Polish Philosopher's Parables and Essays
TALES FROM THE KINGDOM OF LAILONIA AND THE KEY TO HEAVEN. By Leszek Kolakowski, University of Chicago Press, 186 pp., $16.95.
MODERNITY ON ENDLESS TRIAL. By Leszek Kolakowski, University of Chicago Press, 261 pp., $24.95.
ONE of my favorite philosophers teaches that "Pancakes with syrup tend to have vicious natures."
The philosopher is Leszek Kolakowski. Until recently, he was known mostly for his three-volume "Mainstreams of Marxism"; now he is known for his piece about sticky pancakes. The article and its companions were first published when he held the chair of new philosophy of history at the University of Warsaw.
The tale is a parable about life conceived as a war with things. The hero's name is Ditto, and his losing strategy is not to free himself from things - he thought that impractical - but to disguise himself as a thing, as a sticky pancake perhaps. The tale ends with Ditto having become a slave to things.
Maybe the piece was the last straw for the government. Fortunately for his future students in Oxford, England, and Chicago, Kolakowski was forced to leave Poland in 1969. Now the pancake piece has been collected with the other "Tales From the Kingdom of Lailonia" and published in an English translation with "The Key to Heaven," a retelling of 17 Biblical tales. Enchantingly illustrated, these imaginative works will expand Kolakowski's readership. All his tales join an irrepressible sense of humor with a
gift for storytelling to convey the philosopher's wisdom.
Anyone who enjoys these funny, sad, wise tales will treasure Kolakowski's new collection of essays, "Modernity on Endless Trial." Written between 1973 and 1986, they range in length, difficulty, and tone, from "Why Do We Need Kant?" to "Can the Devil Be Saved?" to "The General Theory of Not-Gardening." Together they constitute a virtual salon of ideas, giving voice to Kolakowski's gentle but firm positions on the questions that have become the sticking points of our troubled times.
The title is grimmer than the overall feeling of the book. Modernity, we learn, began in the 11th century with the increasingly powerful advance of the distinction between secular reason and faith. The millennium now drawing to a close may be called modernity. The big news at the end of the modern millennium is the relevance of Christian faith.
Whether tale or essay, Kolakowski's writing always teaches us to be patient with the necessity of comparing various points of view. In his tale of King Saul and the prophet Samuel, he moralizes that, "One can act consistently according to an order or act according to a doctrine, but not always according to both at the same time." Kolakowski's philosophy is not simply one of informed doubt.He teaches reconciliation and love. He sees philosophical doubt and love of one's neighbor as two sides of the same c
oin. In a memorable passage, he says, "Reconciliation and willingness to compromise without cowardice, without opportunism, and without conceding what one considers the heart of the matter - that certainly is an art not given freely to anybody as a natural gift. But the fate of the democratic order of the world depends on our ability to master this art."
Kolakowski belongs to the peaceful tradition of Christian thinkers who find in Christianity not a political or social program or system of government but a way of life springing from two beliefs: "[T]he belief that Jesus the redeemer appeared on earth in historic time in order to free us from evil, from which we could not free ourselves, and the ability to remove hatred which follows from this belief." This is Kolakowski's carefully argued "minimum" of Christianity. It leaves much room for doubting ever y
thing else, for free discussion, for spirited disagreement.
Whether learned or humorous, these essays offer gems in prose of diamond hardness, precision, and brilliance.
Thomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.