Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Leszek Kolakowski

Polish Philosopher and Historian of Ideas

"The sacred is revealed to us in the experience of our failure."

"Reduced to their ideological basics, the clash between the two images of the human condition, and consequently two educational principles, can be thus expressed: is human nature an implacable foe of God, and eternal, contemptible rebel that must be destroyed, or is it a somewhat polluted object which could be tamed, ennobled, and set straight?"

"A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading."

"Religion is man's way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith. One can, of course, disperse one's life over the contingencies of every day, but even then it is only a ceaseless and desperate desire to live, and finally a regret that one has not lived. One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if one accepts that there is a sense beyond that which is inherent in human history -- if, in other words, one accepts the order of the sacred. A hypothetical world from which the sacred had been swept away would admit of only two possibilities: vain fantasy that recognizes itself as such, or immediate satisfaction which exhausts itself. It would leave only the choice proposed by Baudelaire, between lovers of prostitutes and lovers of clouds: those who know only the satisfactions of the moment and are therefore contemptible, and those who lose themselves in otiose imaginings , and are therefore contemptible. Everything is contemptible, and there is no more to be said. The conscience liberated from the sacred knows this, even if it conceals it from itself."

"It is our will that directs our mind toward this or that, depending on the pleasure we find in either. Therefore conversion is a matter of healing the will, not of mending the intellect."

"We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are."

"The search for the ultimate foundation is as much an unremovable part of human culture as it is the denial of the legitimacy of this search."

"Curiosity, that is, the separate drive to explore the world disinterestedly, without being stimulated by danger or physiological dissatisfaction, is, according to students of evolution, rooted in specific morphological characteristics of our species and thus cannot be eliminated from our minds as long as our species retains its identity. As both Pandora’s most deplorable accident and the adventures of our progenitors in Paradise testify, curiosity has been a main cause of all the calamities and misfortunes that have befallen mankind, and it has unquestionably been the source of all its achievements."

"That being said, is there anything to say in support of utopian thinking? Everything, if the meaning of the word is somewhat restricted. If utopia means the highest set of values we want to defend and see implemented in social life, nothing prevents us from hanging on to all of them even if we know that they will never be perfectly compatible with each other. If utopia is a regulative idea of the optimum and not an assurance that we have mastered the skill to produce the optimum, then utopia is a necessary part of our thinking. But it would be a puerile fantasy to pretend that we know how to rid the world of scarcity, suffering, hatred, and injustice: nobody knows that. Whatever can be done in softening these conditions can be done only in specific points, on small scales, by inches. That this should be so unacceptable to the genuine utopian mentality which looks for the vision of the Last Day, the great leap, the final battle; everything else seems (and is, indeed) grey, boring, lacking pathos, requiring specific knowledge instead."

"Probably no country has ever had as large a shift in the distribution of wealth [as what we've seen in the U.S. in the last 30 years] without having gone through a revolution or losing a major war."

"No country without a revolution or a military defeat and subsequent occupation has ever experienced such a sharp a shift in the distribution of earnings as America has in the last generation. At no other time have median wages of American men fallen for more than two decades. Never before have a majority of American workers suffered real wage reductions while the per capita domestic product was advancing. Beside falling real wages, America's other economic problems pale into insignificance. The remedies lie in major public and private investments in research and development and in creating skilled workers to insure that tomorrow's high-wage, brain-power industries generate much of their employment in the United States. Yet if one looks at the weak policy proposals of both Democrats and Republicans, ‘it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."