Wincenty Lutosławski was a philosopher, scholar, publicist, and social activist. He was born on 6th June 1863 in Warsaw, and died on 28th December 1954 in Kraków.
At the end of the 19th century, Lutosławski was the best known Polish philosopher in the world. Having researched Greek texts for years, he established a chronology of Plato’s works in 1897. Up until that time, all of the writings of the Greek philosopher had been treated as one coherent whole. Thanks to the systematisation of the corpus platonicum it turned out that Plato’s thought largely evolved throughout the philosopher’s life. Lutosławski’s work provided the impetus for new research in the field of the history of philosophy.
It was not only the meticulous chronology of Plato’s work that delighted the world, but also the method the young scholar (Lutosławski was only 33 at the time) used. It was called stylometry. Its basic objective was the analysis of the author’s style by counting the number of words, measuring the rhythm of the sentence, and analysing metaphors. Today, the method is used not only in philology, but also in musicology. Both the results of his research and the method used were described by Lutosławski in his work The Origin and Growth of Plato’s Logic, published in London (1897).
The work is one of the most important books in the field of humanities. In the New York Pubic Library the two-volume work by Lutosławski is held in the main reading room, alongside chosen works about ancient Greece. It is hard to imagine 20th-century studies of Plato without Lutosławski’s chronology. The reception of the book, originally published in English, was more vivid abroad than at home. To this day, Lutosławski is better known abroad. In 2015, after the sixtieth anniversary of the philosopher’s death, Cambridge University Press republished his book The Knowledge of Reality (1930).
Lutosławski was born in June 1863 in Warsaw. At the time, Poland was absent from maps of Europe and was partitioned between three countries. In January 1863, an uprising, later called the January Uprising, broke out. After a long fight, the Poles were defeated, and what followed was a difficult time of mourning. Lutosławski’s childhood coincided with one of the most difficult times of Polish history, a period of tragic subjugation.
For 123 years of thralldom, which is the lifespan of roughly five generations, Poles preserved their sense of national identity. It was thanks to figures such as Mickiewicz, Chopin, and Skłodowska-Curie that Poles remembered they were Poles. They thought and spoke in Polish, were proud of their history, and yearned for freedom. Skłodowska-Curie’s famous discovery in 1898 coincided with the publishing of Lutosławski’s breakthrough work in 1897. They both belonged to the so-called January Uprising generation, just like Stefan Żeromski and Józef Piłsudski.
Lutosławski had a serious and personal approach to philosophy. For him, it was not only theory, but also praxis. He treated Plato’s work, which he knew perfectly well, as a source of ethical rules and live according to them. Lutosławski claimed that self-control, gaining knowledge about oneself, and a love for wisdom were the most important things. Fascinated with the sects of Pythagoras (the creator of the word ‘philosophy’), Lutosławski decided to establish similar associations in Kraków. In the main square, people dressed in white garments gathered to talk about Beauty and Goodness, holding Plato’s books in their hands.
The Eleusis association, brought into being by Lutosławski at the beginning of the 20th century, preached the need for asceticism. Refraining from alcohol, tobacco, and gambling, alongside celibacy, was to be the path to personal excellence. Many ancient philosopher, including Socrates, believed asceticism to bring good effects. Limiting the pleasures of the body was supposed to strengthen the soul, and spiritual development was to be possible only through moral cleansing. Lutosławski tried to promote the way that Greek philosophers lived.
Eleusis, aside from spiritual objectives, also had political ones. Lutosławski held that Poles were similar to ancient Greeks – they loved freedom, so they shouldn’t be enslaved by Russia, Prussia and Austria. The philosopher claimed that for the country to become independent, individuals have to become independent first. A man is like the dweller of the cave described by Plato – looking at a wall and seeing only shadows. It is philosophy, understood as a spiritual exercise, that can allow one to break free from the cave.
In partitioned Poland, associations were of crucial importance. Thanks to them Poles could meet and organise. Usually, except for the official objectives that were declared in documents, associations also conducted clandestine activity. For instance, the Sokół association was created to propagate sport, but in reality also trained soldiers in case war broke out. Eleusis association was supposed to educate the future Polish elite.
When Poland re-gained independence in 1918, Wincenty Lutosławski became a professor of metaphysics at Vilnus University. He came across as a gifted scholar, but also a maverick. In the inter-war period, his work was hugely appreciated in Europe and North America. He wrote over 500 publications about philosophy, politics, and spirituality, including the first Polish yoga handbook – Rozwój potęgi woli [editor’s translation: The Development of Willpower]. He is considered to be a pioneer of yoga in Poland. He died in Kraków in 1954, at the age of 91.
Originally written in Polish by Jerzy Ziemacki, April 2017, translated by NS, April 2017.