Božidar Knežević (3 March 1862, Ub - 18 February 1905, Belgrade) was a Serbian philosopher and writer. Student of Serbian literature, literary critic, master skeptic, he was one of the influential men of his time in Serbia. Although he was educated for the priesthood, he turned from Orthodox religion to a faith in science and in social regeneration under the guidance of the intellectual elite. For him the unpardonable sin was dogmatism, since he believed that neither religious, nor historical, nor scientific knowledge is wholly accurate. He said, "The entire truth does not rest in any particular theory, idea or principle, as these are only particles of the whole truth...."
Božidar Knežević was born in Ub, in the Valjevo municipality, on the third of March 1862. He completed his gymnasium and got his B.A. degree in History and Philosophy from Belgrade's Grandes écoles (University of Belgrade) in 1883. At the same time he concluded that a career in the Church was impossible for one with his individualistic religious views. A trial at teaching in 1884 at a gymnasium in Uzice convinced him that he could endure teaching. A year later he took a few months leave to volunteer for the Serbo-Bulgarian War (1885). His vision was also social and political. He believed in man's dignity and natural right to liberty. ("As long as there are captive peoples, the free will be in danger"). For the next 20 years he taught throughout Serbia, moved from one town to the next, Though this job entailed a great amount of drugery, he managed to write and publish several volumes. In 1889 he was transferred from his teaching post in Uzice to Nis. From 1893 to 1894 he was a high school teacher in Čačak, Kragujevac and again in Čačak, where he was also made principal. Here he found a coterie of admirers, and a change in fortune and reputation came with the publication of "Principi istorije" (Principles of history) in 1898. Henceforth, history and philosophy were his major interests. He subsequently published "Red u Istoriji" (Discipline in History, 1898), "Proporcija u Istroiji" (Proportions in History, 1901), "Misli" (Thoughts), which appeared in serial form in Srpski Knjizevni Glasnik (Serbian Literary Herald) in 1901, and the second volume of "Principi istorije" also in 1901, all this while holding his teaching and administrative job as secondary school principal in Šabac (1899-1902).
In 1902 Knežević was transferred back to Belgrade. Such constant transfers from one high school to another while translating foreign authors and writing about history and philosophy at the same time is a testament to struggle and to courage, for every bit of it was composed under conditions which most writers would find impossible. There can be no question that much of the writing he did was written under difficult conditions. Furthermore, his illness contributed to his death. He died at Belgrade on the 18th of February 1905 of tuberculosis. He was only 43.
In Serbia at the end of the nineteenth century, the most interesting, if not the most distinguished, philosopher and writer was Božidar Knežević, a lonely schoolteacher, philosopher of history, metaphysician, and ethical theorist, who developed a quite original theory of universal evolution in his visionary treatise, "Principi Istorije" (Principles of History). He was, indeed, an original thinker. Integrity as well as lasting inspirations to future generations of our species on this earth and elsewhere, perhaps even in the as yet uncharted depths of abysmal space were questions on his mind.
Having spent his entire life in Serbia, Božidar Knežević speculated on the nature of the universe and wondered about the meaning, purpose, and ultimate destiny of humankind within a cosmic scheme of things. Knežević postulated a cosmos that evolved through three major phases: organic, inorganic, and psychic. He wrote, "A dogma is an embalmed thought: dead but whole, live but motionless, soulless but powerful."
The whole, which is unconscious and general, precedes the part, which is conscious and specific. When the part separates from the whole, there is conflict with the whole and with other parts. From this conflict there arises a new order and proportionality which is only temporary and gives place to a new phase of disintegration. However, in history as a whole, the growth of civilization leads to increasing social justice and the elimination of irrationality in human life. Although Božidar Knežević assumed the existence of God as a primary and eternal substance, he held that as human altruism develops, man withdraws from God. Morality and more moral organization of social life are born out of pain and suffering. It consists in the liberation from all external forces and presupposes the overcoming of ordinary motives for human behavior.
Yet however much one might be tempted to dismiss the philosophy of Božidar Knežević as a quaint Balkan period piece, it is more than that. Its special rhetoric belongs to a dead past, but positivism and heroism both survive in various modelations in the late nineteenth century (1898) and at the turn of the twentieth century (1901) when Knežević was writing his treatise, Principi istorije (Principles of History, Volumes 1 & 2). In his major works Knežević presented an original world-view that ingeniously synthesizes both historicism and positivism with a cosmic scheme of things. The result is a vast, dynamic, and unique vision of mankind's place and destiny within the determining laws of an evolving then devolving universe.
"All things born must die. Only what never began will never end; what preceded everything else will survive everything else; what happened first will disappear last."
In his metaphysics, Knežević asserts the primacy of a deeper moral dimension of the world. Above truth, according to Knežević, stands justice. The discovery of the intrinsic justice in the world is achieved through truth."The entire truth does not rest in any particular theory, idea or principle, as there are only particles of the whole truth...."writes Knežević. "Error is a belief that something untrue is true. A lie is a conscious distortion of truth. Error is noble and natural. Error is a lower degree of truth. A lie is an obstacle to truth."
He envisioned a worldwide socio-cultural system as the outgrowth of human progress grounded in science and historical understanding.
In 1898 Bozidar Knežević published his seminal work, a visionary treatise entitled "Principi istorije" (Principles of history) in two volumes. "Since everything that exists", he argued, "exists only in history, history takes over the fields of other sciences and offers the highest human understanding". In addition, "history binds all peoples and leads to their reconciliation and overall harmony". Knežević’s optimism and belief in the progress of the human mind is tempered with his belief that "the total quantity of time available to the living is limited: human civilization and even human life is thus bound to disappear". Proportion, he boldly states, is "the Telos (philosophy) of history." As both nature and humans strive after this ideal, "proportion is used to explain the nature of truth, reason, good, progress, beauty, justice and freedom". Once elements achieve proportion and balance with each other, "they live simultaneously" in a great organic whole in which one can ultimately arrive at "complete morality, freedom, justice and truth". Whereas academic philosophers repudiated this system as incoherent, many Serb avant-garde poets and writers found in it a congenial vision of the universe in which everything, including poetry and beauty, had its own rightful place in a world striving after proportion.
Božidar Knežević's other main works are "Red u Istoriji" (Discipline in History, 1898); "Proporcija u Istroiji" (Proportions in History, 1901); and "Misli" (Thoughts, which appeared in serial form in Srpski Knjizevni Glasnik/ Serbian Literary Herald, 1901). Today's Serbia does not look like the dark and hopeless "Stradija" (Land of Tribulation) as it seemed to Radoje Domanović and Božidar Knežević when he was writing his doleful "Misli" (Thoughts).
Knežević acknowledges his indebtness to Auguste Comte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as well as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer.
Also, Knežević translated the works of two Englishmen, Thomas Carlyle's "On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) and "History of Civilization in England" (1857) by Henry Thomas Buckle.
Carlyle became a part of the intellectual armor of every self-respecting young man, thanks to Božidar Knežević, a thinker of unusual power. Knežević was almost exclusively under the influence of English thought, though he never left Serbia. He did more than anybody to introduce the world literature and philosophy to his countrymen. With probing intellect and soaring genius, Knežević continuously explored and devoured volumes of world literature in numerous languages (English, German, French, Italian and Russian).