Prof. Piotr Jaroszynski
Director of the Chair for the Philosophy of Culture
Catholic University of Lublin, Poland
The Treasure of Polish Culture
(Chicago Public School, 16.10.2000. Wykład dla nauczycieli amerykańskich w ramach programu Bilingual-Eduacation)
Ladies and Gentlemen!
I regard it as a great honor that I am able to speak before you about Polish culture. Most of you are teachers. About a million Poles live in Chicago, but the pace of life does not always allow us time to make more than superficial contact with the culture of any nation. As a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin, I have more time to investigate and meditate upon Polish culture. I would like to touch briefly upon some things that could be studied for years at the university level. I can only scratch the surface in such a short meeting. I will not try to deluge you with encyclopaedic information, but I would like to give a rough sketch of certain problems, and this may help you to taste the spirit of the Polish nation.
Poland lies in central Europe. The Polish state began over a thousand years ago, in the year 966 AD. to be precise. Poles belong to the Slavic tribes.
Over the past thousand years, the people who lived in Poland created their own culture. This culture has local elements, national elements, and also universal elements that are common to Europe and to the whole world.
Some people are fascinated by other cultures, but other people could not care less. Some people are locked within their own culture, and they regard other cultures with disinterest or even contempt. Others regard mass culture as culture in the primary sense, and they feel no need for a national culture. Others know their own culture and also have a specialized knowledge of others. Finally, there are those who know their own culture and have a lively interest in the treasures of other cultures. These people see that knowledge of other cultures can enrich their own. My personal opinion is that every intelligent person who has reached a certain level of education should be interested in and open to the contributions of other cultures. I know who I am, but I will gladly learn and draw from what is good in others. I know that you have roots in various nations, that you are not all Polish, so I will speak about Polish culture as to people who are open to the treasures of a culture other than their own.
First, I will say a few words about what culture is and what a nation is. The word "culture" comes from Latin and it first meant "cultivation". It was first used to mean tilling fields (cultura agri or "agriculture"), and then it was used as a metaphor for the cultivation of the soul (animi cultura). Cicero used the term cultura in this sense. The ancient Greeks already had a term for this - paideia. The term "nation" comes from the Latin verb nascere - "to be born".
Although this suggests that a nation is based on a common ancestor, the most important thing is that belonging to a particular nation implies belonging to a single culture. A nation is a certain community based on a common heritage that develops one culture over the course of generations. A national culture is the material and spiritual accomplishment and heritage of a certain community.
When we speak of the treasure of Polish culture, we are thinking of the rich heritage that has been developed over generations.
There are four elements in any culture: theory, praxis, poiesis, and religion. Theory includes science and education. Praxis includes ethics, economics and politics. Poiesis includes craftsmanship, the fine arts, and technology. Religion includes faith. A society is civilized in proportion to the development of these domains of culture. They may be developed in different directions and to different degrees, and this will form the character of a civilization. I am not interested here in evaluating various civilizations, to say which is better and which is worse, but I am interested in what a culture has to offer to the people who live in it. Does their civilization give them the opportunity to develop fully as persons, or does it incline them to become vegetables? Perhaps a given culture even does damage to those who live in it. To a large extent, who a person is depends upon the society and culture in which he lives.
Polish culture is the result of the efforts of many generations among whom there were certain outstanding geniuses, and it is truly a treasure for the Poles who are closest to this culture. It was also a treasure for the Slavic peoples who are closely related to Poles at a time when they had not yet achieved the same level of development. It has also been a treasure for the other European nations, especially for the elite who were open to that various forms of higher culture. Polish culture added a certain tone and direction to the development of civilization in general.
As a state and nation, Poland appears in the historical arena in the second half of the tenth century. The decisive moment was the baptism of Mieszek, the first ruler of Poland, and with this the political status of Poland was recognized in Europe. The various tribes dwelling in Poland were joined to the heritage of Greek, Roman and Christian culture. This baptism had more than a religious meaning. It also meant that Poland was taking its place in the circle of the older western civilization. This had an effect on education, science, law, morality, art, and the customs of the Polish people. Latin civilization was the factor that unified the various tribes into one Polish nation. This civilization has been creatively cultivated and preserved over the centuries by the people who live on Polish soil, and this has become the unique culture of Poland.
Now I would like to speak of certain aspects of Polish culture.
A nation is not always defined by a unique language. There are many different nations that speak English, and the same for Spanish and Portuguese. There are many nations like Switzerland where there are two or more languages. In most cases, however, at least historically, a particular nation has a particular language. When a nation has more than one language, this might be the result of a political union of many nations, as happened in Switzerland. Many nations may speak one language as a consequence of colonial expansion, such as the English and the Spanish. Poles share one language, the Polish language. One of the first great Polish poets of the fourteenth century notes this with pride when he wrote: "The Poles are not geese; they have their own language." This means that Poles do not cackle like geese, but they speak a human language, their own language. For centuries Polish literature developed in the bosom of the older Latin literature. Latin was the common working language of medieval Europe. Polish documents of that time are in Latin, with the names of Polish people and places appearing sporadically. At the end of the twelfth century, or at the beginning of the thirteenth, someone wrote the beautiful song "Bogurodzica dziewica" (Mother of God Virgin), which was first sung by Polish knights, and today is song one very special occasions.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many verses and songs were penned, both religious and secular. In the fourteenth century two great Polish poets appeared like shining stars, Nicholas Rej and John Kochanowski. John Kochanowski was educated in western Europe and possessed a good knowledge of Latin and Greek, as well as several modern languages. He translated many foreign works into Polish and also wrote poetry in Latin, but eventually he took the great step of writing in Polish for Poles. I will try to give an English rendition:
O muse, let us cast off from the lovely banks of the Tiber,
The peaks of the Carpathians that scrape the sky has long been calling me. The mountains of my native land have long been calling me,
to their delightful grottos and graceful valleys,
and they order me to sing of the faraway Polish land
with a many-stringed lute in the melodies of my fathers. I will sing, if I may give glory to Poland with song.
Let my friend Laski adorn Poland with fat spoils as he wages war with the Scythians who are bound by no law.
My hope is in my pen and in the favour of the muses.
This is my bounty, this is my chariot and sword.
The language of John Kochanowski is more refined than the language of Nicholas Rej. It shows the signs of education and a greater command of language and ideas. His language set the direction for the development of the Polish language. In his own time John Kochanowski was recognized throughout Europe as a great poet.
While we are on the topic of the Polish language, we should remember the great work of translations from other languages. Translations have an important role in the life of every nation. They make the accomplishments of other nations accessible to all. When foreign works are available in our own language, they are assimilated into our culture. Translations also have a creative and formative influence on the development of a growing language. It requires a great effort to express things said in a more developed language and at the same time to respect the unique character of the destination language. The work of translators helped the Polish language develop both syntactically and conceptually. The developing language became a means for a broader group of people to enjoy the fruits of the great classical culture. The Poles were the first among the Slavs to translate classical works, and the other Slavs found that the Polish translations were more available and easier to understand than the original works. As the Polish language developed, it had an important influence on the culture and character of neighboring nations. One of the leading experts on Polish culture wrote:
The European culture of Poland did not parade itself in a spirit of triumph. In the fifteenth centuries Russians would satisfy their spiritual hunger with Polish works. They would overlook the difference of creed and the dogmas that contradicted their own. They translated the creatively translated Polish works into their own language, but the translations into Russian were not creative. The translated works used the Russian language and alphabet, but they were interspersed with additions from the Polish language; as early as the fifteenth century we find more and more words and expressions borrowed from Polish in the official texts of Belarus and Lithuania; later this phenomenon took on monstrous proportions; we find texts that are Russian in form and alphabet, but using Polish thought and vocabulary. Such works are Polish in spirit, content, style and form, while Russian is merely a robe thrown over everything."
The material culture was different. That culture reached Moscow directly from England, Holland and France, but the intellectual culture of Poland affected Lithuania and Little Russia, and through them made its way to Moscow, where it reached the court of the Czar and the patriarchs. The result was a rich and varied body of literary works in seventeenth century Moscow which had been translated from Polish.
Poland lost its sovereignty at the end of the eighteenth century. Before the eyes of the world, Poland's neighboring states robbed Poland of its existence as a state, but this did not interrupt the continuity of Polish culture. In a series of annexations, Prussia, Austria and Russia carved up Polish territory among themselves until in 1795 the Polish state ceased to exist. Poland would not regain its sovereignty until 1918. As Pope John Paul II said in an address to the United Nations, it was our culture that enabled us to preserve our spiritual sovereignty. He said:
I am the son of a nation that has survived the most terrible experiences in history. The nation has been condemned to death many times, yet it stayed alive and preserved its identity. It preserved its identity and its sovereignty even during the periods when its land was divided and occupied. The nation could not rely on any other means, such as physical force, to survive. It relied on its culture, and this culture eventually proved to be a greater force than the military and political force of its enemies.
Because of this cultural sovereignty, Poland regained its political independence after one hundred and twenty three years of subjugation. It was during the period of occupation in the nineteenth century that we find the greatest Polish poets, next to John Kochanowski who is regarded as the single greatest. We find the poetic works of Adam Mickiewicz, Julius Slowacki, Sigmund Krasinski and Cyprian Camelus Norwood. We regard them as the seers or prophets of our nation. After them come the great writers of prose: Henry Sienkiewicz, Boleslav Prus, Wlaydslaw Reymont, and Stefan Zeromski. Their Polish speech brought together all the currents of the life of the nation and state. It was recognized throughout Europe and the whole world. The works of Polish authors have been translated and often imitated, and they have won numerous awards. We may mention some of the Polish writers who have won the Nobel Prize: Henry Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Reymont, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska.
The Polish language achieved a high state of development that enabled writers to express the spirit of the nation in matters both great and small. In our own language we have our own literature of all categories, and the important works of world literature have been translated into Polish as well. Henry Sienkiewicz even went so far as to say that the Polish language is a special gift of God, a gift that can only be compared perhaps with the Greek language. This is a the great treasure of the Poles, which the neighboring Slavic nations would draw upon over the centuries as they began to understand and read in Polish. Thanks to Poland, there was something for them to read.
A nation's treasure is found in its wisdom and knowledge, and the propagation of these treasures. I will now mention Polish learning and education.
Polish education began with the acceptance of Christianity. Pagan Poland had no schools. With the Church, soon parochial schools were organized. In the year 1364 (Thirteen sixty-four), almost six and a half centuries ago, the Academy of Krakow was founded. This was our first institution of higher learning, at a time when Vienna and Leipzig still had no such institutions. Berlin would not have a university for another three hundred years, and Petersburg would not have a university for another four hundred years. By the fifteenth century, the University of Krakow had students coming from all of Europe, even Italy. The university was home to such great minds as the astronomer Copernicus and the theologian and jurist Paul Vladimir. King Casimir the Great and later King Wladyslaw Jagiello wrote in the act of foundation:
Let there be here the pearl of the powerful sciences, to give to men excellent counsels in maturity, to be a brilliant ornament of the virtues and to be well versed in all skills. May a refreshing fountain of the sciences be opened. Let all draw from its fullness, and let them slake their thirst with the sciences.
We are rightfully proud of the Commission for National Education that was founded in 1773 (Seventeen Seventy Three).
This was the first ministry of education in Europe. This Commission faced pressure from the movement to secularize education, but it did not surrender. It did not let the heritage of learning from the Church go to waste. This was the same year when the Pope dissolved the Jesuit order who had been dedicated to teaching. In France, when the state assumed control over the schools, they were used to wage war against the Church and tradition, but Poland did not allow the schools to become a tool for indoctrinating the young with ideology. Rather, at a time when Poland was threatened with partition and even after the partition, the schools of the Commission of National Education reinforced the national awareness and cultural identity of Poles. The writer and the deputy Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz also invoked the memory of the King:
A free people, o most splendid lord, should be enlightened, otherwise they are not worthy of freedom. In an autocracy where you have no law or rights, but only commands, where the only division is that of master and slave, the rulers base their unlimited power upon ignorance. Then they degrade man's very existence. They confine the range of his awareness. They extinguish the light. They call men only to risk their lives and obey. They do not want anyone to consider things, because if they considered they would no longer obey blindly. A man born on free soil tramples upon such chains. His soul is free of bonds and dares to soar, for he knows his own worth. He knows his nobility. A free man whose destiny may take him anywhere, who can aspire to the highest honors in the land, who can be heard at all levels of government, should become worthy of such honors by education, for the fate of the Fatherland depends upon him. He will be subject only to the law. He should be enlightened, so that he may enact laws that save the people. He should be virtuous, so that he will honor and carry out what he has enacted.
Is not this passage relevant in our time? If democracy is not solidly based upon authentic education, it becomes a concealed form of enslavement. At the same time, people cannot be responsible for public affairs if they are not received a proper academic and moral education, when they have neither competence or a sense of moral responsibility.
Morality is part of our personal lives, and also part of our lives in the family and political community. Personal ethics bore fruit among the Poles in some characteristic traits that we may call virtues. We have high regard for the sense of honor, self- sacrifice, hospitality and good manners. Our great poet, Adam Mickiewicz, wrote of good manners:
Good manners are not easy to learn, nor is this a small thing,
It is not easy, because it does not end with a smile and a greeting,
with a graceful bow to passers-by. These are the stylish manners,
as a shopkeeper greets me, but not the noble way, the way of Old Poland.
Good manners are due to all, but owe something different to each.
Good manners have their place in our love of children,
in how a man treats his wife in public, how the master treats his servants
and in each good manners takes a different form.
We learn this over time, not to make mistakes
and to give due respect to each
(Pan Tadeusz (Lord Theodore), I, 361-371)
The life of the family is especially dear to Poles. During the partition of Poland, the life of the nation survived in the family. The family was the nest in which generations of Poles were brought up, where the nation was created by the culture of our forefathers and by a sense of responsibility for the state. One author in the time of the partition wrote:
Some people stay that Poland stands because of individuals. It would be more true to say that Poland stands because of the family. [...] The most severe critic in the future will have to recognize that the Polish family carried out its great obligation to be the strongest foundation of citizenship and the nation. It did not abandon its duty even in the worst of times. When everything collapsed into dust, a new life took shape in the family. The Polish family faithfully preserved everything within itself, and this was the condition and guarantee for the rebirth of Poland.
It is a tragedy to see how the life of the home is dying today. The family has less time together, and the television is an ever- present intruder.
I would like to make a few points about political life. Next to England, Poland is the oldest democratic state. Democracy first developed among the nobility in the fifteenth century, and the Constitution of the Third of May (1791 Seventeen Ninety One) extended democratic rights to the other classes, to the common people and the bourgeoisie. We can read the following in this constitution:
Having thus guaranteed squires all profits due them from the peasants, and desiring as effectively as possible to encourage the multiplication of the people, we declare complete freedom to all persons, both those newly arriving and those who, having removed from the country, now desire to return to their native land, insofar as every person newly arrived from any part, or returning, to the states of the Republic, as soon as he set foot upon Polish soil is completely free to use his industry as and where he will, is free to make agreements for settlement, wages or rents as and to such time as he agrees, is free to settle in city or countryside, and is free to reside in Poland or to return to whichever country he wish, having previously acquitted such obligations as he had freely taken upon himself.
The state ratified by the constitution was home to many nations, and so the constitution was not an expression of nationalism. It was home to Poles, Lithuanians, Belorussians, Russians, Jews, Germans, Latvians, Tartars, Armenians and Gypsies. Several languages enjoyed equal recognition under the law. The union of Poland and Lithuania was unique in its time, and is still an example in this time of ethnic conflicts. It had lasted three hundred years and it was only the aggression of the great powers that put an end to it. Today international treaties and organizations are dominated by the language of special interests and politics, but the union of Poland and Lithuania was at a deeper level that reflected a more profound sense of civilization. In the treaty that ratified the Union in the year 1413 (fourteen thirteen) we read:
Love does not work in vain. Love radiates within itself. It extinguishes hatred, lessens resentment, unites the divided, raises those who are fallen, levels inequality, sets straight the crooked, supports each and does no harm to any. Whoever takes refuge under the wings of love will be safe and will not fear any harm. Love creates laws and rights, rules kingdoms, lays the foundations of states, and leads the commonwealth to a good condition. He who has contempt for love will lose everything.
In its time of greatness, Poland defended Europe against the onslaught of the Turks. It was considered to be the first line of defence for the civilized world, the outer wall of Christendom. King Wladyslaw the Third, barely twenty years old, responded to the request of the emperor of Byzantium John Paleologos. He took arms to defend the emperor against the Turks, and died near Varna in 1444. King John Sobieski the Third saved Vienna in 1684. During the partition and wars, Poles fought on many fronts throughout the world, and their rallying cry was "for our freedom and yours". Kosciuszko and Pulaski fought for America's freedom during the American Revolution, and Polish pilots fought in World War Two to protect England. The great Polish theologian and Jurist, Paul Wlodkowic, (also known as Paul Vladimir) was perhaps the first to voice before the world the special respect and love that Poles have for freedom. In the fifteenth century, he addressed the Council of Constance, proclaiming that every nation had the right to sovereignty, and no one had the right to infringe upon that, even for the loftiest purposes. Even in the name of religion, no one had the right to invade and conquer another state.
We have already mentioned Polish literature, but Polish art also flourished in architecture, painting, theater and music. The music of Chopin has many national elements, including echoes of folk music and the music of the nobility. It arouses the admiration not only of people in the western world, but Japanese and Chinese find it very communicative. Polish musical forms and rhythms have become part of our universal musical canon. Musicians are familiar with the Polonaise, the Mazurka and the Cracovienne, and of course the various forms of folk music included under the term "Polka". The Polish soul is reflected in Polish art. Ignatius John Paderewski said:
None of the other nations in the world can boast of the same wealth of sentiments and moods. The hand of God has played upon the strings of the harp of this nation in tones quiet and plaintive, or powerful and strident. We have the gentleness of love and the valour of great deeds. We have lyricism like a great and swelling wave, and the courage of knights. We have the longing of young girls and manly prudence. We have the tragic sadness of the old and the lighthearted merriment of the young. Perhaps this is the source of our enchanting charm, and perhaps it is also a great shortcoming. Chopin most fully expressed this complex soul in his music. We have such famous painters as Chelmonski, Matejko, Brandt, and Kossakowie, whose works adorn galleries world-wide, including American galleries. Polish art often takes its theme from Poland, its natural life, its people and history.
Christianity has been the dominant religion in Poland, but there have been other religions. There were no religious persecutions in Poland, especially during the Reformation, which led to much bloodshed in western Europe. Paul Vladimir, whom I mentioned earlier, said: Fides ex necessitate esse non debet - "Faith should not be the result of coercion." Poland was renowned for its tolerance, and so people of many different creeds took refuge from persecution in Poland. In the sixteenth century, King Sigmund August was able to say: "I am not king over human consciences." As early as the eleventh century, Jews fled to Poland from persecution in Germany, and in time the Jewish community in Poland became the largest in the world, with its own laws, customs, religion and schools, including institutions of higher learning. Some even called Poland a Paradise for the Jews. During the Second World War the Nazis had special regulations that applied only in Poland, that the punishment for concealing Jews was the execution of the entire family. Three thousand Poles died in this way. In light of these facts, the widespread opinion today that Poles are anti-Semites is untrue and extremely unjust.
National cultures are a treasure for the societies that grow within the framework of the nations. National cultures can also contain elements that are both extremely beautiful and universal. The culture of one nation can enrich others, because no culture is perfect and absolutely self-sufficient.
When we take pride in our culture, we are not indulging in chauvinism or nationalism. Chauvinism is a hatred for other nations. Love for a certain national culture does not prevent us from admiring other cultures, just as a fascination with the music of Mozart does not hinder us from appreciating the merits of Beethoven and Vivaldi. Nationalism is the deification of a single nation and the exclusion of others. While I enjoy the music of Chopin, I also find comfort in the music of Sibelius. In turn, when someone cannot identify with any national culture, he may find that his psychic and spiritual life disintegrates, and he may easily drown in mass culture. Mass culture does not reach the depths of the human spirit and it does not ennoble the human spirit.
My admiration for Polish culture does not mean that I idealize this culture or my nation. I recognize shortcomings in weaknesses. However, I do find in my culture certain ideals and models, a certain direction in human life that seem interesting and beautiful.
When we become participants in Polish culture at a deeper level, we may develop more gracefully and become better as human beings. I could summarize what I am trying to say, that by means of culture we may become more and more fully human.
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