Last modified: October 2017
The role played by the Jesuit Naphta in Thomas Mann’s 1924 masterpiece The Magic Mountain is a sign of the great writer’s fascination with the Jesuits. Less well known is that this fascination was shared by other major Central-European authors. Mann’s near contemporary, the Polish writer Stanisław Brzozowski (b.1878), published Alone among People in the last year of his life, 1911. Here, too, in the person of Giava there is an intriguing image of what it meant to be a Jesuit. These fictional characters, appearing within fifteen years of each other, are strikingly similar. And both these figures are truly fictional, for neither represented the reality of the Jesuit order in the first part of the twentieth century.
Mann and Brzozowski likely both knew and exploited the same popular source, the Monita secreta, first published in Cracow in 1615 by a former Jesuit named Hieronim Zahorowski (1582–1634).1 It created an influential stereotype that spread across Europe, and stuck, of the Jesuit as a consummate intriguer using all possible means, mostly nefarious ones, to increase the order’s sway. Through talented writers such as Mann and Brzozowski an early seventeenth-century slander continued to have currency well into the twentieth century.
There is a better way to appreciate the mentality and way of life of a Central-European Jesuit from the mid-nineteenth century through Mann’s lifetime ending in 1955, almost exactly a century later. It involves a careful reading of the many existing documents and publications from that epoch; they indicate what the Jesuits actually did. A good place to start is with a collection published in 2009 thanks to the editorship of Robert Danieluk, S.J., under the auspices of the Jesuit Historical Institute of Rome. The work is entitled The Jesuit Secret Mission in Podlasie 1878–1904: “Columbae simplicitate et serpenti prudentia.”2
The confrontation of Jesuit source materials with the fictional representations is most instructive. Both Naphta and Giava were presented as Marxists and almost as atheists when in point of fact the actual Jesuits of this epoch were closely aligned with the papal crusade against modernity, especially modernity’s Marxist manifestations. In support of the papacy the 23rd General Congregation of the Jesuits in 1883 “wholeheartedly embraced both Quanta cura and the Syllabus of Errors.”3 Historians judge this encyclical issued by Pope Pius IX (r.1846–78) along with its more well-known annex, the Syllabus, as the culmination of Pius IX’s battle against contemporary culture.
So the necessary first step to reconstructing the historical reality of fin de siècle Jesuit activity is a knowledge of the sources, and above all, a direct confrontation with what Jesuits themselves wrote. This essay will focus on what the Jesuits did from their arrival in Braniewo in 1564 across what was, through the end of the eighteenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Today, this extensive portion of eastern Europe embraces the territories of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. While the topic is certainly an ambitious area of research due to the scope of time and territory under consideration, thanks to existing and easily accessible bibliographic tools it is now open to ongoing investigation. Worthy of particular mention is a recent resource dealing with the history of the Polish Jesuits. It appeared in 2009, in two volumes, under the editorship of Ludwik Grzebień S.J.: The Basic Bibliography of the History of the Society of Jesus in Poland.4 Fr. Grzebień’s scholarly work is well known and highly esteemed. His most important editorial accomplishment is the five-volume Documents Relating to Poland in the Roman Archives of the Society of Jesus. This comprehensive collection took from 2002 until 2009 to complete.5
There is close correlation between the Society’s role as an instrument of the Catholic Church during its Counter-Reformation, and the broader history of early modern political change in Poland. At the beginning of their presence in 1564, the Jesuits were perceived as foreigners, as Spanish defenders of the Habsburg absolute monarchy. Their presence produced intensifying religious polarization within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Jesuits proved crucial to the ultimate victory of the Catholic Church over multiple and often distinctive forms of Protestantism. Since Jesuits served as preachers to the royal court, their presence stimulated accusations that the rulers they served had absolutist ambitions. Over time, influential figures among the nobility came to the conclusion that the Jesuits were responsible for what they called “the corruption” of Poland’s democratic system. The principal accused was Piotr Skarga S.J. (1536–1612), a very influential writer and court preacher in the time of King Sigismund III Vasa (r.1587–1632). Skarga was strongly criticized for his political involvement. These attacks occurred not only during his lifetime, but for centuries thereafter. He was regarded as a defender of royal absolutism against the republican tradition of the Polish nobility and as an enemy of religious tolerance whose skillful rhetoric had stoked conflicts with other Christian denominations.6 Skarga’s sermons, supposedly preached before the Polish Diet, were repeatedly invoked as the defining examples of his political involvement. It was not until Stanisław Kot (1885–1975) pointed out that the sermons were never, in fact, spoken before the Diet, but were written as a political treatise exclusively, that the error of this pervasive assumption was proven.7 What remains indisputable was the crucial role Jesuits such as Skarga played in shaping Polish religious thinking and cultural attitudes, and in creating a very effective educational system.
The connection between Polish history and that of the Jesuits within the Commonwealth became most intertwined with the suppression of the Jesuit order in 1773, since it came the year after the first partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Thus in order to understand historiography related to eastern Europe and the Jesuits after the order was reestablished in 1814, it is necessary to take into account the experience of the Jesuits in the lands which fell to Russian control through the successive partitions (1772, 1792, 1795) that ultimately ended the existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. For in Orthodox Russia under Catherine the Great (r.1762–96), the Society of Jesus survived the papal brief Dominus ac redemptor issued by Pope Clement XIV (r.1769–74) on July 21, 1773. Religious who had taken vows as Jesuits in the Polish Commonwealth continued to be able to serve as Jesuits as subjects of the Russian Empire once the Society had been suppressed. Most worked at their school in Połock, which eventually was given the status of an academy. After a personal visit to Połock Tsarina Catherine decided to retain the Jesuits in their teaching capacity, and she granted them extensive autonomy.
Połock formally assumed the title of academy and with it university status from an ukaz of Tsar Alexander I (r.1801–25) in June of 1812. The academy came to have an important role in shaping the Polish Catholic intelligentsia under Russian domination,8 made possible in no small part thanks to the papacy’s permission in 1814 that the Society of Jesus be reconstituted. The order subsequently flourished.9 But only eight years after founding the Academy of Połock, the Jesuits were expelled from Russia by Alexander. Most found a place in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; some of them left Europe for the United States where they were influential in establishing institutions of higher education in their new home country.10
Thanks to Tsarina Catherine’s decision not to promulgate the papal brief, the Society of Jesus had survived in remnant form until the order was eventually restored. In Prussia, too, for a few years the Jesuits had been allowed to continue their pedagogical work, but eventually Jesuit education ceased to meet the expectations of Frederick the Great (r.1740–86), who preferred to control all aspects of instruction. In 1780, Frederick expelled the Society of Jesus, and so the fate of Jesuits who became Prussian subjects was distinctly different from that of their counterparts in Russia. These initially similar but ultimately contrasting attitudes toward the Jesuit order after its suppression could make for an interesting case study into the complex relationship between politics and religion in eastern Europe in the time of enlightened despotism. Such a study becomes more complicated when one also considers the case of what remained of the Polish Commonwealth after the first partition of 1772. After the suppression, all Jesuits here as elsewhere, save for Russia and Prussia, were forced to renounce their Jesuit identity. Most remained priests, and many became active in the Commission of National Education, founded in 1773 by King Stanisław August (r.1764–95) to deal with the nearly simultaneous challenges to the republic’s sovereignty and its educational infrastructure. In this way the Society of Jesus after its demise significantly contributed to the Polish Enlightenment and the reforms enlightened thinking inspired. Most of the former Jesuits were highly educated thanks to the training the Society had provided, having made their studies in western Europe, mainly in Italy and France. A good example is Marcin Poczobut (1728–1810), who after the suppression of the Society of Jesus became the rector of Vilnius Academy and involved himself very actively in the Commission for National Education.11 In sum, the Society’s fate as a Catholic religious order known for its fidelity to the papacy was ironic in the extreme: suppressed by Pope Clement XIV, it was saved by non-Catholic monarchs aggressively hostile to Roman Catholicism. When the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared from the map of Europe, divided amongst its three neighbors—Orthodox Russia, Protestant Prussia, and Catholic Austria—the Jesuits continued functioning from 1773 until 1820 in the portions of the Commonwealth absorbed into Russia and from 1773 to 1780 in the lands seized by Prussia. By contrast, in Catholic Austria they were suppressed. Frederick the Great summed up the irony with one of his characteristically cynical witticisms:
Despite the exertions of his Most Catholic Majesty of Spain, his Most Apostolic Majesty of Portugal, his Most Christian Majesty of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor, the Jesuits have been saved by his Most Heretical Majesty and her Most Schismatical Majesty.12
For their part Jesuits in their accounts of this tragic time for their order chose not to criticize Pope Clement or the papacy, and instead consistently claimed that the real cause of their demise was conspiracy successfully plotted by the church’s enemies.
Was Poland Destroyed by the Jesuits?
In assessing the role Jesuits had played in Polish history prior to the regaining of independence in 1918 one issue dominated the historiography: were they responsible for the partition of Poland in 1772? Some interpreters evaluated the Jesuits’ role positively, stressing that it was Piotr Skarga in his Diet Sermons who with prescient vision saw earliest the tragic future of Poland. Thanks to Adam Mickiewicz (1791–1856) and his lectures in Paris in June 1841 at the Collège de France the vision of Skarga as an inspired prophet became a part of the Polish historical imagination. Mickiewicz was the first to present Skarga not only as a brilliant writer but also as a prophet who predicted the political fall of Poland and its future partitioning.13 At the same time the lesser known historian Jędrzej Moraczewski (1802–55) from Poznań wrote that all the activities of the Jesuits were destructive for Poland.14 These conflicting interpretations represent the two principal lines of assessing how the Jesuits were, or were not culpable for the Commonwealth’s downfall. In 1872, the Jesuit historian Stanisław Załęski (1843–1908) published a book Was Poland Destroyed by the Jesuits?, collecting all the critical voices concerning the Jesuits’ role in Polish history.15 This polemical book was the first of his multi-volume history, The Jesuits in Poland, published in the first years of the twentieth century. Załęski’s œuvre offers rich archival documents, 16 so that while his methodology is antiquated, and his conclusions often dubious, the source materials remain valuable for modern scholars.
Mickiewicz’s interpretive approach most influenced historians of Polish literature, who followed in his path by analyzing the role and the impact of Piotr Skarga’s texts on subsequent generations of writers. Ignacy Chrzanowski (1866–1940), a very influential literary critic and a historian of Polish literature, claimed that Skarga delivered his sermons to the Polish Diet in the same form in which they were published. Furthermore, Chrzanowski asserted that Skarga’s arguments exerted influence on the policies of King Sigismund III Vasa (r.1587–1632).17 Chrzanowski based his argument mainly on literary criteria, not on historical documentation, and the risks of this approach became obvious when Stanisław Kot subsequently established that Skarga’s sermons were not delivered before the Polish Diet, but were written as a political treaty merely. According to Kot, “Skarga’s main goal was altering national policy, and a radical reform of the parliamentary system of Poland.”18 Kot’s conclusion was accepted by scholars to such an extent that even Ignacy Chrzanowski became inclined to change his mind.
The interwar period 1918–1939 was also characterized by a bifurcated historiography: on the one hand, there was a tendency to write apologetic history, mainly undertaken by the Jesuits themselves. On the other hand, there emerged a critical evaluation of the role the Jesuits had played in sixteenth- and the seventeenth-century political debate. The apologist mode of writing dominated, particularly in the years surrounding two occasions: the first was the three hundredth anniversary of Skarga’s death commemorated in 1912, the second the four hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1936. Both celebrations offered the chance to make a myth out of Skarga, extolling him as a great patriot and as a saint. Indeed, many participants of both celebrations campaigned to bring about Skarga’s canonization.19
During the communist period 1945–89, there was an a priori animus toward the presence of the Jesuits in the Polish history that directed scholarly criticism. Only in 1991, the year that marked the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ignatius of Loyola (c.1491–1556), were new perspectives opened regarding the role played by the Society in Central and Eastern European history. These new interpretations began when scholars met in Cracow to discuss and debate the Jesuit legacy in Polish culture. From this point on, there was a renewed interest in the history of the Jesuits in Poland.
A contemporary reader of the texts printed by Polish Jesuits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries needs to be fully aware of the ideological implications of Jesuit religious initiatives taking place at the threshold of modernity. Although Ignatius of Loyola formed his spirituality unaware of the radical changes occurring in Europe at that time, the society he founded in 1540 quite early started to be perceived, not without a reason, as an effective tool to fight against the Protestant Reformation. Thus, it is worth briefly considering the beginning phase of the Jesuits not only in Poland but more broadly across Europe to appreciate how the Society of Jesus was used by the papacy as an instrument to renovate Catholicism.
Adherents of the Renaissance idea of freedom have pointed to the Jesuits as the main opponents of the humanist ideal. Eugenio Garin (1909–2004), a great Italian historian of education, is a prime example of this line of interpretation. Garin wrote,
The first Italian humanist school, secular and rebellious, saw in Antiquity a great example of humanism. The Protestant world recognized the education values of bonae litterae. The Jesuit schools used them only because they were useful for its aims, but the instrumental way these values were utilized shows the limits of their acceptance.20
This thesis as the Italian historian formulated it in the 1950s has since been mostly rejected, or at least incorporated into a wider cultural context. After all, the same may be said about Protestant education, which was subordinated to superior reformative aims, while the Protestant “humanist school” to which Garin referred was not free of ideological presuppositions. Nevertheless, the Jesuits’ involvement in defending the papacy did have the hallmark of ideology, both in promoting particular political ideas and opposing others, above all in defending one particular form of Catholicism. Certainly, there can be no dispute that after the Council of Trent (1546–63), the Jesuits had a great impact on the history of religion in Europe, indeed all over the world.
Barbara Bauer in her book Jesuitische “ars rhetorica” im Zeitalter der Glaubenskämpfe, published three decades (1986) after Garin’s, offers a less polarized view of the Jesuits’ approach to education. Bauer did a close comparison—almost certainly the first time this has been done—of two key works, the Jesuits’ ars rhetorica and Philipp Melanchthon’s (1497–1560) instructions for the upbringing of children, treating them as the mutual heritage of Western Christianity. Melanchton—Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) student and close friend—became one of the greatest humanists among the reformers.21 Bauer emphasized that Catholic and Protestant theologians had recourse to the same patron, the prince of humanists Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536). Both sides drew heavily from Erasmus’s thinking, but only occasionally acknowledged him as the source of their ideas. Instead, Reformers responded to Jesuit attacks by pointing to Jesuit fanaticism and to the Jesuits’ “blind” devotion to the papacy, a devotion often expressed with no respect for evangelical values. In the particular case of Polish Jesuits, those with influence at the royal court and at the residences of the great magnates actively engaged themselves in strengthening the Commonwealth’s political status quo.22
The Jesuit attitude towards the humanist tradition needs to be thoroughly researched, for it serves as a pathway into the order’s immensely complex relationship with the Catholic Church. While zealously wanting to offer the Church its best and most faithful servitors, the Jesuits’ very service became a source of misunderstanding and resentment that produced accusations of disloyalty. And as Erasmian thinking lost favor, the Jesuits were forced to deny this key font of inspiration, perhaps producing the sort of conflicted behavior that could have served as the source of their proverbial “hypocrisy.” The work of contemporary scholars such as John O’Malley and Mark Rotsaert has proven that Loyola, notwithstanding his claim to the contrary, diligently read Erasmus of Rotterdam.
O’Malley in his introduction to the collected religious works of Erasmus pointed to “remarkable similarities” between the Handbook of the Christian Soldier (Enchiridion militis christiani) and Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. O’Malley noted that for quite some time the clichéd contrast between Erasmus’s humanism and Loyola’s fanaticism has no longer seemed tenable.23 Rotsaert opened up a parallel pathway when he made a thorough analysis of both these texts, as well as a study of Castile during the now obscure times when Loyola became acquainted with the Spanish translation of the Handbook of the Christian Soldier.24 Rostaert’s conclusion was unequivocal: Loyola was a disciple of Erasmus. In Poland, a prominent scholar Jan Błoński (1931–2009), also noticed these similarities. And Błoński extended their significance to an eastern European context. He caught that Mikołaj Sęp Szarzyński (c.1555–c.1581), a poet clearly influenced by Jesuit spirituality, took Erasmus’s image of soldierly “fighting” from Loyola. In Błoński’s words, “One immediately has in mind Loyola’s ‘athleta Christi’. But Loyola certainly took it from Erasmus as the whole of Enchiridion militis Christiani is based on that particular metaphor.”25 I am stressing the complexity of the Jesuit engagement with the tradition of humanism because their approach constitutes the kind of pattern, perhaps even a sort of cultural paradigm, that may be drawn upon and more appreciatively assessed in our current pluralistic twenty-first-century context.
The Polish Jesuits, despite their influential involvement in politics and in establishing important cultural institutions,26 did not leave any significant theoretical works explaining and/or defending their actions. Bronisław Natoński, S.J. (1914–89) linked this fact to their excessive practical activities which consumed the time needed for writing extensive studies on a scale comparable to their Jesuit brethren in the West: “Writing was not an organized, encouraged pastime. The great difficulties of their circumstances meant that writing was only accomplished on the margin of their administrative and pastoral works; what they composed gathered collectively neither momentum nor depth.”27 According to Natoński, the main feature of the Jesuits’ humanism was their polemic activity: “Great theologians of the time were simultaneously great polemicists. Jesuits who belonged to their Society’s province in Poland in the period of the so-called Jesuit humanism authored an extensive compendium of polemical literature against infidels.”28 In this, Polish writers were mainly influenced by an Italian Jesuit, a real master of Counter-Reformation style, Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621).29 Thus it is that apologist historians of the Jesuits ultimately have ended up, ironically enough, agreeing with their staunch critic Garin that Jesuit work was greatly subordinated to ideological aims.
The number of Jesuits involved in religious and political reform was considerable. The most influential figures were the court preachers Skarga, Marcin Laterna (1552–98), and Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (1596–1640). Sarbiewski is better known as a poet, and as a theoretician of poetics. Nevertheless he served as the court preacher of King Vladislav IV Vasa (r.1633–48), in the last five years of his life, 1635–40. Only one Polish sermon of Sarbiewski has survived that he delivered at the funeral of the Lithuanian Grand Marshal Jan Stanisław Sapieha (1589–1635). There is a fragment from the sermon that is worth quoting since it so characteristic of seventeenth-century Jesuit preaching:
Every state rests upon two pillars: the Church and the royal court. In the Church resides the Majesty of Heaven, while in the king’s court there sits the Majesty of Earth. No republic can exist without these two pillars. Should either of these buttresses bend, the homeland collapses, hence both must be supported.30
This close relationship between the Catholic Church and the state will remain the fundament of Jesuit involvement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The political successes of the Catholic Church increased Jesuit impact, which in turn translated into a growing number of Jesuit colleges and churches. The number of opponents who demanded, sometimes loudly, that the Jesuits be expelled also increased.
What form this combined spiritual and statist support assumed can be seen in Jan Pasek’s (1636–1701) Memoirs, where Pasek talks about his Jesuit uncle, Adrian Piekarski (1615–79). In 1658, Piekarski exhorted soldiers to fight bravely in the following manner: “Though every sacrifice be pleasing to God, if offered with a pure heart in particular, he who bears his own blood to the battlefield for the honour of His Holy Majesty, this is the most pleasing victima of all.”31 The scene after the battle as Pasek presents it is no less significant:
I knelt to serve Father Piekarski at Mass; bloodstained as I am, I help the priest on with his vestments. The Governor even says: ‘Brother, at least wash your hands’. The priest answers: ‘That does not spoil anything, God is not displeased by the blood shed in His Name’.32
Undoubtedly, Protestant preachers with a similar zeal encouraged their followers to serve God in a similar fashion. Today we are far from admiring such religiosity. Yet, this sort of zealotry is a remnant of a difficult to abandon heritage. In any case, the first generation of Jesuits, which certainly contained many of the society’s most accomplished representatives not only then but over the centuries to follow,33 actively rebuilt and in the process reenergized, the religious mentality of Polish Catholicism. Three different periods in this development need to be distinguished. First, the phase when the newly arrived order brought fresh ideas from Spain and Italy. While some Poles accepted these novel ways of thinking with interest and even enthusiasm, most Polish gentry contested and rejected them. The second period stretches across the seventeenth through the first half of the eighteenth century, when the character of the order changed because the majority of Jesuits were recruited from among local gentry who had been brought up with nativist assumptions. In the third phase, largely due to sending students abroad (mainly to Italy, France, and Germany) the Jesuits gradually returned to the Western European humanistic roots of the order, and became more open to contemporary philosophical and theological ideas. Unfortunately, this process of revitalization was blocked by the suppression of the Society in 1773. Many scholars failed to distinguish the dramatic difference in Jesuit training for the better in the years leading up to the suppression, and this failure was a source for significant misunderstanding, for scholarship mistakenly argued the Jesuits were one with the Commonwealth's xenophobic culture, a culture summed up by the term Sarmatyzm (Sarmatism) that dominated the Polish nobility’s worldview for roughly a century and a half. If we want to understand why scholars misinterpreted the role of the Jesuits over this extended period, the particularity of Sarmatism as a phenomenon needs to be appreciated.
“Sarmatization” or Educational Renaissance
As early as 1933 the well-known Polish sociologist Stefan Czarnowski (1879–1937) asserted that Polish religiosity, under Jesuit influence, became more an expression of the nobility’s self-justifying assumptions than of Christian spirituality.34 Thanks to a thorough analysis of sources done by Tadeusz Ulewicz (1917–2012) we now know that the concept of Sarmatia as understood by the szlachta (the collective term for Polish nobles regardless of economic status or influence) is key to understanding seventeenth-century thinking, whether in terms of political theory or in terms of cultural assumptions and norms.35 A study done in 1935 by Jan Stanisław Bystroń (1892–1964) on national myth-making has retained its currency for the case it makes that the attitudes and ambitions awakened by the Sarmatia myth were not only well-received in the distant past, but retained their significance.36 Sarmatian mythology was a source of pride, an opportunity to compare oneself favorably in relation to non-szlachta others, for it opposed the reality of the declining status of the Polish republic with a fictive account that claimed the szlachta directly descended from the Roman republic’s noble class. From these mythic origins came a defining belief that Poland’s noble republicans had been divinely charged with a unique civilizing role in the confrontation with the barbaric East. Sarmatian ideology was joined to how the szlachta understood the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Eastern Europe. On the one hand, the church’s presence served as proof that Poland was the rightful heir to ancient Roman civilization and on the other hand, the church provided the pretext to promote “Catholic values” in the eastern, multi-confessional portion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Nonetheless, there were indeed other confessions that had a significant place in Sarmatian times. Stanisław Kot, a great expert on old Polish culture, was one of the first intellectuals to point out the importance of a radical denomination of Protestantism—The Polish Brethren.37 Kot’s way of thinking was deeply embedded in the tradition of eighteenth-century Enlightenment criticism. He valued the Brethren religious tradition while simultaneously offering a less positive assessment of Counter-Reformation Polish Catholicism.
After World War II Kot’s antagonistic line of interpretation was cultivated by Zbigniew Ogonowski,38 Maria Bogucka,39 and particularly Janusz Tazbir.40 Tazbir went furthest, proposing an original reinterpretation of the Sarmatian legacy, especially in relation to Catholic religiosity. Besides those who followed the critical path that Kot’s Enlightenment approach had first established, there were others who were unabashedly smitten with the fantasized historiography that the Sarmatian myths produced. Krzysztof Koehler, one of the most persistent eulogists of the Sarmatians’ legacy in recent times, has acknowledged that he himself is a follower of that very tradition. His activity goes beyond academic41 and popular scholarly publications,42 as he has created a very original website Palus Sarmatica where he promotes the tradition of Polish Sarmatism:
This [Palus Sarmatica] is a systematically made dictionary, a kind of a “Sarmatian hypertext,” which talks in a less academic mode about noble culture, beginning with its political or religious aspects to material culture and customs. The aim of the collection of texts created in this fashion, like its title Sarmatian Swamp, is to focus on a milieu interested in noble culture to attract those who have not yet become interested in the Polish history and culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.43
So far there are only Kohler’s texts, hence it is difficult to talk about a “milieu.” Moreover, it is hard to resist the impression that this is rather simply a project by a single person. Reading only such definitions as “Sarmatia (a myth),” “historical sense,” “Holy Mary the Queen of Poland,” “Piotr Skarga,” “Antemurale (the Bulwark myth)” makes the reader aware that for Kohler Sarmatism indisputably supplies a positive heritage.
But in the light of historical research by noted historians such as the French scholar Daniel Beauvois, claiming the Sarmatia myth to be innocent and idyllic can no longer be supported.44 Beauvois’s critique has been confirmed by Tazbir in his several books on Reformation and Counter-Reformation issues. Tazbir grasped the ambiguity of historical writing about the Jesuits’ influence on Polish culture, and wrote at the beginning of our current century that
Today we appreciate not only the greatness of Pascal’s thought, but also the contribution of the Society of Jesus. For a long time some used to look at its history only through panegyric glasses, while others only through the lens of satire. Today, we are trying to keep to a middle ground, while bearing in mind that indifference kills. Satire is preferable to indifference for one only writes satirical texts about movements and people who have earned their place in the history of politics or culture.45
This more calibrated evaluation of the Jesuits is possible thanks to historical studies based on archival research made by a growing number of Polish scholars. Still, the controversy over whether the Jesuits were educating Poles towards new ways of thinking or instead reinforcing the dominant Sarmatian worldview, remains an open one. In an essay published in 1989 as part of a collection dedicated to the history of the papacy, Tazbir seems to suggest that he is inclined to the latter interpretation:
The Jesuits did not withstand the process of the “Sarmatization” of Polish Catholicism, which reached its apogee at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By this term I mean the adaptation of religious concepts, of views of the past, and of eschatological ideas to conform to the political and constitutional structure of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, along with an admixture of folklore and local historical tradition.46
As Tazbir himself recognized, whether in fact the Jesuits succumbed to the mythmaking, and sank into the “Sarmatian swamp” is the most important problem: “I am less interested, however, in their [the Jesuits’] influence on Polish society than in the ‘Sarmatization’ of the order’s members, and the price that the Jesuits paid for this.”47 The hypothesis that they did indeed succumb is very suggestive, but hard to support in the light of recent publications. If the premise had been true in practice it should have meant a Jesuit rejection of the great humanistic ideals, of high culture, along with a lowering to popular, indeed, Sarmatian, tastes, a merging with the anti-intellectual culture of the Polish szlachta. But that is not entirely true. The broad thesis that Jesuits surrendered to local thinking does not sufficiently acknowledge their attempt not just to influence the Sarmatian worldview but to overcome it. According to Tazbir “In the Polish Jesuits’ balance of accounts for work accomplished in the eighteenth century it would be hard to ignore the sad fact that ultimately the ‘boorish skull’ of Sarmatism had the upper hand over the Society’s cultural elite.”48 This claim need to be revisited—and resisted—in the light of recent publications examining the history of Jesuit architecture, philosophy, social activities, and spirituality.
In his book dedicated to Jesuits schools, begun as a PhD thesis under the supervision of Stanisław Kot and published in 1933, Stanisław Bednarski, S.J. (1896–1942) documented that in the eighteenth century the Jesuits successfully reformed their school system.49 Kazimierz Puchowski in his book published in 2007 dealing with collegia nobilia in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fully confirmed Bednarski’s conclusions regarding the revival of the Jesuits in the eighteenth century, taking particular notice of the formation of many Polish Jesuits in France. Puchowski’s approach was less apologetic than Bednarski’s. Moreover, thanks to rich archival material unknown to Bednarski he was able to situate the improvement of Jesuit schools within the broader context of the global educational system in Poland.50
One of the most characteristic qualities of the Society of Jesus over the centuries has been the ability to inculturate the Christian message into different racial and religious contexts. In fact, “inculturation” became a kind of trademark of Jesuit ministries, and was the cause of many conflicts with the Roman Curia. Likely, it was one of the reasons why the order was suppressed in 1773. Today, such practices are accepted as positive contributions to spiritual development, and so what the Jesuits were doing in much earlier times may now be viewed as prophetic of policies implemented by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.51 Of the Jesuit intuitions related to their practice of inculturation, the most important insight was that the Western form of Christianity was only one of many possible ways to be a Christian. This understanding may seem obvious today, but in the sixteenth century it was most often viewed as heresy. And indeed, a strategy of inculturation may have ambiguous results as the complicated relation of the Jesuits with Sarmatism demonstrates. Thus the Central and Eastern European Jesuit experience can be an interesting case study from this perspective as well.
Having in mind this long-standing ambivalence in assessing the Jesuits’ presence in Polish culture, let us now examine how the Society’s impact on Polish culture has been presented in the most recent publications in Poland.
Simply a Part of Polish Culture
In the last decade of the twentieth and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, historiography dealing with the presence of the Jesuits in Polish culture took on a less charged character, became at once more descriptive and objective. What seems to have launched this different approach was a conference held in Cracow in 1991. The Jesuits themselves organized this event; all the leading scholars from Poland took part, and some from Lithuania (Romanas Pleckaitis [1933–2009]) and the United States (Mark O’Connor) as well. Pleckaitis spoke on philosophy, particularly the philosophy of nature during the period of the Jesuits’ greatest achievements at their Academy of Vilnius. O’Connor focused on the career of one especially distinguished professor at Vilnius Academy, Marcin Poczobut, to document how thoroughly and well the Jesuits were training their next generation at the time of the suppression, and to detail Poczobut’s extensive dealings with the Catholic Enlightenment across Europe. All the papers delivered during the conference were published two years later in a book: The Jesuits and Polish Culture. Like the conference itself, this collection had an important impact on scholarly cooperation and research.52
A prime example of this ongoing cooperative research was the publication produced by Jesuits based in the Cracow province, the Encyclopedia of Information about Jesuits in the Lands of Poland and Lithuania, 1564–1995 published in 1996 by Ludwik Grzebień, S.J.53 It was a collective achievement of many Jesuits working in different field of research. If we take into consideration that most of the archives in Poland were destroyed over the course of several wars, it is very important that the materials to be found in the Jesuit Archives in Rome are now, thanks to this collection brought together by Grzebień, better known to scholars interested in Jesuit history. These source materials have played a crucial role in recent times in overcoming many of the long held stereotypes about the Society of Jesus because they have generated a wave of publications with more nuanced, calibrated conclusions. But it seems worth noting that this manner of writing has characterized a key strain of Jesuit historiography in general since the nineteenth century. In Poland in particular, it was initiated by Załęski, best known as the author of the previously mentioned polemical work, Was Poland Destroyed by Jesuits?
A good example of this renewed tendency are the articles and books written by Jerzy Paszenda S.J. (1932–2012). Paszenda was an acclaimed authority on the history of Jesuit architectural practices. In 1967, Paszenda published a path-breaking article, “The Problem of Style in Jesuit Architecture.” The article has been frequently quoted ever since publication because of the controversial conclusion the argument makes: “it is impossible to speak about a specific Jesuit’s artistic program.”54 The only “program,” Paszenda asserted, consisted in adaptation to the local tradition, and precisely because of this approach there is great variety to Jesuit art in different countries, let alone in different parts of the world. In 2000, Paszenda wrote again about what some scholars have continued to call “Jesuit style,” expressing, with a degree of irritation, his disgruntlement that this erroneous opinion continued to persist.55 A careful reading of Paszenda’s five volumes dedicated to Jesuit buildings in Poland from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century confirms his skepticism concerning the existence of any “Jesuit style.”56
Another example of the commitment of contemporary Jesuits to systematic research is the forty-year body of work Roman Darowski, S.J., has devoted to the history of Jesuit philosophical thought in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the time the order arrived in the sixteenth century, through to the twentieth. Darowski has published fifteen books (four of them dedicated to the history of Jesuit engagement with philosophy) and over 350 articles—and more than fifty of those in different languages. For anyone interested in this topic Darowski’s scholarship serves as an obligatory point of reference. In a collection of previous published papers dealing with Jesuit philosophy over this considerable span of time reissued in 1999 Darowski presented his methodological tenets.57 Here are six key components: not apologetic arguments, instead solid, substantive knowledge; an analytical approach is necessary for synthesis; critical and contextual analysis; empathic but not judgmental presentation; openness towards constructive critique by other scholars. Darowski’s final tenet is to take into consideration the international, particularly the European, context of his work.
Darowski’s methodology can be investigated, and verified, through the following books. In each he has focused on a different epoch: Philosophy in the Jesuit Schools in Poland in the Sixteenth Century published in 1994;58Studies in Jesuit Philosophy in Poland in the Seventeenth and the Eighteenth Centuries (1998);59Jesuit Philosophy in the Lands of the Former Commonwealth (Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine): An Attempt at a Synthesis – A Dictionary of Writers and Lecturers – Anthology of Texts, published in 2013.60 Darowski analyzed the recent past in Jesuit Philosophy in Poland in the Twentieth Century that appeared in 2001.61 He is not the only scholar to devote considerable attention to this topic. To get a sense of the scope it is enough to look at the twelve pages of the bibliography prepared by Darowski that lists books and papers published in the last quarter of the twentieth century.62 To cite just one example: Adam Aduszkiewicz’s 1995 published PhD dissertation. Its first section deals with the philosophy of Francisco Suárez (1648–1617).63
The frequently quoted judgment by Roland Barthes that “the Jesuits […] have contributed much to forming our notion of literature”64 is particularly true for the case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Thus it is no wonder that Jesuit education in the Commonwealth has attracted scholarly attention for many years. The earlier mentioned monograph by Bednarski (1933), dedicated to the decline and the revival of Jesuits schools in Poland, was the path-breaking work.65
When Jesuits arrived to Poland in 1564 the only institution of higher education was the University of Cracow founded in 1364 by King Casimir the Great (r.1333–70). In the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, to safeguard this monopoly the university’s authorities strongly opposed Jesuit attempts to establish a college in Cracow.66 So it is hardly surprising that the first Jesuit university in the Commonwealth was founded far from Cracow, in Vilnius by Stefan Batory (r.1575–86) in 1570. Its first rector was Skarga. Thanks to the lifetime work of Ludwik Piechnik S.J. (1920–2006) we have four volumes dedicated to the history of Vilnius Academy. The first volume describes its founding phase.67 With the second we learn about the Academy’s apogee years during the first half of the seventeenth century.68 The third in the series deals with efforts to renovate the Academy after many years of wars with Sweden and Russia, wars that continued through the second half of the seventeenth century even to the beginning of the eighteenth.69 Piechnik devoted his fourth and final volume to the Academy’s revival, a phase that began around 1730 and continued until the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773.70 This extended example of institutional history is solidly based on source materials from Jesuit archives, but some reviewers took note that Piechnik did not examine the broader social, religious, and cultural context of the Jesuits’ activities, and therefore criticized him for limiting this magnum opus to institutional history merely. The same critique could be applied to similar but less extensive studies published by younger Jesuits historians such as Kazimierz Leń, S.J. who wrote about the Jesuit collegium in Jarosław,71 and Marek Inglot, S.J. who published a book on the collegium at Iłłukszta.72 By contrast, the history of the Jesuits in Gdańsk, as Sławomir Kościelak presents it, offers a new and different approach, for not only Jesuit sources “are talking” but Kościelak also makes it possible to hear the voices of their opponents.73 Books dedicated to particular Jesuits such as Skarga or Sarbiewski are too numerous to write about in this short essay. But I would like to draw attention to studies focusing on lesser known Jesuits. For instance, the mathematician Adam Adamandy Kochański (1631–1700) was in touch with the most important scientists of his time, Johannes Hevelius (1611–87), and Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716). A second example is Jan Badeni (1858–99), a pioneer in the fields of modern journalism and the social sciences. Kochański’s writings and activities have been the subject of Bogdan Lisiak, S.J.’s research for some time. Among his many books the most important to mention is the one Lisiak dedicated to Kochański’s philosophy of science.74 Badeni’s life attracted the attention of Andrzej Paweł Bieś, S.J. who produced an interesting monograph on Badeni’s social work and writings in the second half of the nineteenth century.75 Badeni was one of many Jesuits who in the fin de siècle epoch were actively involved not only in social action initiatives but in the growing field of journalism as well.
The list of books devoted to Jesuit education in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and of the scholars who have specialized in this area of research is of course longer than this brief survey can present, but those who wish to explore the topic more extensively should consult The Basic Bibliography for the History of the Society of Jesus in Poland. The few publications that have been featured were chosen to point to general tendencies in the contemporary approach to writing about the Jesuits’ past. Now, at the end of this article, I should like to pay special attention to a collection prepared by Irena Stasiewicz-Jasiukowa (1931–2011) entitled The Contribution of the Polish Jesuits to the Development of Science and Culture in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and during the Partitions, published in 2004.76
This work can be seen as a stratagem for continuing what had been begun with the conference organized by Jesuits in Cracow in 1991, and the book, The Jesuits and Polish Culture, that came out of the conference two years later. Yet in the case Stasiewicz-Jasiukowa’s publication the initiative came from Polish scholars who, as she wrote in her introduction,
are genuinely dedicated to the cause of debunking the myths present in their research areas so as to advocate for the factual and the true. This is no easy task as the relevant evidence was for many years programmatically obscured by many authorities, including academic ones, who were so biased against Jesuits that they refused to acknowledge even their most obvious academic successes.77
This programmatic statement sounds very convincing as a recapitulation of how the history of historiography on post-restoration Jesuits in Poland has evolved.
Still, I would like to add this by way of closing: even if I agree with Stasiewicz-Jasiukowa that her collection is “unique in character and importance,” the book is only the beginning of a new approach toward the history of Jesuits in contemporary Polish historiography. What is needed next is an interdisciplinary approach calling forth for a real dialogue amongst scholars representing different methodologies. In my opinion, the method of writing history proposed by Michel de Certeau, S.J. (1925–85) that I have discussed in an essay dedicated to him, offers a particularly promising path to follow.78
^ Back to text12. John W. Padberg, “The Demonization of the Jesuits,” in Intolerance and indignation: L’Affaire Dreyfus; Actes des colloques des universités de Columbia et de Georgetown, ed. Jean-Max Guieu (Paris: Les Éditions Fischbacher, 2000), 142.
^ Back to text19. Stanisław Obirek, “Wspominanie czy kreowanie: Wokół rocznic Piotra Skargi 1912 i 1936,” in Wielkie rocznice w dyskursie publicznym i pamięci społecznej, ed. Marceli Kosman (Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe WNPiD, 2011), 175–88.
^ Back to text30. Stanisław Obirek, “Stosunek jezuitów do władzy politycznej w okresie królów elekcyjnych XVI oraz ‘Laska Marszałkowska’ Macieja Kazimierza Sarbiewskiego jako przykład znaczącej ewolucji poglądów,” in Ludzie i idee: Pułtuskie kolegium jezuickie, ed. Jakub Z. Lichański (Warszawa-Pułtusk: Wyższa Szkoła Humanistyczna w Pułtusku, 1996).
^ Back to text31. Jan Chryzostom Pasek, Memoirs of the Polish Baroque: The Writings of Jan Chryzostom Pasek, a Squire of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, ed. Catherine S. Leach (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), 14.
^ Back to text34. Stefan Czarnowski, “Reakcja katolicka w Polsce w końcu XVI i na początku XVII wieku,” in Dzieła, ed. Nina Assorodobraj and Stanisław Ossowski (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1956), 164.
^ Back to text40. Janusz Tazbir, “Sarmatyzacja katolicyzmu w XVII wieku,” in Wiek XVII – Kontrreformacja – Barok: Prace z historii kultury, ed. Janusz Pelc (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1970), 7–37.
^ Back to text44. Daniel Beauvois, Trójkąt ukraiński: Szlachta, carat i lud na Wołyniu, Podolu i Kijowszczyźnie 1793–1914, trans. Krzysztof Rutkowski (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej, 2011).
^ Back to text48. Ibid, 127. Here Tazbir makes a reference to the poem “Grób Agamemnona” (Agamemnon’s tomb) by the Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki: “O Polsko! póki ty duszę anielską/ Będziesz więziła w czerepie rubasznym” (O Poland ! As long as you imprison/ An angelic soul in a boorish skull [translated by Michael Mikos]).