Jan Amos Comenius - a Bohemian in Amsterdam
One of the Czech nation's most beloved sons, Jan Amos Comenius ( 1592-1670 is buried in Holland. This visionary religious leader, theologian, philosopher and educationist lived most of his life in exile, fleeing political and religious persecution in Europe. His last 14 years, among his most active and productive, were spent in Amsterdam "the most cherished among cities, the jewel of the Netherlands and the pride of Europe", where he hoped to realize his project for the betterment of humanity.
"We are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood. To hate a man because he was born in another country, because he speaks a different language, or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly."
During its golden age in the 17th century, the Dutch Republic was one of the wealthiest and most dynamic centres of Europe. The 1648 treaty of Westphalia had brought an end to Spanish supremacy in the Low Countries, but it had not been favourable to Comenius's native land. Bohemia was to remain under Habsburg domination for almost three centuries.
Comenius, also known as Komensky, was the bishop of a protestant Church, the Bohemian Brethren whose members had been were forced into exile when the Habsburgs imposed Catholicism on Bohemia. The Brethren were Calvinists and had many contacts with the Dutch Calvinist churches. In Dutch society however Comenius was better known as the author of language education textbooks. In his book Orbis Sensualium Pictus or "the visible world in pictures", he was one of the first to use images to teach Latin and sometimes two other vernacular languages. This was revolutionary at the time, along with his idea that all children, from both sexes and all social classes should be educated.
But education for Comenius should serve a yet greater aim: in order to achieve worldwide peace, all of mankind needed to be re-educated. From his canal house in Amsterdam, he set about compiling and rewriting his pedagogic works, with the support of the city council who gave him the key to the city's library, and his lifetime benefactor, a rich merchant cum arms dealer. Comenius had lost his personal library and many precious manuscripts in a fire before he fled from his previous place of exile in Poland. In Amsterdam, says Dr. Nicolette Mout, Professor of Modern European History at Leiden University, "he found the peace and time to work on what was to become his lasting contribution to philosophy and pedagogy alike".
His General Consultation for the Improvement of Mankind expounds his philosophical system, called pansophy, close to what we would call today "holism". Nicolette Mout: " Comenius thought that he could put all the knowledge, philosophy, theology, geography and history, into one system of knowledge. And that system would then be the basis for the re-education of mankind towards peace and brotherhood." Comenius hoped to set up in Amsterdam an international college of wise and learned men who would help bring about world peace. The Consultation remained unfinished. It was rediscovered and published only in the 20th century. Throughout his life, Comenius continued to believe that one day, he and his followers would return to their homeland. That might explain his strong belief in contemporary prophecies that announced the imminent end of the world. The many prophecies he published in Amsterdam were probably a great source of hope and comfort to his people, but they attracted virulent criticism from Dutch and foreign theologians alike.
Comenius was so enthusiastic about this idea of having the bible translated into Turkish and then seeing all the Turks convert to Christianity, that he wrote an introduction long before the translation was finish. Dutch historian Nicolette Mout: "he emphasized the fact that since Muslims worshiped the same god as the Christians it would be very easy for them to convert. Their souls would be saved, so why not become Christians now that the end of the world was at hand? Of course the Christian religion in his view was the best, the only true, but he thought that for Jews and Muslims it would be so much better, he was terribly well meaning. He did have a certain understanding of the Islam, very biased, but nevertheless he was one of the few people who were interested in Islam at the time."
There might have been political considerations as well. The Turks were the enemies of the Catholic Habsburgs who occupied Bohemia. Nicolette Mout: "so by getting friendly with the Turks, Comenius also hoped for Turkish political support, maybe even military support, in order to free his homeland from the Habsburgs."
At the time the Turks were seen as the enemies of Christendom. The Turkish Sultan had conquered and occupied part of Europe in the Balkans, "so it was quite unusual for somebody like Comenius to write about the Turks in such a friendly way. Comenius really wanted to get through to them, to communicate and impress them with the idea that they had to convert to Christianity because in this way they would also contribute to world peace." If the Turks were converted, Comenius believed, world peace would be much nearer.
Because he felt the end of times was imminent, Comenius wanted the bible translated as quickly as possible. For this, he is believed to have received financial support from his Dutch benefactor Laurence de Geer. The translation made in Istanbul under the supervision of the Dutch Republic's learned ambassador in Istanbul was completed in 1659 but was never published. According to Hannah Neudecker, author of a thesis on the subject, there were probably earlier attempts but the translation commissioned by Comenius is the earliest translation still existing. The manuscripts kept at the Leiden University library are valuable documents for the study of the Turkish language as it was used in the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century.
Even at the end of his life, this eternal optimist and untiring apostle of world peace tried to mediate in negotiations between two archenemies: the English and the Dutch. He attended the Breda peace conference where he presented his book "the angels of peace" and called on both countries to stop fighting for supremacy in world commerce. The war continued.
In his last autobiographical works, Unum Necessarium (The Single Need), Comenius says farewell to Amsterdam, where had enjoyed the freedom to think, write and publish his works. "It is a pious, endearing text written by a resigned old man, " says Dr. Johannes Sturm, a Dutch historian of education. " He had been fighting so hard for his nation and for a better world, but in the end he had to admit that well, I didn't accomplish very much. To me Comenius is a tragic figure. What is left at the end of his long life is the conviction that the only thing that matters is faith and peace at heart. "
Comenius was put to rest in 1670 in Naarden, a small fortress town not far from Amsterdam. When Bohemia finally gained independence in the early 20th century, he emerged as national hero and his grave became an important place of pilgrimage for Czechs. During the communist regime, those who could make the trip to Naarden, some 1000 km from Prague, often wept at his grave, now a symbol of hope.
After the 1989 velvet revolution, among the first to lay a wreath at his grave were Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel, the first president of a country that was free, at last.