Blog post

Born to be Forgotten - the story of Božidar Knežević

Read about Božidar Knežević, one of the most significant Serbian philosophers at the turn of the 20th century.

Dušan Nikodijević; translated by Tatjana Domazet (National Library of Serbia)

How can someone be born to be forgotten? They can be forgotten by the general public, even though their birth or death anniversary is commemorated. This is precisely the case with Božidar Knežević (1862-1905), one of the most significant Serbian philosophers at the turn of the 20th century. Like Branislav Petronijević (1875-1954), he was born in Ub, a little Serbian town located some 60km south-west of Belgrade. His stepfather was a petty trader, just like Knežević’s birthfather. Knežević graduated in history and philology and worked as a high school teacher, from 1902 in Belgrade. He took part in the Serbian – Bulgarian War of 1885 and died in 1905 of a lung disease contracted in the war.

During his studies, he taught himself English. Through his translations, he acquainted the Serbian cultural public with contemporary British historiographical works such as On Heroes, Hero-Worship and The Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle.

Knežević’s best known work is Principles of History (Principi istorije), published in two volumes (1898- 1901). In Knežević’s own words, it was poorly read and received. Following Petronijević’s advice, Knežević tried to familiarize readers with his work with the help of aphorisms, which he published in the work entitled Thoughts (Misli). Thanks to it, the Principles have not been completely forgotten. History forms Knežević’s philosophy. He sees it not just as the history of humanity, but also as the supreme philosophy and science, encompassing the history of the universe and nature since its creation. The history of mankind cannot be understood separately from the history of nature. Building on Darwin’s and Spencer’s evolutionary theories, Knežević introduced two main principles: the law of order and the law of proportion_._ According to the law of order, once every being is in harmony and takes up exactly as much space as required, everything will cease to exist. Therefore, the world and everything else can be created and can disappear only once, so there is no going back to the beginning. The principle of the necessity of things is crucial, as things come into existence because they are needed and in the order in which they are needed.

His work is fundamentally original, but experts cannot agree on the nature of his philosophy: he was deemed a religious philosopher, a metaphysical idealist, a pantheist, a deist, a theist, and a materialist.

The National Library of Serbia possesses several Božidar Knežević’s manuscripts. Among them, The Notebook is particularly important. In it, Knežević describes his travels throughout southern Serbia in 1896, as well as the visit to Rijeka and Opatija at the end of 1897. His daughter Milka gave a touching account of Knežević’s private life and his family in her manuscript called My parents’ life, which is also held at the National Library of Serbia.

Božidar Knežević’s works were first presented abroad thanks to the efforts of George Vid Tomashevich who translated the abridged edition of The Principles of History into English in New York in 1980. 

Author: Dušan Nikodijević
Translated by Tatjana Domazet
National Library of Serbia

The blog post is a part of the Rise of Literacy project, where we take you on an exploration of literacy in Europe thanks to the digital preservation of precious textual works from collections across the continent.

Featured image: a detail from the manuscript “Thoughts” (“Misli”) by Božidar Knežević, National Library of Serbia, public domain