With disarming and hardly disingenuous modesty, Polish humanist Leszek Kolakowski describes his new anthology, Modernity on Endless Trial, as a loose collection of “semi-philosophical sermons” written over the course of a decade or so, purporting to offer no original philosophy. He adds, as an apparent afterthought, that he views them as conscious, deliberate appeals for “moderation in consistency”—an idea for which he, a very much former Marxist, confesses a long-standing fascination. In fact, these intellectual cameos are sophisticated attempts to struggle with some of the most difficult and interesting challenges to our culture; their style is so elegant and refreshingly clear as to delight even the reader who on occasion may take exception to some of the author’s conclusions.

The book is divided into four parts: modernity, barbarity, and intellectuals; the dilemmas of the Christian legacy; liberals, revolutionaries, and Utopians; and scientific theories. In more or less logical order, these categories embrace the question of what modernity is (or is not), together with two related epistemological-sociological questions: should modernity be placed in the dock at all, and if so, who is qualified to judge it? (Certainly not the self-righteous but usually deeply flawed intellectuals, whom the equally contemptuous Solzhenitsyn has called “the smatterers.”) Kolakowski further explores the contribution of religion and the role of faith; the shortcomings of Utopias, revolutions, and politics generally; and finally he offers a transcendental— and quixotic—critique of all ideology, including the self-righteously “scientific” kind.

To begin with, he lays to rest the idea that “modernity” is something to be for or against insofar as the development of technology and economic rationality are concerned. Kolakowski’s chief fear is that, in the name of modernity and a mystical sense of “progress,” we shall witness the disappearance of what he calls “taboos,” defined by him as “barriers erected by instinct and not by conscious planning,” whose function is nothing less than the preservation of social life. “Various traditional human bonds which make communal life possible, and without which our existence would be regulated only by greed and fear, are not likely to survive without a taboo system,” Kolakowski argues; on this pragmatic ground, he is prepared to defend them.

On the one hand, Kolakowski unequivocally attacks reason as a moral guide, since what he takes to be “the normal sense of ‘rationality'” allows for—indeed invites—nominalist relativism. Thus he bluntly and clearly asserts that “there are no more rational grounds for respecting human life and human personal rights than there are, say, for forbidding the consumption of shrimp among Jews.” Yet this proposition flies blatantly in the face of the natural rights theory of Immanuel Kant, whom Kolakowski in another essay correctly and emphatically praises.

The essay “Why Do We Need Kant?” is in fact a particularly astute rendering of the German philosopher’s rather complex rationalist ethics. Kolakowski appreciates that the classical doctrine of natural rights asserts that each human being is by his nature unequivocally entitled to fundamental rights and that people are ends in themselves—ideas that, contrary to other, less sophisticated naturalist theories, emphatically do not belong to an empirical concept. Kolakowski regards as essential the appreciation that the ethical understanding of humanity derives legitimately from neither anthropological nor historical research, but is rather substantiated morally. And Kant, of course, derived that moral ground from practical reason.

On this issue, Kolakowski is tentative. While noting that moral substantiation can be obtained through postulating absolutely autonomous principles of practical reason, and hence might not have to rely on religious tradition, he avoids taking a stand on the matter by noting simply that its resolution is “another question.” One senses that Kolakowski has great sympathy with Kant’s rational moral justification on a purely intellectual—which is to say, rational—level. Yet Kolakowski seems to lean away from it in the end, for the Dostoyevskian reason that human beings are not equal to this kind of rationality, and that without Cod, to echo the great novelist, “anything is possible.”

Kolakowski fears the human penchant for invoking “rationality” to dismiss age-old traditions—a tendency to which intellectuals especially are prone—and invoke certainty and ideology in the service of grand illusions whose result is terror and destruction. Having witnessed the tragedy of his own country, the monstrosity of Nazism followed by the horrors of communism, Kolakowski will forever appreciate the danger of inhumanity in the name of deceptively lofty but in fact barbarous principles. The result, in his case, is a skepticism that has turned dogmatism into its opposite: an apology for balance, for tradition, for pluralism at all costs—even at the cost of abjuring philosophy. Kolakowski appears to have been stunned into forgiveness and tolerance.

Sympathetic to the forces of novelty and, for lack of a better term, “modernity,” Kolakowski deplores the “spirit of technology” and believes that Christianity alone has the power to shield man from the evils of despair on the one hand and hubris on the other. “The choice between total perfection and total self-destruction is not ours; cares without end, incompleteness without end, these are our lot.”

Far from deploring his destiny away from his native Poland (having been exiled in 1968, he divides his teaching career between Oxford and the University of Chicago), Kolakowski values exile as an existential manner of being. In fact, he considers it to be the defining predicament of our time, which he views as “the age of refugees, of migrants, vagrants, nomads, roaming about the continents and warming their souls with the memory of their—spiritual or ethnic, divine or geographical, real or imaginary—homes.” He knows that absolute homelessness is impossible. And yet there are entire peoples who—while remaining in their ancestral homes—have been exiled within, estranged from their own cultures, histories, and personal realities. In 1985, Kolakowski could still ask whether the entire world might be driven into internal half-exile. He finds the root of that condition in “the split between the State, which people feel is not theirs, though it claims to be their owner, and the motherland of which they are guardians.” Today, there is hope for recently liberated Eastern and Central Europe. And yet the destruction of the nearly five decades that preceded liberation has left an indelible scar. Kolakowski asks: “Does God try to remind us, somewhat brutally, that exile is the permanent human condition? A ruthless reminder, indeed, even if deserved.”

Kolakowski ultimately reveals himself to be romantic, one who dares to question God’s motives, who even suspects them of “brutality.” Yet he believes man needs to remember that his earthly existence is temporary and that he has been placed here for reasons he is not meant to understand. What makes these essays worth reading is a sense they create of their author’s genuine love for mankind, with all its terrible foibles and its desire to emulate its Creator. Kolakowski reminds us of our limitations. Which is, of course, a well-deserved reminder.


[Modernity on Endless Trial, by Leszek Kolakowski (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press) 304 pp., $24.95]