Rousseau and Wielhorski, or Dialogue between Two Republicans

Marian Skrzypek

From 1770 to 1774 a lively exchange took place between Rousseau, democratic republican, and Wielhorski, republican Sarmatian, which culminated in Jean-Jacques Rousseau penning Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne. Wielhorski’s Sarmatism found expression in his apology of once powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before it was afflicted with the corrupting influence of the European civilization. The description of the former state of Polish Republic converged with Rousseau’s idea of the natural state of mankind. Both thinkers supported egalitarianism, tough Wielhorski strived for establishing equality only among the members of the nobility. Rousseau, highly intrigued by the Polish model of democracy, attempted to find a compromise between his own views expressed in The Social contract and the concrete picture of the Polish reality as adumbrated by Wielhorski.

Under Rousseau’s influence Wielhorski changed his traditional belief on sovereign consisting of three estates: king, senate (higher chamber of parliament) and sejm (lower chamber of parliament). As a result, he claimed that sovereign consists of noblemen debating at sejmiki (Polish local parliaments), and that sejmiki are nexuses of general sovereign.

Contrary to Rousseau, Wielhorski accentuated the importance of separation between the legislature and executive bodies. Following Locke’s footsteps, he put emphasis on the representative democracy, where resolutions are passed by the majority of votes.

On the other hand, two thinkers concurred on the issue of liberum veto. They both take side against it in order to prevent anarchy. Rousseau nevertheless allows for the possibility to veto in the case of utmost danger for the state. He provides his treatment on this issue in one of the fragments of The Social Contract where he discusses the case of a genius lawmaker whose vote outweighs the general opinion.

The last important problem considered by them both is confederation. During the noblemen confederation liberum veto was abolished in conjunction with the separation between the legislative and executive power. Rousseau sees in confederation an organ of dictatorship which should be dissolved once the desired goal is achieved. In the case of Bar Confederation it means it should be dissolved after safeguarding the country’s independence.

Rousseau held a radically disparate position regarding the political function of religion when compared to Wielhorski. They both overlook the fact that the majority of the confederationists descended from the petty nobility and commonage who appealed to the religious ideology while defending faith and independence. Wielhorski merely emphasises the need of the reform of the Church regarding its tax duties. Rousseau on his part harks back to his own ruminations on the republican religion in The Social Contract and preaches republican cult of Bar confederationists as “freedom martyrs”. His idea will be taken up by Polish romantics, particularly by Mickiewicz.


Keywords: Rousseau · Wielhorski · republic · Sarmatism · Enlightenment · Church reform · social contract · separation of powers

Marian Skrzypek — Professor emeritus at IFiS PAN. Romanist and historian of philosophy and religion. He specialized in the Enlightenment Thought, chiefly French and Polish. Author of the monographs on Diderot, Holbach, Maréchal; he also translated their works into Polish. He wrote: French Enlightenment and rudiments of religious studies (1989); he also published within the book series „700 years of Polish thought” a volume regarding Polish philosophy between 1700 — 1763. Laureate of the French Academic Palms.   »  

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