If you ever were into discussion forums, you may’ve seen one of these massive monster threads. They can run for hundreds of pages. Few sane persons, at least having obligations in their lives, would try to read such a thread in its entirety.
Yet the aim of this blog is something similar. Even worse. I want to read the whole discussion on the political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth–The Old Republic–up to 1795, when it ceased to exist as an independent nation. It’s undeniably crazy, perhaps undoable, and professional historians would kill me with an axe for a thought of a thought like this. Yet here we are, starting digging.
In fact, we will be doing something else that academic historians generally don’t do. We’ll be taking seriously people from the past, as they speak and disagree. They discuss out on the open, without leaving it to a supreme power, topics like preservation of their freedom; building a state potent enough to defend it; coexistence of conflicting religions and beliefs; and how people don’t want to give up their political and economic priviledge even if it kills them. And many others. Some of those you may find still relevant, but I won’t be forcing parallels too hard: it would be boring. Anyway, it’s fine if you’ll stay with us just for something mildly entertaining or amusing.
Refer to The Master List to learn what, specifically, I will be reading.
I’m aware of potential objections to the premise of this blog. Some people will say, Poland was sure fine republic for noblemen, but their serfs lived in slave-like conditions. Others will say that (ethnic) Poles threatened cultural identities of different ethnic groups. Yet someone else–that look, the Commonwealth eventually failed and got devoured by the neighboring monarchies. Doesn’t that suggest fundamental flaws in everything that happened before?
Listed above are statements which do have some substance to them. I’d very much like to have a number of readers willing to advocate views focused on the sins and vices of the Republic. I’ll probably touch upon such issues all the time. Actually, it’s the mixture of goodness and flaws that makes the matter interesting.
Now, allow me to use the word ‘Poland’ as a shorthand for “Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including Prussia, a big part of Ruthenia, and many different things”. It’s how people centuries ago used to refer to this country, meaning the political nation; please don’t read ethnic nationalism into it. The phrase “Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth” itself contains long words, was devised by modern historians, and thus sounds kind of lame. “The Republic of Both Nations”, or just “The Republic”, is how we call it in our part of Europe. But then this name is a little cryptic if you don’t know its background. Finally, “The Old Republic” is just a phrase I came up with for the title of my blog.
Why did I include Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine in the site description, and not Belarus etc. Because these were, even if for a short time in the case of Ukraine, independent parts of the Republic. This description is already long as it is.
You may ask, why for something that consisted of Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania we use the term ‘republic’. Well, for one thing, the notion of republic used to be looser. Intellectuals from reasonably civilized monarchies, ones that were at least governed by law, called them ‘republics’ as well; mainly because of classical Rome snobbery (Poland was also heavy on this). But most importantly, Poland was a republic by more familiar definition, since the citizens each time elected freely their king–grand duke, and various individuals managed to get elected. So there was no hereditary official in the whole country–well, if you don’t count fief duchies–and everything ultimately depended on the electorate.
If I were to call a precedent and compare my enterprise to something, I would probably think–with all due modesty on my part–about the Niccolo Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (written around 1513-1519). Machiavelli takes on here the history of Rome, as it was told by Titus Livy in 1st century BC, but really looks for answers to more general questions about setting up a republican state.
It was a problem that deeply concerned the man who is best known for his, well, Machiavellan observations of political practice. These are famously expressed in The Prince (written around the same time as Discourses). The actual political beliefs of Machiavelli were democratic. By the way, this is perhaps the reason why he was able to flatly describe how despotic rule works, in a manner impossible for any delusional apologist.
In the last, brief period of freedom in the Republic of Florence, 1498-1512, Machiavelli was one of its important magistrates and statesmen. It was in between the quasi-rule of hypnotic monk Savonarola (burnt at stake after being excommunicated by the Pope) and the return of Medicis, once a wealthy banker clan, which since 1430s turned republican Florence into their hereditary duchy.
The history of this democratic flashback was a sad one. Florentine republic was able to withstand hostility of more powerful entities, such as the Papal State and Kingdom of Naples, only because of the French–who came to rearrange the political map of Italy, but for their own interests. The people of Florence did try to protect itself by electing a “gonfaloniere for life”, Piero Soderini, to ensure some stability. Supported by Machiavelli, he instituted a standing army of citizens, instead of mercenaries. The Republic managed to recapture Pisa, which rebelled in 1494, but then was herself reconquered by Medicis and forsaken by France. These events resemble, in some respects, how the last frantic years of the Old Republic went.
After the defeat, Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured, and then put into rural confinement. Here he wrote his most important works. They were to be practical handbooks for politicians, depending of which path they would choose: lawful, republican–or autocratic.
And yet nearly all men, deceived by a false good and a false glory, allow themselves voluntarily or ignorantly to be drawn towards those who deserve more blame than praise. Such as by the establishment of a republic or kingdom could earn eternal glory for themselves incline to tyranny, without perceiving how much glory, how much honor, security, satisfaction, and tranquillity of mind, they forfeit; and what infamy, disgrace, blame, danger, and disquietude they incur. And it is impossible that those who have lived as private citizens in a republic, or those who by fortune or courage have risen to be princes of the same, if they were to read history and take the records of antiquity for example, should not prefer Scipio to Cæsar…
~ from the “Discourses on Livy” (transl. by Henry Neville)
The main source for his study in Discourses on Livy was of course Rome, but he also considered the history of Athens and Sparta, and his own observations of Florence and other Italian city-states. From this material Machiavelli derived lessons for how to balance the power of the republican institutions, and how to run a country to secure it from foreign invasions and tiranny.
Were his efforts anachronistic, in comparing the ancient and the (for him) modern times? Partly yes, especially from our position of developed science, very much afraid of so-called presentism. But I would agree with Machiavelli that, in the most basic level, the dynamics of politics persist. And things that are right in one moment of time, often are right in other times as well.
Today the principle of democracy is recognized, at least verbally, in the whole Western world. It wasn’t always this way; and sadly, there is no “historical law” that would unevitably prevent us from a return of despotism.
There are ideas which condone autocracy, even while admitting that republics are good for “some” time and “some” people. One is the good old passivist traditionalism and don’t-touchism. The other, more modern, states that some eggs need to be broken in order to advance the history forward. In its most egregious forms these beliefs lead to the conclusion that in some cultures, periods and parts of the world, you just can’t demand your rights to be respected. In reality, it’s just a justification for oppression and violence.
Keep in mind that even in Russia, in the 15th century (so before Poland–whose throne was still *de facto* hereditary at the time), existed full-fledged, legitimate republics: city-states of Pskov and Novgorod, the latter being a major trading nation on European scale. It just so occured that in 1478 the grand duke of Moscow, Ivan III–called the Great–massacred and destroyed (both literally) the city of Novgorod, so such thing would not happen again.
We should allow ourselves to judge the people from the past on the basis of what was imaginable for them. For example, we can rightly criticize the pre-1795 Poland for mistreating peasants, because citizens were sure capable of discussing this issue. They even were making promises and exhortations; although for many (mostly bad) reasons failed to deliver. But then the idea of suffrage of women was for a long time alien to the societies anywhere in the world, maybe apart from some isolated ones. So the Polish women were engaging in various economic (most often as widows) and military activities, occasionally partaking in fighting Tatars, Turks and Cossack uprisings. But we don’t have a solid basis for bashing the Republic of Both Nations for not allowing them to vote. (At least in the ethnic Poland, they exercise this right from 1918, just when the independent nation resurfaced.)
This long digression aside. I think there two reasons which jointly justify studying Polish history, even without the heritage motivation which is, anyway, mainly relevant for present day Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Germans from former Prussia. The first is that the Old Republic was indeed the one biggest attempt to build a republican state between the institution of Roman Empire and American Revolution, certainly in terms of territory–being even the largest European country for a time–but also respectable in terms of longevity (surpassed by Venice and Switzerland, for example) and historical material produced. The second reason is the spectacular, undeniable failure of this state. At the end of 18th century, it was unable to defend itself from the partitions by Russia, Prussia and Austria, eventually getting destroyed in 1795.
(Said final debacle makes reading history books for many Poles (Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz described this) a cringeworthy and trashing experience. The question is, why these people blown everything? Well, various answers were produced, and anything you can think of, every possible criticism was raised at some point. Political regimes, indigenous and foreign, each having its own narrative, lectured and chastised the people, so it wouldn’t repeat the “sins of their fathers”–the main one being anarchy. Nowadays it starts to be sort of boring, when every anti-government opposition in Poland gets to be compared for example to the Targowica confederates (bunch of misguided, corrupt and not very bright magnates who called Russia to intervene in 1792; curiously not unlike the fellows who drawn the Dutch intervention to England in 1688, which is otherwise known as the Glorious Revolution) or some other infamous persons. So this blog will keep a no-advice-for-Poles policy).
We live currently in a time when the far right accuses the left of making the values and nations decline; and the left accuses the right for paving a way to fascism. So maybe it is interesting to examine an example of a big, old democracy that actually collapsed.
The aftermath, fallout and hangover
I can’t really talk about the Republic without venturing, for this one time, beyond the year 1795. On that matter there is a lot of cheap mythologies, shame and resentment–not to mention hate–but, obviously, you can’t argue with hate. This made me question, do I really want to step into this jungle. But perhaps somebody should. And maybe, on the other side, something interesting will be found.
Immediately after the fall of Poland, there was a lot of weeping and dark pessimism. Classicaly inclined people thought of how Troy and Rome were destroyed. In the burning wastelands, being ravaged by soldiers of triumphant empires, there was no more hope or shelter, life or future.
But really, soon a majority employed what a historian Jarosław Czubaty calls “two consciousnesses”. They still cultivated tradition in their homes, but were mostly fine with the new governments. (This was possible until being a Pole alone started to be sort of an offense in Russia and Germany.) Still, there were folks of warmer blood, who led the nation to fight, most famously on the November and January Uprisings. In the general 1800s-European opposition against dark reaction and despotism, the Polish banner waved high.
Eventually, most of the nations involved in the Republic decided to erase this chapter of their history, and that it’s all ethnic Poles’ fault. The “proper” Poland itself of course liked the soothing stories of the glory long gone, but the details were getting increasingly inconvenient and forgettable.
In the late 19th century gained traction this view, that the cure for many bad laws and economic degeneration, leading to the defenselessness of this republic, should’ve been an absolute monarchy. Because as a rule, free countries lose. (Like you know, look at the history. First Greece got conquered by Persians; and then goes on this streak of republican Rome, Switzerland, revolutionary France and the US getting wrecked by glorious monarchies.) In all fairness, there was some (sort of) legitimate sources of that reasoning, one being Hegelian/”Darwinian”/evolutionary vision of history, and another–the fact that indeed the conquerors and later rulers of the Old Republic were illiberal states.
Of course, in the most honest and coherent version, held by historian Michał Bobrzyński (1849-1935), this thought was too unpleasant to be widely adopted by Poles, who wanted to always feel good about their country. Which is most important, in the books of Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916)–a massively popular author of light historical novels, and a Nobel Prize laureate (no kidding)–the good characters always blindly worship the king–and the bad ones are easily recognized by not-enough-Catholic, not-enough-ethnic-Polish characteristics. (By the way, I’m ethnic Polish and on (relatively) good terms with Catholics: just stupidity and exclusivism is what I reject.) That narrow-minded vision that Sienkiewicz created for his readers influences, to this very day, the political mindset of modern Poland.
It’s a little sad that today, in the Republic of Poland, all that remains is some naming conventions–five or six words, like ‘Sejm’ and ‘poseł’ (envoy) for a member of parliament–and maybe memory of three military events (Grunwald and Vienna; the occupation of Moscow is a little un-PC, but sounds cool to the right). There are yet groups who take a superficially “Sarmatian” mental imagery, and use it to promote a vision of a country with unrestrained government, forcing uniformity in religion etc. Interestingly, it’s exactly the position which they ancestors opposed the most, dying in civil wars and going mad to prevent from taking over.
Still, I’m not quick to judge people who take dumb positions. It is true that in the modern history, Poles used to be beaten, outlawed, subjugated, murdered, vilified, and betrayed on numerous occasions. Which not to say that other nations were not, but Poles really often confronted their fate head-on and were getting crashed. Imagine that you, as a person, were all of this (maybe without being murdered in that case). You would, with a high probability, develop some strange mental qualities. But what you should do, is move on and build the future.
I like to think about the Old Republic as a country much more chilled, free of tragedy and trauma; not seeking external validation, either by self-loathing or fighting over the last little thing about her; and quite respectable, despite all shortcomings, which prevented her from unfolding the whole potential. The most important thing is, for roughly 400 years the people there were free and self-governing. Not all the people, but the first crucial step, rejecting the notion that, paraphrasing Immanuel Kant–we are born into immaturity which cannot be emerged from (the eternal autocrat’s argument), was done. If everything would fail in my undertaking, I think I’ll at least showcase the strength of this conviction.
Shiny things that will follow
Initially I thought of starting this blog when I was reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772). It is, I think, a fascinating application of his abstract idea of social contract to the concrete, historically established reality of this state. But I already kind-of-knew, from the classes on my university for example, that these three or four centuries of dense political life produced lots of writing, opinion pieces, and various partisan propaganda here in Poland.
The one thing I was a little anxious about is that this would all be mainly reasonable people, with whom I’ll be able only to agree, even if only on generalities. Yes, I hear how stupid and naive it sounds, but remember how one-sided is our perception of history. Despite of these fears, I started compiling my list of books, and refreshing my knowledge.
Oh boy. So yeah. There will be a portion of crackpots, fanatics and dubious figures, next to those brilliant fellows that I approve of. And many in between. I will generally let you know which I think are which, keeping in mind that the classification is to some extent debatable.
In the earliest 1500s, we have young Stanisław Dąbrówka, Master of Arts from the University of Cracow, who decides to explain optimal politics by means of an astrological scheme (A Treaty, Deriving New Principles from [Aristotle’s] “Politics”, 1501). So the king is, according to Dąbrówka, like the Sun, the most distinguished among the planets. (We still live in a geocentric universe, Copernicus is twenty-eight and holds a clerical office on the other side of the country.) The proper relations between the monarch and his subjects are supposed to mirror the arrangement of celestial bodies, angelic choirs, spheres and elements.
This esoteric line of thinking seems to catch on among certain minds. Fifty years later Stanisław Orzechowski publishes his books. He is regarded as one of the most important Polish Renaissance thinkers, at least in politics, and advocates something like, well, a radical libertarian theocracy. However that sounds. His works were actually printed and read, and contain illustrations with complex eerie symbolism. Orzechowski was a Catholic priest and staunch believer–although he disliked the concept of celibate–had a wife and a handful of children, causing powerless aggravation of his superiors. Somehow the later generations saw in him a major early ideologue of the Golden Liberty. (The Golden Liberty was a popular slogan, essentially referring to the way in which this country was ran).
Let’s leave the rest of the Polish authors for now. I only have to acknowledge that we will be talking about Dembołęcki at some point. Such a terrific, tasty… exquisite, yeah… thinker he was. And I guess, a great mercenary as well (and apparently, even a Baroque composer).
There were foreigners, too, who wrote something interesting about the politics of Poland. I already mentioned Rousseau, but earlier there was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. You may’ve heard of him as of one of the most important German philosophers and mathematicians, a big contributor to the calculus and mathematical analysis, and inventor of ‘monads’ and ‘possible worlds’. He also wrote 350 pages long endorsement for the election of 1668, A Specimen of Political Proofs. He was trying to prove, by flawless logic and scientific method, that an obscure German duke–who happened to be Leibniz’s patron–should be the king. (By the way, science lost to the popularity of Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki, who was elected because of his deceased father’s involvement in the war with Cossacks). Leibniz’s Specimen is, I have to admit, one of the strangest entries on my list. It’s clearly ingenious and surprisingly well-informed.
Some of the foreign descriptions of Poland are fruits of espionage. We will begin by reading A Relation of the State of Polonia and the United Provinces of that Crowne (1598), most probably by sir John Peyton, an agent of Her Majesty Elizabeth of England. It’s also possible that we will discuss reports of Venetian ambassadors and fragments of the diary of Chevalier d’Éon, a French spy from the 18th century.
Things of personal nature
By writing in English, I’m hoping to improve my writing in Polish. I see I’m often getting derailed by perfectionism and digressing, trying to cover everything and flawlessly. I wanted to be a writer in high school, and it kinda scarred me for life. Writing anything for the university is a particularly horrible experience, since this is also forced.
In English I don’t care that much about avoiding cliches. Also, here I have less of the baggage of established Polish ways of scholarly/journalistic thinking and writing. It’s not that they’re inherently bad; they’re just old at this point and it might be good to gain some distance sometimes.
I hold a History B.A. (‘licentiate’ if you will) from the University of Warsaw, Poland. Later I moved on to more hard technical stuff which I honestly enjoy, but get bored ultimately. So I decided to start this site as a proper hobby. People used to have hobbies in ancient times.
You don’t have to believe in what I say, although I strive to include only facts that are either well known or easily verifiable. Most of the books are available online.
Also, let me tell you a secret. If I started such a blog in Polish, likely no one would give a damn. I’ll be reading books that are really dusty and long neglected. But since I write in English, I can at least hope some people will be curious what I will say to the international audience, or maybe take issue about something, or rush to correct me on details. Of course, I’m also looking forward to learn what the rest of the world might think about all this.
And now, my readers, rest well this night: for tomorrow we will sail for the Old Republic!
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