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charles sarolea“The patriotic Englishman is largely unconscious that about three quarters of his native prejudices were taught to him by a German spy,” recounts G.K. Chesterton in his introduction to Charles Sarolea’s Letters from Poland. Along the same train of thought, in Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss notes that never had a regime suffered so total a defeat on the battlefield as the Nazis did, only to have its entire political ideology adopted by the Western nation states, which eliminated Hitlerism. Chesterton writes his quip against the English patriot just after World War I; Strauss writes his following World War II. This is in part possible due to the malaise of Western thinking that causes men like the Belgian thinker Charles Sarolea to remain unknown in the wider American conservative community, which has always been the great sanctuary of Western thought, let alone in wider academia. If ever one desires proof that a conspiracy of ignorance is now afoot in the halls of American and European governments, little more is necessary than to read Sarolea. If American conservatives honor and respect G.K. Chesterton, then they must—as difficult as it may be to do so—honor and respect the writer recommended by Chesterton as the foremost authority on Eurasian affairs of his day: Charles Sarolea.

Sarolea is arguably the epitome of a European liberal in the progressive tradition of the early twentieth century. As such, he is an opponent of reaction, the locust of which he identified as Prussia; instead, he is a proponent of magnanimous Christian progressive liberalism, the locust of which he identified as Belgium, Poland, and Russia. It is for these three liberal and progressive nations that he begged American aid in World War I. The closest approximation to his views that I can identify in American terms is Woodrow Wilson; although, unlike Wilson, educated as he was in German political science, Sarolea is neither a positivist nor a Hegelian. Unlike Wilson, Sarolea does not believe in the inevitable Darwinian progress of history, but rather, his analysis of political change is highly classical and realistic. He retains the liberal sense of justice without reverting to liberal follies of historicism. This is why Sarolea does not make the principle error of liberal thought; namely, the tendency to support revolution. While Sarolea is an early and ardent proponent of the war against Germany, his virulent anti-Germanism is understandable given the vast degree of destruction endured by Belgium, that most wonderful of Catholic European Kingdoms by “the Hun.” Still, he does his best to restrain emotion and give Prussian thought its due (particularly in his analysis of Moltke), as well as maintaining the objective honesty of a historian of Germany, and understanding the complex character of the internal elements upon which a large portion of the blame for German imperialism rests.

Sarolea is one of the greatest experts on Eurasian affairs to have ever written, largely due to his travels and encounters with his subject matter. While reading his amazing books, one does not find any footnotes indicating long hours of library research. Instead, one finds sentences filled with phrases such as “when I was there.” A witness to the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, a friend to Leo Tolstoy and Polish founder Roman Dmowski, Sarolea’s pioneering effort is a first-hand account of history. Similar to the Belgian comic hero, Tintin, Charles Sarolea traverses far off lands and gives his British readers invaluable accounts. He was a Belgian patriot, for this reason, he was a Polish patriot and a friend to Russia. If this is confusing, then consider that aside from lavishing praise on Poland, Sarolea likewise lavished praise on Russia. After all, contrary to Prussian prattling still infecting the Western mind that the word slav means “slave,” it actually means “Glory.” Furthermore, pravoslav, which we render in English as “Orthodox Russian” actually means “Glorifying the Law,” or “Glorifier of the Law,” while “the Law” is also “the Right,” which refers to the Law of Christ.

Sarolea considers Poland and Russia as two great Slavic Kingdoms: the one embodying liberty, the other order. In 1915, writing in Europe’s Debt to Russia, he is optimistic and hopeful that World War I, by vanquishing Prussian imperialism, would see a rebirth of Polish liberty thus clearing the path for a progressive and liberal democratic Russia to become a world power. By the time of the Polish-Soviet war, only a few years later, this optimism is tempered. Sarolea, presaging the famous opening words spoken by Senator John F Kennedy during the Kennedy-Nixon debate, tells us that the Polish-Soviet conflict can only be seen through the political philosophy of Abraham Lincoln: the Eurasian continent cannot remain “half slave and half free,” consequently, Europe will either become entirely enslave or entirely free. Sarolea is not illusions about communism; rather, he clearly sees that it is the second Republic of Poland that embodied freedom, while the Soviet Union embodies tyranny. Sarolea chides the British for complacency and cowardice while Poland fights the battles of Europe without any help from Europe.

Sarolea’s realistic apprehension of Soviet tyranny leads us to inquire into what may appear a contradiction to the modern mind’s bombardment by liberal democratic propaganda: How could Sarolea have written of Tsarist Russia that it was “liberal,” “progressive,” and “democratic,” as opposed to Prussian “reaction,” and opposed to Soviet tyranny? Tsarism, after all, was an “absolute monarchy,” which is the opposite of liberalism and progressivism. To unravel this apparent mystery, it is necessary to remind oneself that progressivism was originally fundamentally a Christian political philosophy.

51QY8PNFSALTo read the works of Woodrow Wilson and Adlai Stevenson is to glimpse this fact. True, progressivism was Christianity heavily influenced by Darwinian biology, Hegelian historicism, and a number of other modern contrivances, but it remained still fundamentally Christian in character. By the time C.S. Lewis wrote his Hideous Strength, the political dangers inherent in Christian progressivism had been made apparent to such an extent that Lewis could place the Christian progressive where he belonged: in the service of Satan. But in 1915, Christian progressivism was still young on the world stage and appeared to be an honest attempt of dealing with the great problems of its time. As such, it comes as no surprise that Sarolea praises the Tsars, particularly Alexander I and II, “Tsar Osvoboditel” (the liberator Tsar, or in Polish “Car Oswobodziciel”).

For, in Sarolea’s view, European civilization owes an enormous debt to Russian civilization. From time to time, Westerners grumble about “Asiatic” culture in Russia, which was inhuman and uncivilized, and by implication not Christian. Indeed, given the vast geography of the Russian Empire and its Asian element, this accusation of barbaric Russian practice has much weight in the Western mind. What remained unappreciated in 1915, and is today treated as a sign of Russian regression, is the fact that under the Tsars a vast portion of the Asian continent with a population of 175 million people was made Christian. Furthermore, the Tsars, by keeping Asiatic empires at bay, made possible the safe advance of everything that Anglo-American mind conceives of as Western Civilization. No other political body had, with such great levels of success, ensured the durable propagation of the Christian faith amongst such a wide body of different nations as the Russian Tsars. In this sense, it can be understood why Sarolea goes so far as to write about Russia as the “liberator of nations”—for Sarolea, liberalism and progressivism means Christianity and Christian hierarchy, while reaction means German scientific positivism, German racial science, and scientific socialism. This view is not merely Sarolea’s fancy: this is the meaning of the spirit of liberalism and progressivism and the high-minded spirit of Wilsonian liberalism. Sarolea recognizes that while the Tsars are formally brutal and tyrannical, they are essentially Christian, and that all of the works of humane culture in Russia are the works of the Christian religion, which the Tsars superimposed upon the “Asian hoard.” Sarolea, in other words, recognizes that under the Tsars Russia protected Europe from domination by radically un-European modes and orders whose barbarism was the true threat to civilization.

This does not mean that Sarolea is blind to the great ills and perils of Russian political life. He does not justify them, but rather attempts to explain them. His explanations are usually geographical, such as his argument that in a country of vast winters and long distances between villages, it is not possible to immediately implement the liberal ideal of universal education. Sarolea, in point of fact, is attached to the hope of a more liberal and progressive Russia, which is obvious throughout his work as he heaps criticisms upon the Tsars. Foremost amongst those criticisms is the partition of Poland, which Sarolea calls the greatest moral crime of the Russian state. He is quick, however, to point out that this crime is not born of the Russian initiative, but rather is a Prussian invention, to which Russia and Austria grudgingly agreed for temporal political convenience. To go over all of the political, moral and historical crimes of Russia, as Sarolea does, would be beside the point—the most important consideration in our present pursuit is Sarolea’s opposition to the revolution of 1905 and his general opposition to revolutionary politics in Russia. It is an opposition that may seem odd to the modern mind, but is quite natural to the imaginative liberalism of Sarolea.

Sarolea’s opposition to anti-Tsarist revolution is presented in two forms: first, in an analogy between the French revolution, of which Sarolea, as a good European progressive liberal, is infinitely critical; secondly in the form of a cultural sense that transcends the primitive Western approach to Russia, which Sarolea at one point refers to as “stupid,” and which I would elaborate to include “arrogant.” In Sarolea’s own words:

Both in France and in Russia, the party of revolution seems to hold the field unchallenged. Just as the Galilean Church was silent after the golden age of Bosseut and Fenelon, even so the Russian Church has not produced, in the hour of need, one single great thinker, one single statesman. The only theological thinker Russia has produced in the 19th century, Vladimir Solovioff, so far from defending the Orthodox Church, preaches the reunion with Roman Catholicism. But not only do we find in both countries the same intellectual antecedents, with the same humanitarian creed, the same radical uncompromising spirit, the same absence of the historical sense, the same belief in the regeneration of mankind, the same attitude to the Church and to positive Christianity, so different from the attitude of the English Puritan and Scottish Covenanters—but in Russia, as in France, the impulse has come from abroad. The Anglo-mania of the French thinkers is paralleled by the Cosmopolitanism of the Russian writers. Whilst Russian imaginative literature is supremely original, political literature is almost entirely borrowed from the West. The great Slavophile writers, Samarine, Aksakoff, Chomiakoff, Danilevski, have found little hearing. Even Tolstoy was repudiated since he expressed his disbelief in Western Parliamentary Institutions. The only doctrines that find favor are imported from England, France, and especially Germany. The present political philosophy in Russia is an olla podrida a discordant pot pourri of Spencer, Buckle, Rousseau, Proudhon, Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche. The destructive thought of the whole world is made tributary to the Russian revolution.

These foreign Western ideas, which American conservatives will note as Enlightenment and Nihilist ideas, Sarolea contends, are above all dangerous to Russia because they take no account of Russian conditions. In prose that could be said to mirror the genius of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, Sarolea strikes blow after blow upon the simple-minded, naive revolutionary fervor in Russia. The scheme is a British parliamentary system in Tsarist Russia, which is an empire, composed of twenty different nations, which Mssr. Sarolea opines to be a recipe for anarchy, since a parliament on the British model would be at war with itself forever. Additionally, a liberal reform of the Church in accordance with the highest principles of modern theological insight is rubbish, in a land of 175 million illiterate peasants; in a land where the Russian word for “farm peasant” is the exact same word as the Russian word for “Christian;” in a land where the alternative to the simple pious faith of the people is not an eruption of debate clubs and theological seminars, but a return to pre-Christian barbarism signified by murder and pillage. Overthrowing the Tsar, in a land that only exists due to its various component parts paying tribute to the Muscovite Princes to secure themselves from conquerors at their gates from East and West, would create a Eurasian continent in a state of constant war. This would either engulf Europe or collapse it; thus, leaving it to be consumed by the Chinese Empire which would end on the British Isles. Above all, no modern doctrine could ever find political application in a land as varied as Russia, since Russian variety is historical, not in the sense of chronology, but in the sense of living history. Sarolea, having made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his Orthodox hosts and opined that Russia and Siberia are perhaps the only truly Christian countries left on Earth, gives the greatest argument possible against any plan of revolutionary modernization in Russia thus:

Cynics have railed at the superstition of the ignorant moujik, as if Christianity were a monopoly of the wealthy, the educated, and the learned. The truth is, that the religion of the moujik is the nearest approach to primitive Christianity and to the faith of the Golden Age of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas. To visit the Catacombs of Kiev or the Troista Lavra on a holiday, to accompany the Russian pilgrims to Jerusalem, is to travel back to the Middle Ages.

0_8ad78_377a669f_origOf course, when Leninist Bolshevism violently murdered this amazing civilization, the West cheered and praised Russia for its progress: What are a few million dead Christians as the price for tractor factories? Sarolea, a true liberal, argues forcefully that Russia is akin to a magical land where parts and portions are radically modern while others are ancient, and that this diversity is the treasure of Russia and the work of the best of the Tsars. Sarolea, as a true imaginative liberal, with a true respect for the multiplicity of cultures rather than an ideology of “multiculturalism,” with an understanding of national politics and not only affairs of states, is convinced that Russia, a land that would become a world power in the twentieth century, would only make progress if its intelligentsia looked to Russian Christianity as the basis of future Russian liberalism and democracy.

In what any reader shall find to be perhaps the most exquisite political exegesis of Turgeniev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky ever written by a non-Russian, Sarolea extolls Dostoyevsky above all as the perfect prophet of Russian liberal democracy. To begin to understand this, Mssr. Sarolea teaches us that we must understand why Dostoyevsky considered the Death penalty handed to him by a Russian court to be the greatest blessing of his life. For although he was unjustly sentenced to death and tortured with the bureaucratic reading of the death sentence for twenty minutes, only to be delivered at the last moment by an act of mercy sentencing him to Siberian exile, Dostoyevsky’s comportment to this event was quintessentially that of a Russian Christian: in his unjust suffering, he found clarity of the ordo caritatis, in his death sentence, he found an immediate urgency to decide the great question of faith, in his merciful pardon, he found himself reborn to Christ and in his long and suffering exile, he found his mind and heart colored with the inspirations that made him a great writer. In short, if not for Russian Tsarist despotism, Dostoyevsky would never have been able to create for the world—and for the Russian soul—such a vivid and compelling work of Russian liberty, as was his entire ouvre. For these reasons, Sarolea insists that Dostoyevsky forever opposed rebellion. In Dostoyevsky’s comportment, one finds the secret to the Russian soul and to the Russian polis.

By the time Sarolea composes his Letters from Poland, the Russian soul has undergone immense suffering on account of the triumph of the Bolshevist revolution; thus, it is no wonder that Sarolea, always a champion of Polish liberty, writes also as a champion of the Polish army, which repelled Soviet invasion into Europe. Yet if a Pole only reads his Letters from Poland, he will get a swollen head. I will not repeat all of the praise that Sarolea heaps on Poland, to do so would be immodest. For the readings of the English language, who wish to learn the true history of the Polish nation and of its virtue and piety, I recommend, with GK Chesterton, that one simply read the Letters from Poland in its entirety.

Sarolea is so high in his praise and esteem for Poland that a Polish gentleman is obliged to blush. While he writes ever harshly of Russia, excusing Russia’s decay on account of climate, geography, Tartars, Mongols and Poles, Sarolea has nothing critical to say of Poland—only of Poland’s cowardly Western detractors and of Poland’s great enemies. Yet, it must be remembered that just as Machiavelli writes in praise of tyranny in The Prince and in praise of republics in his Discourses on Livy, so too Sarolea writes in praise of Russian Tsarism and tyranny in Europe’s Debt to Russia, and in praise of Polish republicanism and liberty in his Letters from Poland. Just as it would be obtuse to consider Machiavelli a tyrant or a republican on the basis of merely one of his two great works, so it would also be obtuse to consider Sarolea’s view of Poland without considering also his view of Russia. He himself writes that the fate of these nations is intertwined.

Even in Sarolea’s highest praise of Poland, one finds the seeds of Polish-Russian independence when Sarolea writes of the Polish-Russian war of 1919 in Lincolnian terms, telling us that Europe cannot be half free or half slave: that Poland, being freedom, must save Europe or Soviet Russia, being slavery, must conquer Europe. For, if one believes Sarolea to be an educated and intelligent man, then one cannot presume that Sarolea uses the language of Lincoln and references the Presidency of Lincoln merely as rhetoric without any deeper understanding of Lincoln’s statesmanship. For, while Lincoln in his famous 1858 speech did indeed make the Biblical claim that a House divided against itself cannot stand, that it must become all free or all slave, Lincoln never once proposed that part of the House must be annihilated and erased from the face of the Earth. Quite the contrary, unity and reconciliation between North and South were an important element of his statesmanship, perhaps the most important, since Lincoln did not imagine a perpetual American union rooted in compulsion by Northern guns, but rather he hoped for a united American republic that would be joined by common republican principles and constitutionalism. Likewise, Sarolea cannot and does not see Russia and Poland as destined to annihilate one another of necessity. In point of fact, Sarolea blames the Poles in his Europe’s Debt to Russia for the exact “anarchic” tendencies, which cause him to insist that Poles are immune from them. Rather than consider this as a contradiction of logic, it is Sarolea stumbling upon the wisdom of Aristotelian political common sense or, what Sarolea called the amazing ability of the educated Russian intellectual to adopt every political view and carry it in his soul at the same time—an ability that is uniquely Slavic.

Tyranny, in the classical sense, is a good that forever risks the evil that is despotism. Liberty, in the classical sense, is a good that forever risks the evil that is license or anarchic chaos. Thus, Tsarist Russia, at its best an enlightened Monarchy is, at its worst, a horrible dictatorship. Catholic Poland, at its best a Republic of Noblemen is, at its worst, a petty anarchy of inflated egos. Sarolea notes that the Russian soul is obedient, and thus whenever threatened, the Russian people consolidate around their state and fight to defend it. Poles, meanwhile, proud individualists to the last, will sacrifice their state for the principle of personal liberty whenever it is threatened. By 1919, these age-old national characteristics find themselves in unlikely configurations. The Poles, for the first time in centuries, have not only regained a state, but also, one year later, they are capable of a military campaign in defense of that state. The Russians, meanwhile, have lost their souls in rebellion, in revolution. Sarolea, noting this, does not therefore contradict himself, but merely underscores the unpredictable nature of the cycle of political regimes.

MapEurope1500-1700That said, let us return to the Letters and examine the praise Sarolea heaps on Poland. It ought to be noted that Sarolea, who writes for G.K. Chesterton’s Distributivist publication, is in many ways one of Chesterton’s inspirations for the Englishman’s notion that the nation state most closely approximating the economic principles of Distributism is Poland. This is not surprising given the Polish heritage. From the late 1300s to the late 1700s, Poland was at times the largest country in Europe. At its peak, the United Kingdom of Poland stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, containing within itself all of the territories now called Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Belarus. The principles of this 500 year long European Union called Poland were nowhere better summed up than in the Constitution of the First Republic, a document that reflected 500 years of liberal and democratic practice. Poland was liberal because she was free: economic activity was unregulated, a territory of awesome proportions in the heart of Europe was ruled by a King, elected by Noblemen, and a regulatory apparatus numbering a few thousand bureaucrats. The principles of individual rights and religious toleration reigned supreme, flowing clearly from the Christian command to love thy neighbor and the Golden Rule, developed and propagated by the Jesuit order whose priest is patron saint of Poland. Above all, from Chesterton’s point of view, the great virtue of Poland rested in her small farmers and the wide distribution of land amongst virtuous, independent Catholic peasants in the countryside.

This Catholic Kingdom, hated by the Protestant Teuton for its Catholic piety and hated by the Muscovites for its pretense to excellence and independence, is the focal point of European civilization in the ages that Westerners usually call “the Dark Ages.” Certainly, these ages were dark for the Frenchman or the Englishman, oppressed by poverty, stricken by ignorance, burdened by intolerance and religious wars. Yet, the fact that this age is called the “Dark Age,” or is flippantly referred to by proponents of the Enlightenment as a regressive time in human history, is because of the German historian, the German cartographer, the German propagandist, who, following Frederic the Great “partaking in the Eucharistic body of Poland,” had for three hundred years taught the clueless Englishman and the hapless Frenchman the history of his own continent as a history wherein Poland never existed. Even now, the Western mind considers Poland backwards for having never had a Protestant reformation nor an Enlightenment, rather than considering Polish Catholicism excellent enough to have resisted such things.

Sarolea understands this well and is an excellent teacher of the hidden history of Europe. His work deserves to be taught in every course on Western civilization, but this teaching would also necessitate a reassessment of some aspects of recent Western history. I shall not expound here upon the Letters from Poland; I shall only advise all those who are interested in gaining a true understanding of Europe to read them, consider them very seriously, and then read them in juxtaposition with Sarolea’s other works on Germany and Russia. An honest juxtaposition of these books will raise many questions in the intelligent mind and cast quite a few doubts on the accepted narrative of history. That portions of the Letters, particularly those written by G.K. Chesterton, may be shocking at first, is understandable. Yet history is not a matter of objective presentation of fact, nor a scientific exposition of progress; history is, beyond all else, a matter of the blood. All human events, at their most basic, subconscious level, are motivated by blood, and it is blood that signifies identity for human beings in history. The tragedy of all human history is the blood of Cain, which—upon seeing the blood of Able—cries out “What do I care?” The triumph of all human history is the blood of Christ, which upon being spilled for us, cleansed our world and offers to each and every one of us the opportunity to unhinge ourselves from the dance macabre of historical enmities. If this unhinging is to take place; if mankind is to be freed of the blood of Cain and find its’ salvation in the blood of Christ, it must first walk through the valley of the shadow of death. This walk starts with Charles Sarolea’s Letters from Poland.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Thank you. Besides meeting Sarolea, I think I better understand Solzenitsyn too. Yet you may be slightly too charitable to the egomaniacal Progressives, even despite their Christian antecedents. And GKC’s Distributism may be the least thought-out of his many views – I keep wondering if Subsidiarity does not do the job better. Still, thanks for a (typically) splendid essay.

  2. Peter,

    I am an undergraduate student of history and philosophy, and I was wondering, after reading several of your posts, if you might recommend a short pedagogy of continental/polish/russian works in political philosophy, cultural history, and phenomenology for an autodidact. After reading the whole “quiet desperation” debate on TIC, I have realized that my mind is very, very, english and of necessity it might be good to branch out into other traditions. I generally associate with the (slowly) rising neo-scholatic/river-forest movement in philosophy (Edward Feser, David Olderberg, Benedict Ashley, ect), but continental thought, both philosophical and theological, is obtuse to me and I need a few good places to start. As I think you mentioned a while back in a TIC discussion post, English neo-Scholastics and Continental Phenomenologists tend to speak past each other, and I am hoping to move past that, so any leads you might be able to recommend would be greatly appreciated.


    Thomas Michael Day

  3. Sir,

    Continental thought is, insofar as I understand it, generally seperate from Polish and Russian thought. “Continental” thought usually (but obviously not always) refers, I think, to German and French thought as a opposed to British. There are some Polish phenomenologists, like Father Jozef Tischner and Richard Ingarden, who ought to be included in the ranks of continental thinkers – but this is largely because they take German and French phenomenology seriously and engage with it. Yet I do not think they are representative of Polish philosophical thought (and I do not think I am competent in Polish philosophy, just as an aside). As for the Russians, they are also a seperate category. I have focused on Slavophile thinkers in Russia, but I am sure Russian thought is not limited merely to them. Again, I am more interested than competent in this area.

    A good place to start would be with TIC’s own Dr. Peter Blum, who introduced me to Continental Philosophy proper in college.

    As for myself, the phenomenologists who have influenced my thought are Emanuel Levinas, Józef Tischner, Husserel’s Crisis of the European Sciences is a good place to start. Naturally, Heidegger is also a good starting point – and with him Nietzsche (not a “phenomenologist”, but a spring board). Unless I am very far off the mark, I believe Husserel was perhaps the first to actually concieve of phenomenology as such. There is also M-Ponty, but I am not very familiarized with his work. I am generally in no way shape or form an expert on the subject of phenomenology or Continental thought.

    Russian and Polish thought are two seperate categories.

    If I was to recommend one book – it would be Heidegger’s “Conversations on a Lighted Path” (I do not know if that is the english title). It is not as long and cumbersome as Being & Time, but still remote and strange.

    Finally, one ought to distinguish between religious thinkers influenced by phenomenology and the phenomenologists themselves. Priests like Józef Tischner are often accused of breaking with the Thomistic traditions for undermining Thomism – but I think Tischner is working within the Thomistic tradition because he is bringing philosophy into theology – Thomas brought the philosophy of Aristotle, who had many important things to say about Being. Tischner brings in the philosophy of Heidegger who likewise has many important things to say about it.

    Thomists who disagree with Tischner seem to think that a pagan philosopher named Aristotle happens to be acceptable, but a lapsed Catholic atheist named Heidegger is not. Tischner (in my view) is just continuing the Thomistic tradition of trying to reflect upon the best in philosophical thought from a religious point of view.

    good luck.

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