The Philomaths: A Secret Society To The Rescue Of A Country
default, 1200px-zeslanie_studentow_-_malczewski.jpg, Students' Exile: Polish students are exiled to Siberia. Painting by Jacek Malczewski, 1891, photo: Wikicommons
#language & literature
Imagine your country disappeared from the map. Imagine it was suddenly usurped and divided by the monarchical countries next door. What would you do?
Well, first you would probably want to figure out why. That’s exactly what a group of Polish young students did at the beginning of the 19th century. It all started when Vilnius became the home of one of the most important universities in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Once upon a time in Vilnius
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Even though the city was now subjugated to the Russian empire, the Imperial University of Vilnius enjoyed a great period of freedom and development. This was all thanks to the relationship that the institution’s curator, Adam Jerzy Czartoryjski, had with the Russian Tsar Alexander I. Unlike other institutions in the region at that time, the dominant ideas amongst scholars here were influenced by liberalism and the Enlightenment.
In 1805, some young ambitious students founded a research group, something that would last far longer than their time in higher education. The group was associated with history professor Joachim Lelewel, who in 1808 would give it a name: ‘the Philomath Society’.
The society gathered to read scientific and literary texts in a very systematic way. The members agreed to present a new solid and innovative work each month in their own field and explain it to the others using clear and simplified language. After some years, the society had to be divided in two groups: the literary one, and the mathematical and physics one.
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All of the initial members had different personalities and interests. Founder Tomasz Zan studied physics and mathematics, Jóźef Jezowski was fond of philosophy and philology, Franciszek Malewski attended lectures about law, while Adam Mickiewicz translated mostly modern literature and history. Jóźef Kowalewski was completely submerged in Latin and Greek. All of them were admirers of Lelewel, who always had his lectures packed.
In 1817, the poets Mickiewicz and Zan took this loose group and made it into a concrete reality by setting out a serious list of rules. They were making up their own small but very well organised youth republic with its own constitution. The small republic was supposed to be the antecedent of something major: the revival of the republic of Poland.
Fuelled by competing ideologies
Philomaths and Philarets: Tomasz Zan, Ignacy Domejko, Adam Mickiewicz, Antoni Edward Odyniec, Jan Czeczot, picture produced in 1899, photo: Wikipedia
What cannot be denied from looking back at their behaviour is that one of their goals was to make sense of the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But this was almost unconscious. What they declared they wanted was to improve and promote science and citizenship in Poland, and most importantly bring their country back to the map of Europe.
Secret freedom-fighter groups and revolutionaries willing to fight monarchies were not isolated to Poland. The beginning of the 19th century experienced a strong wave of traditionalism all over Europe that came along with the rise of secret groups.
The traditionalism experienced further west at that period, and promoted, amongst others, by Joseph de Maistre was a move against the results and freedoms of the French Revolution. The case of Poland was, however, a little different and took from both stances. Not only was Poland influenced by the French stand for independence, but the partitioning of Poland, which broke the continuity of Polish history, also triggered a move towards historicism and traditionalism in a different manner.
During this century, Europeans were going back to their origins. The systematic process of bringing literacy to the population marked an end to the oral tradition, but also a return to legends, tales and songs through written texts. There were now people ready to extend their horizons with books and written media. Nevertheless, this did not exempt them from being vulnerable to propaganda.
Identity through language
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Young music fans sit on the monument of Adam Mickiewicz during a hip-hop concert, Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, photo: Krzysztof Kuczyk/FORUM
The Philomaths were concerned about protecting the Polish identity. They started writing down and recording their oral tradition, paying a lot of respect to the folklore and the most simple things in Polish culture. This involved, as much as possible, an emphasis on the Polish language itself. The Philomaths regarded their mother tongue as the main bridge between historical and contemporary Poland.
Literary historian Alina Witkowska describes in her book Rówieśnicy Mickiewicza (The Contemporaries of Mickiewicz) that the Polish language was seen as an ‘unconquered fortification of Polish identity’. An example of this comes from the contemporary poet Franciszek Morawski, who wrote:
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As long as foreign dialects
do not enter Polish homes,
our doorstep stays unblemished and
Poland remains unconquered.
Translated by the editor
The Philomaths saw the way Mickiewicz used language as a tool of patriotic agitation. Those 32 letters were a national symbol. Writers would implement Polish archaisms in their literary texts; they used them to glorify the individual identity of the Polish nation. For example, they would use the old word zwierciadło instead of lustro when referring to a mirror.
Mickiewicz would use this so-called staropolszczyzna (Old Polish) because that was the vocabulary of the szlachta (nobility) in the area he came from near Vilnius. Polish speakers from there were rather a privileged part of society, and people saw them as representatives of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s old glories.
‘Napoleon gave us the example…’
As noted earlier, the French Revolution was an important event that triggered the emergence of nationalism in Poland. There was no doubt among educated people about the leading role of the revolution and France itself.
Not only does the current Polish anthem shows admiration for Napoleon by mentioning him as a example to be followed, but Adam Mickiewicz himself, one of the most enigmatic members of the Philomaths, often signed his letters as ‘Napoleon from Nowogrodek’.
All of this came along with a strong love for historicism. It was somehow logical that most of the students were interested in Poland and had an obsession with trying to understand the reasons it disappeared from the map. But each time a student tried to see the history of Poland isolated from the world, the previously-mentioned Lelewel would silence them. The great historian would insist on a ‘need for a thorough knowledge of history’, as without a universal overview, people would never understand any corner of Europe.
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What this thoroughness depends on [is that] (…) there will always be a infinite range of news to learn for the historian. (...) He is supposed to discuss all the intellectual work of the human race. For that reason, he has to constantly issue and study judgments and recent discoveries in philosophy, mathematics, philology, astronomy and chemistry. The more aware he will be in these sciences, the more confident his voice will be.
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Writing about himself in third person, Lelewel explains in his memoirs that ‘one passion reigns in him, indignation and anger for falsehood and impropriety’. He demolished any ideas of a utopian Philomathic society by teaching students that the directions pulling at the world were rather out of their hands.
The beginning of a secret adventure
The Basilian Gate of the Church and monastery of the Holy Trinity, Vilnius, 1930s, unknown photographer, photo: Wydawnictwo RM
‘At the beginning, we gathered together with literary aims,’ wrote Mickiewicz. Their goal was simply to learn from each other with feedback and advice keeping a rigorous scientific approach. Having their own law was the key to prevailing, just as a republic might have. Mickiewicz wrote:
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The law has to be preserved. What are the resources to achieve that? Inculcate respect towards law, and punish wrongdoings.
Due to the obsession for bringing Poland back to the map, the ‘republic of youth’, as they were also known, saw itself as an example for the whole nation: a nation built upon respect, friendship and understanding.
These educated groups had an admiration for the republican system. For Mickiewicz, governing a republic paradoxically meant that power should lie within everybody, while having a government that leads it.
In his opinion, not every member of the republic of youth could know every secret, taking into particular account the political context that forced the Philomaths to remain a secret group. Any wrong move could end up uncovering their attempt to free Poland from the occupying monarchies.
Once a Philomath, always a Philomath
Being part of the Philomath society also entailed accepting the rules of membership. Once somebody was in, they had to agree they would be a Philomath for the rest of their lives.
According to the rules from October 1817, the first aim of the society was to learn from each other and give advice on writing and science. The second aim was to retain modesty, openness, a sincere intention to help, and most importantly, trust among the members who were supposed to treat and consider each other as friends.
Everybody had to be treated equally in this ‘republic of youth’. Neither age, money nor talent made a difference among Philomaths. Many of them came to Vilnius from other faraway cities and the group became almost a substitute family.
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It was becoming clear to them that their internal work was insufficient. Their secret discussions had to take place outside of the group as well, to spread what they had learned and have an impact on society. After all, one of their main missions was to promote liberal foundations and encourage the population to become involved in the national cause.
In order to achieve this latter ambition, they had to understand themselves as individuals first. This idea was inspired by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed history, if correctly taught, was the best source of knowledge about human beings.
Mickiewicz said that a person who did not know the consequences of human nature just had to take a look at Rome:
It took it around five centuries to govern itself internally, something that three parts of the world achieved in 200 years (…) Dear friends! We have already lived through these 500 years, we already have a constitution. Let us remember that the time when the internal rules are over is crucial for every nation and society of their epoch.
The philomaths are here to stay
The building in Vilnius where Adam Mickiewicz, Ignacy Domeyko and other Philomaths were imprisoned during their trials, photo: Krzysztof Tadej/FOTONOVA
Although the secret group did not last long, their ideas were preserved. The Philomaths were caught in 1823 by Nikolay Novosiltsev, curator of the so-called Vilna Governorate, a Russian administrative subdivision created after the partition of Poland.
Novosiltsev was an ardent supporter of russification policies in his governorate and persecuted any pro-Polish activity. What had unmasked the spread of revolutionary ideas in Vilnius was a blackboard written on by a secondary school pupil. Reported by the Russian language teacher, the chalk text left on its surface praised the Polish constitution.
The find prompted a hunt for and persecution of secret societies, and many people were detained after just a few days. After months of trials, many professors were dismissed, while members of the Philomaths were imprisoned and exiled to Siberia. Over a hundred people were convicted of membership as well as to other similar organisations.
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Zan was singled out as the founder of the Philomaths and faced the responsibility. He got the most severe conditions during the trials and was sent to Russia. Some exiled members made it as far as Latin America, as was the case with Ignacy Domeyko.
Mickiewicz described some of his experience with the Philomaths in the third part of his book Forefathers’ Eve. Almost a decade after the trials, he published Pan Tadeusz, a book written during his emigration that brims with the yearning feelings of a Pole whose country has been usurped. Today it is considered one of the most important epic poems in Polish literature. There is no Pole today who does not know the opening words of this work:
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Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health;
How much you must be valued, will only discover
The one who has lost you.
Opening lines of Pan Tadeusz, translated by Katie Busch-Sorensen
19th century history
19th century literature
It’s difficult to say what the exact influence of the Philomaths was in bringing Poland back. But one thing is sure: the society had a huge influence on Mickiewicz’s literature, which became a great inspiration that gave hope to people and helped them continue to fight for a free Poland.
Written by Alexis Angulo, Dec 2017