Kazimierz Łyszczyński: a Tragic Story of an Atheist

The society of GDL is traditionally characterized as multi-religious, multinational and multicultural. Usually yet another epithet of ‘tolerance’ is also added to this list. However, one should not be misled into thinking that this was the situation during the entire functioning of the state. For example, if in the mid 16th century religious refugees from England found shelter in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in the mid 17th century, the situation radically changed – religious refugees from GDL sought refuge in Holland. Even religious tolerance cannot be identified with tolerance in general; it was restricted with regard to religion. The right to profess Catholic, Orthodox or any other religion did not mean e right not to profess any religion or deny religion altogether. Those who failed to acknowledge God were regarded with equal hostility both by Christians and Jews. Therefore, they received even a more negative treatment than heretics, the persons distorting confessional truths. In the late 17th century, after the completion of the process of confessionalization, only those were forgiven who did not know God due to lack of education. Those who consciously rejected God, were severely punished. For example, in 1697, Thomas Richard Aikenhead, a graduate of Edinburgh University, Scotland, was taken to the gallows on charges of blasphemy. He became a victim of bigoted priests for claiming that the Bible was a rhapsody of nonsense. Religious tolerance cannot be identified with the broad understanding of tolerance as such, in respect to religion all tolerance was limited.

A stain in the history of tolerance

The history of atheism in Lithuania has been significantly exploited but little explored. One episode in this context is related to the life-story of the nobleman Kazimierz Łyszczyński (1634–1689), deputy judge of Brest district land court and a citizen of the GDL, who was accused of advocating atheism, condemned, beheaded and burnt at the stake in 1689 by the Warsaw Court of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth Sejm. For a long time, Kazimierz Łyszczyński’s life-story was regarded as a certain fact discrediting the Church and society if GDL, therefore attempts were undertaken to circumvent the issue. In the soviet period the situation changed radically, Kazimierz Łyszczyński’ life-story was elevated, and he was turned into a historic hero sanctioned by the atheistic state. Both historiography and propaganda art were invoked to embed his image in the historical consciousness of the soviet society. Attempts were made to simplify the heart of the matter, e.g., the victim was described as a progressive, well-educated individual, characterized by a noble spirit, whereas the accusers were regarded as beastly, reactionary and ignorant persons. In the recent years, the relationship between theism and atheism has almost totally been ignored, thus reminding in a way of the situation of pre-soviet historiography. The reason for avoiding any analysis of Kazimierz Łyszczyński’s case could be the discrepancy between life-story and the image of GDL as a tolerant society.

There has been an unwillingness to talk about controversial changes in the society of the 17th century, metaphorically called by Vytautas Kavolis ‘the Devil’s Invasion’.

At times assumptions are made that the aforementioned story was merely a certain misunderstanding. Kazimierz Łyszczyński’ allegedly never denied the presence of God and therefore must have been wrongly accused.

Do You Know?

At times assumptions are made that the aforementioned story was merely a certain misunderstanding. Kazimierz Łyszczyński’ allegedly never denied the presence of God and therefore must have been wrongly accused.

A case of criminal disbelief

Kazimierz Łyszczyński’ came from an old Korchak (Korčakai) family, the province of Brest. In 1648, he graduated the Brest Jesuit College and successfully completed the prescribed period of novitiate in Krakow, from 1660 to 1664 he studied in the Jesuit College at Kalish and in 1665 worked as assistant Rector at the Brest-on-Bug Jesuit College. In 1666, Kazimierz Łyszczyński studied theology in Lviv, however, he left the Jesuit Order the very same year (having received four lower sanctifications). Having settled down in his patrimonial estate of Lišicai, he married and started faming. Shortly afterwards, he assumed the position of podstoli (one of the middling officers of GDL) in Melnyk district of Podlasie (the territory of Poland). In 1669, 1672 and 1673 he was elected envoy from the Melnyk district to the Sejm. In 1682, he was appointed deputy judge of the Brest land court and performed other public functions. Thus, it can be concluded that he was a lawyer.

In 1687, Kazimierz Łyszczyński’s neighbour lodged a complaint against him to the Vilnius Bishop Konstanty Kazimierz Brzostowski over charges of advocating atheism. The neighbour attached to his complaint the manuscript treatise on De non existentia Dei, which had been half-written or completed and stolen around 1674. In total, the treatise consisted of 265 pages, 15 notebooks and a theological book with Kazimierz Łyszczyński’s comments. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested.

The decision of the Bishop’s Court, based on the conclusions of Vilnius University theologians, was unfavourable to Kazimierz Łyszczyński.

In 1688 he was imprisoned in Vilnius prison, most likely in the castle prison. On 6 January 1689, he was taken to Warsaw. However, the nobility of Brest Voivodeship started a defence campaign on the grounds that ‘the nobleman Kazimierz Łyszczyński’s arrest violated a legal provision of Neminem captivabimus nisi iure victum)’. As a result of this campaign, the case was handed over for the final judicial decision to the Sejm in Warsaw, the meetings of which started in December of 1688.  Following the Voivodeship instructions, K. Łyszczyński was actively defended in the Sejm by the Brest land court actuary Ludwik Konstanty Pociej, who tried his best not to allow Sejm to convene until Kazimierz Łyszczyński was set free. However, Ludwik Konstanty Pociej was labelled the teacher of the atheist Łyszczyński. Moreover, part of the envoys to the Sejm demanded that charges should be brought against him for advocating atheism. During the judicial proceedings of the Sejm, which started on 15 February 1689, the following individuals acted as accusers in Kazimierz Lischinski’s legal case: GDL Accuser, the lawyer S. K. Kurovich Zabystovski,  a Vilnius University alumnus, the Catholic actuary Vilnius city Council, and Vice-Accuser of GDL, the lawyer J. D. Romanovich, son of the Vilnius city burgomaster Alexander Romanovich. The defence was represented by the lawyers from Vilnius, K. S. Ilevich and K. S. Vitakovski. During the trial, side by side with L. K. Pociej’s defence, K. Łyszczyński was defended by the GDL actuary A. K. Gelgudas and the Smolensk Voivodeship Governor S. K. Piaseczynski. They demanded that Kazimierz Łyszczyński should be released and not sentenced to death. Naturally, they never raised the freedom of conscience argument.

Punishment for atheism

During the trial in question, on the basis of the Kazimierz Łyszczyński’s tretise, the Accuser pointed out to the following statements made by the atheist Łyszczyński in his treatise, which upon being brought to the Sejm Court the accused admitted having written himself: man himself is the creator of God as a non-existent chimera; piety has been designed to make people be afraid of those who invented it; commonalty are cheated by the wiser persons, those who invented God, However, if they chose to disclose the truth, they would be destroyed by the mob; there is no evidence of the God’s Providence, and the Holy Scripture cannot be considered as such an evidence; there is no God.

On 10th of March, Kazimierz Łyszczyński was brought to St. John’s church and made to climb the podium upholstered in black fabric. In the presence of the ruler John Sobieski and the ruler’s court, he was forced to publicly denounce his ideological statements (the reading of the renunciation speech was finished by some priest). On 30th of March, just before the execution in the Town-hall square, he was made to burn the manuscripts. Kazimierz Łyszczyński is believed to have been reluctant to do this. He might have agreed to destroy his work having been promised a milder form of execution: beheading first, to be followed by his body to be burnt at the stake.

It would be wrong to think that there were nonbelievers were non-existent in the old society. The historiography of atheism and Kazimierz Łyszczyński’s case could serve as an example of the attitude to history, illustrating the very historic development of the epoch in question. Kazimierz Łyszczyński admitted having advocated his beliefs and had followers.

During the judicial proceedings, the Smolensk Bishop E. Kotovich complained that “various individuals had been infected with the poison of atheism.”

There is surviving evidence that the squealer was despised by the local nobility. Furthermore, the murderers must have also been troubled by pangs of conscience. To illustrate the point, the words of alleged self-justification by one of the most ardent Kazimierz Łyszczyński’s accusers, the Kiev Bishop A. Ch. Zaluski, could be quoted. According to the Bishop, he wished the atheist had converted into Catholicism and thus saved his life; alas, his heart must have been as hard as a diamond. Later on, in the late 19th century J. I. Krashevski stated that in this historic period Kazimierz Łyszczyński would have been locked in a psychiatric hospital. It was only in the late 19th–early 20th century, that freethinkers could start using the freedom of conscience as an argument for their beliefs.

Literature: A. Ragauskas, Kaltintojai ir gynėjai nukirsdinto bei sudeginto ateisto Kazimiero Liščinskio teismo procese, (1689): (Accusers and defenders during the court trial of the atheist Kazimierz Łyszczyński, who was beheaded and burnt at the stake): An experiment in Microhistoric Studies, Seminars 2002. Atviros visuomenės kolegija, Vilnius, 2003, p. 17–53.

Aivas Ragauskas