Leszek Kolakowski, 1927–2009GEORGE WEIGEL
Remembering the great philosophical pathologist.
Cracow, Poland -- Leszek Kolakowski, who died at 82 on July 17, will be remembered by the world of letters as one of the leading philosophers of the late 20th century, a man whose magisterial Main Currents of Marxism will be read centuries from now by anyone interested in getting at the intellectual roots of one of modernity's most consequential -- and lethal -- bodies of thought. His native Poland will remember Kolakowski as one of a small group of intellectuals who, in the aftermath of Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968, turned their backs on theoretical Marxism as well as on the Communist Party, wrecking their own academic careers but laying some of the paving stones that would eventually lead to the Solidarity movement, the nonviolent collapse of European Communism, and the triumph of freedom in much of Central and Eastern Europe.
Were it the only thing he had ever written, Main Currents of Marxism, Kolakowski's three-volume masterwork, would have made him a worthy first recipient of the Library of Congress's Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences. Main Currents, however, was only one part of Kolakowski's extensive oeuvre, which combined the kind of rigorous logic for which pre-World War II Polish philosophy was noted with wit and literary grace. Kolakowski's small book Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers is a gem that ought to be required reading for every college freshman -- for Kolakowski was a brilliant teacher as well as a gifted writer, a man who forced you to think even when you disagreed. Then there is My Correct Views on Everything, in which he explains his break with Marxism (while eviscerating the British Marxist E. P. Thompson, who wrote a notorious "Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski") and then goes on to explore Christianity and classical liberalism in a brace of finely honed essays. Kolakowski's philosophical works on religion ought to give the New Atheists pause; they, and others, might begin with Religion: If There Is No God . . . On God, the Devil, Sin, and Other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion (Leszek did have a way with titles).
But in trying to summarize the achievement of a brilliant and original thinker who endured both political exile and a lot of physical suffering, I still return to those days in Moscow in October 1990 -- albeit to a scene from which Leszek was absent. Another colleague and I decided to spend a few free hours exploring the Kremlin, and we enlisted as guide and translator a bright young Russian who had been hanging around the hotel lobby, obviously looking to practice his English. He took us to one of the newly restored cathedrals inside the Kremlin walls, where we soon found ourselves standing before a brilliant fresco of the Last Supper. There was no doubt that it was the Last Supper; it couldn't have been anything else. Yet this obviously intelligent young Russian looked at us and said, "Please tell me: who are those men and what are they doing?"
George Weigel. "Leszek Kolakowski, 1927–2009." National Review Online (July 24, 2009).
This article is reprinted with permission from George Weigel. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.
George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
Copyright © 2009 George Weigel
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