After the joys of the previous centuries, the 18th century saw Poland begin to rot. The oligarchic corruption of the nobility was rotting the state from the inside, and powerful neighbouring states were beginning to size up Poland for potential swallowing. It didn’t help that the language was on its last legs, and an entire generation of Poles grew up distrustful and cynical. This didn’t save the state being wiped off the map, but a number of individuals tried their best to implement reform in the decaying commonwealth.
One such chap was born on the 273rd day of the 18th century, in the teeny tiny village of Żarczyce Duże. His name was Stanisław Konarski, and he overcame an average education and ingrained traditionalism to become one of the most important Poles of his time. This is his story, or at least some of his story. I don’t need to tell you when the story began, because I just did.
In his 18th year Konarski (whose birth name was actually Hieronim) entered the Order of the Piarist Fathers, gaining a solidly patriotic education and feeding his intellectual vigour and curiosity along the way. A stroke luck came his way in his 25th year, when young Stanisław was selected to head to Rome for graduate work, and this exposure to international mentalities and culture helped liberate him from his traditionalist upbringing.
Konarski’s travels continued, and his sojourn through western Europe had a profound effect on the young scholar. He returned to Poland in 1730, and a decade later was commissioned to form a college, a house of education that took influence from the west but focused on awakening the Polish pride inside the sons of the gentry. The school was called Collegium Nobilium, and Konarski’s stated aim was to create what he saw as honourable men and good citizens.
Konarski reformed Piarist education in Poland, but his reformist ways weren’t confined to education. He began to branch out in 1747 by founding the first public-reference library on the European mainland, although I guess that would still come under the heading of ‘education’. The big fish was Polish politics, and in 1755 Konarski dipped his rod (woah there) into those murky waters.
To say that Polish politics was suffering from something of a malaise in the mid 18th century is to do the word ‘malaise’ a disservice. Liberum Veto, the idea that 100% of the diet (deliberative assembly) had to agree on anything put forward, had locked any and all chance of forward reform for the state. This need for unanimity meant that any single person could wreck a legislature by using their veto. It doesn’t take a political analyst to understand that this isn’t going to lead to much in the way of progress.
Konarski took it upon himself to propose a remedy, the catchily-titled O skutecznym rad sposobie albo u utrzymywaniu ordynaryinch seymòw, or ‘On an effective way of councils’ for the short on time. Despite needing to be little more than a document stating ‘DON’T LET ONE VOTE RUIN STUFF’, this was a fully detailed intellectual destruction of liberum veto that voiced the anger of an entire generation and pleaded with those in charge to allow Poland to progress before falling apart.
It didn’t happen for a while, but Konarski had left his mark on his nation. Many view him as the man who predated the Enlightenment in Poland, a reformer, poet, writer, priest and dramatist who took the liberal ideas of the west and tied them to the traditions of the east.
Konarski’s enthusiasm and commitment to the Polish language may well have been his lasting legacy however. It was Konarski who introduced the language into schools, as well as working long and hard about the need for clarity and simplicity in the tongue. He wrote plays in order order develop Polish language theatre and contributed to the first modern Polish periodicals. His reforms were a landmark moment in 18th century Poland, his voice one of the key organs on the side of modernism.
Today marks the 244th anniversary of Konarski’s death, so raise a glass to the Harbinger of the Enlightenment. There aren’t many better nicknames than that.
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