aristotelian Ethics. Moreover there are interesting anomalies in the manuscript tradition….” The secret policemen smothered their boredom for seven or eight minutes. Then one tapped on the table. “We are honored,” he said, “that you should choose Prague to present the results of your scholarly researches. But we wish you had chosen to present them to the Academy of Sciences rather than to a group of criminals.”

After the interrogation I was invited to sign a rather partial record of our exchanges. Above my signature I wrote, “I do not understand Czech. As translated to me this record stands in need of correction.” I was then removed to a small room facing a shrine of Lenin to wile away the time while my wife and the French teacher were interrogated. Later I was taken back to the Park Hotel to pack our bags. On return to the Bartolomejska I was reunited with my wife, and we waited until after three o’clock in the morning for the police car to drive us the three-hour journey to the German border. We then returned by slow stages to Oxford.

Meanwhile, Tomin continued to lecture on Aristotle—carrying on where I had left off—at the police station. He and his friends were released after the regulation forty-eight hours, and told that if they attended such meetings again they would be charged with hooliganism. Aristotle, who was a very correct and discreet philosopher, would have been amused at this description of the effect of reading his works. But the Tomins and their friends are used to this kind of harassment, and I doubt if the philosophy courses will come to an end.

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