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The Heritage of Polish Republicanism
By Krzysztof Koehler
The Sarmatian Review, Vol.32:2 (2012)
Introduction: Polish republican thought is virtually unknown in the intellectual world of Western Europe and America. One cannot find any information about Polish political thought, let alone the Polish practice of republicanism in the works of such thinkers as Quentin Skinner or John Pocock — perhaps because its foundational works were written either in Latin or in Old Polish and have never been translated into modern European languages. Political writers began to use Polish in the mid-sixteenth century; before that the vernacular was used only when dealing with minor or inferior matters in the kingdom. The first politcal treatises in the Polish languages were the works of Stanisław Orzechowski (1564) and Marcin Kromer (1551); earlier, Latin was the language in which the Polish gentry (szlachta) expressed their political and sometimes private sentiments. In the sixteenth century Poland was one of the few countries in Europe where Latin was routinely taught in schools so that graduates acquired enough proficiency to communicate with each other in that tongue.
The second reason why Polish republican thought has not been recognized in contemporary republican discourse is the fact that Poland was a Kingdom, i.e., it had a king, and this made contemporary thinkers view political discourse in fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century Poland as monarchic and not republican. These researchers are wrong. In Polish political debates of half a millenium ago, monarchic ideas were always permeated with republicanism. In that period public discourse had civic virtue as its centerpiece. Even when the royal court and rich landlords tried to introduce monarchic values into the realm of politics, they had to use the language of republicanism owing to the republican sentiments of the Polish nobility. This process was particularly prominent in the seventeenth century, when oligarchic tendencies were manifested with great force. When new and rich magnate families began to appear in the Res Publica after the Union of Lublin in 1569 (the date of the political union between the Polish Kingdom and the Great Duchy of Lithuania), they gradually began replacing the old aristocratic families whose roots went back to the Piast dynasty or the beginning of the Jagiellon dynasty in the early fifteenth century. In the process, they used and abused the language of republicanism to advance their personal goals. Thus while the language of republicanism never disappeared from Polish political discourse, it went unnoticed by outside observers who saw only the Polish monarchy on the one hand and selfish magnates on the other.