Janus-faced Enlightenment and the Quest for General Equality in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

JVF Conference Papers

The paper focuses on common ground between the concept of general equality, espoused by proponents of radical Enlightenment in Western Europe, and the idea of liberty cultivated by Polish noble republicanism.

Convergence of these seemingly irreconcilable perspectives in political treaties of half-forgotten political writers of the eighteenth century, like Michal Wielhorski, Adam Wawrzyniec Rzewuski and Wojciech Turski, resulted in the vision of an alternative modernity that differed in some important respects from programmes of contemporary Polish mainstream reformers. It rested on the assumption that civic capacities do not depend on wealth and therefore civic and political rights should be extended beyond nobility. It also included a stark defence of the decentralised state and a decisive condemnation of Western colonial practices of the period.

By discussing such an alternative modernity the paper aims to challenge the persistent image – forged in the epoch of the Enlightenment by Western philosophers, along with travel writers, and recurring to this day in many historical accounts of the region – of a static eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, where servitude remained unquestioned and unreflected upon by ruling elites.

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