Venedi - An East European Perspective

The concept of Eastern Europe as part of the Western civilization has been pursued by the nations of that region with increasing insistence after the liberation from communism after 1989. To a large extent this notion is justified, but the uniqueness of the East's contribution to Western civilization is often completely lost in the rhetoric of the European unification movement and patently misunderstood in the United States. Moreover, it is not only what has been created and contributed by the East, but also what is presently being created and may make a strong contribution to the world, that motivates this publication. At the least my hope is that the writings and materials collected here will help some readers clarify the unique East European view of the world.

The name Venedi is chosen for this site to bring attention to an archeological mystery people who, according to Tacitus, lived in the 1st century AD somewhere between the shores of the Baltic and Black seas and possibly spoke a proto-Slavic language. The term Venedic is used to denote Western Slavs and has been embraced by a Polish romantic poet seeking to establish a national mythology. Sometimes the term is viewed by the Baltic Slavs as designating their origin and claimed as their heritage. I do not dispute such assertions and probes into the mists and fogs of long history and allow my efforts to be treated as a very respectful cultural interaction which has a substantial history itself.

An interesting geographical observation is that Stockholm and Sarajevo lie exactly on the same meridian - exactly 18 degrees east from the boundary of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Somewhere between those two cities lies my hometown of Bydgoszcz in Poland on the lower Vistula river some 160 km south of the Baltic shoreline. This materially insignificant fact is for me the source of the idea that the region of my origin is some type of boundary or bridge area rather than a frontline. The geographical-historical story of the 18-th Eastern meridian deserves more, but right now it receives this brief glance.

It may be useful to list here a number of great East Europeans - people whose work and ideas have influenced the course of Western civilization.

People and Ideas

Ancient Greats

  • Faustus Sozzini (Socinus, Socyn) (1539-1604), Italian theologian, promoted antitrinitarian ideas and the necessity to apply reason to interpret the Scripture. In 1579 he settled in Poland, because of persecution in Italy and elsewhere in Protestant Europe, became one of the leading Polish Brethren (Bracia Polscy). The teachings of the Polish Brethren, much of which is contained in the Racovian Catechism, stress the autonomy of the human conscience, and the individual capacity of reaching the truth by means of reason, thus being precursors of Enlightenment. The Polish Brethren, and other dissidents, where expelled from Poland in the middle of XVII century, and their writings had significant impact on Western European thought becoming the basis of unitarianism.
  • Mikolaj Kopernik (1473-1543) (Copernicus) was born in Torun (Thorn) in Poland. After studies abroad he spent his life in various positions in the church in Poland where he pursued a variety of interests including economics. He was the author of the new astronomical theory, which proposed the heliocentric system with the Earth being one of the planets orbiting the sun. His theory made its way through the minds of European intellectuals together with new ideas about science and religion and lay at the foundation of the Enlightenment.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) born and active almost entire life in Koenigsberg, East Prussia. Whereas Copernicus wrote the preface to the age of Enlightenment, so Kant wrote its closing and definitive chapters. He firmly established the authority and limitations of reason giving a sound foundation for the development of science in the 1900s and on. His thought has put the end to metaphysics, although this was not noticed by the Romantics overjoyed with Kant's gift - the autonomy of reason. Copernicus and Kant lived and worked in practically the same geographical area.
  • Feodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) Russian 19-th century writer who brought the existentialist ethics acutely into the view of Western European litterati.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) German philosopher, born in Gdansk (Danzig), credited with re-emphasizing such human faculties as the Will and importing Indian intellectual and theological tradition into European thought. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) came from a family with roots in Gdansk too.
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet in whose work and attitude the Romantic grows out of the Classical.
  • Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) - Polish-born British writer who spoke with heavy accent but greatly influenced English prose
  • Kurt Goedel (1906-1978) - born in Brno, mathematical logician, worked and taught in Vienna and later in Princeton, proved the famous undecidability theorem - another "Copernican" result whose impact is yet to be fully received
  • David Hilbert (1862-1943) - born in Koenigsberg, perhaps most influential mathematician of the last 100 years
  • Arnold Sommerfeld (1868-1951) - also born in Koenigsberg, mentor for physicists who formulated quantum mechanics
  • Recurring Vienna movements - for example: the classics of German/Austrian music of the turn of year 1800 - Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and also Schubert. Then at the cusp of the year 1900 - intellectuals such as Husserl, Freud and Wittgenstein.

Recent and Fascinating

  • Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) - a Polish writer, who lived since 1939 outside of Poland. His pre-1939 novel "Ferdydurke" focuses on communication forms imposing themselves on actual forms of life.
    - Essay dada on Gombrowicz
  • Witkacy or Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) - Polish writer and painter. Admired for texts tackling deep metaphysical questions, like the ones raised by Husserl, in an entertaining way.
  • Lech Majewski (...) - Polish filmmaker, writer, poet, painter, modern artist. Born in Katowice, Silesia, living in Venice, producing art globally. One of the authors of the American film "Basquiat", which matured into a film about a Polish poet - Rafal Wojaczek. His works reflect very keenly the spiritual crisis of modern man. I had the privilege of talking to him in Seattle.
    - interview with Lech Majewski [in Polish]
    - my reflections on his most recent novel "Metafizyka".
  • Rafal Wojaczek (1945-1971) - Polish poet. His life reflected the hopeless situation of the postwar generation under communist regime whereas his work became an emblem for the universal existential aspirations of man. [Sample of his poetry with translations]
  • Vienna free-enterprise economists Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992) and Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), born in Vienna and Lemberg, respectively. Theorists of free-market economies.
  • Roman Polanski(...) - Polish-born filmmaker and actor
  • Milan Kundera(...) - Czech novelist
  • Mikhail Bulkhakov(...) - Russian novelist

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last updated Jan 5, 2024

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