Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why Poland?

As some of you who know me are aware, since I left my trading job I have been planning an extensive trip to Poland sometime next year. People have asked me why I plan to do this, and truth be told I have sometimes struggled for an answer, especially one that I can cogently explain.

Let’s start with two important facts of modern Poland. First, that during the later stages of the Cold War, Poland was the flashpoint of resistance to Communism within the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe. Much of the Cold War drama in the Eighties occurred there.

Second, that Poland was the native land of Pope John Paul II. And there are a few things in particular that I think are worth emphasizing. For the entirety of his priesthood, JPII was always an orthodox Catholic in doctrine and morals. But in addition, he built a large philosophical edifice for the subjectivity of the person. That is, that properly understood the human person is an end, not a means. And he is also, at bottom, the first cause of his actions. Things don’t necessarily "happen" to him, but he can and often does freely make his own decision and act upon it. Combining these, we conclude that any system or ideology that reduces the person to a cog in some societal machine is a profound anthropological mistake. This system of thought may not be completely unique to JPII, but he is clearly the leading exponent in its development.

JPII wrote several works in this area. Most popularly, he wrote Love and Responsibility when he was a university professor in Lublin, and he gave The Theology of the Body as a series of General Audiences early in his pontificate. These works are conventionally understood to be about sex and marital relations, and they are, but they are also informed by JPII’s anthropological stance of the person. Professor Wojtyla most completely developed this theory in Person and Act, by all accounts a very difficult work.

I for one am intensely curious about the relationship between these two things. What relationship is there, if any, between Wojtyla’s emphasis on the subjectivity of the person, and the Polish cultural resistance to Communism during the Cold War? Obviously the person of JPII was a profound symbol of resistance as pope, but what about his philosophical ideas? Recall that he propagated those ideas for decades as a priest, teacher, and bishop, in Poland, before he went to Rome. I suspect, though I don’t know, that this infusion of subjectivity into the Polish culture profoundly influenced the resistance to Communism and the formation of Solidarity in ways that have hit the popular consciousness. I am going to Poland, in part, to find out.

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