Miłowit Kuniński, professor at the Jagiellonian University, was one of the best known Polish historians of philosophy in recent decades, and a well- respected and admired teacher. He was a scholar and a gentleman. Superbly educated and impeccably well-mannered, he represented the best of what the Polish academic tradition has stood for. He not only led his students through the complicated paths of European philosophy of the modern era but also, indirectly, influenced them by his own example and the power of his personality.
From the first days of the anti-communist opposition in Poland in the late 1970s, he was politically active. As academics were at that time rather notorious for their docility, his involvement was not a common attitude. When the Solidarity movement was formed in 1980, Kuniński became one of the natural leaders in the Krakow academic community. When General Jaruzelski introduced martial law in 1981, Kuniński was busy organizing clandestine work and distributing samizdat publications. In those difficult years, he and his charming wife Jola were the people one could always turn to for help, information, and recent samizdat.
After the regime fell, Kuniński continued his involvement, trying to respond — as an activist and as a scholar — to the political and intellectual challenges of the new liberal democratic order. He was deeply aware of the specificity of Polish culture, which he thought both an opportunity and a problem for the new times. He believed that in a new political situation Poland might be one of the few places in the modern world in which liberal and conservative traditions might not only be reconciled but somehow lead to a dynamic synthesis.
However, he thought this required a deeper understanding of the civilizational processes in the modern world. With that purpose in mind he co- founded the Centre for Political Thought, a private institution, which was to become a major conservative organisation devoted to education and research. He was also among the first ‘Vanenburgers’, one of the founding fathers of the Vanenburg Society and the Centre for European Renewal.
Kuniński’s conservatism was temperamental — resulting from his natural moderation and a well- balanced mind — but also intellectual. As a historian of philosophy well-acquainted with the wealth of human thought since antiquity, he could not be lured by sudden outbursts of intellectual fashions, philosophical revolutions, hasty generalizations, and ideological shortcuts. In other words, he knew so much about the peregrinations of the human mind throughout our history that he could not but be a conservative — that is, a person full of respect for the philosophical heritage and for the wisdom of the classical thought, organically resistant to the leftist desire of social engineering.
Under his tutelage, the Centre of Political Thought steered exactly in this direction. In its emphasis on liberty, it did not limit itself to the liberal tradition from Locke to Rawls but focused on classical, medieval, and non-liberal modern thought. For Kuniński, a particularly valuable part of European culture was Christian philosophy which, he believed, revealed a crucial dimension of human nature, not to be ignored in any sound moral and political philosophy. A practising Roman Catholic who took his faith very seriously, he was particularly sensitive to the religious and theological assumptions and implications of philosophical theories.
His best-known theoretical work was on the philosophy of F. A. Hayek. The book [titled Knowledge, Ethics, and Politics in F. A. von Hayek’s Thought], however, was more than an analysis of a particular thinker. Kuniński made an attempt to advance a ‘liberal-conservative’ theory — that is, a theory which would combine a defence of the free market with a classical Aristotelian view of human nature. He argued that such a combination is not a priori impossible, and that one could construct a consistent set of principles which would do justice to both basic liberal notions and the classical concept of man. Kuniński’s book was, in my opinion, the most persuasive study — at least in Eastern Europe — of this oxymoronic theory which came to be called ‘liberal conservatism’ and which many regarded as philosophically untenable.
Unfortunately, Western civilization was moving further and further away from its conservative foundations, and Kuniński was aware of it. He became increasingly disappointed with the onslaught of liberalism and upset by its destructive effects, also in the academic life. He was one of those who did their best to continue the noble traditions of university education and to keep it safe from the ideological madness that again, two decades after the fall of the communist regime, has begun to paralyse the life of the mind.
Miłowit Kuniński died in Kraków on 9 June 2018. He is sadly missed by his friends, students, colleagues, and all those who had the privilege to know him. Requiescat in pace.