Saturday, July 29, 2017

In Their Worst Forms: Koźmian on Poland

"What, then, are the distinctive characters of the republican form?...Poland, which is a mixture of aristocracy and of monarchy in their worst forms, has been dignified with the same appellation..."
- Publius, Federalist # 39
The Conformity of the Plan to Republican Principles

"When he became immoderate with alcohol, he fell under a mania to disrobe and, half naked, encourage his fellow revellers to likewise undress, proclaiming all the while 'I am an American!' "
- Kajetan Koźmian, Memories I
Describing Michał Granowski, Secretary to the Crown of Poland


The second through fourth chapters of Kajetan Koźmian's Memories I cover the years 1781-1787. These years were critical times of tumult in both Polish and American history. Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia were published at the time, providing a vivid portrait of the key political challenges before the American confederation. It was towards the end of 1786 that George Washington lamented in a letter to John Jay that "We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation." Poland faced a similar political crisis as chaos, anarchy and tumult overwhelmed the state. There is, however, an astounding difference between the American response to political disorder and the Polish response as chronicled by Koźmian. Reading Koźmian with The Federalist Papers in mind is a good exercise in political contrasts.

Just as his Jesuit education was the backdrop for Koźmian's ruminations upon the Jesuit role in Polish affairs, so his continued education up through the palestra becomes the backdrop for personal recollections which paint a portrait of Polish political life at the time. It is a colloquialism amongst Poles to claim that the country was thrown into deep crisis in the eighteenth century and historians ever since have been divided between optimists and pessimists, with the former claiming that external factors led to Polish collapse and the latter laying the blame on internal factors. The optimists held Poland to be a virtuous political body stricken by the surrounding empires while the pessimists blamed Poland as a corrupt political body whose internal weakness invited external intervention. The effectual truth is of course a mixture of these two factors.

That said, Koźmian's recollections are no doubt ammunition for the pessimist side and to read them is to understand what James Madison meant when he described Poland in The Federalist Papers as a "mixture of aristocracy and monarchy in its worst forms." Koźmian's literary form is the first indication of the vices of his times. Polish affairs have always been characterized by a hermetic seal which makes Poland's politics impenetrable to Men of Letters who consider public affairs seriously. If Russia is characterized by единодержавие which makes "Kremlinology" the esoteric art of political scientists studying Russian Affairs, then Poland is far more hermetic because it is not enough to understand her ruler or the ruler's court - one must comprehend a vast chain of personal relations which make the once famous New York Social Register child's play by comparison.

Anyone of democratic and philosophical temperament will immediately cringe before this awesome task. It is not historical detail which discourages us, but an appreciation for classical forms of political clarity as opposed to the labyrinth of aristocratic and hereditary bonds that characterized the final stages of the monarchic powers in European affairs which moves us to immediately think poorly of Polish government in Koźmian's times, for what Poland had then was not so much a government as a social club and not so much a state as an estate.

Her Churches served not as sacred remnants of virtue (let alone places of worship), but as rallying grounds for political brawls between partisans who were as poorly equipped with rhetorical abilities as they were quick to reach for the sword in order to solve political disagreements. The content of these disagreements was never a controversy over the public good, but always a competition amongst the various higher and lower nobles for honor, position and recognition. Koźmian's recollections tell us nothing about the content of his education beyond the fact that Polish history was not taught and that his professors were not very bothered to learn it. Instead, his academic recollections principally focus on banquets and ceremonies in which Latin was the language of choice in which the elites of the time praised one another. It is almost as if the Polish elites of the times were composed of men who either renounced political responsibility for God or for foreign gold.

The virtues of Polish political life exist only in the past by Koźmian's times. St. Jan Kanty, the great Priest and physicist whose theory of impetus was a precursor to Newtonian mechanics, is an object of veneration in Koźmian's times, but not of emulation. Men like Adam Poniński, who organized the Polish parliaments which ratified the partition of the country between the three Black Eagles in return for foreign patronage, walk the streets in Koźmian's day while Kanty is only a memory. Koźmian's repugnance upon meeting Poniński makes evident that the author of the Memories is a patriot and a man of conscience, however there is almost nothing in his recollections that demonstrates Poland to have produced better men. Of Poniński it might be said that he was a practical man as opposed to his compatriots who had all become Bacchus. The account of Sapiecha and Koźmian Senior' s tumults with which the author ends his recollections of his education are a shameful example of the stereotype of a Polish parliament made infamous by German derision and still visible today in modern Poland and Ukraine on occasion. In one poignant description, Kajetan Koźmian juxtaposes the two possible descriptions of the time most suitable to Polish elites: "famous either for wine or for crime."

Above all, nowhere in this perilous tumult are there any visible men of political wisdom and practice. They are all lodged in the past. Koźmian at one point references Jan Zamoyski, who wrote an excellent treatise on Roman political virtues and defended the Polish throne against imposition by foreign rulers, but of his successors Koźmian cannot say anything as uplifting. One might better understand the atmosphere of the world which Koźmian attempts to show us by reference to the poet Tomasz Kajetan Węgierski. Koźmian reminds us of his infamous satire The Five Elizabeths which blames four out of five women of high society close to the King for a variety of vices. Like America's Thomas Paine, Tomasz Węgierski was an enemy of monarchy and proponent in favor of the Rights of Man. In one of his poems titled Of the Equality of Human Destiny, Węgierski wrote:

The dimensions of our destiny are to be found in the senses
Upon them human happiness or unhappiness chances.
Do Kings have more perfect senses in mind,
Or are they ashes to ashes like us of a kind?
Like us Kings in infancy
Do cry
Like us as adults unhappy do
They sigh
The poor and the rich, the weak and the strong
Following life's hardships find their end
In death's "so long!"*

Węgierski was expelled from Warsaw and his Five Elizabeths burned by the royal executioner. His fate is somewhat symbolic of the fate of the entire country. Poland neither succumbed to the vices of the Enlightenment and French revolution, nor did it return to its ancient virtues, nor was it able - like America - to forge a new constitution which effectively weathered the challenges of the time, remedying the vices of corrupt aristocracy without falling into the tyranny of mob rule (the 3 May Constitution is a very overrated document in this regard). Here and there we come upon Polish statesmen in Koźmian's account, like Staszic, who appear to us the embodiment of Jefferson's "Natural Aristocracy", but such rare instances are powerless before the tides of Polish collapse.

Instead, it seems that the elites made a deliberate decision to follow Szczęsny Potocki in spirit if not in word. Potocki is infamous for proclaiming himself "a Russian now" and stating that Poland had simply ceased to exist. The Polish elites described by Koźmian do not make such traitorous proclamations, but their actions belly their patriotic proclamations. They do not act to save their state, only their estates, their titles and their very narrowly perceived honors. There is nowhere any political thought visible, only the corruption of character and arrogance of power that are the associations of ardent republicans and democrats when blaming monarchy as a political system. Above all, there is no trace in Koźmian's recollections of the most important moderating factor in Polish political affairs without which Poland was always doomed: Christianity. All the edifices of Christian culture still exist, but it seems that nothing but form is left. The elites Koźmian describes are faithless, pompous and buffoonish. As usual, the victims of the Polish elites were the Polish people who lost their state for 120 years. 

*My poetic translation of this poem sacrifices literalism for rhyme while retaining as much original meaning as possible. The poet is pictured at the top of this post.

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