Essays offer a fresh introduction to a profound, brave thinker

05/19/2013 7:02 AM

08/08/2014 10:17 AM

“Is God Happy? Selected Essays” by Leszek Kolakowski, translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska (Basic Books, 327 pages, $28.99)

Leszek Kolakowski is likely the most important thinker you’ve never heard of.

A Polish philosopher and historian of ideas, he staunchly opposed the dehumanizing dominion of Communism in his home country and explored a wealth of intriguing political and moral ideas throughout much of the 20th century.

But, until recently, his most famous essay, “What Is Socialism?” (1956) – the one that forced him out of his position at Warsaw University and into the academic halls of Oxford, England – had circulated only underground in Poland.

Now, for the first time, we have a compelling English translation of it, thanks to Kolakowski’s daughter, Agnieszka, who brings a deft hand to rendering her father’s work into an easy, conversational voice.

We vividly see how his critique of the Communist agenda could not be rebutted by party officials. In the face of his sarcasm and wit – socialism is “a state that produces superb jet planes and lousy shoes” – only exile proved effective.

Still, that did not stop him from speaking out on the ills of totalitarianism – and more metaphysical matters.

Kolakowski, who died in 2009, was one of the few public European intellectuals to consistently address the questions of religion, God and the problem of evil. He drew from a vast range of sources, including Eastern philosophy, to make his case that death and pain pose irreducible problems to those who have faith.

The title essay of this collection, which covers 60 years of his thought, links divinity and humanity under the umbrella of an impossible happiness.

“Such a condition can be imagined,” he writes, “but it has never been seen.” Though only five pages long, “Is God Happy?” sparkles with a wry profundity, Kolakowski’s philosophical trademark, setting the tone for the other 10 essays. Together, they make up the most rewarding introduction to his work.

Irony, along with his seemingly effortless insights and fluid literary style form the more winsome – and at times surprising – aspects of his thought.

In “Crime and Punishment,” for instance, he gives the impression of talking directly to the reader about the need for retribution (rather than justice), presuming a level of understanding and moral indignation on par with his own.

Poland, like much of eastern Europe, suffered defeat at the hands of the Nazis, then the Communists. That history, strewn with millions of innocent bodies, burrows deep into Kolakowski’s most pointed reflections.

Man’s inhumanity to man will never be justified by ideology, he shows: “The power of words over reality cannot be unlimited, since, fortunately, reality imposes its own unalterable conditions.”

Kolakowski was nothing if not realistic. And his essays afford his readers some measure of genuine happiness.

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