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The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment in Poland were developed later than in the Western Europe, as Polish bourgeoisie was weaker, and szlachta (nobility) culture (Sarmatism) together with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth political system (Golden Freedoms) were in deep crisis. The period of Polish Enlightenment began in the 1730s–40s, peaked in the reign of Poland's last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski (second half of the 18th century), went into decline with the Third Partition of Poland (1795), and ended in 1822, replaced by Romanticism.



Polish Enlightenment, while sharing many common qualities with the classical Enlightenments movements of the Western Europe, also differed from them in many important aspects, forming an interesting counterpoint. Much of the thought of the Western Enlightenment evolved under the oppressive absolute monarchies and was dedicated towards fighting for more freedom. Western thinkers desired Montesquieu's separation and balance of powers to restrict the nearly unlimited power of their monarchs. Polish Enlightenment, however, developed in a very different background. The Polish political system was the almost the opposite of the absolute monarchy: Polish kings were elected and their position was very weak, with most of the powers in the hands of the parliament (Sejm). Polish reforms desired the elimination of laws that transformed their system into a near-anarchy, resulting from abuse of consensus voting in Sejm (liberum veto) that paralyzed the Commonwealth, especially during the times of the Wettin dynasty, reducing Poland from a major European player to the puppet of its neighbours. Thus, while men of the Enlightenment in France and Prussia wrote about the need for more checks and balances on their kings, Polish Enlightenment was geared towards fighting the abuses stemming from too much freedom.

The differences did not end there. Townsfolk and bourgeoisie dominated Western Enlightenment movement, while in the Commonwealth most of the reformers came from szlachta (nobility). Strongly hierarchical and dominated by aristocracy, the West was starved for equality, the very notion of which was often considered treasonous (as can be seen in the unequal fight between Denis Diderot attempts to publish his Encyclopédie in France). But Commonwealth szlachta (forming the 10% of its population) considered the idea of equality to be one of the foundations of its culture, and reformers fought to expand it towards other social classes. Religious tolerance, cause of many European wars, was another nearly untouchable foundation of the szlachta liberites. And while the West was being influenced by the Industrial Revolution and fought for overseas colonies, the mostly land-locked Commonwealth sank into the depths of the second serfdom.

Ideas of that period led eventually to one of the greatest achievements of Poland, the Constitution of the 3rd May (1791) (second-oldest world constitution) and other reforms (like the creation of the Komisja Edukacji Narodowej, first ministry of education in the world) which attempted to transform the Commonwealth into a modern constitutional monarchy. Although attempts of political reform were thwarted by the civil war (Targowica Confederation) and military intervention of the Commonwealth neighbour, ending in the partitions of Poland, the cultural impact of that period persevered Polish culture for many years.

The ideas of the Polish Enlightenment had also signicant impact abroad. From the Confederation of Bar (1768) through the period of the Great Sejm and until the tragic aftermath of the Constitution of the 3rd May of 1791, Poland experienced a large output of political, particularly constitutional, writing.

Important institutions

Załuski's Library, the first public library in Poland.

Notable persons

See also



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