Philosopher Julius Tomin left communist Czechoslovakia for the UK a few years after signing Charter 77. As he explained when we spoke, the Plato expert found it near impossible to find a job in academia in his adopted country. But the second half of our two-part interview begins with his underground seminars in Prague; they led to the creation of the Jan Hus Educational Foundation in Oxford after Mr. Tomin invited leading Western philosophers to deliver clandestine lectures.
“I started seminars for young people who couldn’t get any higher education simply because of their parents’ involvement in the Prague Spring in 1968; the Prague Spring was our attempt to make socialism compatible with basic human freedoms.
“When our seminar had been running for a year the police [cracked down on it]…
“I defended it with a hunger strike.
“Then finally after that hunger strike, which was really great – for example, [the actress Vlasta] Chramostová came to recite to me a monologue from Antigone.
“Also my students came to our flat to do two-day hunger strikes.
“I’ll never forget Petr Uhl, at that time one of the most prominent dissidents, a Trotskyite.
“He was at that time a heavy smoker so he spent the two days of the hunger strike on about 50 cigarettes a day.
“Anyway, after that the police let us be. Then I told my students that I would like to invite academics from English- and German-speaking universities: Oxford, Harvard, Heidelberg and the West Berlin Freie Universität.
“They agreed, so I sent the invitation. It was in May 1978, so it’s just 40 years. That’s why I am here, on account of the anniversary of that invitation, which was momentous.
“It then took almost a year before Oxford sent the first visitor. But in April 1979, Katie Wilkes was the first visitor at my seminar.
“Then the visits were pretty regular and the police decided, OK, this must be destroyed. So the last visitor at my seminar was the master of Balliol [in Oxford], Anthony Kenny.
“In the middle of the lecture the police barged in and took Kenny out and over the border with his wife.
“They took all of us to Bartolomějská, to the police headquarters, and put us in prison for 48 hours.
“Only after I came to Oxford four people who had given lectures at my seminars – Roger Scruton, Katie Wilkes, Alan Montefiore and Bill Newton-Smith – got some money, people collected it, and they created the Jan Hus Foundation then.
“I had already come to Oxford by then.”
I was reading that you travelled to the UK in 1980 and the following year you had your passport removed by the Czechoslovak Embassy. Was that something you had expected, or was it a shock when they did that?
“When I came to Oxford I pretty soon realised that Oxford was not that happy about me being there. There was no place for me.”
“When I came to Oxford I pretty soon realised that Oxford was not that happy about me being there. There was no place for me.
“There was a background to it. Obviously, me inviting Oxford dons was a great opportunity.
“When my seminar was already destroyed for several weeks I tried to keep it going.
“The police always took all those who wanted to go [to the seminar] to the police station and it made no sense.
“The police always summoned me on Wednesdays and I went there.
“I told them, Look, I will stop trying to have my seminars because it makes no sense. But what I would like would be if you gave me five years permission to go to study abroad.
“At that time I had an invitation from Balliol and from Cambridge.
“They said, Mr. Tomin, we’ve never heard of anything like that. If you to emigrate within a week, we guarantee you will have a passport and you can emigrate.
“But I said, I can’t do that. So I came home. My wife was very unhappy and so was [his son] Lukáš, because at that time the pressure to which we were exposed was absolutely horrible. We were absolutely isolated at that time.
“The police made it absolutely clear: Tomin is untouchable.
“But I knew I had done nothing.
“Within three weeks one of my students, Kumermann, came and said, Mr. Tomin, I was summoned to the police station and they are asking when you will ask for five years study abroad.
“Fine, I didn’t do anything.
“Within a week Ivan Dejmal came and said, Mr. Tomin, I was summoned to the police station and they are asking when you at last will apply for the years.
“So I applied. Now, I had the experience from the ‘60s that if you applied for more than six countries, they gave you a permit to go to every country in the world.
“When I got the notice that the passport was ready I came there.
“In the meantime I was visited by a professor from Australia. He dined and wined us at, Hanavský pavilon, one of the most excellent restaurants, above Prague.
“Then he took me to the Prague Hilton, where he was staying, and as we were entering the lift he said, Julius, when you come to Oxford, write to me so I find for you some place in Australia.
“I think his name was David Armstrong. I said, David, what do you know about me? Nothing.
“I was promised two years in Oxford, so I will study real hard and will keep you informed about my progress – and as I see the situation now, if in two years you will think that I could do anything good in Australia, write to me and I will probably be only too happy to go.
“And he said, Julius, it seems there will be a lot of trouble with you in the West.
“So I replied, David, it seems there will be a lot of trouble with me in the West.
“The basic problem is this. When I learnt Greek, I learnt it from German, English and French textbooks.
“I told the police, What I would like would be if you gave me five years permission to go to study abroad.”
“As the textbooks were structured, it was clear to me that all they learned was how to translate Greek into English, French or German – and only when they translated it did they understand it.
“But that had no sense for me.
“I knew that the Greeks must have understood Greek Greek. They didn’t translate it into Hebrew in order to understand it.
“So I understood Greek Greek, which for none of them was thinkable.
“You can imagine that if you are to compete in a discussion – and a discussion among academics is always a kind of competition – and if you understand Greek Greek, it is like if you were in a Mercedes and somebody on a bicycle wanted to race you.
“So they didn’t like that very much. And there was at that time yet another fundamental academic disagreement about Plato’s Dialogues, and so on.”
I hate to jump forward like this, but the clock is running down. Today you’re still living in the UK. This is a very big question, but from that perspective how have you viewed developments here in the Czech Republic since 1989?
“Look. For a long time my view of the situation here was marred by the way in which I was deprived of any possibility to teach, whether in England or here, and live normally as a member of the academic community.
“For a long time my view of the situation here was marred by the way in which I was deprived of any possibility to teach.”
“But when you go around and just see how the country is blossoming…
“To celebrate this anniversary of my writing to Oxford University I wrote several months ago to the head of the [Prague philosophy] department that I would like to present a lecture on Plato. No answer.
“Finally I wrote the lecture and still no answer.
“So I said, OK, it will not only be a celebration but also a protest.