Vol. XLI (CXVII). Estera Lasocińska, The Epicurean Idea of Happiness in the Literature of Polish Renaissance and Baroque. From Callimachus to Potocki, Warszawa 2014

The book Epikurejska idea szczęścia w literaturze polskiej renesansu i baroku. Od Kallimacha do Potockiego (‘The Epicurean Idea of Happiness in the Literature of Polish Renaissance and Baroque. From Callimachus to Potocki’) is an extensive study of reception of Epicurean ethics in Old-Polish literature. It presents classical, medieval and Renaissance sources of Epicureanism in old Poland, the ways they were utilised, and the evolution that Epicureanism underwent during the 200 years of its presence in Polish culture.

The introduction, The Epicurean Philosophy of Happiness – the Concept and Sources, presents the philosophy of Epicurus, placing special emphasis on themes that were of particular interest to authors from Antiquity to the 17th century. The sources of Polish Epicureanism are discussed here, the most important of which are De rerum natura by Lucretius and citations from Epicurus preserved in the writings of Seneca, Plutarch, Cicero, and Horace. The Renaissance Zodiacus vitae by Palingenius (1531), well known in Poland of the period, is another text that had a considerable impact on reception of Epicureanism in Poland.

Part One of the monograph (In Search of the Highest Good. Successors of Antiquity) presents Polish Renaissance authors: Filippo Buonaccorsi (‘Callimachus’), Gregory of Sanok, Jan Dantyszek, and Jan Kochanowski, who, through their reading, travels and rich correspondence, had a deep and comprehensive understanding of Epicurean philosophy. They based their knowledge of Epicureanism on its principal source, e.i. the poem De natura rerum by Lucretius, and were interested not only in the concept of pleasure as tantamount to happiness but also in other issues debated in the ancient Garden: the theory of nature and reality built of atoms in empty space, the nature of the soul, and the indifference of gods. They interpreted these themes associating them with concepts derived from Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism and Christianity.

Part Two, Portrayals of Epicurus in Polish Humanist Literature, discusses three extensive texts presenting the silhouette of Epicurus; two of them are accessible only through their early-printed editions: Żywoty filozofów by Marcin Bielski (1535) and the anonymously written Dyalog mięsopustny (c. 1622), and the third is Wizerunk własny żywota człowieka poczciwego by Mikołaj Rej (1st edn 1558). The text by Marcin Bielski was based on the medieval De vita philosophorum by Walter Burleigh, whereas the other two drew on the Renaissance Zodiacus vitae by Palingenius. All three texts contain criticisms of Epicurus’ views, but there is also some attempt to vindicate his reputation; the pagan sage is presented as a Christian philosopher, wrongly accused of licentiousness, ignorance or godlessness.

Part Three (Joys of the Soul – Joys of the Flesh. Toward Sarmatian Epicureanism) explores the renewal of Epicurean philosophy initiated by Pierre Gassendi. The French Epicureanism serves as a point of reference for a discussion of Baroque Poland with emphasis on the poetry by Hieronim Morsztyn and Wacław Potocki. Both of these authors, taking up the motif of happiness as pleasure, referred mostly to works by Mikołaj Rej (Wizerunek własny żywota człowieka poczciwego, Żywot człowieka poczciwego) and engaged in discussion with him. Thus, the Epicureanism of Polish Baroque, for the most part, consisted in arguing against Mikołaj Rej and his understanding of the concept of pleasure. An interesting example of this approach can be seen in the writings of Wacław Potocki, who in his early poem Rozkosz światowa. Rozkosz duchowna criticises the Epicureanism of Światowa Rozkosz by Hieronim Morsztyn but at the same time refers to the texts by Mikołaj Rej. Reaching for Epicurean literature Potocki discusses some points of this philosophy, but he does so in a different vein than his contemporary Jean La Fontaine, whose fables were inspired by the neo-Epicureanism of Gassendi. Despite the differences, there are some similarities between the Polish and the French poet: both contrast Epicureanism with Stoicism, viewing the former as a philosophy of happiness and the latter as that of strain and self-denial.

The reception of Epicureanism in Poland is a history of moving further and further away from the classical sources: Kochanowski and early-Renaissance authors make use of the Epicurean bible, i.e. the poem by Lucretius; Bielski, Rej, and the author of Dyalog mięsopustny rely on works of medieval and Renaissance humanists whereas Morsztyn and Potocki bring their discussion to bear on the Polish Epicureanism of the 16th century.