Bulwark of Liberty or Backward Savagery? Dispute between Rousseau and the Polish Enlightenment Thinkers Over Eastern Europe

  • Abstract:

    This study aims to question the traditional interpretation of the Enlightenment discourse, which rests upon the assumption that Eastern Europeans were considered as uneducated savages (an image created by Western European elites) that need to be developed according to the principles of Western civilization. Such a view might be deemed incomplete and thus misleading. Of course, there have always been many “Western progressive thinkers” who promoted the idea of westernization of the East, as well as there have been plenty of Eastern Enlightenment intellectuals turning to Western ideals as a salvation from backwardness. However, one should admit that the original Eastern structures of state and society represented an inspiring alternative that enabled some theoreticians to get a different viewpoint; as obvious in the Polish case. Taking the uniqueness of their 18th century political system into account, one is able to acknowledge the importance of the Polish internal debate that tried to answer whether a republican spirit of the state was something that should have been preserved or completely rejected. In terms of the East-Western dichotomical point of view however, it is essential that this contradiction between republic as “bulwark of freedom” and “backward barbarism” did not only represent a local issue, but also piqued Western curiosity, especially Rousseau’s one. Hence, it is fully legitimate to analyse his approach towards this Eastern European country and his conclusions that contradicted both the Western as well as the Polish common convictions that the region was something undesirable. Thus, the main purpose of this paper is to analyse and explain the tensions between Rousseau and Polish Enlightenment thinkers as M. Wielhorski or S. Leszczyński and, by clarifying them, to reveal a deeper ambiguity of the Enlightenment discourse concerning the interpretation of Eastern Europe as well as human nature.