In 1977, Jan Patočka became the unlikely spokesperson of the civil right movement Charter 77, challenging the flagrant disregard of human rights in Czechoslovakia. Forty years later, his ideas have become very relevant in the time of increasing national chauvinism within Europe and elsewhere. For those living through the bewildering chaos of Brexit in the UK his ideas couldn’t be more germane to charting a way out of the crisis.
Patočka was a sceptical philosopher in the Socratic tradition, wishing to challenge ideas. He was opposed to narrow ideology and saw the contradictions of both communism and capitalism as ‘dangerously defective’. He sought to help the formation of better questions to solve problems – a continuous process. For Patočka, truth was important in public life – the philosophy of the polis.
The film Socrates of Prague (Willems, 2017) is short and engaging, intended to stimulate curiosity about Patočka and his ideas, to show not tell. In the film, the journey starts at dawn and draws to a close in the evening. Prague’s a character – the church, the university, the archives and views across the city – the polis. Questions run through the film. How can philosophy contribute to civil society? How does philosophy enter into the broader public consciousness? What does it mean to be in Europe? Not to dwell on the past, but rather to focus on the future of Europe.
Dropping in and out of conversations, with contemporaries of Patočka, between students of different nationalities in cafés, infuses vitality into the film. Patočka emerges as a philosopher who liked libraries, lecturing and peace. Living through two World Wars, the Cold War, the Czech Spring influenced the way he approached Europe – not just as a history but of a way of discovering its future. His former students say his teaching was ‘inspired’ and ‘extraordinary’. Teaching in his home with five or six students, banned from the university, there was always the worry that the secret police would intervene and make arrests. Charter 77 exploded the myth that the communist regime respected the rule of law. Ultimately, it was not the West that won the Cold War, it was ‘the people of the east through human rights and dialogue’.
In the months following the launch of Charter 77 and despite failing health, he Patočka threw himself into a campaign of writing and speaking. The film includes a recording of the philosopher in a meeting with a high ranking official. Listening to him speak is deeply moving, because he was interrogated by the secret police shortly after and a few days later – dead. Patočka, the philosopher, following in the footsteps of Socrates who chose death rather than exile to remain as part of the Polis.
After Patočka’s death there was a fear that the Czech secret service would destroy his writings and manuscripts, so early in 1980s they were successfully smuggled out of the country to Vienna – accessible today in the Patočka Archives in Prague. Archive director and philosopher Ivan Chvatík surreptitiously built a tape recorder from imported parts to secretly record Patočka’s in his apartment. These recordings can also be found in the Archive.
There’s difficulty in getting hold of English versions of Patočka’s work. Fortunately, a single edition of Patočka’s writing in English translation is due to be published in 2020 by Bloomsbury publications. Additionally, there will be a series of academic conferences and seminars in the run up to publication. The first one’s scheduled for Senate House on 7th November 2019.
The film was followed by a lively Q&A session lead by Francesco Tava (Senior Lecturer, University of the West of England) and Nicolas De Warren (Associate Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University).
For the filmSocrates of Praguesee: http://patockamovie.ophen.org/
The Risk of Freedom – Ethics, Phenomenology and Politics in Jan Patocka. By Francesco Tava and Jane Ledlie. See: https://www.rowmaninternational.com/book/the_risk_of_freedom/3-156-af8526d3-3144-4a7a-bdc6-cf600eff4357
Nicolas De Warren’s publications: https://pennstate.pure.elsevier.com/en/persons/nicolas-de-warren
For the planned series of Patočka conferences and seminars contact Graham Henderson, CEO of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation: https://www.rimbaudverlaine.org/en/
The event was organised jointly by the Rimbaud & Verlaine Foundation, the Czech Centre and the University of Westminster.