In Honor of Ryszard Legutko
Royal Castle, Warsaw (Photo by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada)
Two of our members, Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, were honored to take part recently in the 12th annual Congress of the Polska Wielki Project in Warsaw. The final event of the Congress was the award to Professor Ryszard Legutko of the Lech Kaczynski Award, named for the Polish leader who tragically died in a plane crash, along with many other Polish officials, in 2010. The award was presented by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of Lech Kaczynski, and currently serving as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the ministries of defense, justice and the interior.
Vermeule was tasked with introducing Professor Legutko’s award with a traditional laudatio, or short encomium, followed by a longer speech by Legutko himself. Both speeches are posted below. Enjoy!
Laudatio: Ryszard Legutko, The Last European Scholar? (Adrian Vermeule)
I’m deeply honored to be here today to participate in this event, which seems to me to be founded in a kind of justice. It is only justice that we recognize the extraordinary achievements of Professor Ryszard Legutko. Indeed, the mission I have been given of doing a laudatio in praise of Professor Legutko is in a sense one of the easiest missions I’ve ever had. He is a figure of European and indeed international importance, one who seamlessly combines philosophy with political practice, who offers profound critiques of the liberal order while also commentating wittily on the latest follies of the EU Parliament, from a few feet in front of the perpetrators of those follies.
However, let me warn you that I want to frame my appreciation of his work with a slightly dark and disturbing question: might it be that Professor Legutko is, perhaps, the last European scholar? Let me explain all the components of this question separately.
By a scholar I mean someone like Legutko who is more interested in the nature and inner integrity of ideas than interested in the political use of labels. The minor propagandists who proliferate under liberalism, by contrast, are only ever interested in one thing: how to instrumentalize and colonize any concept and put it to the service of the liberal order. The rule of law becomes the rule of liberal law; “democracy” is redefined to mean “voting in accordance with liberalism”; and so forth. As Prof. Legutko so memorably explains, they treat concepts and language itself as political weapons.
By “European,” I mean that when we read Legutko, we immediately feel ourselves in contact with the whole European tradition in the broadest sense, from the Greeks forward. As I said at the conference Friday, this tradition is the classical tradition that stands upon the three pillars of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Catholic faith. It is positive and substantive, predating liberalism and offering a universal vision that liberalism finds threatening in the extreme, because it was neither created by liberalism nor is capable of being entirely remade in liberalism’s own image. Here too the contrast is with the typical intellectual of today, who is disconnected from both past and future, who in sharp contrast to the medievals, is incapable of participating in extended multigenerational projects, and who has a radically truncated time horizon, basically centered around a few black legends of (Catholic) authoritarianism and the triumph of what the liberal calls “democracy.” The liberal is, in the best case, proud to be cut off from the heritage of the past, and in the worst and more common case, completely unaware that he is cut off from the past.
The worrisome and questionable part of my description is “last.” One wonders whether the European tradition to which I have referred will survive Legutko. Of course I am here somewhat exaggerating for rhetorical purposes of a laudatio. The tradition remains vital in a few places, Central and Eastern Europe perhaps especially, in Poland even more especially, and indeed in this very room. This Congress itself will help to ensure that the grand tradition in which Professor Legutko participates will be carried forward. Still, one can only be alarmed by the speed and thoroughness with which Western Europe has erased and cut itself off not only from that grand tradition, but even from the post-war echoes of that tradition in figures like Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schumann.
Ironically, however — and I mean this part to be a bit more encouraging — just as the European tradition is being thoroughly erased in Western Europe, it is undergoing something of a small but influential revival in the United States, under the direct influence of Professor Legutko and others. One very broad and rough definition of the so-called “New Right” in the United States is that it differs from the mainstream post-war American liberal right in being more European, both at the level of policy and at the level of intellectual justifications. It emphasizes the continuities between the Anglo-American tradition and continental traditions, and rejects myths such as the exceptionalism of the common law. And most crucially it is unafraid to use public authority in the service of the common good where necessary.
Let me turn more directly to Professor Legutko’s extraordinary influence on these developments. His book The Demon in Democracy burst upon the American intellectual scene like a thunderbolt. The Demon in Democracy crystallized and put into words a set of concerns and ideas that had floated in inchoate form around the American intellectual scene for some time. The excitement was immense.
One main reason for the extraordinary influence of Professor Legutko’s work in America is that it is now difficult to distinguish much of the social liberalism of the EU institutions from the nearly identical social liberalism of the American left. The same wearying slogans; the same relentless agenda of control through so-called “toleration;” destabilization of the family and of any remaining nonliberal institutions or pockets of nonliberal ideas; conformity down to the smallest detail under the banner of “diversity” — all this has come to characterize liberalism throughout the world. It is thus especially fitting that Prof. Legutko’s most recent book, The Cunning of Freedom, offers a superb exemplar of the very project I was urging Friday — the recollection and recovery of the classical approach to crucial ideas, not as a negative reaction against liberalism, but as the ressourcement of a positive universal vision possessed of both inner integrity and truth.
Ultimately what we admirers of Professor Legutko say here and elsewhere, and what Professor Legutko’s critics say, is to some degree beside the point. Ideas are ultimately judged by events in the world over time. In the United States, events of just the past few years have spectacularly vindicated Professor Legutko’s views. Of course the thesis of The Demon in Democracy was mischaracterized by the innumerable minor intellectuals who make their livings shoring up the liberal regime against all criticism. They misdescribed it as claiming that communism and liberalism were identically despotic, when in fact the thesis was that each is despotic in its own way — harder for communism, softer for liberalism, in a Tocquevillian register.
It has now become indisputable that the liberal order not only uses a variety of quasi coercive legal instruments such as bureaucratic guidances, selective funding of NGOs, and so forth, but it also exploits the liberal version of the public-private distinction to full advantage. It deploys selective enforcement of the law against “private violence” and takes political advantage of background conditions of economic necessity (“the market”) and of the radical conformity of public opinion under liberalism, instigated by the media. It controls its subjects with mobs both virtual and real, threats of ostracism, loss of employment, and a sort of reputational death (the dreaded state of being “out of the mainstream,” enforced politically by a cordon sanitaire).
In my view it is also indisputable, even more than when the book was published, that Professor Legutko has captured at the deepest possible level the dynamics of control under a liberal regime. For this achievement, merely the crown jewel in a lifetime of achievements, I’m extremely pleased to see Professor Legutko attain the recognition that is due to him in simple justice.
Speech: Minerva’s Owl Flew at Dawn (Ryszard Legutko)
Let me start by expressing my great joy at receiving this award, and there are several reasons for this joy. In previous years, this award was given to outstanding representatives of our culture, and I use the word outstanding in a descriptive, not polite sense. I am also moved to recall the patron of this award, President Kaczyński, for whom I had the honour of working for a year and a half in his chancellery, and it was an important experience in my life. My language fails me to find the right words of gratitude for the beautiful and generous laudation delivered by Adrian Vermeule. I feel honoured to have such a laudator.
Let me explain the title of my talk. We all know Hegel's famous phrase about Minerva's owl that flies out at dusk, which means that wisdom appears when things are coming to an end, or, to put it differently, that understanding of what an epoch is does not come until this epoch ends. We did not understand what the Enlightenment was until Romanticism superseded it. What the Industrial Revolution was, we finally grasped when we started entering a new period of history.
But that's not always the case. What communism really meant in human terms was well known before the Bolsheviks built their regime, and it was not necessary to wait until 1980. Our epoch perceives itself and is commonly perceived as the twilight age. We had the end of history, the end of great narratives, and a culture of exhaustion. We have globalization that embraces everything and is also perceived as the end of the old era. We have postmodernism, post-politics, post-culture, post-truth, post-philosophy. It seems as if we are reaching the end of what started in Greece, Jerusalem, and Rome. Some people resent it, others are happy, but on both sides, the majority seems to agree that we are witnessing the end of something big.
And where is this Minerva's owl in our time - one would like to ask. It isn't easy to find wisdom today, although there are many wise people, also in this room. The word wisdom itself has lost its lustre, and today's sages have a legitimate place only in fantasy tales. Wisdom had something to do with an accurate view of the whole and a subtle perception of the particular, albeit from the perspective of the complexity of the whole - the destiny of man or of a nation, or of the moral order. Today knowledge has become fragmented, broken down into incompatible detailed disciplines, and its effects are quantifiable, which by no means educates us to wisdom, but on the contrary.
There are dozens of other reasons for reluctance or a lack of respect for wisdom: the constant emphasis on having fun, playing games, making faces, and pretending. In addition, there is a deafening mass culture, and mass communication putting into our heads ready-made ideas that we do not have time to reflect upon.
We know all this. But the consequence is that there is little self-awareness today. Our era does not recognize itself well and is not even particularly interested in such self-knowledge. It lives in and through its own illusions, for instance, in an illusion of being open, whereas in fact, it is rigid and dogmatic.
Thinking in terms of the end of the epoch and the beginning of a new one is, in a way, an invitation to dispense with wisdom and creates a self-fulfilling mechanism. Since the great narratives, Christianity, and classical metaphysics are over, why bother to learn about them at all? They are long out of date. We can only learn why they should be thrown out – the reason being that they represent a world of discrimination, intolerance, inequality, etc., a world we are just overcoming. And the less we know about other aspects of those things, the better because they no longer contaminate our minds. All we need to know about Greece and be outraged by this knowledge is that the Greeks had slaves, Aristotle put men over women, and Plato was a totalitarian.
If the vast majority of cultural history is old and dead for today's mind, it is because the modern prejudices made them irrelevant and uninteresting to the modern minds. As a result, the entire past appears overbearingly to be a reflection the present. What is not a reflection of the present does not exist. We see the triumph of a narrow mind in school education, in theatre and in how the directors present the classics, we see it in films and in literature. In a way, those artists and thinkers resemble a well-known character from an old Polish film, who used to say that he only liked songs he knew and those he did not know, he did not like.
A good example of this approach is the European House of History, which shows that for more than two millennia, we have had peoples' consistent drive to create the European Union that has finally been built to the joy of the Europeans. However, the hydra of nationalism continues to raise its hideous head. Should the mentioned character from the Polish film be the patron of the European House of History? An idea worth considering.
I am talking about all this because it relates to my intellectual life and indirectly to this wonderful award that I accept today. The fact that Minerva's Owl does not depart at dusk but that it already departed at dawn, I discovered about 40 years ago. Having established this beyond doubt, I turned to Greece.
I became attracted to Greece above all by the magnitude of the problems the Greeks raised and by the clarity of their thought. I was especially amazed by how clearly they were thinking. One of the eminent classicists, Maurice Bowra, once wrote – fairly seriously, I think - that the Greeks thought clearly, because they saw clearly, and they saw clearly because of the Greek weather, just as the German thought was obscure because of the obscurity of German weather. Let me quote Bowra: “Just as the cloudy skies of northern Europe have nursed the huge, amorphous progeny of German metaphysics, so the Greek light surely influenced the clear-cut conceptions of Greek philosophy. If the Greeks were the world’s first true philosophers in that they formed a consistent and straightforward vocabulary for abstract ideas, it was largely because their minds, like their eyes, sought naturally what is lucid and well defined.” If that is so, then we must admit that today things got even worse than in the German climate because due to intrusive and omnipresent flashing pictures, our sense of sight, then our language, and, finally, our thoughts must become deeply confused.
But I was also struck by the truthfulness of what the Greeks were telling me. As an exemplification, I will mention one problem – their interpretation of human nature. The Greeks discovered that, on the one hand, we are metaphysical beings who search fulfilment by opening ourselves to the absolute, and without this opening, we fall short of our nature; on the other hand, we are social beings who can develop through good moral practices within the community. Later on, when the Christians formulated this truth about human nature, especially regarding the metaphysical dimension, they could use Revelation and had faith in the Resurrection. The Greeks did not have such an intense experience, and yet their reflections on the human soul based solely on the observation of people’s conduct and a good insight into their existence led them to discover the truth about what constitutes our humanity.
Nowhere else - apart from Christianity in its classical version - have I found a concept that so aptly described this duality of human nature, on the one hand, a robust individualism determined by personal metaphysical experience and, on the other, a sense of belonging to a community through which people inculcate moral skills and acquire group identity. Nowhere later - except perhaps Saint Thomas Aquinas - do we find so strong a sanction for the great aspirations of an individual and an equally strong sanction for the overwhelming influence of society on our life.
Therefore, in the following epochs, when the influence of classical culture weakened, we also lost our understanding of what was obvious to the ancients, for example, that one could consider oneself under necessity and at the same time feel responsible for one's own actions. We have developed a legalistic approach, and behave a bit like a defendant who argues that if he did something out of passion or had a right to do it, his responsibility must be smaller. We made a man impotent, introducing him to a whole system of various necessities - biological, historical, economic, ideological - and at the same time, we made him irresponsible by giving him an enormous number of rights, which freed him from many essential obligations.
All this introduced the man of today into an artificial and false world, where the essential characteristics of humanity have been blurred or invalidated. No wonder that this man has been reducing himself to what is low, and on the other hand, he becomes more and more similar, as Ortega y Gasset aptly put it, to a spoiled child full of irresponsible and increasingly absurd claims.
I remember a conversation with a philosopher from Oxford who was a little irritated, but in a sort of friendly way, about my ostentatious turning to antiquity. "But by this decision," he explained to me, "you ignore all the great breakthroughs in the history of the human mind, beginning with Christianity. One cannot think as if there was no Protestantism, no Lebensphilosophie, historicism, the scientific revolution, Marxism, twentieth-century philosophical perturbations, and many other things." The objection thus formulated sounds powerful and seems almost untenable, but reject it as arising out of a misunderstanding.
It is true that living in the twenty-first century and being decently educated philosophically, and you cannot purge your mind of today's content in order to move to the world of ancient thought thanks to the achieved simplicity and start philosophizing anew. I have never claimed that such a cleansing was my intention or dream, and my motivation was against it. At some point, I felt that I was becoming a slave to modernity and modernity and that by placing an old thought in the museum of the history of philosophy, I was deprived of the possibility of using it. My aforementioned friend from Oxford also indirectly suggested something like this, considering that the "breakthroughs" that had occurred since Greek times had somehow pushed this ancient thought to lower levels of importance.
Well - let me repeat - my strategy is the opposite. I have become convinced that by succumbing to these breakthroughs, we are creating barriers that separate us not so much from the past as from certain questions and an intellectual curiosity that corresponds to them. Marking these questions and this curiosity with the emblem of the past epoch is in itself enough to disavow them by transferring them to the field of history of philosophy.
Let us take the image of man mentioned above. How often do I find in today's world of arguments the ancient philosophers’ contributions? In reflection on human nature, the chances of coming across such concepts as Aristotle's megaloprepeia and megalopsychia – often translated as magnificence and magnanimity - are small, mainly due to the fact that the human nature as perceived today does not need such categories, and if so, then not very urgently. How would be fit Greek sophrosyne into today’s moral discourse? Equally irrelevant for our morality must be Socrates’ concept of the unity of virtues. Virtue itself has almost disappeared from our language - despite a brief resurrection in philosophy a few decades ago - much less the unity of virtues. Or a conflict between active life and contemplative life? Or the questions of the soul and its immortality?
If these and other questions, so crucial to classical thinking, are absent today, marginalized, or considered pseudo-questions, it means that people shaped by today's imaginations have pushed them beyond their moral world and that they do not understand the language in which they are uttered. Well, I did not take part in this pushing, and I am not only interested in these questions, but I consider them essential. I may criticise Plato’s arguments for the immortality of the soul in his Phaedo - at least some of them - but I consider the problem of the soul to be a major problem, not an anachronistic, misplaced, apparent, or negatively resolved.
So when I found myself in philosophical antiquity, I was overwhelmed with joy, being a part of reality that was much richer, more saturated with intellectual content, and, above all, expanding my mind and inspiring my philosophical curiosity. I not only benefitted from what the ancients were telling me; from this time distance which separates them from ourselves, I think I acquired a broader view of the whole drama of Western history. Unfortunately, I do not know how this drama will end or whether it will end at all, but I think – somewhat hubristically – that I more or less understand what it is all about and in no small part because I know that a new owl is unlikely to fly out. But the wisdom of the owl that already departed still is accessible and worthwhile considering it with the seriousness it deserves.
I understand that my efforts to reflect upon this wisdom seriously the jury found sufficiently satisfactory to honour me with this fine reward. And also for this reason, I thank them and, as is proper, bow down low.
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