Against 'Dim & Apocalyptic Heads': The Polish Enlightenment
#language & literature
default, Against 'Dim & Apocalyptic Heads': The Polish Enlightenment, The extraction of the bones of Immanuel Kant, photo: ullstein bild / Getty Images, center, kant_bill_ullstein_gettyimages-541037059.jpg
Dubbed by Norman Davies ‘the heyday of the Polish Enlightenment’, the partition period of the late 18th century is often viewed in light of everything Poland lost or failed to achieve at the time. But a close look on some enlightenment thinkers shows that even the most spectacular failures can bring unexpected positive change. Culture.pl discusses what made the Polish Enlightenment unique, including the world’s first ministry of education.
There is probably no better answer to the question of ‘what is enlightenment?’ than Immanuel Kant’s famous description of the period as ‘man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’. Encouraging his peers not to depend on pre-given ways of thinking and to bravely promote the findings of their own reason, Kant is for many the embodiment of enlightenment ideals. Still, even though his sharp thinking and unrelenting philosophical critiques brought him well-deserved fame even during his lifetime, in Poland he was at first recognised as a bit of a villain.
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It is not that the country was yet to awaken from dogmatic slumber nor that its population vigorously opposed newly popular ideas such as liberty, equality and fraternity. Far from it – by the time Kant’s name started to be spoken at universities and mentioned in letters written by the learned population, enlightenment in Poland was already in full swing. But the fresh philosophical treaties coming straight from Konigsberg were not seen as yet another contribution to an already impressive body of works promoting human progress and development of reason-based science. The leading interpretation of Kant’s work held that he was dangerously likely to just go and ruin everything the fathers of the Polish Enlightenment had worked so hard to achieve.
Critique of pure unreason
The main person responsible for the German philosopher’s bad press in Poland was Jan Śniadecki, one of the most outspoken figures of his time and a professor of philosophy at the University of Vilnius (Śniadecki also served as the University’s rector between 1807 and 1815). Although his treatises on modern German thought span over multiple pages, Śniadecki’s letters are perhaps the best expression of his attitude to the newly emerging philosophical superstars:
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I see Fichte and Kant as fanatical, dim and apocalyptic heads; they are charlatans of a new kind who try to create a breakthrough by banishing the clarity and pure and simple grasp of things from among the scholars.
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Immanuel Kant, Engraving after a painting by Dobler, 1791, photo: Sarin Images / Getty Images
What, other than difficulties with understanding, aggravated the Polish professor so much about the criticised thinkers? Well, that is almost impossible to say, because there is little agreement among historians whether Śniadecki actually read Kant. Although Polish educated elites of the Enlightenment no longer considered Latin to be the only language suitable for scientific deliberation and commonly used Polish, it was still considered somewhat extravagant to read contemporary foreign works written in any language other than French – before that time, Polish philosophy developed relatively independently from Western European influences. Despite his numerous assurances that he was familiar with the thought of the German philosopher, Śniadecki most likely learned about Kant from French-language essays that, to put it mildly, did not do their subject matter justice. Unfortunately, Śniadecki’s interpretation bears many of their influences. Moreover, the Polish scholar did his best to present an even more unfavourable view of the German philosopher and the end result proves to be perhaps the worst possible way for anybody to familiarise themselves with the main arguments of The Critique of Pure Reason:
I always considered Kant’s teachings as Platonism, patched up by Pythagoras’s thought, turned into dogmatism and covered with all the dirt of scholasticism. The first time I read Kant, I understood it to be a satire on human reason and 18th-century science.
Śniadecki’s essays on Kant are rarely more specific, so there should be no surprise that his plan to keep the German philosopher from depraving susceptible Polish minds backfired in the worst way the Vilnius professor could have imagined. Following countless anonymous critiques of Śniadecki (interestingly, at first nobody dared to speak out against him publicly), the interest in the works of the Konisgberg thinker increased immensely – everybody wanted to know what infuriated Śniadecki to such an extent and what could be the reason for the polemics aimed at the esteemed Vilnius professor.
Suddenly, people were writing treatises on modern German philosophy, reading original works, translating essays and engaging in discussions about the merits of Kant’s new ‘Copernican revolution’. Self-proclaimed Kantists, such as Józef Kalasanty Szaniawski and Józef Władysław Bychowiec, became renowned as scholars drawing inspiration directly from the most modern trends in German philosophy. In addition, close connections to the work of post-Kantian philosophers such as Hegel and Schelling became a staple of Polish 19th-century thought.
Unreflective aesthetic judgement
Luckily for us, Śniadecki did not stop at inadvertently guiding future Polish philosophers towards new inspirations and opening the previously hermetic and self-sufficient Polish thought to stimulating intellectual novelties coming from the West. Not having learned much from his attempts to keep brain-rotting German transcendental idealism at bay, some years later Śniadecki became one of the most outspoken critics of yet another cultural phenomenon which turned out to be more than just a passing fad: romanticism. Ridiculing the future national bard Adam Mickiewicz during private gatherings (sometimes in the presence of the poet), and publicly condemning the new romantic ideas as backward thinking and superstition, Śniadecki brought everybody’s attention to the emerging literary superstar, thus facilitating the development of romanticism in Poland not only on an intellectual level (as Polish romantic philosophy would have been very different without German influences), but in literature as well. He even became immortalised in one of Mickiewicz’s early poems, The Romantic. The reason-loving and natural-science-obsessed scholar was ridiculed there as ‘a man with a learned air’ who gets put down with a phrase familiar to any speaker of Polish:
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Czucie i wiara silniej mówi do mnie
Niż mędrca szkiełko i oko.
Faith and love are more discerning
Than lenses or learning.
Translated by W.H. Auden
But while it is tempting to simply criticise Śniadecki, it has to be noted that he engaged in a fight against intellectual innovations not out of spite or bitterness, but because of his genuine care for what the Enlightenment had done for Poland. Śniadecki’s greatest mistake, other than misjudging Mickiewicz’s talent, was to think of Kant as a dogmatist aimed at taking philosophy back to its roots, not moving it forward.
Partly because of the aforementioned French essays which described Kant in comparison with ancient Greek philosophers and partly because of his own cursory interpretation of Kantian categories as knowledge existing without sensory experience (in Kant’s framework, those categories are actually what enables gaining knowledge through experience), Śniadecki saw in the work of the German thinker what he dreaded most: a return of mediaeval scholasticism that could prove disastrous to the pursuit of enlightenment.
Foundations of knowledge
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Hugo Kołłataj, a statue in Jordan Park in Kraków, photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Enlightenment, similarly to other historical periods, started rather late in Poland and unlike in other European countries, the movement was not particularly anti-clerical. In fact, many of the most important Polish Enlightenment thinkers, such as Stanisław Konarski, Hugo Kołłątaj and Stanisław Staszic, were actually Catholic priests and monks. What they criticised was not exactly the Catholic Church in general, but its influence on the education system in the country. Whereas the curriculum of Western European universities was already largely independent from religious doctrines and was concentrated on teaching the newest discoveries in natural sciences, Polish universities at the beginning of the 18th century still followed the mediaeval tradition. Despite some changing trends and new ideas appearing over the years, higher education to a large extent meant studying the Bible and various interpretations of Aristotle, even if many of the claims of this so-called scholastic philosophy had already been refuted by empirical experiments.
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The first challenge to the educational status quo was issued by Konarski, who in 1740 opened a new kind of school, Collegium Nobilium, which aimed at educating noble youth in a modern way, placing particular emphasis on the new ideas in natural sciences and the development of reason in its new, enlightened meaning. The success of Collegium Nobilium was noticed by Stanisław August Poniatowski, who was elected king in 1764. Even though Poniatowski is often criticised as a ruler and blamed for the disappearance of Poland following the partitions, there is no denying that he delivered on his plans to modernise the Polish education system. In 1773, right after the first partition, Poland created the Commission of National Education, the first ministry of education in the world. The reformists were not content with simply creating alternatives to older institutions of higher learning and had longer term goals in mind. Discussing the reasoning behind the reforms, Poniatowski said that ‘if there are still people in two hundred years time who think of themselves as Poles, my work will not have been in vain’. Wishing to improve the upbringing of countless future generations, the commission carried out a fundamental reform of the entire education system (led by Kołłątaj) by increasing education spending, creating a system of state-sponsored schools of all levels, forging a uniform curriculum, and publishing coursebooks written by leading Polish scholars.
But the fathers of the Polish Enlightenment wanted more than to just change the structure of the university. They wrote treaties outlining the problems with the political situation in the country and called for radical change in the social relations within Poland. They believed that the only just organisation of society was one that followed the laws of nature as grasped through the use of reason and empirical experiments. This encouraged them to create bottom-up initiatives aimed at reducing inequalities and promoting ideas such as liberty and fraternity. Notably, Staszic and Kołłątaj, who believed that farming was the only real source of wealth, developed elaborate arguments in favour of improving the situation of the peasants, who were at the time forced to farm the lands belonging to the nobles.
The practical orientation of Polish Enlightenment thinkers led to their greatest accomplishment, the adoption of the first constitution in Europe on 3rd May 1791. Aimed at limiting the authority of nobility, who blocked most earlier attempts at reforming the country, the document not only centralised power, but also gave the bourgeoisie political rights and placed peasants under the protection of the state. Although religious persecution in Poland was at the time not as much of a problem as in Western Europe, the constitution also upheld freedom of religion as a fundamental right.
Following the reasoning
In truth, however, the reforms introduced by the constitution did not make much of a difference and from today’s perspective, its value seems rather symbolic. Not long after it was passed, Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary finalised the partitioning process of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth they had begun in 1773 and by 24 October 1795 Poland ceased to exist for the next 123 years. While the Enlightenment brought new and progressive ideas, the political situation in the country stopped it from reaching its full potential, and at the beginning of the 19th century, the general interest in natural sciences and belief in the power of human reason was perhaps all that was left of the intellectual climate of the partition era. There is no wonder then, that fearing Poland’s return to the obsolete ways of thinking successfully overcome by the great educational reform, Śniadecki did his best to contain what he saw as the greatest threat to what little remained of the achievements of the Enlightenment. Ironically, his failures to preserve Enlightenment reason as the leading principle in Polish intellectual life moved Polish thought in a direction that allowed it to adapt itself to the changing realities of the 19th century and to find its most unique expression in idealist systems created by philosophers such as Bronisław Trentowski and August Cieszkowski and in the romantic literature of Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Cyprian Kamil Norwid.
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history of Poland
Perhaps Kant was right from the very beginning. If the Enlightenment should be understood as ‘man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’, then no wonder Polish thinkers took a turbulent turn and rebelled against intellectual authorities, as is often the case with those growing up. Even though we will never learn what could have been if the partitions never happened and the Enlightenment reforms actually came to life, later generations of Polish intellectuals show that the reformists did not fail. The Enlightenment in Poland saw the successful development of an educational framework that helped bring up unique thinkers who were not afraid to use their own understanding, even if they did so to the horror of their teachers.
So while it is the Polish romantics that are most often credited with preserving the Polish language at a time when Poland no longer existed, they could only do so thanks to the strong educational foundations established during the Enlightenment. In that sense, it seems the thing that kept Poland alive after the partitions grew out of seeds planted by those who failed to save the country from disappearing.
Written by Michał Wieczorek, Oct 2019