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Brilliant Minds

When I resolved to write about Polish contributions to the intellectual heritage of humanity, I imagined the skeptics rolling their eyes expecting yet another futile exercise of “The Elephant and the Polish Question” genre. What does one’s origin have to do with one’s creativity? The answer is, well, quite a bit but on many unexpected levels, individual and collective.

To his Polish admirers, Fryderyk Szopen (Frederic Chopin) is a Polish genius, with Polish concerns reverberating through his music. Hence, for instance, the argument goes, the fiery “Revolutionary Etude” reflects the composer’s  preoccupation with the November Rising of 1830 against Russia.  At least some of Chopin’s foreign fans disagree, however. For example, the eminent Anglo-Welsh historian of Poland, Norman Davies, has noted tongue-in-cheek that a Jamaican can easily relate to the Jamaican in Chopin. Both sides have a point. The latter correctly stresses the universal dimension of a genius who can touch one’s soul, heart, and mind, his ethnic and social background notwithstanding.  The former also rightly points out the native source of inspiration of a brilliant mind drawing on his Polish roots. For the compatriots of a genius that is a crucial, if not all defining, element in his work: a particularly Polish brand of creativity.

Nonetheless, in reality, the particular and the universal elements complement each other  in the endeavors of a genius. They enrich one another. In fact, arguably, the particular element can, and often does, provide a special flavor of the universally acclaimed masterpiece. Therefore, after all, it is pertinent to inquire about the roots of a brilliant mind to discern if, and to what extent, his universally recognized achievements have been influenced by his origin, upbringing, and native passions. This inquiry will concentrate on all types of intellectual pursuits, and not only artistic ones, picked randomly throughout Poland’s history. Some of these contributions reinforced already existing trends in Western Civilization and, thus, became subsumed into it without being duly noted as specifically Polish. Other contributions developed autonomously, prematurely, and, thus, quietly passed into oblivion without any credit to their Polish authors. The result is that Polish intellectual contributions to humanity are the world’s best kept secret.

I shall now sketch the general cultural, political, and scientific trends and  mention mostly these individuals who are known in the West or who, while usually remaining obscure, enriched Western heritage with their universal contributions.

Sometime after the Polish state took shape over a thousand years ago, waxing in strength and size, brilliant minds pondered the ways best to arrange the nation’s affairs internally and externally. Arguably, Polish legal and political thought ascended its most sublime level when the nation achieved the zenith of its power and influence between the 15th and 17th century. In other words, the might of Poland reflected itself also in the originality of its statesmen and scholars.  However, despite strenuous efforts of Wenceslas Wagner, few people know about Poland’s contributions to Western legal and political thought notwithstanding that the Poles followed Western paths to freedom and, sometimes, even explored them before anyone else.

In 1228, the Duke Ladislas (Władysław III) granted his lay and ecclesiastical lords the right of consultation in the government. The so-called Act of Cienia originated in conditions similar to those that had forced the English monarch to grant his peers the Magna Carta in 1215. Despite obvious similarities, the latter act is still celebrated as a major watershed of universal liberty; the former naturally lingers in complete obscurity. And so does the Codification of the Polish Common Law under King Casimir the Great (Kazimierz Wielki) in 1347, which was most likely the first such indigenous effort in any nation of Europe, in distinction to the earlier German undertakings based upon the Byzantine Code of Justinian. In general,  hardly anyone non-Polish knows anything of the political evolution of Poland’s system which led to the establishment of constitutional and elective monarchy by the 15th century. Why? With the United States ruling as the superpower, the modern world has based itself upon the Anglo-Saxon and not the Polish tradition. Had Poland, and not England, colonized and conquered the world, things would have been otherwise. The Poles can only take heart that their forefathers displayed similar freedom-loving reflexes as their Norman contemporaries in England and often even preceded them in their quest for liberty.

Among the most notably forgotten, Poland’s constitution Nihil novi (Nothing new without us) of 1505 affirmed that all legislation had to be ratified by the Parliament (Sejm) and extended the franchise to about 10 per cent of the population, a feat unmatched anywhere in Europe until the British reforms of the early 19th century.  Earlier, in 1422 the King Jogaila issued a law vouchsafing private property against confiscation (Nec bona recipiantur). Then, in 1430, another law established due process to protect individual freedom. This so-called Neminem captivabimus nisi iure citum act (Nobody will be imprisoned except under the law) predated the analogous English Act of Habeas Corpus by two hundred forty-nine years.  Soon, gradually, the system of tripartite division of power developed. The King wielded the executive power. To exercise the legislative power, a bi-cameral parliament was established at the time to deal with national matters; local parliaments exercised self-government on the regional level. Finally, by 1581, the nation established a judiciary with elected judges, the Supreme Court of Appeals, and its regional branches. This arrangement predated the analogous American and French solutions by two hundred years. In essence, what emerged was a noble Res Publica, a republic.

Such rights, privileges, and institutions, applied to the burghers and peasants, were finally enshrined  in the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791, Europe’s first written such document and the world’s second, after the American Constitution. Significantly, however, the Constitution of May 3rd eliminated the very important privilege of Liberum veto, where a single deputy could nullify the legislative process of the entire parliament. Introduced initially to protect the minority of one against the tyranny of the majority, Liberum veto greatly contributed to Poland’s downfall. However, for the first one hundred and fifty years, until 1652, the veto power was used hardly at all. Later, it virtually paralyzed the government creating a constitutional crisis of immense proportions that was solved only in 1791.

Brilliant minds who led Poland at the nation’s peak lived by the adage: “Poland stands not because of its government, but because of the virtue of its citizens.” Political scientists like Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503-1572), who penned a treaties on reforming the Commonwealth (De Republica Emendada), greatly influenced the democratic thought throughout Europe and had his work placed on the Index by the Vatican. In 1568 Wawrzyniec Goslicki (Laurence Goslicius) published his proposal to solve the tension between liberty and order. Immediately, his De Optimo senatore was translated into English but it was promptly banned in England and subsequently only alluded to in the works of Shakespeare.  Earlier, in 1414 at Constance, Pawel Wlodkowic (Paulus Vladimiri) laid the groundwork for the development of international law. It is against God’s commandments to convert pagans with fire and sword and steal their possessions. International relations should be based upon love, tolerance, and justice, he preached. Wlodkowic’s ideas were reflected over two hundred years later in the writings of Hugo Grotius, who did not acknowledge the source of his inspiration and who is thus widely considered as the founder of modern international law.

The brilliant minds of Poland practiced what they preached. Poland expanded peacefully and its wars were mostly defensive in nature. The Kingdom of Poland grew immensely after its ruler, Queen Jadwiga, married the Grand Duke Jogaila and concluded a personal union with Lithuania in 1385. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was Christianized according to the rules laid out by Pawel Wlodkowic in opposition to the bloody practice of the Teutonic Knights. Later, in 1569, by the Union of Lublin, Poland and Lithuania became united constitutionally: “the Commonwealth of Good Will…. Free Men with Free. Equal with Equal.” The Lithuanian and Ruthenian (Belorussian and Ukrainian) elites joined their Polish equivalents in the parliament and government administration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Although Catholicism was the dominant creed, there was openness toward other religions. As the great military leader Jan Tarnowski (1488-1561) put it, “this is not a question of religion; it is a question of liberty.”  In 1573 the Parliament in Warsaw passed the Act of Toleration. There would be no suppression of any Christian denomination. Protestants and Catholics were to work in harmony for the greater glory of the Commonwealth.

This openness concerned also the non-Christian religions. Muslems were tolerated. As for the Jews, already in 1264 they received the cherished Statute of Kalisz, confirming the privileged status of the Polish Jewry. Soon, Poland became haven for Jews escaping slaughter and persecution all over Western Europe. Eventually, by 1592, the Jewish community in Poland organized itself on an autonomous basis with its own-quasi parliament, The Council of Three Lands, responsible only to the King. As Iwo C. Pogonowski reminds us, this was the forerunner of the Israeli Knesset.

Admiring the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the peak of its glory, Erasmus of Rotterdam averred: “I congratulate this nation…. which now, in sciences, jurisprudence, morals, and religion, and in all that separates us from barbarism, is so flourishing that it can rival the first and most glorious of nations.” Two hundred and fifty years later, by the end of the 18th century, the power of the Commonwealth dissipated and the country was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. This was largely the end of the original, indigenous legal and political thought. Afterward, this type of contribution of the Poles to the human heritage was mostly limited to the romantic slogan “For our freedom and yours.” Numerous Polish volunteers participated in various wars and revolutions throughout the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. (This had already been initiated earlier by Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski who fought in the War of Independence of the United States).  Western European theories of nationalism and socialism were “polonized” to serve as mobilizing forces for national liberation (Stanisław Staszic, Hugo Kołłątaj, Joachim Lelewel, Roman Dmowski, and Józef Piłsudski). It was only at the end of the 20th century, however, that  two Poles were universally recognized in the political and spiritual realm for their unique contribution. Like Ghandi, Lech Walesa became a great symbol of universal struggle for human dignity. Even more importantly, Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II is celebrated world-wide for his achievements as a spiritual, political, and moral authority of the highest caliber. Some appreciate him also as a cutting-edge phenomenologist.

 At any rate, despite the demise of Poland, the tradition of individual intellectual endeavor continued in fields unrelated to politics and law. Other sciences had a rich heritage to draw on as well. Less constrained by the political vicissitudes of the nation, they thrived both before and after Poland’s fall.  In medieval and Renaissance times, some Poles who excelled at home also dazzled their contemporaries abroad as students and faculty of Europe’s leading universities, chiefly in Italy and France. Among the most eminent scholars, Marcin the Pole produced brilliant legal and historical compendia; Franko the Pole wrote a cuitting-edge treaties on astronomical instruments; and, finally, Witelo of Silesia published a trailblazing study of optics in 1270. Their accomplishments were quickly subsumed into the European mainstream and their origins figured as factors of secondary importance, if at all. This was also the case with the greatest of them all, the famous astronomer Mikołaj Kopernik (Nicolaus Copernicus, 1472-1543).

Kopernik was a typical l’omo universale – a Rennaisance man. He was a military leader, who fought against the Teutonic Knights, and also a mathematician, physician, administrator, and economist, the first to expound what became known as the Gresham’s law about bad money pushing out good. Kopernik was a product of an affluent burgher family. Educated in Cracow and Padua, he spent most of his life as a Catholic priest and a loyal subject of the King of Poland. His economic and military endeavors most certainly reflected his particular Polish concerns. The astronomical and mathematical pursuits of the father of heliocentrism were purely universal.

In the 17th century, a number of Polish scholars made their mark at German and Swiss universities, including the mathematician Jan Kołaczek Placentinus in Frankfurt an der Oder and the theologian Amandus Polonus at Basel. At home, while the scientific historian Jan Brożek popularized the Copernicaean system at the University of Cracow, the mathematician Armandy Kochański introduced Polish students to calculus which he learned from Leibnitz himself. However, arguably the most original scientific Polish mind at the time belonged to Kazimierz Siemionowicz. A professional artilery man and engineer, Siemionowicz conducted Europe’s first experiments with rocketry and wrote a trailblazing textbook on the subject. Unlike the contributions of other brilliant Poles, his pioneering effort was widely recognized throughout Europe perhaps because war is an ever-popular pursuit. Even NASA has paid special tribute to him by including his textbook in its collection.

During the late 18th and early 19th century, Polish students educated in the West flocked back home to participate in the great reform movement. The most brilliant included the mathematician Jan Śniadecki of Cracow and the astronomer Marcin Poczobut of Wilno. Later, the products of such an intellectual climate contributed significantly to scientific progress. The bacilli of typhoid fever were first described by Tadeusz Borwicz (1847-1928), while Napoleon Cybulski (1854-1919) was the first to extract adrenaline and applied photography to register blood flow. Histiologist Wacław Mayzel (1849-1916) and Edward Strasburger discovered the process of kariokinesis. Karol Olszewski and Zygmunt Wróblewski were the first in the world to condense oxygen and nitrogen. In a way, they followed in the footsteps of the father of petroleum industry, Ignacy Łukasiewicz (1822-1882), who not only was the first man to distill crude oil but also invented the kerosone lamp in1853.

However, many of the brilliant left Poland because the partitioning powers stifled the nation’s freedom. Maria Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934) won the Nobel Prize twice – the only human in history to have accomplished that. A staunch Polish patriot working in France and a pioneering physicist specializing in radioactivity, she isolated polonium, radium, and their derivatives. After Poland regained its independence, Madame Curie returned home to continue her research in Warsaw. Her lesser known colleagues who taught abroad were the trailblazing thermochemist Wojciech Świętosławski, the ingenious engineer Stanisław Kierbedź, and the innovative mathematician Stanisław Leśniewski. In the 20th century, the pioneer of modern anthropology Bolesław Malinowski (1884-1942) stood in a league of his own at the London School of Economics. Also, Jan Szczepaniak deserves a mention for inventing and patenting color film in 1899 in England. Later, his invention was used by Kodak in the United States. The ironmaster Tadeusz Sendzimir and his smelting method remain famous until this very day from China through Poland to America.

Polish science positively bloomed after Poland regained its independence in 1918. Many scientists returned from abroad and trained brilliant young people to succeed them. For example, sociologist Florian Znaniecki (1882-1958) of Poznań worked both in Poland and in the US (Columbia University), making a name for himself with his monumental The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, and left a cult following which persists until today in Polish universities. However, Polish scientific achievements were nowhere more evident than in mathematics. The Warsaw School of Mathematics, including Stefan Mazurkiewicz, Alfred Tarski, and others, competed with the Lwów School of Mathematics, including Stefan Banach, Hugo Steinhaus, and others. Their students were to make significant contributions to the Allied victory in the Second World War.

Already prior to the outbreak of the war, a team of Polish military cryptologists (young mathematicians) cracked the Nazi “Enigma” encoding machine. The Poles first shared the Enigma secret with the French and English and, later, worked on the Allied cryptological Ultra project abroad. As the leading US cryptologist David A. Hatch has recently put it, “the breaking of the Enigma by Poland was one of the cornerstones of the Allied victory over Germany.” Finally, Steinhaus and Banach’s most brilliant student, Stanisław Ulam, joined the team of experts at the nuclear weapons program in Alamo. While his work on the atom bomb was important enough, Ulam was simply instrumental in creating America’s hydrogen bomb.

Incidentally, his younger brother, the perspicacious Adam Ulam, became one of America’s most insightful Sovietologists. His keen analysis could be rivaled only by the output of yet another Polish-born American, the prophetic Zbigniew Brzeziński, who successfully combined his academic pursuits with a career in politics. In a way, they operated on the territory similar to such Polish-American scholars as the historians Oscar Halecki, Wiktor Sukiennicki, M.K. Dziewanowski, Piotr Wandycz, Adam Zamoyski, as well as the political scientist George Lenczowski, who introduced Middle Eastern studies in the US following the Second World War.

In culture, during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, and the Enlightenment, the Poles followed general European trends, infusing them with a specifically Polish flavor that failed, however, to translate into any significant popularity of the Polish men and women of letters, unless they wrote in Latin or other Western language. The lingual barrier still remains largely impenetrable. The results are detrimental to the legacy of Poland’s brilliant minds. For example, hardly anyone knows that the first public library in Europe was founded in Poland by the Załuski brothers in 1747, that Poland created Europe’s first Ministry of National Education in 1773, and that Europe’s first synthesis of Greek and Roman literature was published in Poland in 1811. All that remains yet another  best-kept Polish secret.

At any rate, the 19th and 20th centuries nonetheless saw some outstanding literary giants, who succeeded in revealing themselves to the world. Writing in French, Jan Count Potocki has the dubious distinction to be considered in the fashionable quarters as a forerunner of post-modernism and deconstructionism. Henryk Sienkiewicz immortalized himself after he penned Quo Vadis, the heroic novel of early Christian martyrdom in Rome. At the end of the 20th century, Sienkiewicz was superseded by the poet Czesław Miłosz as the most highly recognized Polish man of letters; both of them, by the way, are Nobel Prize winners.

In music, in the 19th century, aside from Chopin, perhaps only the renowned violinist Feliks Janiewicz (1762-1842) gained a respectable measure of popularity in the West as a composer and co-founder of the Philharmonic Society of London. Later, his success was replicated by the divine soprano of Marcelina Sembrich-Kochańska, who took Western European opera houses by storm and, finally, rested upon her laurels at the Metropolitan in New York. In the 20th century, the brilliant pianist Ignacy Paderewski enjoyed great success in the United States and Western Europe. He translated his popularity into political capital as he successfully lobbied for Poland’s freedom during the First World War. Paderewski even briefly served as the nation’s prime minister. Although customarily he shied away from politics, the famous pianist Artur Rubinsztejn remembered his country when it mattered most. Invited to perform at the opening conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, Rubinsztejn in promptu played the Polish national anthem before the bewildered audience. Thus, the famous pianist objected to the Soviet takeover of Poland and to the absence of the Polish (London) government at the conference.

In acting, only Helena Modrzejewska in the late 19th century and Apolonia Chałupiec (Pola Negri) in the early 20th century made a splash in the United States. However, currently, the so-called Łódź school, including Roman Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda, and, especially, Roman Polański, enjoys a high level of recognition world-wide.

This is just the tip of an iceberg. Currently, tens of thousands of brilliant minds of Polish origin toil on various tasks with world-wide applications. One ought to mention hundreds of software engineers in and out of Poland whose complicated names pop up unexpectedly on Microsoft employment rosters and, like Steve Wozniak, in Apple computers. There are other renowned scientists and engineers as well. For example, SDI has a Zdzisław Zakrzewski, and NASA a Marian Pośpieszalski. They successfully apply their particular Polish scientific background to universal pursuits. And how about the indisputably brilliant Alexander Wolszczan, a radio-astronomer who first discovered and described other solar systems other than ours? Yes, yes, I know that I am treading on thin ice here. If I fail to mention a contemporary brilliant mind, she or he will remember that unintended slight forever. I simply can’t enumerate everyone who qualifies or tentatively qualifies as a genius. Hell hath no fury as a genius passed over. I guess that the article about contemporary trailblazers is yet to be written.

At any rate, since Poland regained its independence only in 1989, it will take sometime to recuperate from 50 years when scientific research, cultural pursuits, and general freedom were stifled by a Communist dictatorship. However, the good news is that it can now freely introduce its brilliant minds to the world.

– Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Charlottesville, VA, 15 August 2001