Friday, September 11, 2009

Leszek Kołakowski 1927-2009

I am remiss for not noting the passing of Leszek Kołakowski back in July. Kolakowski was truly one of the most incisive philosophical and political minds of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Roger Kimball points out that Kolakowski understood "that human freedom is inextricably tied to a recognition of limits, which in the end involves a recognition of the sacred. In an interview from 1991, he argued that ‘mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be ex-communicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone'."

If he had done nothing else, writing his three volume The Main Currents of Marxism would have been enough. It remains the definitive philosophical refutation of Marx and does Marx' voluminous work justice. Of course, his contribution was far greater than that singular achievement. In addition to being eulogized in print by Roger Kimball, Christopher Hitchens also wrote a great tribute to this great man in Salon. Hitchens remembered that Kolakowski "was one of the most engagingly witty people it was possible to meet. And his wit was deployed to puncture every kind of intellectual fraud or imposture. I remember his comment when he heard that Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs had said that even the worst socialism was preferable to the best capitalism: 'Ah yes, the advantages of Albania over Sweden are self-evident.'"

To be so generously lauded by distinguished men of very different philosophical, not to mention politial, persuasions, gives one insight into the greatness of this man.


  1. Deacon Scott -

    I have to say that I have not read any of Leszek Kołakowski's writings. When I get the chance, at some future time, I will pick up some of his writings, praying for understanding.

    Regarding these questions of self i.e. "who am I" - somehow I think they are all tied in with God's thirst for souls. Every desire we experince is initiated by God. And these desires of finding self hopefully bring about that self-discovery of "who we are." That we were made for God. True self knowledge will then direct our whole lives towards God, by doing His will.

    Hopefully I am clear about this.

    God bless!

  2. Dear Brian:

    While very accessible for an academic philosopher, Kolakowski is no easy read. However, his works will more than repay the effort.

    In the quote used by Kimball, Kolakowski is referring to the religious impulse that is part and parcel of human life and being, what Giussani called the religious sense. His point is that this impluse, this desire, can never be crushed by worldly powers without wiping out the whole of humanity, which communist regimes, at times, seemed very committed to doing. This desire takes the concrete form of these questions. What you write would have been a bit of a stretch for Leszek.

    He began as a Polish Communist and remained quite opposed to the clerical establishment of his native land, not a vocal or visceral opponent, just skeptical of their excess. I do think he liked JPII, who was a fellow philosopher.