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The Death of Poland's Socrates

NEW YORK – One of the most important men you probably never heard of died last Friday. Immersed in a bustle of events that no one will remember tomorrow, we tend to pay less attention to people who take on the issues of eternity – philosophers, moralists, sages who try to turn our minds to higher things. Yet, in the long run, it is the latter who matter most, and their importance persists when other preoccupations turn out to be transitory. Such men and women change the world around them, even if others do not see it until much later.

Leszek Kolakowski was one of these people. He was a world-renowned philosopher, a professor at great universities – Oxford, Yale, Chicago – and someone who was respected and admired by his colleagues around the world. He wrote about Spinoza, the theological controversies of 17th century Holland, and other esoteric subjects.

But Kolakowski was not a “technical” philosopher, writing for academic specialists. He was a philosopher in the same sense that Socrates was: a thinker who questioned what others take for granted, and probed human feelings and actions to help us understand how we can better ourselves and lead lives that are morally superior, yet also more fulfilling.

In his magisterial three-volume history, “Main Currents of Marxism,” Kolakowski recorded how that political theory developed over time; but he also diagnosed the political, intellectual, and moral predicament of the European continent over the two centuries partly shaped by Marxist beliefs. In his “Conversations with the Devil,” he created an amusing world parallel to traditional Christian “morality tales,” and deployed his sense of humor to question the hackneyed verities of religion and its opponents, strip them of their philistine shells, yet defend the true moral meaning underlying the old beliefs.