The Old Polish Conception of Freedom and Its Evolution in the Political Thought of the Eighteenth Century
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The liberty of the gentry has been identified with a set of estate privileges although it also comprised a wider vision of liberty to which the Polish gentry referred already since the sixteenth century. This republican conception rendered civic liberties dependent on participation in governance. Only people who decided about themselves could be certain of individual rights. In accordance with contemporary terminology only positive liberty guaranteed its negative variant - an unhampered realisation of the individual's targets and wishes. Republican thought carried certain threats - the absence of a distinct division of individual liberties and the right to take part in political life obliterated the boundaries between the freedom of the individual and the community, between public and private good. Free participation in public life was no longer interpreted as the right to decide about oneself and the protection of the free state, but exclusively as the protection of the freedom of individual citizens. Such an interpretation was suited to the idea of the liberum veto conceived as individual protest against the decisions passed by Parliament. In the second half of the eighteenth century such authors as Józef Wybicki, Antoni Poplawski and, later on, Hugo Kollataj embarked upon a polemic with this comprehension of liberty. By referring to Western conceptions they began to distinguish between two levels of political freedom: political liberty, which denoted participation in governance, and civil freedom, which allowed the citizen to enjoy his property and commit deeds not prohibited by the law. This distinction made it feasible to separate the individual liberties of the individual perceived as a man, and his political rights/liberties as a citizen, as well as to include the question of the freedom of other estates into political reflections. Considerable importance was attached also to the reception of the theory of freedom as a law of nature, in which liberty was no longer a privilege of the citizen-member of the gentry, but the natural right of every man and thus also the peasant-serf. This notion was inserted into the old vision of republican freedom which, albeit modernised and adapted to new circumstances, survived to the end of the First Republic.
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