Feliks Koneczny's Theory of Civilization

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From the Foreword of "The Laws of History" by Wojciech Giertych:

"Koneczny worked out a theory of civilizations that is some­what akin to the views of Samuel Huntington. He disagreed with cyclical theories of history that compared civilizations to biologi­cal organisms having a time of youth, growth, decline and death. Some ancient civilizations, such as the Chinese or Jewish are thriving and show no signs of senility. All attempts to view history according to a deterministic objective process deny spiritual free­dom and impose an a priori vision of reality. A view of history must be a posteriori, based on facts. When towards the end of his life, Koneczny asked whether there is any order in history analogous to that perceived in the natural sciences, he was not searching for some objective historical course leading inevitably to progress. He was looking only for a key to interpret social reactions that appear when conflicting ethical models of life meet. Koneczny rejected the reduction of scientific enquiry to the study of phenomena or even of causes. The finality of actions, consciously formulated by responsible individuals can be studied also, because “history is governed by abstracts”, the ideas that people have about what they want to do. The Gospel is such a challenge, to which Christians have always responded to. Ideas may be followed, viewed more profoundly, developed in the face of new challenges or rejected, and so their influence can be studied.

As a historian Koneczny noted differing ethical views about how social life is to be organized. A specific ethos is normally transmitted to the next generation. This allowed him to individu­ate the dominant ethos of different civilizations. It is through this key of descriptive ethics that he tried to organize observed histori­cal facts. Some societies did at times choose to radically change their civilization. When the Hungarians arrived in Europe in the X century they consciously gave up their traditions and espoused Christianity in its Latin and not the eastern Slavic form that they found in Pannonia. When the Spaniards arrived in America they did not espouse the civilization of the Incas, but imposed their own.

In his major methodological work, Koneczny defined a civi­lization as a “method of communal life”, a certain ethical idea about how life is to be organized.4 People often do not live up to the standards that they uphold, and then they feel guilty, but this does not mean that they do not want life to continue according to the standards that they endorse. Civilizations are a spiritual, his­torical phenomenon that is independent of race. People of differing races can belong to the same civilization. And people of differing civilizations may live geographically close, but the uniqueness of their ethos makes them want to live in closely knit social entities. There are some differences within civilizations which Koneczny described as cultures. So he noticed a Polish and English culture within the Latin civilization and a mediaeval Spanish culture with­in the Arab civilization.

Technical progress does not change civilizations. “We all use telephones, but our thoughts are different.”5 A spiritual ideal is more important than technical and social developments, which do not necessarily raise ethical standards. Koneczny distinguished civilizations by looking at their family laws, the laws of property and inheritance. Only civilizations that have espoused monogamy have a respect for the person. Furthermore, he looked into the ba­sic categories of being as they function in individual and social life. These include health and economic prosperity, Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Each social group has some ideas about these realities and they are not identical. There are also differences in the understanding of space and time. Some peoples have wide geographical horizons and others cannot imagine what is outside their village. The awareness that time is short generates a sense of responsibility and finality in action. Some peoples seem to live in eternity reacting passively to changes, without planning and car­ing not to waste time, and they are slower in progress. The highest approach to time is where the future is viewed through the prism of accumulated experience. Only within the Latin civilization is there a respect for national history.

Religions play an important part in civilizations. Ideas about ethics generate different civilizations, although some dogmatic views lead to ethical conclusions. A religion that claims that the world is created by a personal God differs from a religion that views the world as an automatic emanation of God. There are re­ligions that attribute a sacred character to all details of life, and others that distinguish between the sacred and the secular. Differ­ences in ethical convictions set people apart more than differences in wealth, education, class or race. In some civilizations there may be several denominations of the same religious current or even several very different religions, all of which are brushed aside as being basically irrelevant. Following the Catholic view, the Latin civilization claims that ethical principles are binding in all fields of life, also political and economic life. Of all public issues, Konecz­ny asserted, religion is the most public, and no religion is diffused through compromises with other religions.6 All attempts to limit religion to the private sphere and to lower its ethical standards in the name of dialogue with other religions leads to a weakening of that religion.

Another observation point of civilizations is their attitude to­wards law. Is law based on ethics, or are ethics based upon law?7 Is there a distinction between private and public law? Is public law an expression of ethical principles, of the arbitrary will of the rul­er, or is it deduced in a sacred manner from undisputed religious texts? When grassroots organizations cannot function according to their private law because they are limited by an excessively powerful public law, the state ceases to be an organism and be­comes a mechanism. When a mechanism breaks down, it does not repair itself. Where there is a civil society composed of people who are animated by a personal ethos that society organizes itself organically and does not degenerate. With the supremacy of an omnipotent state in which a handful of powerful men dominate an irresponsible multitude, the capacity to withstand crises is weak­ened.



This theory of civilizations may be accused of being a sweep­ing generalization. But the observation that people tend do live according to a given ethos, and that ideas about what is morally appropriate are generally transmitted to next generations, even among those who drop religious practice is valid. Koneczny’s the­ory was born out of his amazement that entire social groups have sometimes completely different ideas about what is right and what is wrong. This can therefore be the subject matter of scientific his­torical enquiry. Koneczny was not an ethicist, who would study the principles of morals philosophically, although he understood the need for such a discourse. He drew his conclusions from de­scriptive ethics based on the observation of historical facts, as he saw them. This does not mean that the knowledge of the facts on which he built his synthesis cannot be deepened, extended and also corrected. His synthesis is therefore open to further studies, con­firmation and correction. Furthermore some of his remarks which were conditioned by the actual political struggles of his time are dated. But his basic intuitions that have individuated fundamental characteristics of social behaviour are still pertinent.

Koneczny’s theory of civilizations has no trace of racism or xenophobia. It is upbringing and not some genetic code that forms ethical opinions. The fact that differing value systems are observed sociologically and historically does not have to lead to irrational phobias, even when a less demanding ethos is not ap­proved. The Catholic conviction that morality has to be total, with the same moral principles applied to personal, family, economic, political, national and international life does not generate unjust discrimination or totalitarianism. On the contrary, it calls for the raising of moral standards and therefore of respect for human dig­nity in all walks of life.

Koneczny defended the Latin civilization with its most de­manding ethos. This allowed him to evaluate the ethics of other civilizations, without landing in a facile apologetics that would pretend that Catholics always and everywhere have lived up to Catholic moral standards. He clearly perceived the difficulties involved in maintaining that ethos within social life. He did not anachronistically critique the Church condemning past historical periods through moral perceptions that had been developed later. Instead, he perceived continuity in the basic ethical principles promoted by the Catholic Church that were extended and applied as new challenges arose. At the same time, Koneczny was not a Romantic who would expect an imminent appearance of the King­dom of God on earth. Nor was he a pessimist fearing a catastrophic decline of the Latin civilization despite the atrocities of the Second World War and the post-war Soviet occupation of Poland that he saw. His laws of history are not a deterministic theory that proph­esies the future. They grew from an observation of the importance of personal decisions made by individuals who decide to follow or not to follow their moral orientation. It is the social dimension of these ethical stances that generates civilizations.

If anybody can be called a Romantic, this term has to be ap­plied to contemporary ideologies that imagine that simply through globalization, centralization of power, migrations, trade, transfer of capital, the promotion of superficial entertainment, hedonist ideologies or even military occupation flourishing and peaceful democracies will come about. Koneczny realistically predicted that the mixing of contradictory ethical principles of civilizations, which leads to the general lowering of moral standards, will lead to the diminishment and atrophy of personal responsibility for one’s own life and the life of others. He saw that a decline in per­sonal morality will lead to a collapse of public morality. He did not and could not predict or even imagine the catastrophic crash of sexual morality that appeared in the Western world around 1968 and continues to this day, with the idolatry of sexual pleasure lib­erated from responsible procreation through contraception and abortion, with the disappearance of male paternal responsibility, with disorientation about the finality of sexuality, with the aggres­sive expansion of feminism and homosexuality, with the resulting weakening of the family, euthanasia and the demographic crash of European societies. Koneczny’s observation however, that in the past delirious social conflicts sprang from moral disorientation of­fers a theoretical basis for the interpretation of current social trends and also a stern warning. In this Koneczny’s conclusions are not pessimistic, but basically realistic, even as they invite a conscious and responsible reaction. His comments are fully in tune with the Catholic Church’s courageous defence of fundamental and eternal moral principles in the face of new challenges and the Church’s simultaneous offering of the saving power of Christ’s grace."


Six Principles of Civilization

Wojciech Giertych:

Towards the end of his life Koneczny developed a general synthesis, formulating six basic laws of history. He understood these not in a deterministic sense that denies human liberty, nor did he try to offer a prophetic hope that eschatology would find its fulfilment within time.

The first law of all civilizations is their commensurability. Minor differences may exist within them, but without inherent contradiction.25 Each civilization can function only by being co­herent, meaning that basic elements have to be in tune with one another and there has to be a social consensus about fundamental values. It is not possible to be civilized in two opposing ways. If people belonging to different civilizations marry, one of them has to change the value system. History demonstrates that in Spain the Arab civilization abolished the earlier Latin tradition, and then the Spaniards expelled or converted the Moors. People of differ­ent ethnic background, but all affirming their European Christian roots could create the United States. But the establishment of a common integrated society composed of people affirming a Cath­olic, Islamic and Gypsy ethos is impossible. At best each group will strive to live within its own cultural and ethical milieu.

Koneczny pointed out that there is commensurability be­tween permanent monogamy, personalism and private property. It is unimaginable that monogamists will sell their daughters to polygamists, because such a trade is unthinkable in a personal­ist social system. The emancipation of the family based upon life-long monogamy developed respect for private property and generated responsibility in the economic and political spheres. The questioning of the monogamous family always led to the abo­lition of private property. This happened among the Albigensians, the Dutch Anabaptists and the Bolsheviks, and everywhere it led to degeneration and enslavement.26 The law of commensurability shows that it is not possible to build a cohesive society when it is racked by internal ethical inconsistencies.

The second law of history is the principle of inequality. Ob­servation proves that there are inequalities in human talent, health, education, honesty and wealth. People have differing ideas about work. For some it is a blessing, for others it is a curse. Differ­ences diversify society and this is the foundation of personalism and responsibility. The weaker emulate outstanding individuals. In history there have been many ideologies that tried to impose an artificial equality, insisting that all have to be equally rich or more often equally poor. Christianity differentiates between justice and equality and so it accepts differences in wealth, so long as wealth does not become an idol. The recognition of the fact of inequalities is an essential element of describing every social reality.

The third law of history is the principle of durability and expansion. The expansion of ideals has a greater part in history than military conquest of lands and resources.27 When the colonial powers left Africa the work of missionaries survived. At the basis of a civilization there is an idea for life, and since it is valued, there is the desire to transmit it to the next generation. Most often people belonging to a given civilization, if they cannot share their value system with others or do not strive to do so because their civilization is not missionary, they will find a way of maintaining their own style of life. A civilization that is not vibrant, and pas­sively imitates the inherited ethos, may still be durable. Since the basic difference between civilizations is ethical, invariably there are conflicts when opposing civilizations clash. If neither civiliza­tion succeeds in imposing its value system, this generates ethical exhaustion and apathy with individuals moving to the more coher­ent, even though lower civilization. Some Englishmen convert to Islam, because it offers them a way of life that Anglican Christian­ity has failed to give them.

The fourth law of history notes that syntheses among de­veloped civilizations are impossible. A social order built upon conflicting ethical ideals is bound to crash. Dogmatic and moral principles are important and so they cannot be replaced by ideolo­gies invented by intellectuals or bureaucrats who come up with a novel brand of moral propriety. The working out of inherently conflicting inter-civilization syntheses does not happen naturally, but only as a result of conscious but completely misguided efforts, which always in history have failed.28 There have of course been spontaneous encounters of people of differing civilizations, but periods of cooperation were short and conflicts were long lasting. Hellenistic states set up after Alexander the Great accepted the Greek language, science and art, but their political system was still oriental. They had no philosophy and independent political thought. India has seen many attempts to work out a synthesis of religions. They always proposed to include the new religion into the existing pantheon. Christians cannot accept that Christ will be treated as one more idol amongst others. Suggestions that religious beliefs can be the subject of negotiations leading to a nebulous synthesis that can then be interpreted at will are only made by those for whom religious beliefs are irrelevant anyway. Cultures, however, that belong to one and the same civilization can merge. Anglican and Scandinavian Protestant traditions were included by Koneczny in the Latin civilization, because in his time there were no major ethical differences between them and the Catholic Church. Similarly he probably would have envisaged the possibility of an integration of the Hispanic and north-American Protestant cultures, (something that Huntington feared). But, a synthesis of the Byzantine and Latin civilizations is impossible despite their common Christian roots. Differences in ecclesiology and the servile attitude of the Byzantine civilization towards the state exclude such a fusion.

Koneczny’s fifth law concerns the mixing of civilizations. An inter-civilization synthesis is an unrealistic intellectual ideology, whereas mixing is the natural result of travel and the appearance within one civilization of people who live according to the ethical principles of another. This does not produce a new civilization. The foreign element may be allowed to live in its own community, or in time it may be assimilated, but it will have to then relin­quish its identity. Or under the influence of the arrivals the local civilization will be weakened or changed, or else there may be even an attempt to expel the foreign element, sometimes brutally. Koneczny attributed many wars of universal history not to the in­terplay of conflicting economic interests and class struggle, but to the appearance of a medley of conflicting ideas about the ethical principles of social and political life. Such a mix generates se­rious problems, incertitude about concepts, contradictory aims, and inconstancy in views, desires and actions. There is disorien­tation, the weakening of the will to react and inability to uphold values. The victims do not know what to think and how to react. Some fall into apathy and others follow sudden but thoughtless impulses.29 Value systems in the field of politics and economics are then suppressed by brute force and mendacity, which become the necessary tools of government. Invariably this leads to moral relativism, hedonism and stagnation.

The sixth law of history follows from the preceding. When­ever there is a mix of civilizations, generally it is the lower one that wins. This view concerns not economic or political power but their underlying ethos. Chaos in ethical formation lowers moral standards leading to the victory of the least morally demanding civilization. There are many historical examples of this. The Turanian civilization of the Mongolians and the Ottoman Turks abolished the remnants of the Slav Christian tradition in eastern Ruthenia and the Byzantine civilization in Crimea and Asia Minor. The German, primarily Prussian princes preferred the Byzantine centralized model of government to the Latin principle of subsid­iarity and promoted absolutism. But there have also been examples of civilizations that have succeeded to persist in their higher value system and even to expand it, despite contrary winds. The Lat­in civilization converted the Germanic tribes that conquered the Western Roman Empire. The Byzantine civilization imposed its own view on the pagan Slavs who invaded the Balkans. The Span­ish reconquista regained the Iberian Peninsula for Catholic ethics. In historical Lithuania and Ruthenia, that is today’s Belarus and Ukraine, the Latin civilization from Poland withstood the pres­sures of the Turanian model.30 In each of these examples there was a conscious effort of several generations to defend their value sys­tem. Wherever a civilization of a higher moral standard eventually won, the role of religion was decisive.31 The defence of a higher ethos requires men of character and not all societies faced with the clash of civilizations are willing to make the effort. Even though honest men may be a statistical minority, it is they who maintain high moral standards within the social order. But a civilization of a lower ethos which does not care about education and honesty towards the outside world may be internally coherent and have therefore the capacity to resist outside pressures. In Europe, it can be observed that Islamic and Gypsy communities locked in their own setting seem to have a greater internal coherence and capac­ity for resistance than the post-Christian world which is losing its moral bearings. This does not mean that these two civilizations have a greater respect for human dignity than the Catholic ethos. Koneczny therefore concluded that a higher ethos is always more at risk while a lower ethos wins easily. If a lower civilization does not mix with others, it will be stronger than a higher civilization that is willing to be watered down by others.


The Quincunx and the Triple Law

Andrew Targowsky:

"The Polish historian Feliks Koneczny wrote three books on the theory of civilizations:

  • On the Plurality of Civilizations (1962),
  • For an Order in History (1977), and
  • History Laws (1982).

His works on civilizations were never published in communistic (then Stalinist) Poland. Koneczny, who published 173 works, was an empirical theoretician who discerned (in contrast to Spengler’s a priori model) that there is no one linear history of mankind. He perceived seven major civilizations and examined their common laws. A civilization for him is a regime of collective life. His main inquiry was to find factors differentiating civilizations.

These are named

  • Quincunx: truth, goodness, beauty, health, and prosperity.
  • Also the Triple Law (family law, inheritance law, and property law)

differentiates civilizations. Human attitudes toward the Quincunx and laws are the key to understanding the civilization process. He was against the idea of cycles of civilizations and formulated two laws of civilizations. According to the first law, each civilization has a cause and purpose. The second law states that to endure, each civilization must harmonize interrelations among categories of existence and laws. Otherwise, a civilization may vanish. Mergers between civilizations lead to chaos, disintegration, and decay, since civilizations may have opposing attitudes toward categories of existence and the Triple Law.

Toynbee, in a preface to the English edition of On the Plurality of Civilizations, judged highly Koneczny’s contributions and called him “indomitable,” because the Polish historian wrote his last works during the German occupation of Poland, when he found himself in very poor conditions."