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A Degenerate World

Series:

Jerzy Jedlicki

Edited By Elena Rozbicka

Modernism and pessimism seem to go hand in hand. What are the sources of the historical pessimism we see in the legions of writers and thinkers over the past three centuries who saw modern civilization as degenerate and despicable, happily marching to its own doom? Why did so many educated and intelligent people despise the innovations that were the work of their contemporaries? This book focuses on English and Polish thought during the 19 th and early 20 th centuries, a time of relative political stability and great success in science and industry, when many nevertheless voiced concern that Europe is moving in the wrong direction, to its own destruction. After WWI, these warnings became even more dire and have left their mark on the European culture of our times.
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Chapter 2. Gloomy Stereotypes of the West

Extract



The European West has always been the main point of reference for the Polish intellectual elite, present in its literature and political thought. Throughout the Jagiellonian period, in spite of the union with Lithuania and the country’s eastward expansion, Poland strengthened cultural ties with the West, a trend that peaked in the sixteenth century. These bonds weakened later on in the years of the Counterreformation and in the first half of the eighteenth century, a time when the noble culture assumed an Oriental flavour – at least, in the eyes of Western observers. As a matter of fact, Sarmatism was an indigenous phenomenon as to customs and mentality, whilst it isolated Poland and Lithuania from the rapid stream of civilisational transformations in the West. And even then, in spite of intensified xenophobia and the self-righteousness of the Polish nobility, the sense of Poland’s affiliation with Europe – with the universe of Latin Christianity which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was to feed with her grain and shield with the breasts of her knighthood so that the other nations could further enhance their sciences, arts, and craftsmanship – did not decline.

This Sarmatian dogma, upon which rested the illusory belief that Poland was indispensible for Europe, was vigorously attacked by promoters of Enlightenment ideas in Poland, beginning with the late years of Augustus III Wettin’s reign. The West reappeared in their writings time and again as a standard for the backward Commonwealth to follow. The model was, however, selective and diverse. The...

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