“In a ‘country without pyres’ one could freely profess Lutheranism and Calvinism, Anabaptism and Arianism, the Unity of the Brethren and Mennonitism (to name only the most widespread sects and churches), but towards atheists a much different measure applied.”
J. Tazbir, ‘Unpunished Blasphemers’, Science, 1/2011
Exactly 382 years ago, on March 4, 1634, Kazimierz Łyszczyński of Łyszczyce (Łyszowice), one of the most distinguished thinkers of this period, was born. In his youth, as a younger son, he was destined by his family to join the Jesuit Order, but before taking his vow, seceded from this and took on care of the homestead instead. In 1986, a document signed by the King Jan III Sobieski was found and published, in which Łyszczyński’s merits for his homeland were mentioned, emphasizing that “since his young age [Łyszczyński] served in the crown military under the banner of Jan Sapieha, and later in the Lithuanian forces under the Duke Sub-Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (at this time Lew Kazimierz Sapieha), taking part in the war against the Moscovian, Swedish and Hungarian invasions”.
Repeatedly elected as MP, as a Royal Commissioner and Supply Judge in Brest (appointed by the King Jan III Sobieski), Łyszczyński was in charge of compensation trials against church institutions and passed judgements, among others, against the Jesuits, who were accused of illegal appropriation of two gardens belonging to a certain burgher. Łyszczyński ordered the Order to return the seized land.
Already unpopular among the Catholic clergy, Łyszczyński was ceremoniously excommunicated (30.08.1668) by the bishop of Lutsk, Stanisław Jan Witwicki, for ignoring the ecclesiastical injunction banning marriages between close relatives (this matter concerned the marriage of his daughter) and, in particular, for “blasphemous” contention that church prohibitions were irrelevant, as marriage was a ‘civil contract’ (‘contractum civile’). His work ‘De non existentia Dei’ was written in the seventieth of the XVII century and it remained in the form of an unpublished manuscript for several years, until it was denounced by Jan Kazimierz Brzoska, a neighbour who owed Łyszczyński a substantial amount of money and thus stole the book, accusing him of atheism.
Arrested by the bishop of Vilnius, Konstanty Kazimierz Brzostkowski, Łyszczyński was brought to trial in Warsaw, given that he was a nobleman and therefore could only be judged by the parliamentary commission. Prior to this, however, a church trial took place. Despite the official abolition of the inquisition in Poland, the main roles in the trial were played by inquisitors nominated by the Vatican. The parliamentary commission confirmed the sentence. The prosecution evidence was the hand-written treatise ‘De non existentia Dei’ (On the Non-existence of Gods). Sentenced to death for atheism, he was beheaded on Warsaw’s market square on 30 March 1689. According to another account (Bishop Załuski’s): “He was led to the execution site and his tongue and mouth, with which he used to cruelly go against God, were first treated with cruelty. Later his hand, a tool of deadliest fruit of the womb, was burnt, alike his papers full of blasphemy and, finally, he himself, the monster, was engulfed in flames, meant to propitiate God, if such turpitude could at all be propitiated by the God.”
“Łyszczyński’s atheism was not a primitive anticlericalism, but knowledge with philosofical basis, supported by solid studies. He was one of the most distinguished minds of the XVII-century Poland. In the history of the atheist idea, Łyszczyński’s role was exceptional. He was the first to use the category: ‘Us, the atheists’. Hundreds of treatises on the existence of God had been written across the world. On non-existence – just one, and this exactly in Poland” (prof. Andrzej Nowicki for Polityka)
The treatise ‘De non existentia Dei’ by Kazimierz Łyszczyński was not preserved; just the excerpts quoted in the Great Duchy of Lithuania Lord Prosecutor Szymon Kurowicz Zabistowski’s* prosecution speech, found in the Kórnik Library, which follow:
- I – we beseech you, o’ theologians, by your God, if in this manner do you not extinguish the light of Reason, do you not oust the sun from this world, do you not pull down your God from the sky, when attributing him the impossible, the characteristics and attributes contradicting themselves. The treatise ‘De non existentia Dei’, 1674
- II – the Man is a creator of God, and God is a concept and creation of a Man. Hence the people are architects and engineers of God and God is not a true being, but a being existing only within mind, being chimeric by its nature, because a God and a chimera are the same. The treatise ‘De non existentia Dei’, 1674
- III – Religion was constituted by people without religion, so they could be worshipped although the God is not existent. Piety was introduced by the unpietic. The fear of God was spread by the unafraid so that the people were afraid of them in the end. Devotion named godly is a design of Man. Doctrine, be it logical or philosophical, bragging to be teaching the truth of God, is false, and on the contrary, the one condemned as false, is the very true one. The treatise ‘De non existentia Dei’, 1674
- IV – simple folk are cheated by the more cunning with the fabrication of God for their own oppression; whereas the same oppression is shielded by the folk in a way, that if the wise attempted to free them by the truth, they would be quelled by the very people. The treatise ‘De non existentia Dei’, 1674
- V – nevertheless we do not experience within us and within any other such an imperative of reason, which would ensure us of a truth of divine revelation. Alas if they were present in us, then everyone would have to acknowledge them and would have no doubts and would not contradict the Writings of Moses and the Gospels – which is not true – and there would be no different congregations and their followers as Mahomet etc. Such an imperative is not known and there are not only doubts, but there are some who deny a revelation, and they are not fools, but wise men, who with a proper reasoning prove what? the very contrary, what I also prove here. Concluding, that God does not exist”. The treatise ‘De non existentia Dei’, 1674
(excerpts translated from Latin by Prof. Andrezj Nowicki)
Kazimierz Łyszczyński was the most prominent, but not the only person murdered for atheism by the Christian Courts in the ‘country without pyres’. In Kraków, a townswoman Katarzyna Weiglowa, who performed apostasy and publicly denied Christ’s divinity, was burnt in 1539. Similarly, the gamekeeper from Łomża, Krzysztof Przyborowski, who ended up on a pyre in 1700 for profanity.
The Lithuanians maintain Łyszczyński was one of them, the Belarussians that he was a Belarussian, and Poles that he was a Pole. Yet to us, he was just an atheist.
“Concluding, God does not exist” was the ending of the treatise by Łyszczyński, the patron of our Foundation, burnt three ages ago, and so we finish our reminiscence of him: Concluding, God does not exist.
* Źródła do dziejów polskich Mikołaja i Aleksandra Przeździeckich, Wilno 1844, vol. 2, pages 433-449
*Document signed by the king Jan III Sobieski, actually in the State Central Archives of Belarus in Minsk. Excerpts of this document were published by Prof. Jekaterina Sergheevna Prokoshina in 1986.