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Birth of the Intelligentsia – 1750–1831

A History of the Polish Intelligentsia – Part 1, edited by Jerzy Jedlicki


Maciej Janowski

The three-part work provides a first synthetic account of the history of the Polish intelligentsia from the days of its formation to World War I. Part one (1750–1831) traces the formation of the intelligentsia as a social class in the epoch of Enlightenment. It stresses the importance of the birth of bureaucratic institutions that created the demand for the educated stratum. It analyses the results of the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795 – the ominous event that transformed the political geography of East Central Europe. The work combines social and intellectual history, tracing both the formation of the intelligentsia as a social stratum and the forms of engagement of the intelligentsia in the public discourse. Thus, it offers a broad view of the group’s transformations which immensely influenced the course of the Polish history.
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Chapter 1: At the sources


Our account of the history of Polish intelligentsia starts some two and a half centuries ago, in the Age of Enlightenment. Why then? Is it not the case that there have always lived educated people in our land, at least ever since Poland assumed Christianity? Did anything of unique importance occur in the middle of 18th century that implied a real breakthrough in the history of the enlightened class?

There can be no reply to this question without an attempt to look closer at the situation of educated people in periods prior to this. Staying well aware of the risk of error and simplification, let us peek into the past so as to be reassured that the proposed periodisation is legitimate. Such a glance, whilst not pretending to be fully accurate or complete, sheds light primarily on the angle-of-view that seeks the germs and first fruits of the intellectual milieu. There is hopefully no doubt that intellectuals are formed by their milieu or environment – the one that normally surrounds them even if they are conflicted against each other. This environment provides topics for conversation and opportunities to meet and grapple with ideas, thus producing the criteria for evaluation of one’s own achievements and of those of others. An environment of this sort develops only and almost necessarily in an urban space. There, adequate density of contacts is ensured so that stimuli for creative mental and intellectual activity can emerge, and exchange of thoughts is enabled: a rivalry and...

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