On this date in 1689, in a Warsaw marketplace, Kazimierz Lyszczynski had his tongue torn out, his head struck off and his body burned to ashes which were shot from a cannon — all for scratching a few words with the whiff of atheism.
God is not the creator of man; but man is the creator of a God gathered together from nothing.
His actual writings are not known directly — his books were burned along with his flesh — but only from the transcripts of his rather hysterical trial, so it’s uncertain what he actually believed; for that matter, he vigorously (albeit unsuccessfully) abjured atheism. Some sources say that he was nailed for as little as irreverent marginal notations in a theological tract he found unconvincing; others report that he actually wrote a heretical text.
According to Valerian Krasinski’s Historical Sketch Of The Rise, Progress And Decline Of The Reformation In Poland V1 (available free from Google books)
Cazimir Lyszczynski, a noble and landowner of Lithuania, a man of a very respectable character, was perusing a book entitled Theologia Naturalis, by Henry Aldsted, a Protestant divine, and finding that the arguments which the author employed in order to prove the existence of divinity, were so confused that it was possible to deduce from them quite contrary consequences, he added on the margin the following words — “ergo non est Deus,” evidently ridiculing the arguments of the author. This circumstance was found out by Brzoska, nuncio of Brest in Lithuania, a debtor of Lyszczynski, who denouned him as an atheist, delivering, as evidence of his accusation, a copy of the work with the above-mentioned annotation to Witwicki, bishop of Posnania, who took up this affair with the greatest violence … nothing could shelter the unfortunate man against the fanatical rage of the clergy … On the simple accusation of his debtor, supported by the bishops, the affair was brought before the diet of 1689, before which the clergy, and particularly the bishop Zaluski, accused Lyszczynski of having denied the existence of God, and uttered blasphemies against the blessed Virgin and the saints. The unfortunate victim, terrified by his perilous situation, acknowledged all that was imputed to him, made a full recantation of all he might have said and written against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, and declared his entire submission to its authority. This was, however, of no avail to him, and his accusers were even scandalized that the diet permitted him to make a defence, and granted the term of three days for collecting evidence of his innocence, as the accusation of the clergy ought, in their judgment, to be sufficient evidence on which to condemn the culprit.
Pope Innocent XI at least salvaged the performance of the Catholic hierarchy in the affair by condemning, rather than promoting, the ambitious bishops.
Whatever the doomed man’s actual doctrines and writings, it is likely not coincidence that one finds this atrocious affair during at the moment of his country’s political collapse. The heretical knight’s 55 years corresponded to Poland’s fall from central Europe’s dominant power into the plaything of neighboring hegemons. The Polish-Lithuanian Empire stood at its maximum extent at his birth; during Lyszczynski’s boyhood, the Zaporozhian Cossacks broke free of Warsaw; as a young man, he saw the Swedes, the Russians, and Poland’s former vassal Prussia strip the empire of peoples and land.
By the time of Lyszczynski’s misfortunate death, Poland was a second-rate power on the brink of irrelevance — an abyss into which it would plunge in the century to come. Corwin’s Political History of Poland (another Google Books freebie) lays the scene:
The constant internal dissensions caused and nourished by foreign intrigues were in no mean measure responsible for the King’s failures in his final campaigns and in his diplomacy. They resulted in the loss of territory and the decline of Poland’s position as a great European power. French and Austrian money supported Polish anarchy. Diets were constantly torn up some even before the presiding officer could be elected. No law could be enacted. Corruption was rampant. Several attempts were made to depose the King. Religious intolerance became intensified and the first and last auto da fe in Poland was executed in 1689, on one Casimir Lyszczynski for his atheistic proclivities. The country became a theatre of constant strife between the various magnate families. At times the clashes resulted in formal civil wars.
It might be small consolation for having one’s head chopped off, but Lyszczynski’s reputation has far outrun his persecutors’, and in the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Empire, he cuts a pathbreaking figure for secularists and freethinkers.
There’s a substantial article about Lyszczynski on a Polish freethinkers’ site. As his hometown Brest lies in modern Belarus, he also enjoys a monumental biography on a Belarussian atheism site (and even favorite-son treatment on the city of Brest’s own page).